River Aare: the water is so clean that swimming in the river is a favourite occupation in summertime

    Bern: the chilled-out capital where time stands still

    27 May 2019

    In association with Switzerland Tourism 


    In most capital cities being a bicycle courier is a stressful occupation, but in Switzerland’s pretty capital this job is a lot more languid. When Ivo Magistretti rides his bike through Bern, he has the chance to appreciate the beauty of his hometown. Every street has a bike lane – it’s a cycle-friendly city – and two wheels is the best way to discover the hidden districts of this mini metropolis.

    By bike, Ivo can reach the cosy cafés, homely restaurants and craft breweries that make Bern such a beguiling destination – and if you hire a rental bike, you can explore them too. One his favourite haunts is Marzer, a charming restaurant a few blocks from the parliament. Even, in Switzerland’s seat of government, the mood is relaxed and friendly. Somehow, time seems to move a bit more slowly here.

    Getting around Bern (Illustration by Michael Heath)

    In fact, the idea of time moving at a different pace in Bern is really rather fitting, because it was here that Albert Einstein worked out that time is merely relative. While toiling away in a desk job in the local patent office, he also developed his Special Theory of Relativity. The modest apartment where he did it is now a museum. At the end of the street is the Zytglogge (Clock Tower), Bern’s magnificent medieval clock, from which the concept of time as something fixed and permanent Einstein’s new theory exploded.

    It was travelling home by tram, past the Zytglogge which gave him the idea. What if his tram could travel at the speed of light, he thought, overtaking a second tram, travelling at almost the same speed alongside it? By rights, the light from the second tram should travel more slowly, relative to his tram, just as a fast tram seems to move more slowly past a slow tram than a static one. But that wouldn’t work, he realised, because light always travels at the same speed. Therefore time would have to change. Without the Zytglogge, would Einstein have ever had this amazing brainwave?

    Bern’s Zythlogge inspired

    Despite all the trappings of a state capital, Bern has the friendly informality of a prosperous market town. With only 142,000 inhabitants it’s only the fourth biggest city in Switzerland, and its residents tend to be flattered rather than annoyed when foreigners make the frequent mistake of assuming the Swiss capital must be Zurich or Geneva.  For the Bernese, this is a compliment, not an insult. Compared to Zurich or Geneva, Bern is famously laid back.

    Bern’s Old Town is surrounded by the River Aare, which forms a virtual moat around the city. The water is so clean that swimming in the river, even in the city centre, is a favourite occupation in summertime. You need to be a strong swimmer, but if you are you’ll love it. Follow the crowds to the Marzilli and do what the locals do, and you’ll be perfectly safe.

    If you don’t fancy a dip, there are lots of place to work out, or unwind. For a game of boules or ping pong, head for the Minster Terrace, with its panoramic views. The Café Einstein, beneath the chestnut trees, is a splendid place to refuel. Café Fleuri, in the Botanic Gardens, is another leafy rendezvous.

    If you’re coming here with kids, make tracks for Gurten, the nearest mountain. At 860m, it’s small by Swiss standards, but there’s loads to do here – 20 free attractions, including a miniature railway, a rope walk and a toboggan run. The funicular is only 20 minutes by train from the central station.

    Bern is also a fantastic destination for fine art. Its artistic highlight is the Zentrum Paul Klee, a futuristic structure on the green edge of town, devoted to the Swiss-German artist who grew up in Bern. Built by Italian architect Renzo Piano, this vast wave of glass and metal is an artwork in its own right. It houses the world’s biggest Klee collection, and mounts big exhibitions by other artists.

    Since it opened in 2005, Renzo Piano’s dramatic building has rather overshadowed Bern’s more traditional Kunstmuseum, but now this gallery is back in the news thanks to a German art collector called Cornelius Gurlitt. Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand, was an art dealer during the Third Reich, and amassed a huge collection of modern art in very dubious circumstances. When he died, in 1956, his son inherited this illicit collection, which he kept hidden for over half a century in his flat in Munich.

    This priceless stash was finally discovered in 2010. The German authorities were still trying to establish the rightful provenance of these paintings when Gurlitt died, in 2014, and left them all to Bern’s Kunstmuseum. Why he left them to this museum is a mystery – he had no personal connection to it. Whatever the reason, his bequest has turned a very good collection into a great one.

    However the best thing about Bern is its chilled-out lifestyle. The handsome alleys of the Old Town are lined with six kilometres of sandstone colonnades (Lauben, the locals call them) filled with cafes, bars and restaurants. These Lauben have helped to give Bern’s Old Town the coveted status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and, more importantly for visitors, its lively year-round street life. And the ideal way to see them all is by bike. Just ask Ivo.

    Visit My Switzerland for more information.