As the Swiss capital, Bern, with a relatively small population of only 130,000, is an important city of diplomats and the site of many international organizations and meetings. It's one of the oldest cities in Europe, with origins going back to the 12th century. Since much of its medieval architecture remains today, Bern evokes the feeling of a large provincial town rather than a city. In 1983, the United Nations declared it a World Heritage Site.
Over the years, the city landscape has been praised by many famous visitors, including Horace Walpole, who called it "the most Faire city." Dorothy, sister of William Wordsworth, gushed, "There is a beautiful order, a solidity, a gravity in this city, which strikes one at first sight and then never loses its effect."
The modern mingles harmoniously with the old in this charming city, and in recent years residents have discreetly added contemporary-style homes and structures to the historic environment. Such coexistence between the old and new is also evident in Bern's university, known equally for traditional studies and pioneering scientific research.
Bern joined the Swiss Confederation in 1353. In 1848, it became the seat of the federal government. The city stands on a thumb of land that's bordered on three sides by the Aare River, hence the several bridges connecting various sections of the city.
Market days in Bern are Thursday and Saturday. People from the outlying areas come to town to sell their produce and wares. The fourth Monday of November features the centuries-old Zwiebelmarkt (Zibelemärit, in the local dialect), or Onion Market. This is the city's last big event before winter, and residents traditionally stock up on onions in anticipation of the first snows. In Bern's historic core, vendors arrive before dawn to set up stalls featuring plaited strings of onions. It is customary to sell some 100 tons of onions in 1 day during the festival. It's not all salesmanship either -- buffoons disguised as onions run about, barrels of confetti are thrown, and a good time is had by all. Naturally, local restaurants feature all their special dishes made with onions at the time.
Bern is also a popular starting point for many excursions, especially to the lakes and peaks of the Bernese Oberland.