Even though it's an European capital, Bern is a small city, that holds all the relaxing atmosphere of Switzerland, and the green, and a breathtaking view on the Alps. You will be shocked, discovering that at the seat of the government, life run smoothly, tranquil, serene. And you will be shocked discovering that the same people that have a seat at the Parlament are the same people sitting near you on the public transport, eating a gipfeli and reading the Berner Zeitung.
Bern is the name either of the capital, or the Bunderstadt which is part of Switzerland. The name derives from a German word: Bär, whose meaning is bear. It's thanks to Duke Berthold V of Zähringen that the city was founded, back in 1191. With his death, in 1218, the city was made an Imperial Free City by the Emperor Frederick II. In 1353 Bern joined the Swiss Confederation, that was born in 1291 and, five centuries after, became the capital of the Kanton and the capital of Switzerland. Meanwhile, during its history, occupied other territories, such as Aargau and Vaud, and - during the French Revolutionary Wars was taken over by French troops. It wasn't only a decisive moment for the city, it was a decisive moment for whole Switzerland, since thereon, it changed from a Confederation to a Federation and the modern Switzerland was born.
Let's start our visit by the Bärengraben (Bear Pits). It seems that the founder of the city chose that name after he had killed a bear on the peninsula where he later laid the foundations. The location of the Pits hasn't changed since 1857 and in 1995 - 1996 major renovations have been done, in order to give to the bears - Pedro and Tana - a better habitat. The two Pyrenean bears can be seen everyday, but it depends from season at what time they go out. Soon the pits will be transformed, creating enclosures where Pedro and Tana will have the chance to live freely outside all the year long. The bear pit is not a tourist trap, as it has often been said, it's part of the tradition of the city, a tradition started in 1480 when some captured bears were put in a pit; and the bear is the symbol of the city, appearing in the heraldic too. Before crossing the Nydeggerbrücke, from which you will have an enchanting panorama on the Aare and on the quartier of Kirchenfeld, stop by the Grosser Muristalten and enjoy the view and the relaxing atmosphere. And, as soon as you wish to enter into the oldest part of the city, head for it.
Münster Cathedral is an impressive example of Late Gothic religious architecture. The Cathedral is the largest ecclesiastical building of all Switzerland, and its construction began in 1421. The spire, that dominates the sky above Bern, was finished in 1893. Climb the 344 steps to the spire, in order to appreciate a breathtaking view of the city and of the Bernet Mitteland and Oberalp. As soon as you have had enough of the panorama, or of the interior of the church, head north, to the Rathaus. Built between 1406 and 1416, the Rathaus survived to any turmoil, from Burgudian Wars to Reformation, from French invasion to the...political discussions which take place inside, for the cantonal government. With Kramgasse you really start breathing the Medieval Atmosphere of the city. Six kilometers of medieval arcades, limestone buildings, towers and fountains, gave to the city the recognition by UNESCO as a Cultural World Heritage site: the city center of Bern is a place where time stopped by. But - at number 49 - old meets with modern, in the person of the founder of modern physics. Albert Einstein lived there, between 1903 and 1905, and it's exactly during that time that he developed the theory of relativity. Today, his house is a the Albert Einstein Museum dedicated to his life and legacy. On the same road, the ONO theater is a new tendencies and experimental theater, that will offer you several different programs. The Zytglogge (Clock Tower) is among the most known landmarks of Bern, forming the boundaries of the city back in 1191 (and the end of Kramgasse today, with the beginning of a pedestrian zone). Back in the past, the Zytglogge was the main clock of Bern. The clock is animated, and it was built in the 6th century. Keep walking under the arcades (maybe stopping by for some shopping) and you will find yourself in Kornhausplatz. There, the Kornhaus can be admired. The ancient granary of the town is an chief example of the Baroque architecture of the city. If, in the past, it stored grain and barrels of wine, today - since it doesn't serve anymore the original function - it has been transformed into restaurant and multipurpose venue for cultural events. Fountains are part of the Berner architecture; so do not miss the Kindlifresserbrunnen. Keep walking north, for a quick diversion and head to the Französische Kirche. The church is the oldest in town, since it was built between 1280 and 1310 and it is the sole building left of the abbey of the Dominicans. During the XVII century, it was refuge for Huguenots. Nearby, the Stadt Theater will offer you - among several ballets, comedies and plays - a nice evening. And...do not forget to walk to the Kornhausbrücke, where you will have a fascinating view of the Aare, the Old City and the Lorraine district.
