A quick quiz: What’s the capital of Switzerland? Zürich is the first city that comes to mind. But that’s not correct. Neither is Geneva, your second guess. After that, you’re not quite sure. Basel? Nope. Lucerne? No. It’s only after you give up that you realize it’s Bern.
Bern is—obviously—very under the radar. Switzerland’s fourth-largest city sits north of the Bernese Alps and slightly west of the center of the country. It was founded in 1191, joined the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1353, and became the Swiss capital in 1848. Except for a 1405 fire that destroyed most of the buildings and the occupation by French troops during the French Revolutionary Wars, the city has always been quiet and peaceful.
The medieval Old City, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has gray sandstone buildings, arcaded walkways, and cobblestone streets. The glacial Aare river circles the city center. While wood, stone, and iron bridges cross the river and lead to the leafy hills that surround the city. Add relaxed people and a high-quality of life to this gorgeous location, and Bern becomes a perfect day trip.
After arriving at the train station, your tour of the city starts in Bahnhofplatz, the plaza in front of it. See the Church of the Holy Ghost, Pfeiferbrunnen (the Bagpiper Fountain), and Käfigturm (the Prison Gate). Walk down Marktgasse, the Old City’s main street. It’s lined with colorful flags and allegorical statues. Stop in chocolate shops, avoid trams, and people watch along the way. Maybe even break for a fondue lunch.
After your meal, make your way to Zytglogge. The elaborate medieval clock tower, the city’s most-famous sight, has moving puppets. Continue to Einsteinhaus, Albert Einstein’s one-time home. Cross Nydeggbrücke, pausing on the bridge to watch the rushing river. Visit Bärengraben (the Bear Pit), where the city’s mascots live. Take in the view from the Cathedral of Bern’s tower. And end your tour at Bundeshaus (Swiss Parliament).
Your plan was to return to Bahnhofplatz and board a train late in the afternoon. But as you’re walking in that direction, you have a change of heart. You detour to Schweizerhof, a grand hotel across from the station. If the staff is surprised by your lack of luggage, they hide it well. They describe your recently renovated room, the relaxing spa, and the amazing Wiener Schnitzel at Jack’s Brasserie. But you tune out when the Sky Terrace is mentioned. A glass of Swiss wine and a bird’s-eye view of Bern with the alps in the distance sound like the perfect way to end this enchanting day.