Bern for you: The surprising capital of Switzerland
Bern, the capital of Switzerland, is often overlooked as a must-include stop on a Swiss itinerary, yet this city, rich in culture and set dramatically on a rise at the curve of the Aare River, offers much to those who take a few days to get to know its charms.
Bern’s Old Town, a UNESCO Word Heritage Site, is a trip back to medieval times, with the past most definitely part of the present. There were thousands of beautiful towns like this across Europe; few are left today. Arcaded walkways line the streets, many of which have intricately detailed fountains right in the middle of the road―far more elegant as traffic-calmers than speedbumps. Bern‘s most prominent sight, the Zytglogge clock tower, is open for public and private tours and, beyond insight into the intricacies of horological mechanics, provides a lovely panorama of the Bern town centre and the mountains beyond.
The gateway to the eponymous Bernese Oberland, Bern‘s scenic setting is one of its biggest drawcards. The snowcapped Alps are never out of sight and provide a spectacular backdrop to the city, which is not as conservative as would be expected in a federal capital. On the contrary, Bern is as much a university town as a seat of government; the population is noticeably youthful, the result being that Bern’s nightlife is much livelier than would be expected. In addition to the Bern Museum of Fine Arts, the Swiss Parliament building, the farmers’ market in Parliament Square, and several other points of interest, it is the bears that people flock to see in Bern. Bears are revered in Switzerland as living symbols of the nation; a centuries-old bear pit located on the edge of the city centre has been renovated to become Bear Park and has dramatically improved the quality of life for the resident bears, who now have access to a spacious natural enclosure along the bank of the river, where they are also able to swim at their leisure.
Further into the outskirts of Bern is the Zentrum Paul Klee, an artspace dedicated to this visionary Swiss artist whose simple use of lines and colors have engendered a loyal following, especially among Japanese art lovers who flock here to see the world’s largest collection of Klee’s works. Similarly stimulating for the mind is a visit to the Albert Einstein Museum, housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. There is also the Einstein House that was the residence of the scientific genius during his time in Bern 1903-1905.
As in many cities and towns in Switzerland, guests staying at hotels in Bern are given complimentary transport cards on arrival, valid for the duration of their stays to allow them to see the city without a second thought to fare zones or payment. The Bern Ticket makes getting around town very easy; though the centre of Bern is small and easily seen on foot, transport is needed to reach the Zentrum Paul Klee and may be useful for a tramride back to the railway station if travelling with suitcases.
Though Bern has its own tiny airport, almost all visitors arrive by rail. Direct trains departing Zurich Airport reach Bern in about 75 minutes. For carefree travel on a national scale, the Swiss Travel Pass allows unlimited rail travel across the country and also includes urban transport and entry into hundreds of museums across Switzerland. For travel on specific days within a limited time period, there is the Swiss Travel Pass Flex. These are available in Australia through Rail Plus.
Bern is home to Berner Haselnusslebkuchen, a delicious hazelnut cake/cookie/brownie creation better eaten than pronounced. A stop at Confiserie Reinhard, a family-owned bakery that has been in business for generations, is a must to sample the best Berner Haselnusslebkuchen in town. More information about Bern’s attractions and activities can be found on the informative Bern Tourism and Switzerland Tourism websites.