Why you should care

It has medieval charm, a Disney-style heart and bears. 

The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.

“I never would have guessed it’s a capital,” says almost everyone when they visit Bern for the first time. Indeed, Switzerland’s capital seems like almost anything but — and that’s the charm. Built on top of a steep-sided peninsula on a small bend of the beautiful Aare River, Bern feels like a movie set, not the administrative heart of a country. With only 133,600 inhabitants and a medieval center that’s also a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site, it’s pretty darned quiet.

But even an adventurous soul sometimes longs for a safe haven — a place that imparts a warm, fuzzy, “nothing bad can happen here” feeling. That’s Bern. Like Disneyland without the lines and the wild-eyed, sugar-fueled kids. A city that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time and into an era when the world was safe and peaceful.

Among the city’s must-sees are the Zytglogge clock tower — the epitome of Swiss watchmaking skill — and the stunning Federal Assembly building, which, in addition to its being the center of Swiss democracy, is flanked by 26 fountains. Down the cobbled streets, tourists can explore miles of gray sandstone arcades, browse through cellar shops and visit subterranean bars. “It’s really small and walkable,” says tourist Manan Vohra, who grew up in New Delhi and now runs a user-experience design company in London. For its size, Bern offers a lot to see.

Bern’s most unusual attraction is a bear pit that dates back to the 16th century.

Like Albert Einstein’s flat. A mecca for science types, the house in which Einstein developed the theory of relativity in 1905 has been restored in the style of the period. History buffs might prefer the Bernese Historical Museum, which holds surprises like Bern’s “Silver Treasure” (a collection of precious objects from the 16th and 18th centuries), Egyptian coffins and a Native American peace pipe that once belonged to Hunkpapa Chief Sitting Bull. But Bern’s most unusual attraction is a bear pit that dates back to the 16th century. The city’s mascot is a bear — a fierce-looking one is featured on the city’s coat of arms. Though the original pit is now closed, Bern’s own family of five docile brown bears lives across the river in a spacious, sprawling park.

But what if your idea of a perfect holiday involves a vibrant cultural scene, exotic restaurants or happening nightlife on your holiday? Well, then, you might want to consider Barcelona instead. Bern is quiet and stuck in time; it doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of modern entertainment. And its residents aren’t particularly cosmopolitan, according to some: “It’s a very small town, so many people are not open to new things,” says Swiss journalist Monika Glausser, who lived in Bern for years.

Then again, maybe that conservative approach is what has preserved Switzerland’s capital from the relentless tide of globalization, pop music and fast food. The city’s river is so pristine that, come summertime, locals escape the heat by hopping in for a swim. Good luck trying to do that in Paris.

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