The charm of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, hits you almost immediately upon arrival. Built on top of a steep-sided peninsula in a small bend of the glacier-fed Aare River, the city’s narrow cobbled streets, framed by gray sandstone arcades and oriel windows, have changed little in hundreds of years.
I start my visit by taking the tram to the elevated rose garden, most notable for its abundance of blossoms. Home to countless rose, iris, and rhododendron varieties, as well as an enchanting water lily pond, the major draw is the unobstructed view of the Old Town and Aare Loop, which extends far beyond the city to the Bernese Alps when the weather is clear.
On my way back into town, I pass Albert Einstein sitting on a bench (not the real one, of course). The famous scientist lived in Bern only from 1903 to 1905, yet it was here that he developed his theory of relativity, which turned the world of physics upside down. The small apartment at Kramgasse 49, where he resided with his wife Mileva and young son Hans, is open to the public.
The second-floor residence, consisting of only two rooms, features original furnishings owned by Einstein, not all from his time in Bern, as well as photographs and a small exhibition. Just like many Bernese during that time, the Einsteins had to share a kitchen and bathroom with another family.
Only 650 feet from the Einstein House stands Bern’s landmark: the Zytglogge. The Clock Tower was the first western gate of the city and, and its famous astronomical calendar clock built in 1530, is one of the city’s main attractions and the oldest clock in Switzerland. Inside, I marvel at the hour chimes, the two tower clocks, the mechanical figures, and the astronomical clock, which are all driven by a common mechanism.
In Switzerland, Bernese people have a reputation for being clumsy and slow, just like the black bear on the city’s coat of arms, but as city guide Margarete Schaller is quick to point out, “The rotating bears on the Zytglogge are not slow at all.”
Everything is really close to each other in the Swiss capital, a city with around 140,000 inhabitants, and only a 10-minute walk further stands the Kunstmuseum (Museum of Fine Arts) Bern, which happens to be the oldest art museum in Switzerland with a permanent collection.
A Bernese Platter
Arguably one of the most beautiful places for dinner in Bern is the basement of the Kornhaus (Granary), considered an outstanding example of High Baroque style. Sitting underneath towering sandstone arches and ceiling frescoes depicting mythological figures and people in traditional clothing, it’s hard to focus on my food and the delicious Pinot Noir from the region.
My main course, the Berner Platte (“Bernese platter”), is a feast of ham, bacon, spare ribs, pork knuckle, marrow bone, sauerkraut, beans, and potatoes. The dish dates from March 5, 1798, when the Bernese defeated the French army at Neuenegg and, to celebrate, held a great banquet. Everyone brought whatever they could find—and the Berner Platte was born. Granted, it is an acquired taste as the meal is without any sauce and therefore quite dry, but the heroic story behind it wins me over.
It’s impossible to walk through the city and not take note of the over 100 fountains, which are adorned with colorful figures, skillfully crafted pillars, and detailed decorations. They used to be the place where people met up, chatted, exchanged news, settled disputes, discussed politics, and made deals.
Women carried large copper pots to the fountains to fetch water for household use, water carriers filled their containers and brought them to people’s homes for a small fee, and wagoners came to water their horses. The lower, smaller basins were built specifically for animals at a time when cows and horses were led through the streets and alleys of Bern.
Be it fountains, cisterns, the subterranean stream, or the Aare River, water is omnipresent here. During summer, thousands of locals and visitors jump into the milky glacial-melt river (the water is usually about 70 F), and float down to one of the handy exits marked by red bars. Some Bernese even commute to work by swimming with their belongings tightly wrapped in a waterproof “Aare bag.”
It’s not quite the season for me to follow suit, but I try some fresh water out of a fountain. When I look up, a rather grim-looking figure stares down at me—the Kindlifresserbrunnen.
“Nobody knows why the ogre is eating a baby, but it is a common belief that the monster was meant to scare naughty children into behaving,” says local resident Ursula Arreger.
I wonder if the little ones simply couldn’t resist the sweet temptations all over Bern. In 1879, chocolate history was made here when Rudolf Lindt, the son of an apothecary, developed the conching process, creating the melt-in-your-mouth chocolate we love today.
Covered in chocolate are the delicate and rich Kambly cookies, which have been produced in the small village of Trubschachen, half an hour by train outside of Bern, for over 100 years. The recipes are true to the original and the butter still comes from the village, just like in old times. But the best thing might be the fact that every single product in the factory store is free for tasting before purchase.
“On really busy days, we give out nearly 900 pounds of cookies,” says staff member Esther Brunn with a laugh, as we make chocolate together.
As Einstein proved, time is relative, but it certainly does not stand still. Before I know it, my chocolate has settled, cooled, and is ready for packing. On my way out, I cruise the aisles and munch on more samples than I want to admit before purchasing a bag of chocolate meringue truffles. At CHF10.50 ($10.75) it’s not exactly cheap, but the train ride to the airport has just become so much sweeter.
Wibke Carter is a travel writer who hails from Germany. She has lived in New Zealand and New York, and presently enjoys life in London. Her website is WibkeCarter.com.
The author was a guest of Bern Welcome and Switzerland Tourism.