Of all Swiss cities, Bern is the most immediately charming. Crammed onto a steep-sided peninsula in a crook of the River Aare, the city’s quiet, cobbled lanes, lined with sandstone arcaded buildings, have changed little in five hundred years. It’s sometimes hard to remember that this petite town of just 130,000 people is the nation’s capital.
The heart of Bern’s compact old town is Spitalgasse. Heading east from the Bahnhofplatz, this becomes Marktgasse, Kramgasse and then Gerechtigkeitsgasse, before crossing the river to the Bärengraben (bear pits). The main museums are on Helvetiaplatz, on the south bank of the river, across the Kirchenfeldbrücke.
The vast Historisches Museum, on Helvetiaplatz, south of the River Aare, details the country’s history and also houses the superb Einstein Museum, documenting the physicist’s eventful family life and his chequered early career. Exhibits include examples of young Albert’s schoolwork, complete with scathing marginalia.
Bern’s Kunstmuseum, near the station, is especially strong on twentieth-century art, notably Matisse, Kandinsky, Braque and Picasso.
At the eastern end of Bern's centre, the Nydeggbrücke crosses the river to the Bärengraben, the city's famed bear pits, which held generations of morose shaggies from the early sixteenth century to 2009. The new Bear Park (open access), sloping down to the river, houses four bears in far better conditions than before. Legend has it that the town’s founder, Berchtold V of Zähringen, named Bern after killing one of the beasts during a hunt.
Marktgasse, lined with attractive seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings and arcaded boutiques, leads you past various landmarks, such as the distinctively top-heavy Zytglogge, a medieval city gate converted to a clock tower in the sixteenth century. To the left in Kornhausplatz, the most notorious of Bern’s fountains, the horrific Kindlifresserbrunnen, depicts an ogre devouring a baby. Münstergasse, one block south, takes you to the fifteenth-century Gothic Münster, with a magnificently gilded high-relief Last Judgement above the main entrance. Its 444-stepped tower, the tallest in Switzerland, offers terrific views. Munsterplattform, nearby, hosts a craft market on the first Saturday of the month from March to November.
East of the centre at Ostring, the Zentrum Paul Klee has the world’s largest collection of works by the artist, who spent much of his life in Bern. The building is a stunning, triple-arched design by the star Italian architect Renzo Piano.