Berne also functions as the capital of the Canton of Berne, the second most populous of Switzerland's cantons.
Illustrious Bernese include the reformer Albrecht von Haller, the poet Albert Bitzius and the painters Hans Fries, Ferdinand Hodler and Paul Klee. The German-born physicist Albert Einstein worked out his theory of relativity while employed as a clerk at the Berne patent office. A culturally important person was Mani Matter, a songwriter performing in Bernese German.
Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen founded the city on the River Aare in 1191 and allegedly named it after a bear (Bär in German) he had killed. It was made an Imperial Free City by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1218 after Berthold died without an heir. In 1353 Berne joined the young Swiss Confederation, becoming a leading member of the new state. It invaded and conquered Aargau in 1415 and Vaud in 1536, as well as other smaller territories, thereby becoming the largest city-state north of the Alps. It was occupied by French troops in 1798 during the French Revolutionary Wars, when it was stripped of most of its territories. In 1831 the city became the capital of the Canton of Berne and in 1848 it additionally became the Swiss capital.
The city grew out towards the west of the boundaries of the peninsula formed by the river Aar. Initially, the Zytglogge tower marked the western boundary of the city from 1191 until 1256, when the Käfigturm took over this role until 1345, which, in turn, was then succeeded by the Christoffelturm (located close to today's train station) until 1622. During the time of the Thirty Years' War two new fortifications, the so-called big and small Schanze (entrenchment), were built to protect the whole area of the peninsula. The protection by these edifices was sufficient for the prosperous growth of the city of Berne up to the 19th century.
Berne lies in the Swiss plateau within the Canton of Berne, somewhat west of the center of Switzerland and 20 km north of the Alps. The landscape around Berne was formed by glaciers in the last Ice Age. The two mountains closest to Berne are the Gurten with a height of 858 meters and the Bantiger with a height of 947 meters. The site of the old observatory in Berne is the point of origin of the CH1903 coordinate system at .
The city was originally built on a hilly peninsully surrounded by the river Aar but outgrew these natural boundaries in the 19th century. A number of bridges were built to allow the city to grow beyond the Aar.
Berne is built on very uneven ground. There are several dozens of meters in height difference from the quarters on the Aar (Matte, Marzili) to the higher ones (Kirchenfeld, Länggasse).
As of 2005, the representatives of the Social Democratic Party and of the three Green parties hold a majority in both councils (3 to 2 and 43 to 37, respectively). For this reason, it is they, collectively referred to as "Red-Green-Center" (Rot-Grün-Mitte), who mostly determine City policy, although no formal coalition agreement exists and, under the system of direct democracy that prevails in Switzerland, most important issues are settled by general referendum. The other major political parties of Berne are the Free Democratic Party (FDP, free-market liberal) and the Swiss People's Party (SVP, nationalist, conservative).
The office of mayor (Stadtpräsident), as a primus inter pares (first among equals) in the executive council, is mostly representative. As of 2005, the mayor of Berne is Alexander Tschäppät of the Social Democrats.
Berne's city center is largely medieval and has been recognised by UNESCO as a Cultural World Heritage Site. Perhaps its most famous sight is the Zytglogge, an elaborate medieval clock tower with moving puppets. It also has an impressive 15th century Gothic cathedral, the Münster, and a 15th century town hall. Thanks to 6 kilometers of arcades, the old town boasts one of the longest covered shopping promenades in Europe.
Since the 16th century, the city has had a bear pit (the Bärengraben), which can be visited off the far end of the Nydeggbrücke. The Federal Palace (Bundeshaus), dating from 1902, which houses the national parliament and part of the federal administration, can also be visited.
Berne features many heritage sites of national significance. Apart from the entire Old Town and many sites within it, these include the Bärengraben, the Gewerbeschule Bern (1937), the Eidgenössisches Archiv für Denkmalpflege, the Kirchenfeld mansion district (after 1881), the Thunplatzbrunnen, the Federal Mint building, the Federal Archives, the Swiss National Library, the Historical Museum (1894), Alpine Museum, Museum of Communication and Natural History Museum.
Berne features numerous museums including:
The University of Berne is spread over several buildings which are mainly located in the Länggasse quarter.
The University of Applied Science (Fachhochschule) is also located in Berne.
Public transport works well in Berne, with tram and bus lines which connect the different parts of the City. Bern Rail Station connects the City to the national and international train network. A funicular leads from the Marzili quarter to the Bundeshaus. This funicular is, with a length of 106 m, the second shortest public railway in Europe after the Zagreb Funicular. Several Aar bridges connect the old parts of the city with the newer quarters outside of the peninsula.
Berne is served by Berne Airport, located outside the city near the village of Belp. The regional airport, colloquially called Bern-Belp or Belpmoos, is connected to several Swiss and European cities.