Bern is Switzerland’s picturesque capital. A fascinating town, with a perfectly intact Old Town, Bern was designated a UNESCO landmark in 1983. But far from resting on its laurels, this city has become an insider tip for the hip: interesting bars, cutting-edge boutiques and a myriad of independent performance spaces are just as much part of the picture as are the traditional bears, fountains and flowers.

Visitors coming by train will land in one of Switzerland’s most vibrant and modern train stations. It belies the historic city that lies above. Founded in 1191 by Duke Berchtold V of Zaehringen, Bern has kept its medieval demeanor: massive stone houses huddled together are alternated by wide boulevards complete with intricately painted fountains which give an inkling of the importance this town enjoyed when it was still part of Burgundy.

The homogenous cityscape is not accidental: strict building codes demand that each renovated building reflect the historical character of the city. And yet variety abounds at eye level: one of the special characteristics of Bern are the arched eaves which cover 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of sidewalk making for a pleasant shopping experience even in inclement weather. Shopping in Bern is quite unique: high-end design permeates everything, from jewelry to pasta, from toys to furniture.

Despite the slightly austere and Germanic aspect that the city might exude at first encounter, there is plenty of evidence of Gallic levity: the local aristocracy of yore prided themselves in speaking French amongst themselves. This lightness can also be seen in the charming market which takes place once a week: brightly colored flowers stand next to big wheels of cheese, farm women mix with their urban counterparts, luminous greens of produce are offset by richly hued fruit.

The one annual event not to be missed is the “Zibelemaerit” or Onion Market, always held in November. The entire town becomes engulfed in stands that sell pleats of onions, candy shaped like onions, and foods made of onion. Jesters dressed as onions entertain passers-by. Fifes and drums complete the picture.

Bern’s emblem sports a bear, which has become the symbol for this city which is nestled in a loop made by the Aare River. This is why one of the sights to behold are the Bear Pits where live bears are kept. Apparently, the founder of the city, Duke Berchtold V had hunted bears in the forests spread along the Aare. A bear walking from left to right in an upward motion has been in the Bernese emblem since 1224.

One of Bern’s most impressive buildings is the Bern Cathedral, one of Switzerland’s most beautiful sacred buildings. The Cathedral was begun in 1421 on a cliff high above the Aare. Its graceful spires can be seen from far off, a true beacon for this once so powerful city whose influence stretched from Argovia all the way down to Lake Geneva. In 1405 there was a fire which engulfed the greater part of the wooden houses. The city was rebuilt in solid stone shortly thereafter. Another impressive building from this period is the Town Hall, an exemplary Gothic building.

But history has not stood still in this town: a selection of museums proves this. There is the Fine Art Museum of Bern, with its extensive Paul Klee collection (the painter spent his youth in Bern), the Swiss Alpine Museum, the Historical Museum of Bern, the Postal Museum and the Albert Einstein House (Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity in Bern). The Italian architect Renzo Piano is commissioned to build a separate museum that will house the Paul Klee collection. This building is scheduled to be finished by 2006.