If you want your mind blown, just take a tour of Bern’s most famous building, the Zytglogge. Built in 1218, it’s been a gate tower and a women’s prison over the years, but it was the addition of an astronomical clock that made it truly remarkable.
Those sceptical about its ability to astound have clearly never witnessed the Zytglogge’s bewildering system of dials, cogs, pulleys, weights and pendulums in action. At just before the hour, it all springs to life, as the tower’s metals workings start to whiz around at terrific speeds. Each component plays its part in the eccentric mechanical performance taking place on the building’s facade, whether it’s sounding the bell at the top of the tower, spinning the carousel of bears beneath the clock face, or operating the bellows that push air through pipes and give the ornamental rooster its eerie crow. This clockwork miracle is achieved through nothing more than the daily windings of the official clock keeper. It’s truly inspiring. But then, Bern has always been an inspiring city. This, after all, is where the young Albert Einstein thought up his theory of special relativity, while living in a apartment — now a museum — just a few steps from the Zytglogge.
And, as you wander around the UNESCO-listed Old Town, so neatly contained within a loop of the River Aare, you begin to see why Einstein managed so much of his best thinking here. It’s a great place to clear your head, whether you’re sitting in a cafe in one of the city’s squares, strolling beneath its four miles of lauben (covered walkways) or pausing for thought by one of the 11 ancient octagonal fountains. Meanwhile, all along the Old Town’s perimeter, you’re greeted with dramatic views of the river below, while, in the distance, on a clear day, you can watch, as many of Switzerland’s most famous Alpine peaks line up for inspection. If that doesn’t inspire you, nothing will.
In a city spoilt for lofty vantage points, the stunning, late gothic Bern Minster offers one of the best; its 330ft tower earning it the title of Switzerland’s tallest cathedral. Begun in 1421, it wasn’t finished until 1893.
Bears have been kept in Bern since 1513, but mercifully, in 2009, the city’s ursine residents upgraded from the snug bear pit they’d inhabited since 1857 to the much more spacious BearPark on a bank of the River Aare. While viewing captive animals isn’t to everyone’s taste, there’s something hypnotic about watching Finn, Bjork and their cub, Ursula, stretch, play and splash from the neighbouring Nydegg Bridge.
Top three: Bern’s museums
This permanent exhibition within Bern Historical Museum uses original objects, replicas, film and animation to tell the story of Bern’s most famous adopted son, and convey the essence of his theories.
Zentrum Paul Klee Bern
The exhibitions here are arguably upstaged by the architecture — a spectacular Renzo Piano creation on the outskirts of the city. However, its huge collection of Klee’s often colourful and always individual works is worth the tram ride.
Museum of Fine Arts Bern
The oldest art museum in Switzerland harbours a huge collection of paintings, prints, sculptures and photos behind its grand facade, including works by Van Gogh and Picasso.
Eyewitness: Higher & higher
When you’re surrounded by the Swiss Alps, it pays to look up once in a while. Except, of course, when it’s cloudy — for then, looking up brings only heartbreak. My hope had been to find an elevated viewpoint and catch a glimpse of one of the region’s famous trio of mountains — the Jungfrau, the Mönch, or perhaps even the mighty Eiger. But so far, so cloudy.
Fortunately, Bern is one of those cities that looks great from above. So instead of looking up, I look down. Through the aged windows of the Zytglogge clock tower, the Old Town dazzles; its broad, cobbled streets — flanked on either side by flags — carving handsome paths through its fields of red rooftops.
I take lunch on the Sky Terrace of the Hotel Schweizerhof, where, over a coffee and finger food, I’m teased by the wispy bands of clouds denying me my mountain view. This is followed by a trip up a long steep hillside path to the city’s Rose Garden. There, among the sweet floral aromas, I enjoy a Swiss beer and views of the River Aare. But still no mountains. Time to shift to even higher ground.
A short tram ride later, and I’m seated in a funicular, slowly climbing the slopes of Bern’s local mountain, the Gurten. At its summit, I find meadows, pine trees and a large restaurant. From its third-floor balcony, I look back down at the city once again, the unmistakable thin stretch of the Old Town resembling a huge terracotta tongue, lapping at the surrounding water.
After dinner, I explore, weaving my way past several languid picnickers before happening upon a viewing platform, with a metal display identifying the distant peaks lurking behind the cloud — cloud that, unless I’m mistaken, finally appears to be moving. But I’m distracted by the sudden appearance of several men and women with English accents, engaged in a compelling sort of collective tap dance in front of me. They turn out to be Yon Lot — a troop of Lancashire clog dancers. “We danced in front of the Parliament Building yesterday,” one tells me.
It’s probably the last thing I expected to find up a Swiss mountain. But there are more treats to come. As when I turn back to the mountains, the stubborn cloud finally thins out, revealing a panorama of icy pyramids. A few more minutes’ patience, and I get what I came for. First, the Jungfrau. Then the Mönch. And finally, for just a short while, the mighty Eiger.
Arrive in style
Although it might seem a long way away, reaching Bern by rail is a feasible, and enjoyable, option. From your carriage window, French countryside gives way to Swiss mountains, before you eventually alight next to Bern’s Old Town. The 11hr London-Paris-Bern leg can be booked via Trainline — do so three months in advance and expect to pay around €125 (£115) per person. trainline.eu
Double rooms at Hotel Schweizerhof Bern from CHF479 (£386), room-only, including beer and soft drinks from the mini-bar. schweizerhof-bern.ch/en
Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)