48 hours in: Bern
Einstein made his greatest discoveries in the Swiss capital – yet you need not be a genius to work out that the stunning city makes an ideal weekend escape, with the prospect of good skiing nearby. Simon Calder reports
Why go now?
The beautiful Swiss capital is emerging from the dark days of winter and later this month, Bern gets more accessible when flights from London City airport are restored. And at the excellent collection of winter-sports resorts close to the city, the ski season is set to continue for a good few weeks.
By air, the best gateway at present is Basel, served from a range of UK airports by Swiss, British Airways and easyJet; take bus 50 (15 minutes) to Basel SBB station, and Bern station is less than an hour away. But from March 27, Skywork (flyskywork.com) starts flying from London City to Bern Belp airport daily except Saturday, with fares from €59 each way — though most fares are €109 and up. Every hour or so, AirportBus 334 covers the 9km to the station in 22 minutes. This is the location for the main Tourist Center (00 41 31 328 12 12; berninfo.com), which opens 9am-7pm (Sundays to 6pm).
The part of Bern where tourists spend most time is the tongue of land formed by a loop in the Aare river. The Old Town comprises one of the most architecturally rich city centres in Europe, and has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1983. At the centre is the Zytglogge, the tower bearing an implausibly large clock.
Staying in the Old Town is strongly recommended. Zeughausgasse has the most choice, with the stylish, three-star Hotel Kreuz Bern on the corner with Bärenplatz (00 41 31 329 95 95; kreuzbern.ch; doubles with breakfast Sfr280/£186).
The architecturally assertive Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) Hotelbern at the other end of the street has one extra star, but similar prices (00 41 31 329 22 22; hotelbern.ch).
Budget city-centre accommodation takes the form of the clean and cheerful Backpackers Bern at Rathausgasse 75 (00 41 31 311 3771; bernbackpackers.ch), where a bed in a dorm costs Sfr34 (£23) and a private room for two is Sfr86 (£57), excluding breakfast but including free Wi-Fi. Rates will increase to Sfr35 and Sfr94 in May.
Take a view
Switzerland's largest medieval place of worship is the Münster, an elegant study in sandstone whose panoply of elaborate sculptures is presently being restored. Nevertheless the jostle of figures in the Last Judgement sculpture above the west door is still visible, and the stone steps up the tower are open for visitors. The reward for your efforts is a 360-degree view of the city — which, even from on high, resembles a pretty provincial town much more than a capital — and the mountains beyond. Open 11.30am-4.30pm on Saturdays, reduced hours on other days, Sfr5 (£3.30).
Take a hike
From the Münster, take a sharp left turn across the open ‘cathedral platform’ to the lift, known as the Senkeltram in the corner. Pay the fare of Sfr1.20 (80p) to the attendant and descend to river level.
Turn left and wander along Schifflaube and Gerberngasse, where you will feel you have strayed into a peaceful village. Just before Nydeggbrücke, clamber up the enclosed wooden staircase to road level and head west, back into the centre of town. You will pass some of Bern's 11 elaborate renaissance fountains on your way to the Zytglogge.
Lunch on the run
The most intriguing place to lunch is in the Café Littéraire on the second floor of the Stauffacher Bookshop at Neuengasse 25, where soup, salad and coffee tastes all the better for the serene, sophisticated surroundings. On a sunny day, sit outside at roof level.
From the outside, the Bern Historical Museum at Helvetiaplatz looks a fustily earnest sort of place; once you pay the Sfr14 (£9) admission (00 41 31 350 7711; bhm.ch/en; 10am-5pm daily except Monday), you step into Albert Einstein's universe. In 1905, while the physicist was working in the Patent Office in Bern, he experienced his ‘wonder year’ in which he formulated his theory of Special Relativity. Even for non-scientists, the museum proves relatively fascinating, adding dimensions to Einstein as an individual and explaining the stresses of early 20th-century Europe.
To see how gravity works in the heart of Europe, cross the platz to the Swiss Alpine Museum(00 41 31 350 04 40; alpinesmuseum.ch; 10am-5.30pm Thurs-Sun, 2-5.30pm Mon; Sfr12/£8). The current exhibition of vintage photography (to September this year) provides a valuable taster for anyone planning to ski.
