In Bern, Switzerland, time well spent

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Rooftops in Bern, Switzerland’s Old Town.
Rooftops in Bern, Switzerland’s Old Town.

Somewhere in the world there is likely a grander restaurant hall than Kornhaus in Bern, Switzerland's Old Town, but I haven't seen it yet.

The cavernous dining room, which in its earliest incarnation 300 years ago functioned as a wine cellar, lies some two floors below street level. Two levels above the street is the restaurant's baroque-style ceiling; divided by a dozen columns, draped with chandeliers and adorned with century-old paintings of folklore and traditional Bernese culture.

If Switzerland had a king, Kornhaus would be a site fit for a royal feast.

Impressive though it is, this one-time granary is just one of the many charms of Bern, the Swiss capital that visitors often overlook as they make haste for the ski resorts of the Alps or the famed regions that surround lakes Geneva and Lucerne.

The city's heart is its Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site that has remained largely intact since Bern's last great fire in 1405. Walkable and compact, Old Town occupies a hilly peninsula that rises above the clean waters of the Aare River. Its medieval-era streets are closed to most traffic. An ancient clock tower announces the time. Switzerland's largest church bell is rung daily. Families still fill water jugs from 11 different 16th century fountains. And shoppers check out the chocolatiers and boutiques in comfort thanks to four miles of covered promenades. 

An aerial view of Bern, Switzerland.
An aerial view of Bern, Switzerland.

During my two days in Bern last June, the weather was cool and dry, perfect for walking around. A highlight of the guided Old Town stroll I took with Bern City Tours was the Clock Tower. Situated 78 feet above the street, the clock has kept time continuously since it was first wound in 1530 — its ingenious iron clockwork powered by a pendulum that swings 1,190 times per hour. So impressed was I by this example of 16th century technology that upon exiting the tower, I found myself making a beeline for the watch shop across the street. 

Bern offers visitors far more than its medieval roots, though. It was in a small flat in Old Town that Albert Einstein developed his special theory of relativity during the first decade of the 20th century. Today, that flat is among Bern's impressive collection of museums.

A more modern Bernese museum is the Zentrum Paul Klee, which opened in 2005 in the city's eastern suburbs. It houses more than 4,000 of the early-20th century Swiss-German artist's works, amounting to more than 40% of his total output.

Among Bern's top hotels is the 99-room Schweizerhof, where I stayed during my visit. The hotel's 100-year-old building underwent extensive remodeling between 2009 and 2011. The Schweizerhof is one of 38 properties in the Swiss Deluxe Hotels network of independent luxury lodges.

It, like the rest of Bern, is a convenient jumping-off point for Switzerland's many attractions.

The Alps, Zurich, Lucerne and the cheese-making country of French-speaking Switzerland are all within an hour's train ride. Lake Geneva is about 90 minutes away.

Visit www.bern.com/en.

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