Draped across a precipitous peninsula that juts into the River Aare, Switzerland’s capital qualifies as one of the most beautifully sited cities in Europe. Due largely to Swiss neutrality in both World Wars, it is also one of the best preserved. Aesthetic merits aside, Bern boasts bustling markets, glorious gardens, a broad range of museums, and four miles of arcades which together constitute one of the continent’s longest covered shopping promenades. Moreover, its central location — smack dab in the middle of Switzerland — offers easy access to top-rated natural attractions. In fact, using Bern as a base, it’s possible to explore much of the country on day trips.
Don’t Miss: The compact Altstadt (or Old Town), laid out in the 12th century and re-built after a fire in the 15th. The highlight is the Münster (cathedral), whose 328-foot-high spire is the tallest in Switzerland. The pièce de résistance is right above the main entry: a rendering of the Last Judgment featuring 200-plus carved images that includes lascivious-looking ladies and at least one wayward pope.
Also Worth Seeing: Be sure to drag yourself away from the scenic streets long enough to visit two of Bern’s many museums. Start with Zentrum Paul Klee. For years, the native-born modernist shared wall space with Monet, Dali, Modigliani and Matisse at the Kunstmuseum. But in 2005 his art and archives were moved to this undulating, modern structure designed by Renzo Piano. Einstein, meanwhile, takes center stage at Bern’s Historical Museum, on Helvetiaplatz, with a new exhibit that sets out his life and work through easy-to-understand displays.
Where to Eat: Bern has more than 150 restaurants, so you won’t go hungry. For international entrées with a side order of scenery, try the Schwellenmätteli Restaurants (one trendy, one traditional) tucked beneath the Kirchenfeldbrücke by the Aare’s floodgates. Or go for an overview at Restaurant Rosengarten, perched in a park 1,870 feet above the city. Prefer down-to-earth Swiss fare? Anker, by the Kornhauskeller cultural center, serves a classic Bernerplatte stacked with marrowbone and five types of meat.
How to Work Off Dinner: There are close to 250 miles of cycling paths in Bern, and from May to October visitors can enjoy them for free with a borrowed bike from Bern Rollt. In summer, you can cool off afterwards with a refreshing dip in the River Aare. The forests and farmlands of Mittelland and mountains of the Bernese Oberland offer year-round adventures for outdoorsy types.
Where to Stay: The five-star Bellevue Palace is Bern’s “grand hotel.” Its location, next to the parliament building, makes it the place for politicos, and sublime south-facing views across the Aare make it appealing to well-heeled travelers. The three-star Hotel Kreuz, just off café-lined Bärenplatz, in the heart of the Altstadt, provides small but serviceable, immaculately clean rooms (plus welcome amenities like free internet service). Because Bern is a business center, rates at both are lowest on weekends.
How to Get There: The closest international airport is in Zurich, an hour northeast. But Bern’s efficient rail service connects it with most cities in Switzerland. To take full advantage of the efficient and affordable Swiss Travel System, consider purchasing a Swiss Pass before leaving home. It covers buses, boats, trains, and offers free admission to more than 400 museums.
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