Why go now?
Late summer revives the handsome Swiss capital. On the final three days of August, it turns into a “heavenly city” when Kirchenfest (kirchenfest.ch) celebrates the beautiful churches in the Old Town with a programme of music and dance. And September is an ideal month to visit, with the days still warm and life returning to the city.
Skywork Airlines (0871 977 6088; fly skywork.com) flies twice a day from London City to Bern’s Belp airport, 9km south of the capital. Take bus 160 or 334 to Belp station, then the S-Bahn to Bern’s main station.
The journey should take less than half-an-hour for a fare of Sfr6,40 (£4.40). Lower air fares are available to Geneva and Basel, which also have a much wider range of UK departure points. From Geneva airport, direct trains take 1 hour 40 minutes. From Basel airport, a bus-train combination takes 1 hour 20 minutes.
Get your bearings
The tourist information office (00 41 31 328 1212; bern.com; open 9am-7pm; Sundays to 6pm), is part of the main station. The station marks the western end of the Old Town (officially called the Matte district), the tongue of land formed by a loop in the Aare river. It comprises one of the most architecturally rich city centres in Europe, and has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1983.
The Zytglogge, a medieval tower bearing a large clock, is today at the centre of the Old Town. However, when it was built eight centuries ago, it was the western gateway. Elegant bridges link the Old Town with suburbs to the north and east, and with a small museum quarter to the south.
A single journey on the reliable and frequent network of trams and buses run by BernMobil (bernmobil.ch) costs Sfr4.20 (£3) and is valid for an hour; a Tageskart (one-day card) costs Sfr11.80 (£8), so profits begin with three journeys.
Assuming you are staying at least one night in a city hotel, you get a free Bern Ticket that covers transport for your entire stay – a benefit of the visitor tax of Sfr5.30 (£3.70) per person per night, payable separately to the rates here.
The Old Town has plenty of accommodation options as well as atmosphere. The Hotel Bären-Bern at Schauplatzgasse 4 (00 41 31 311 33 67; baerenbern.ch) is about as central as it gets and offers four-star comfort. Doubles start at Sfr237 (£157) including breakfast.
The stylish, three-star Hotel Kreuz Bern on the corner of Zeughausgasse and Bärenplatz (00 41 31 329 95 95; kreuzbern.ch) offers “economy doubles” with breakfast for Sfr165 (£114).
Budget city-centre accommodation takes the form of the clean and cheerful Backpackers Bern at Rathausgasse 75 (00 41 31 311 3771; bernbackpackers.ch), where a bed in a dorm costs Sfr37 (£26) per person and a private double is Sfr120 (£83), excluding breakfast but including free Wi-Fi.
Take a view
The three-dimensional terrain over which Bern is draped provides plenty of fine panoramas – of which the politicians enjoy the best, from the terrace of the Bundeshaus (Parliament Building); voters and tourists also welcome.
Take a hike
From the Bundeshaus, wander to the Casino, where a path zig-zags down beside Kirchenfeldbrucke to the riverside. Just before Nydeggbrücke, clamber up the wooden staircase and head west along Gerechtigkeitsgasse and its continuation, Kramgasse.
The cobbled streets of the 16th-century Old Town are flanked by handsome townhouses and public buildings. Look out for the shops, galleries and workshops that occupy the cellars whose doors open up to the streets.
On the left just after the Samson Fountain is Kramgasse 49, location for the Einstein-Haus – where the physicist lived for two years from 1903 (00 41 312 00 91; einstein-bern.ch).
It was while living here, and working at the Patent Office, that he formulated his theory of special relativity and transformed scientific understanding. He also became the rock star of theoretical physics – but exhibits at his former home demonstrate he was much better at relativity than relationships. Complete your walk at the Zytglogge.
Lunch on the run
Adriano’s at Theaterplatz 2 (00 41 31 318 88 31; adrianos.ch) has the best coffee in town to accompany rolls and sandwiches. For something more substantial, track down the Stauffacher Bookshop at Neuengasse 25 (00 41 31 313 66 66; stauffacher.ch) and the Café Littéraire on the second floor. Soup and salad tastes all the better for the serene, sophisticated surroundings.
The Stauffacher Bookshop itself is worth exploring, as are the two competing department stores on Spitalgasse: Loeb at number 47-51, and Globus at 17-21. Both open 8am-5pm on Saturdays, closed on Sundays. The chocolatier Läderach dispenses delicious treats at Spitalgasse 2.
Take a ride
Bernrollt (bernrollt.ch) is the free-to-use bike scheme. With ID and a deposit of Sfr20 (£14), you can rent a bike from one of four locations around the city. The first four hours (two for e-bikes) are free, with a charge of Sfr1 (£0.70p) for each additional hour.
Loetschberg is a bright gastro-pub at Zeughausgasse 18 (00 41 31 311 34 55; loetschberg-aoc.ch). Sip excellent beer (Sfr6.70/£4.60 for 500ml) or taste some of the Swiss wines.
Dining with the locals
You can eat at the Loetschberg where a Käseschnitte (melted cheese, sausage and salad) costs Sfr16.90 (£12). The Kornhauskeller at Kornhausplatz 18 (00 41 31 327 7272) occupies a Baroque chamber beneath the former city granary, with soaring columns that make you feel as though you are dining in a cathedral. The speciality is chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce, for Sfr55 (£38) per person with a minimum of two sharing.
Sunday morning: a walk in the park
Bern has its very own 858m-high mountain, Gurten. Take the funicular from Talstation Gurtenbahn (every 15 minutes 7.30am to midnight, 8.15pm Sundays; gurtenbahn.ch; Sfr6 /£4; Sfr10.50/£7 return, also covered by the Bern Card). At the top, make the most of the marked trails (00 41 31 970 33 33; www. gurtenpark.ch).
Out to brunch
The capital’s top brunch spot is the Bellevue Palace Hotel at Kochergasse 3 (00 41 31 320 45 45; bellevue-palace.ch). Book in advance for the 11.30am-3pm feast. You also get a view of the Alps – which compensates for the Sfr75 (£52) price tag.
Go to church
Switzerland’s largest medieval place of worship, the Münster, is an elegant study in sandstone on the edge of the Old Town (00 41 31 312 04 62; bernermuenster.ch). It opens 11.30am-5pm on Sundays, from 10am on other days, admission free. Climb the stairs in the tower for a 360-degree view.
Cross the Kirchenfeldbrücke to the Bern Historical Museum at Helvetiaplatz. Once you pay the Sfr18 (£12.50) admission (00 41 31 350 7711; bhm.ch/en; 10am-5pm daily except Monday) to the Einstein Museum, which it houses, you step into the world of a genius. It adds dimensions to Einstein as an individual as well as explaining the nuances of gravity.
To see how gravity works in practice, cross Helvetiaplatz to the Alpines Museum (00 41 31 350 04 40; alpinesmuseum.ch; 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday, Sfr14/£9).
Icing on the cake
The Zentrum Paul Klee (00 41 31 359 0101; zpk.org; 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday) celebrates the artist who was born just outside Bern in 1879. But the real work of art is Renzo Piano’s miraculous ripples of glass and steel that transcend the adjoining motorway. Explore the building or invest Sfr20 (£14) in visiting the galleries.