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The city of Bern is the "Bundesstadt" (capital) of Switzerland, and is the fourth most populous Swiss city (after Geneva and Basel). For all its political status, Bern is a tiny city of barely 130,000 people and retains a small town’s easy approach to life. The attraction of the place is its ambience; traffic is kept out of the Old Town and you could spend days just wandering the streets and alleys, café-hopping and – if it’s warm – joining the locals for a plunge into the river. The perfectly preserved medieval street plan, with its arcades, street fountains and doughty towers persuaded UNESCO to deem Bern a World Heritage Site, placing it in the company of such legendary sites as Florence, Petra and the Taj Mahal. In a competition for the world’s most beautiful and relaxing capital city, it’s hard to think what could knock Bern into second place. 

Duke Berthold V founded the city on the River Aare in 1191 and allegedly named it after a bear he had killed. It was made a Imperial Free City by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1218 after Berthold died without an heir. In 1353 Bern joined the young Swiss Confederation, becoming a leading member of the new state. It invaded and conquered Aargau in 1415 and Vaud in 1536, as well as other smaller territories, becoming the largest city-state north of the Alps. It was occupied by French troops in 1798 during the French Revolutionary Wars, and was stripped of most of its territories. In 1831 the city became the capital of the canton Bern and in 1848 it additionally became the Swiss capital.  

The city grew out of the peninsula on the River Aare towards the west. The Zytglogge tower was on the western boundary of the city from 1191 until 1256, then the Kogturm took this role until 1345 and was then succeeded by the Christoffelturm (close to today's train station) until 1622. During the time of the Thirty Years War two new fortifications, the so-called big and small Schanze (entrenchment), were built that protected the whole area of the peninsula. The area protected by these edifices was sufficient for the growth of Bern up to the 19th century.  

Bern is is perhaps the most immediately charming of all Swiss cities. Crammed onto a steep-sided peninsula in a crook of the fast-flowing River Aare, its quiet, cobbled lanes, lined with sandstone arcaded buildings straddling the pavement, have changed barely at all in over five hundred years but for the adornment of modern shop signs and the odd car or tram rattling past. The hills all around, and the steep banks of the river, are still liberally wooded. Views, both of the Old Town’s clustered roofs and of the majestic Alps on the horizon, are breathtaking. Coming from Zürich or Geneva, it’s hard to remember that Bern – once voted Europe’s most floral city – is the nation’s capital, home of the Swiss parliament and wielder of final federal authority. 

Illustrious Bernese include the scientist Albrecht von Haller, the poet Albert Bitzius and the painters Ferdinand Hodler and Paul Klee. The German-born physicist Albert Einstein worked out his theory of relativity while employed as a clerk at the Bern patent office.

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