Dining with the locals
For an aperitif, aim for a convivial bar called Lirum Larum at Kramgasse 19a. The house cocktail is called TGV, because it is a combination of tequila, gin and vodka (SFr12/£8); there is a limit of two per person. If your appetite is suitably sharpened, try the Spezialtoast with Swiss ham, Vacherin cheese and garlic (Sfr9.80/£6.50)
The Kornhauskeller at Kornhausplatz 18 (00 41 31 327 7272) is one Bern experience you have to sample. It occupies a subterranean chamber beneath the former city granary, with soaring columns that make you feel as though you are dining in a cathedral; climb to the gallery and it looks positively theatrical. The speciality is Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce, for Sfr55 (£38) per person with a minimum of two sharing.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
The Sabbath is the perfect day to explore the handsome townhouses and impressive public buildings of the largely 16th-century Old Town, with hardly any traffic to impede your meanderings on the cobbled streets and alleyways.
Look out for the intriguing shops, galleries and workshops that occupy the cellars whose doors open up to the streets.
Having worked up an appetite for a Swiss speciality, head for Arlequin, close to the Münster at Gerechtigkeitsgasse 51 (00 31 311 3946). It serves fondue from 11am on Sundays; price Sfr23.50 (£15.70) per person, with a minimum of two sharing.
A walk in the park
For a very different perspective on Bern, cross the Kirchenfeldbrücke and turn left to follow the bank of the Aare through steeply-terraced woodland that emphasises Bern's difference from other European capitals. Stay high for great views over the Old Town; when the river curls around to head north, you find yourself at the controversial home of the city's mascot, the bear, moved from the former bear pit to more spacious premises — the BärenPark, a bear park occupying a slab of the river bank. For most of the day the residents keep themselves hidden, so make do with beefing up on the beasts from the information boards.
Take a ride
From the stop adjacent to the bear pit, trolleybus 12 runs as frequently as every six minutes to its terminus south-east of the city centre, adjacent to the Zentrum Paul Klee (00 41 31 359 0101; zpk.org; 10am-5pm daily except Monday). It celebrates the artist who was born just outside the city in 1879. But the real work of art is Renzo Piano's miraculous ripples of glass and steel that transcend the adjoining motorway. The exhibits are constantly changing, so you may make do with exploring the building rather than investing Sfr22 (£14.50) in visiting the galleries.
Within an hour of the city are four resorts which between them cover the entire range of Swiss skiing. Adelboden (adelboden.ch) is 60km away, in the middle of the pristine Bernese Oberland. It has 56 lifts, 185km of pistes and very little nightlife, making it perfect for families.
Grindelwald (myjungfrau.ch) is also 60km away. Here, there are three ski areas to explore, with the Kleine Scheidegg at the foot of the Eiger the most popular.
Little Wengen (wengen.com) is next door and shares the same ski area. With its car-free streets, mountain railways and sweeping views of the north face of the Eiger, it is the archetype of Swiss ski resort beauty.
If the resulting crowds get too much, take the train to ski at nearby Mürren (muerren.ch) which, if anything, is even more picturesque and isolated. Lunch at the Piz Gloria restaurant, a location for the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Cast the net a little wider and you'll have the opportunity to ski two of Switzerland's iconic resorts, Engelberg and Verbier. Engelberg (engelberg.com) is one of Europe's finest, with a great party town complemented by a serious mountain. The Titlis Rotair tops out at 3,020 metres and accesses some formidable powder skiing terrain.
Over the valley, the mellower Brunni area is better for beginners and intermediates.
Verbier (verbier.ch) is one of the country's heavy-hitters, in terms of the terrain, the town and, unfortunately, the prices. The three main ski areas (Verbier/Mont Fort, Savoleyres and Bruson) have some of the finest skiing in Europe. It is popular with expert skiers and snowboarders for two reasons — it is very high and there are lots of accessible runs, faces, drops and couloirs to investigate. Beginners and intermediates shouldn't be put off though: Savoleyres has plenty of well-groomed pistes to keep them occupied.