Although Bern has been the capital of the Swiss Confederation since 1848, it is only the fifth-largest city, after Zürich, Geneva, Basel and Lausanne, with a population of 122,000. Few cities in Europe can rival Bern for the way that it has kept its medieval centre intact; UNESCO has recognised this and placed the city on its list of World Heritage Sites, on a par with the centres of Rome, Florence and Havana.
It is renowned for its fountains, towers and bridges, the profusion of geranium-filled windowboxes and the 6km (4 miles) of arcades, the Lauben, that line many of the streets of greenish-grey sandstone buildings.
In addition to its exceptional buildings, Bern has numerous museums, art galleries and theatres, and a vibrant musical life, helped by being home to the Swiss Jazz School and an International Jazz Festival, held every year from March to May.
What to see and do in Bern
The old town
Thanks partly to its modest size and partly to the confined location of the old town, Bern is a city that can only be properly explored on foot or by bicycle.
A remnant of the old town can be seen even before leaving Bern HB: when the station was reconstructed in the 1970s, the decision was taken to preserve the foundations of the city’s historic walls and the Christoffel Tower as part of the huge shopping area and station complex underneath Bahnhofplatz.
Above ground the square has two buildings of note. To the right of the station is the citizens’ hospital (Burgerspital), a rectangular building built between 1734 and 1742, with a central courtyard like the Hotel des Invalides in Paris (1734–42). Opposite is the Church of the Holy Ghost (Heiliggeistkirche), which has been described as the most important Protestant Baroque church in Switzerland. The vast columns, stuccoed vaults and galleries were put up between 1726 and 1729.
Houses of Parliament
Turn right into Bundesplatz and straight ahead are the Houses of Parliament (Bundeshäuser), built in stages between 1851 and 1902. The interior is open to the public for guided tours outside of parliamentary sessions and includes the two debating chambers. The square was revamped in 2004 with new lights and a water display of 26 fountains representing the cantons.
From the south side of the Parliament building, walk along the terrace overlooking the Aare to the end of the Kirchenfeldbrücke at the south end of Casinoplatz, named after the 1909 casino on the opposite side of the road. Turn left (north) into Casinoplatz and proceed to the contiguous Theaterplatz, where the unusual single-storey, columned building with gabled roof was erected between 1766 and 1768 as a guard room and later became the police headquarters.
Bern’s most impressive church began construction on 11 March 1421 on the site of an existing church, which was gradually surrounded by the new edifice but which remained in use for over 30 years before being dismantled and carried out stone by stone through the new portal.
Work began under Matthäus Ensinger, one of a family of cathedral builders from Ulm who had proved their worth in Ulm, Strasbourg and Esslingen. By 1517, much of the main work had been finished, but during the Reformation many of its treasures were destroyed.
However, the magnificent tympanum over the principal entrance was spared, perhaps, it has been conjectured, because the extraordinary mélange of 238 individually sculptured figures includes depictions of the Last Judgement. The Apostles and the wise and foolish virgins may also be seen.
The Rose Garden offers one of the best views of the city. Much of the sandstone for Bern’s reconstruction after the fire of 1405 was taken from the area below the Rose Garden, which accounts for the width of the road at the foot of the slope. Return across Nydeggbrücke and proceed straight ahead into Gerechtigkeitsgasse.
The figure on the Justice Fountain holds the scales of justice and a sword while the pope, the sultan, the Holy Roman emperor and the mayor of Bern sit at her feet, representing theocracy, monarchy, autocracy and democracy, respectively.
The Clock Tower
The Clock Tower (Zeitglockenturm) is Bern’s oldest building and probably its best known. It formed the main gateway to the town’s first western wall, its earliest stonework dating back to the 12th century. The side facing the city was open and made of wood until reconstructed in stone after the fire of 1405.
The clock was not only the official time by which other clocks were set, but also the point from which distances for cantonal mileposts were measured. In its archway, the standard measurements of meter and double meter are visible, formerly ‘Elle’ and ‘Klafter’.
The tower’s bell was cast in 1405 and rung by hand for 125 years. In 1530, Casper Brunner completed work at his workshop within the tower on the astronomical clock and mechanical figure play that have made the Clock Tower such an attraction for visitors ever since.
On the right in Kornhausplatz is Bern’s most gruesome fountain, the Ogre Fountain. The significance of the ogre devouring a child is a matter of conjecture: that perhaps it refers to the Greek myth of Cronus (who swallowed his children at birth to thwart a prediction that one of them would supplant him); or that it alludes to the false accusation of ritual Jewish murder once thought to have been practised in the late 13th century.
Continuing east towards the station, you come to the Musketeer Fountain (1543) in Marktgasse, which has an armoured commander figure. Further on is the Anna Seiler Fountain, supposedly named after one of the city’s early benefactors who, in 1354, gave her home and fortune to found the Insel Hospital, which began with 13 beds (today it has about 1,000).
Until 1844, the only fixed crossing of the River Aare was by the stone Untertorbrücke (1461–89) which replaced an earlier wooden structure. It still survives at the eastern end of the peninsula, along with the 13th-century gate-tower on the east bank known as the Felsenburg, which was converted into a residence between 1862 and 1864.
Opened in 1844, the Nydeggbrücke was the first high-level bridge across the river and came equipped with a pair of customs houses. It was followed in 1858 by the first railway bridge, which stood on the same site as the present reinforced concrete bridge put up in 1941.
A British company was responsible for the 230m-long (755ft) Kirchenfeldbrücke, which opened in 1883 and still carries both motor traffic and trams. The Bern Land Company bought land south of the Aare, and one of the three conditions of purchase stipulated that the buyer must construct a bridge over the river.
The elegant Kornhausbrücke provides the longest span across the Aare at 115m (377ft); completed in 1898, it also carries both motor traffic and trams.
Historical Museum of Bern
Switzerland’s second-largest historical museum is housed in a purpose-built mock medieval castle designed by André Lambert and opened in 1894. It contains a marvellous variety of displays, ranging from prehistory and early history to dioramas of 19th- and 20th-century life. Rooms are devoted to Burgundy and the republic of Bern, the Christian view of life, the growth of the city, high society under the Ancien Régime and everyday life.
There are large collections of coins, armour, jewellery, glass, ceramics, utensils, bronzes, mosaics, textiles and costumes, furniture in reconstructed rooms, and maps and altars. One of the most unusual exhibits is an extraordinary series of 280 portraits of men and women of rural background conceived as a single ethnographic project in the 18th century.
Travel to Bern
The city’s principal railway station, Bern HB, is perfectly situated on the western edge of the old town, and is the focal point of the tram and bus networks. The station’s platforms are connected by a subway in which lockers can be found, as well as showcases of city shops and businesses and various shops selling provisions.
The tourist office stands in the bland complex erected over the station in 1970, which includes ticket and luggage offices and bicycle hire.