The federal capital and centre of political power, if not always of political influence, Bern, like Geneva, is full of foreign envoys, endowing the place with both a cosmopolitan atmosphere and a high cost of living. The compact, picturesque streets of its centre have preserved a great deal of their medieval feel, and lying roughly midway on the fast route between French-speaking Geneva to the west and the more urbane charm of Zürich to the east, it makes an easy stopoff.
Despite the present-day tranquillity of the capital, the ancestors of the Bernese were surprisingly bellicose. Founded in 1191 by powerful local family the Zähringens, Bern began life as a fortress town peopled with a colony of knights. This community of ambitious soldier-aristocrats developed a dynamic of outward expansion, and the growth of the Swiss confederation in subsequent centuries owed a great deal to the westward conquests of the warlike Bernese.
A historic pile of sandstone on a bend in the River Aare, Bern's ancient heart is best explored from Spitalgasse, the main street, which becomes Marktgasse, Kramgasse, then Gerechtigkeitsgasse, lined with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses, fountains and arcaded shops. A couple of hundred metres down, it crosses Bärenplatz, site of much outdoor daytime drinking and a vibrant Saturday morning market, to the right of which is the Bundeshaus or federal parliament building, a domed neo-Renaissance edifice. Beyond Bärenplatz, Marktgasse continues through the oft-rebuilt Käfigturm (prisoner's tower), originally marking the western entrance to the thirteenth-century town, to an eleventh-century town gate, converted in the sixteenth century into the Zeitglockenturm - a clocktower adorned with brightly coloured figures which judder into movement four minutes before each hour. To the left, in Kornhausplatz, is the most renowned of Bern's many fountains, the Kindlifresserbrunnen, above which a child is swallowed whole by an ogre-like form. Further along the main street, the Albert-Einstein-Haus, Kramgasse 49 (Feb-Nov Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-4pm; Sfr2), preserves the study occupied by the famous physicist for two short but productive years from 1903. Münstergasse, one block south, leads to the Münster (Mon-Sat 10am-noon & 2-5pm, Sun 11am-noon & 2-5pm), a fifteenth-century Gothic structure noted for the magnificently gilded high-relief Last Judgement above the main entrance; its tower (Mon-Sat 10-11.30am & 2-4.30pm, Sun 11-11.30am & 2-4.30pm; Sfr3) is the highest in the country and offers marvellous views of the city and, on a clear day, the mountains of the Bernese Oberland in the distance. The Plattform, a leafy square behind, is set high above the river and looks back on to the facade of the old city. At the eastern end of the city centre, the Nydeggbrücke crosses the Aare to the Bärengraben, Bern's famed bear pits - basically stone pits with live bears in them. Legend has it that the town's founder Berchtold V of Zähringen named Bern after killing one of the beasts during a hunt, and the animal has understandably remained a symbol of the town ever since. Representatives of the species have been confined to the pits here since the fifteenth century. The Rosengarten, up the hill on the opposite side of the road to the bear pits, offers the best view of the city.
Bern's Kunstmuseum, Hodlerstrasse 8-12 (Tues 10am-9pm, Wed-Sun 10am-5pm; Sfr6), is another comprehensive collection of art, spanning everything from Fra Angelico to works by Matisse, Léger, Kandinsky, Braque and Picasso. Whole rooms are devoted to Paul Klee, who was born in Bern and, after spending most of his career in Germany, returned here after the rise of Nazism. The museums grouped around Helvetiaplatz on the south side of the Aare are less interesting, with the exception of the Swiss Alpine Museum at no. 4 (Mon 2-5pm, Tues-Sun 10am-noon & 2-5pm; Sfr5), whose archetypal images of folk culture, tourism and ecology are put into perspective. A couple of dozen immaculately executed relief sculptures give you a fix on resort locations and help illustrate the work of the early nineteenth-cntury glacier researchers who devised Ice Age Theory. The Historisches Museum across the square (Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; Sfr5) is good on Switzerland's prehistory, as well as displaying some fine-late medieval Flemish tapestries. The Naturhistorisches Museum immediately behind, at Bernastrasse 15 (Mon 2-5pm, Tues-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 10am-5pm; Sfr3), has a notable selection of stuffed African animals, and can be relied upon to include something on the subject of bears, as well as Barry, the St Bernard credited with saving over forty lives. The other building on Helvetiaplatz, the Kunsthalle (Tues 10am-9pm, Wed-Sun 10am-5pm; Sfr6), is the site of big contemporary art exhibitions.
Bern's main train station is at the western end of the old centre; cross Bahnhofplatz and turn left into Spitalgasse. The tourist office is in the station (June-Sept daily 9am-8.30pm; Oct-May Mon-Sat 9am-6.30pm, Sun 10am-5pm). There's a youth hostel at Weihergasse 4 (031/311 63 16; $16-24), just below the Bundeshaus. Other cheap accommodation options include the hotel Marthahaus, Wyttenbachstrasse 22a (031/332 41 35; $40-48; bus #20), over the Lorrainebrücke from the Bahnhof, and the National, Hirschengraben 24 (031/25 19 88; $32-40), south of the station. The most convenient campsite is Eichholz, Stadzentrum (May-Sept; 031/381 19 88; $48-56), a fifteen-minute #9 tram ride towards Warbern. Alternatively, take the PTT bus #3 or #4 to Wohlen and try Camping Eqmatt, Wohenstrasse (031/901 15 01), open all year round. Bern has no shortage of good bars and cafés, and the most obvious place to start is around Barenplatz, where outdoor seating allows you to watch the world go by or to play a game of chess with giant chess pieces under the trees. Lorenzini, on the Theaterplatz, is a chic and lively bar, but their Italian restaurant upstairs is far too overpriced. Diagonal, at Amthaugasse, is similar but smaller, more relaxed and intimate. It does, however, tend to get more hectic as the evening progresses. The self-service buffet in the station is a good stand-by, with tasty curries from Sfr10, and the local branch of Manora, Budenbergplatz 5a, has filling wholefood dishes. The Klötzlikeller, Gerechtigkeitsgasse 62, offers moderately priced food in a wine-cellar atmosphere, as does the converted granary, the Kornhauskeller at Kornhausplatz 18.
Details of the city's cultural calendar appear in Berner Agenda, free with the local daily Berner Zeitung every Thursday, and in Bern Akteuell, a fortnightly publication available free from the tourist office. ISC, Neubruckstrasse 10, is a small gig venue primarily for students, with discos on Fridays and Saturdays; likewise Bierhübeli, Neubruckstrasse 43.