I’m nosing around Albert Einstein’s old apartment, in the historic heart of Bern, when I have a remarkable eureka moment, a bit like Archimedes in his bath. In this humdrum flat, now converted into a small museum, Einstein came up with his theory of special relativity, which transformed our idea of time and space. Until today I’d never been able to make head nor tail of it. But here in the room where he conducted his famous thought experiments, this mindboggling concept suddenly makes perfect sense.
The year was 1905. Einstein was living here with his wife Mileva and their son Hans. He had a day job at the local patent office. He gave maths lessons to make ends meet. Each morning he took the tram to work, and during the journey he began to wonder: what if this tram could travel at half the speed of light? If it could then, relatively speaking, wouldn’t a light beam travelling in the same direction only be moving half as fast? No, that could never happen, because the speed of light is always constant. That left only one solution: time itself would have to change.
Einstein and the magical clock
A century since Einstein lived here, this busy street, the Kramgasse, still looks much the same. The architecture is identical. The modern shops and offices are concealed beneath the colonnades. At the end of this cobbled boulevard is the Zytglogge, an old clocktower which houses an intricate, gigantic clock – constructed 500 years ago and still keeping perfect time. Einstein used to pass this clock every day on his way to work. He could see it from his bedroom window. It was this conception of time – unbending, irrefutable – which he overturned.
The Zytglogge doesn’t just tell the time: it charts the passage of the planets and calculates the phases of the moon. On my previous visits, I’d only ever seen it from the outside – but this time my guide, Thomas Meyer, got a key from the tourist office, and together we climbed the narrow staircase to the room where the mechanism is housed. A complex network of cogwheels and levers, it’s a masterpiece of medieval engineering. Five hundred years ago, it must have seemed miraculous. It still seems magical today.
From the top of the clocktower you get a great view across the city. Clustered on a steep hill, almost encircled by the River Aare, you can see why Bern prospered during the Middle Ages, when cities were built to repel invading armies. The river forms a natural moat, the hilltop is a natural battlement and the clocktower is a remnant of the medieval city wall.
A picturesque metropolis in miniature
I’d been to Bern a few times before, but these were flying visits. During lockdown, I wrote a list of all the places I wanted to revisit when the pandemic abated, and Bern was one of the first places on my list. Maybe you did something similar, but I’d be surprised if Bern was on your wish list. It’s not a place that Britons tend to think about.
Even here in Switzerland, Bern generally plays second (or third or fourth) fiddle to Zurich, Basel and Geneva. The irony is, despite its compact size and sleepy reputation (the Bernese are widely regarded as slow and ponderous), Bern is Switzerland’s capital. I used to think this was absurd: surely Zurich would be a better bet? But after a few days here I realised it’s actually a fine idea.
Britons understand that having your biggest city as your capital is a mixed blessing. Logistically it makes good sense, but it sucks everything into one place and causes endless resentment. Switzerland doesn’t have that problem. Zurich, Basel and Geneva are all much bigger, but Bern is a metropolis in miniature – a capital on a human scale.
Its biggest attraction is the Altstadt (old town), a perfectly preserved medieval city that’s almost ridiculously picturesque. You’d think a place this pretty would be besieged by coach parties, but there’s only a manageable trickle of tourists. Why do the big tour groups stay away? The main reason is getting here. Bern’s airport is tiny, with only a handful of connections – none to Britain. In fact, Bern is fairly accessible – there are frequent trains to Zurich Airport, and the journey only takes about 80 minutes – but that extra time and trouble keeps the crowds away.
And a jolly good thing too, I say. If Bern was any easier to get to, it’d probably be swamped with sightseers. As it is, most folk in the bars and cafes are locals rather than visitors, so you still feel like a traveller here, rather than just another tourist passing through. Despite its architectural beauty, Bern will never become a touristic theme park, and it’s all the better for it. It’s a place where people live and work, rather than somewhere for taking selfies.