Marktgasse is where the pedestrian zone starts. On Tuesday and Saturday mornings markets are held and you will be able to find fresh veggies, flowers and whatchamacallit. There, two of the most ancient fountains of the city - dating back to the 16th century - can be admired. The street ends in Bärenplatz, where the Käfigturm is. The Käfigturm (a.k.a. Prison Tower) is the second tower of the city, delimiting the western boundaries. Erected between 1256 and 1344 - as the name implies - it was used as a jail. Today it isn't a jail anymore, and it hosts a political forum. Remember that the Holländerturm is just nearby and was built in 1256, as part of a military fortification. You're a stone's throw away from Bundesplatz, where the Swiss Government and Parliament are. The building is currently under renovations, but it can usually be visited. And the plaza has 26 fountains which represents the Swiss cantons. You can have a nice view of the Parliament from the Kirchenfeldbrücke.
Nearby the old center, there is the Kunstmuseum, the oldest art museum in Switzerland holding a permanent collection, that currently comprises over 3,000 paintings and sculptures - ranging from Duccio di Buoninsegna to Toulouse Lautrec, covering from the Italian Trecento to the Impressionism, from the late Gothic to the Blue rider School. You will also find several works by female artists. If art is amongst your interests, as soon as you cross the Kirchenfeldbrücke, you will find the Kunsthalle, too. Founded by the initiative of the Bernese Artists' Society in 1918, the Kunsthalle has hosted several shows by Berner, Swiss and International artists, such as Klee, Giacometti and Moore. There is a museum - in the outskirts of Bern - dedicated to Paul Klee (the Paul Klee Zentrum), with more than 4000 masterpieces by the Swiss painter. Apart from the permanent exposition, there are temporary ones, dedicated to the historical and cultural contexts in which his art was born, and those dedicated to his life. Back to the Matte, where the Kunsthalle is, some other museums can be visited. Among those, the Naturhistorisches Museum, the Alpines Museum and the Historisches Museum. The Dählhölzli Zoo will make any child happy: open 365 days a year, it hosts 200 different animals, in their natural habitat and it can be mainly explored free of charge. For those who love any sport, the Stade de Suisse is an a obliged pitstop. Enjoy there football matches by the BSC Young Boys... and remember that, in 2008, Switzerland and Austria will be the hosting countries for the UEFA Euro 2008 and some matches will take place exactly at the Stade de Suisse. For any romantic spirit, the Rosengarten is a must too. The park is wonderful and the 220 different types of roses are astonishing. Take a relaxing break into the pavillon or - alternatively - enjoy a coffee at the restaurant Rosengarten.
Some last remarks: under the arcades in the old town, you will find anything you're looking for. And if you're looking for something typically Swiss, you can choose between chocolate (Toblerone and Lindt are among the best ones), watches (from Swatch to Rolex, from Breitling to Patek Philippe), and cheese (as Gruyère or Raclette). If - on the other hand - you find yourself in Bern the fourth Monday of November, do not forget the Zibelemärit (onion market). And, if you're interested in opening a bank account, you're in the right country...
Swiss kitchen is a really tasty one. Do not forget to try a Bernerplatte while in Bern, or a Fondue, a raclette or a rösti dish. And, among the sweeter things, the gipfeli or the birchermuesli are among the best boost to start the day with.
Bern, with its mix between ancient and modern, between provincial and international, in a peculiar frame among the Alps, will for sure transform your stay in an unforgettable one...