One of the planet's most underrated capitals, Bern is fabulous. With the genteel, old soul of a Renaissance man and the heart of a high-flying 21st-century gal, this riverside city is both medieval and modern. The 15th-century old town is gorgeous enough to sweep you off your feet and make you forget the century (it's definitely worthy of its Unesco World Heritage site protection order). But edgy vintage boutiques, artsy-intellectual bars and Renzo Piano's futuristic art museum crammed with Paul Klee pieces slams you firmly back into the present.
GETTING INTO TOWN
Shuttle buses coordinated with flight arrivals/departures link Bern-Belp airport (http://www.flughafenbern.ch/?setLang=2), 9km southeast, with the train station(Sfr15, 20 minutes) on the western edge of the old town. The main sights are a few minutes' walk from here.
Internet Café (Tel 031 311 9850; www.pokerhill.ch, in German; Aarbergergasse 46; per hr Sfr8-10; h9.30am- 12.30am Mon-Fri, noon-12.30am Sat)
Stauffacher (Tel 031 311 24 11; Neuengasse 25; h9am-7pm Mon-Fri, to 9pm Thu, to 5pm Sat) English books on the 3rd floor.
Tourist Center (Tel 031 328 12 12; Bärengraben; h9am-6pm Jun-Sep, 10am-4pm Mar-May & Oct, 11am- 4pm Nov-Feb) Tourist office by the bear pits.
Tourist Center Bahnhof (Tel 031 328 12 12; http://www.berninfo.com/en/index.cfm; Bahnhoftplatz; h9am-8.30pm Jun-Sep, 9am-6.30pm Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm Sun Oct-May) Streetlevel floor of the train station.
Medieval Bern, with 6km of covered arcades and cellar shops/bars descending from the streets, is the sandstone city’s prime attraction. Join the crowds congregating around the Zytglogge (clock tower) at four minutes before the hour to watch its revolving figures twirl; street-snack on hot chestnuts; and trip between decorative fountains (1545) depicting historical and folkloric characters… and a giant snacking on children at the Kindlifresserbrunnen on Kornhausplatz.
The dizzying climb up the lofty spire – Switzerland’s tallest – of the Gothic, 15thcentury Cathedral (audioguide Sfr5, tower admission Sfr4; h10am-5pm Tue-Sat, 11.30am-5pm Sun Easter-Nov, 10am-noon & 2-4pm Tue-Fri, to 5pm Sat, 11.30am-2pm Sun rest of year, tower closes 30 min earlier), is worth the 344-step hike.
The world’s most famous scientist developed his theory of relativity in 1905 at what’s now the Einstein Museum (Tel 031 312 00 91; http://www.einstein-bern.ch/index.php?lang=en&show=start&subs; Kramgasse 49; adult/student Sfr6/4.50; h10am-7pm Mon-Fri, to 4pm Sat Feb-Dec), housed in the humble apartment where Einstein lived while working as a clerk in the local patent office.
Across the Aare River, 28-year-old brown bear Pedro, who has spent his life in Bern’s 3.5m-deep stone Bärengraben (bear pit; http://www.baerenpark-bern.ch/; h9.30am-5pm), will move to a new, spacious riverside park in autumn 2009. Bears – the heraldic mascot of the city – have been here since 1857. Don’t feed them; buy a paper cone of fresh fruit (Sfr3) from Walter, their keeper.
Paul Klee Centre
Forming a three-peak wave next to the Bern-Ostring exit of the A6, Renzo Piano’s remarkable Zentrum Paul Klee (Tel 031 359 01 01; http://www.zpk.org/ww/en/pub/web_root.cfm; Monument in Fruchtland 3; adult/concession Sfr16/6; h10am-5pm Tue-Sun) is Bern’s Guggenheim. The exhibition space showcases 4000 rotating works from Paul Klee’s prodigious and often playful career. Inspired music audio guides (which cost Sfr5) take visitors on one-hour DIY musical tours. In the grounds, a walk will take you past a stream of sculptures, including some contemporary works by artists such as Yoko Ono and Sol LeWitt. To get here, take bus 12.
Houses of Parliament
The 1902 Bundeshäuser (Tel 031 332 85 22; http://www.parlament.ch/e/pages/default.aspx; Bundesplatz; admission free; hhourly tours 9am-4pm Mon-Sat), home of the Swiss Federal Assembly, are impressively ornate. When the parliament is in recess you can tour the place; otherwise watch from the public gallery. Bring your passport.
Bern takes on a carnival atmosphere for the unique Onion Market, held on the fourth Monday of November.
Cafes and restaurants fill Bärenplatz and Theaterplatz.
Markthalle (Bubenbergplatz 9) Buzzing in quick-snack action, this covered market arcade is jam-packed with eateries from around the world. Eat curries, vegetarian, wok stir-fries, bruschette, noodles, pizza, south Indian, Turkish, Middle Eastern etc standing at bars or around plastic tables.
Tibits (Tel 031 312 91 11; Bahnhofplatz 10) This train-station vegetarian buffet restaurant is just the ticket for a quick, healthy meal any size, any time. Serve yourself, get it weighed, pay and eat.
Sous le Pont (Tel 031 306 69 55; Schützenmatte; mains Sfr5-15) Grab fries, falafel or a schnitzel from the graffiti-covered hole in the wall next to the Sous le Pont cafe-bar and dine at a graffiti-covered table in the graffiticovered courtyard.
Altes Tramdepot (Tel 031 368 14 15; Am Bärengraben; mains Sfr16-20) Even locals recommend this cavernous microbrewery. Swiss specialities snug up to stir-fries, pasta and international dishes on the bistro menu.
Terrasse & Casa (Tel 031 350 50 01; http://www.schwellenmaetteli.ch/; Dalmaziquai 11; mains Sfr28-45) ‘Bern’s Riviera’, this twinset of classy hang-outs on the Aare is an experience. Terrasse is a glass shoebox with wooden decking and sun loungers overlooking a weir; Casa cooks Italian in a country-styled timberframed house.
For an earthy drink with old-generation locals, prop up the marble-topped bar inside Markthalle (left).
Silo Bar (Tel 031 311 54 12; http://www.silobar.ch/, in German; Muhlenplatz 11) By the water, Bern’s 19thcentury corn house throbs with mainstream hits and a lively student set – the place to drink, dance and party.
Wasserwerk (Tel 031 312 12 31; http://www.wasserwerkclub.ch/; Wasserwerkgasse 5) Bern’s main techno venue with bar, club and occasional live music.
Klub Elf (http://www.klubelf.ch/; Ziegelackerstasse 11a) House, techno, trance and minimal sound are the dance beat at this weekend club, west of the centre, where the real Saturdaynight party kicks off after midnight and continues with an ‘After’ party on Sunday at 5am. Find flyers on MySpace.
Dampfzentrale (Tel 031 310 05 40; http://www.dampfzentrale.ch/de/index.html, in German; Marzilistrasse 47) This industrial red-brick riverside building hosts concerts, festivals, gigs, contemporary dance and a lovely riverside restaurant terrace.