Another thing that keeps the crowds away is the superhuman strength of the Swiss franc. There’s no point denying it: Switzerland is expensive, but that’s mainly because of the exchange rate. On my first trip to Switzerland, in the Eighties, a pound bought three Swiss Francs – now it buys you 1.1. Unless your pockets are a lot deeper than mine, you’ll need to count the pennies.
But although the prices are pretty steep, Bern isn’t remotely blingy. It’s a down-to-earth place, and its inhabitants live fairly simply on the whole. Do what they do, and live like a local: eat your lunch in the street market (situated, rather incongruously, right beside the grandiose state parliament), and travel by bus and tram rather than by taxi. Granted, you’ll pay London prices (maybe even more) for a meal, a beer or a coffee, but you won’t spend a penny getting around. The Altstadt is all walkable, and any hotel stay includes free public transport for the duration of your visit.
So what to see and do? Last time I was here, I went hiking in the hills (Gurten is the best starting point; see gurtenpark.ch for details). This time, I wandered around a few of Bern’s excellent museums, starting at the Kunstmuseum, its palatial art gallery (kunstmuseumbern.ch) and finishing at the Bernisches Historisches Museum (bhm.ch).
This monumental museum charts Bern’s development, from the Middle Ages to today. There’s some fascinating stuff about Mussolini’s time in Bern – he came here to avoid national service, worked as a stonemason, tried to organise a strike, was imprisoned and then deported – but the highlight for me was the section about Einstein. Far more detailed than the modest display in his apartment, it takes you right inside Einstein’s early years in Bern.
On my last evening, I met up with Diccon Bewes, bestselling author of numerous books about Switzerland. What he doesn’t know about Switzerland probably isn’t worth knowing, but he’s British, born and bred, and only moved here in 2005 to live with his Bernese partner. He’s lived in Bern ever since, and he’s never been tempted to relocate to one of Switzerland’s bigger cities.
“What’s the attraction?” I ask him, over a drink in the Bärenplatz, Bern’s bustling central square. “Bern is a small city that knows it’s a small city and plays to its strengths,” he tells me. “Most of the city centre is pedestrianised, which I love – you can walk everywhere. What I appreciate, compared to London, is the lack of noise. Nobody’s in a rush to go anywhere.” And after a few days here, nor am I. Sure, the pace is a bit slower than most capitals, but it soon begins to grow on you.
Next morning I left for London, feeling rather envious of Diccon Bewes, and on the plane home I ended up wondering whether we ought to move our capital to somewhere smaller like York or Winchester – both of which were capital cities, once upon a time. It seems to work for Switzerland. Maybe that’s just what Britain needs to get ‘levelling up’ back on track.
How to get there
By far the easiest way to get to Bern is by plane to Zurich, and then by train. Swiss (swiss.com) flies to Zurich from Heathrow, London City and Manchester; British Airways (ba.com) from Heathrow and London City; easyJet (easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Luton.
There are direct trains from Zurich Airport to Bern every half an hour, from CHF 19.60 (£17.80) each way. For times and prices visit sbb.ch.
Where to eat
Eating out in Bern isn’t cheap, but there are some good restaurants where you can get a hearty meal, a few drinks and change out of CHF 50 (£45). Try the fondue at Restaurant Harmonie (harmonie.ch), a quaint traditional venue around the corner from the Zytglogge and Einstein’s favourite, apparently. Look out for the charming Swiss landscape paintings around the walls.
If you fancy somewhere grander, head for the Kornhauskeller (kornhauskeller.ch), an ornate restaurant in a vaulted cellar beneath Bern’s vibrant Kornhausplatz. The rösti with egg, cheese and bacon may be the most filling thing I’ve ever eaten.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Savoy (hotelsavoy-bern.ch), a functional four-star hotel on one of Bern’s colonnaded boulevards. The modern décor is a bit anonymous, but the rooms are light and airy, and the staff very friendly. The surrounding streets are lively and attractive, and the train station is only a short walk away. Doubles from CHF 200 (£181) per night, without breakfast. For more ideas on where to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in Switzerland.