Of all Swiss cities, Bern is perhaps the most immediately charming. 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 barely changed in over five hundred years. 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 is the nation's capital, home of the Swiss parliament and wielder of final federal authority.
For all its political status, Bern is a tiny city of under 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. The most hectic shopping goes on in the western half of the Old Town, on Marktgasse and Spitalgasse in particular; the older, eastern half is slower-paced. However, not for nothing does the tourist office tout the famous arcades, lining both sides of every street in the Old Town, as being "the longest covered shopping promenade in the world". In a strange turnaround of expectations, it's when you walk under the crowded arcades that you get a full-on blast of modern consumerism, with music, shop windows and advertising vying for your attention. Step a few metres to the side to walk in the open air and – with a little imagination – it's easy to picture yourself in the Bern of the sixteenth century. In a competition for the world's most beautiful and relaxing capital city, it's hard to think where could knock Bern into second place.