Bern’s Old Town; phots by Marla Cimini

Bern, despite being Switzerland’s capital, is often overlooked by travelers making a beeline for the larger cities of Zurich or Geneva or heading straight to the Alps.

But I’m glad I made a detour to this medieval city, which pairs old world charm with some major cultural attractions, including the biggest collection of works by early Modernist painter Paul Klee, and unique outdoor amenities –– you can take a refreshing dip in the Aare River during the warmer months.

The bustling, narrow streets of Bern’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are an ideal place to get acquainted with the city’s charms. This picturesque neighborhood features many whimsical fountains adorned with statues that serve a dual purpose of providing a spot for residents and visitors alike to fill up their bottles.

Clock tower

Old Town also offers four miles of arcade-style streets fronting Baroque sandstone buildings, making it the longest covered shopping promenade in Europe. Choices range from department stores to tiny boutiques, offering a wonderland of cool fashions, Swiss-made brands and mouth-watering homemade chocolates.

When not eying the high-end clothing, I had the opportunity to marvel at another type of spectacular design: Bern’s prominent clock tower overlooking Old Town.

Dating to the early 13th century, the structure served as the city’s first gate tower and later as a prison. But the real jewel lies in its inner workings  tucked behind its massive face.

The enormous timepiece was used to measure distance as well as time, and features an astrological clock, showing the movements of the sun, moon and planets.

Best appreciated up-close, the clockwork’s precise configuration not only controls the pendulum as it ticks away the seconds, but it also features whimsical moving figures that entertain the crowds who gather below. Guided tours are available to glimpse the clock’s complex mechanism, with a fabulous view of the city as an additional reward.

A typical fountain

Another cultural gem is Zentrum Paul Klee, the world’s most important collection of Klee’s works. The striking wave-shaped building by Renzo Pianoboasts more than 4,000 paintings, watercolors and drawings. Bern celebrates its symbol –– the bear –– with a recently upgraded habitat for the animal, while the Zoological Garden Dählhölzli is home to more than 200 different animal species, and is open all year round.

The city is also the site of the world’s first museum dedicated to Albert Einstein, who published the Theory of Relativity when he lived in an apartment in Old Town. (Note: The facility is closed for the time-being due to severe water damage.)

When you’re ready for a break, I can suggest something you ordinarily wouldn’t think possible in a city: Take a dip in its river. Fortunately, the turquoise waters of the Aare River are perfectly safe for swimming.

You can hike upstream and jump in to float back to the center of town. It’s a fun, social scene where serious swimmers co-exist happily with a parade of bobbing rubber rafts. For views of the river without getting wet, you can dine or have a drink on the terrace of the recently renovated Bellevue Palace, one of the city’s best hotels.

No matter what, I recommend dipping a toe in Bern’s lively city scene.




4 replies on “Bern: Don’t Miss the Swiss Capital”

  1. One of the BEST Bern Articles I have seen in a long time, captures the spirit of our capital city extremely well! Marla is a FAB writer, well done, Swiss Cheers!

  2. Great insights into a wonderful city! I couldn’t agree more with prioritizing a visit to Bern on your next Swiss holiday!

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