Bern : The Helvetiaplatz museums
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Most of Bern’s museums are clustered together around Helvetiaplatz, on the south side of the Kirchenfeldbrücke. Some, like the Bernisches Historisches Museum, shouldn’t really be missed; others have less going for them. Trams #3 (direction Saali) and #5 (direction Ostring) shuttle from the train station and the Zytglogge to Helvetiaplatz.

Bernisches Historisches Museum
You could spend a long time exploring the fascinating Bernisches Historisches Museum (Bernese Historical Museum; Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; Fr.5, free on Sat; SMP), a grandiose turreted castle purpose-built in 1894. With seven floors of diverse bits and pieces, it’s a good idea to pick up a floor plan before you start. Information is generally very good, with the scholarly German labelling nearly always given in English and French translation in leaflets kept in wall racks.

The ground floor is given over to temporary exhibitions, which tend not to have English explanations, and it’s worth heading straight down to the basement (taking in, if you’ve time, the extensive porcelain and silver collection on the lower mezzanine on the way). At the bottom, to the left side of the staircase, is perhaps the highlight of the whole museum, a collection of extraordinary and macabre paintings showing “The Dance of Death”; these are 1649 copies of originals painted in 1516–17 on the wall of Bern’s Dominican monastery and now lost. The sequence of 24 vivid images, showing a hideously grinning and fooling skeleton leading kings, prostitutes, nuns and lawyers alike to their inevitable fate, is enough to send a chill down your spine – as, no doubt, it was intended to. Equally impressive is the pillared room directly opposite, filled with the original sandstone figures from the Last Judgement portal of the Münster and fascinating for the chance to view their details up close. Through in another part of the basement are several rooms featuring rural and urban interiors from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reconstructed down to the chamber pots and creaky floors.

From the ground floor all the way up the main staircase is a series of rather unflattering portraits of 280 Swiss peasants and craftspeople in traditional dress, made late in the eighteenth century as a kind of ethnographic record. The mezzanine is devoted to a spectacular Islamic collection, with daggers galore, a mounted Turkestan warrior in full armour, jewellery, ceramics and a reconstructed Persian sitting room. Stairs to the first upper floor bring you to an intricate scale model of Bern in 1800 (made in 1850). Nearby in the same room, for some unknown reason, sits a bust of Brigitte Bardot. Halls left and right display extremely impressive wall-sized medieval Flemish tapestries; the Burgundian Hall holds the Caesar Tapestries, telling the story of Caesar’s life in Burgundian-style dress, and, highlight of the collection, the Thousand Flowers Tapestry, the only one surviving of a set of eight made in Brussels in 1466, which was looted by Bern during the Burgundian wars of 1474–77. Rooms further on with coins and medals include a mesmerising 1828 three-way portrait of Calvin, Luther and Zwingli. On the other side of the stairs is the Trajan Hall, with suits of armour, weapons, cavalry standards and heraldic tapestries galore.

The second upper floor features more military uniforms from different periods, and a series of overwhelmingly meticulous rooms devoted to “Changes in Daily Life”, covering everything from reconstructed shops and schoolrooms from different periods to ephemera, old vending machines and musical instruments. The top floor has a small archeological collection, and above is a belvedere offering bird’s-eye views of the Bundeshaus and the Alps.

Schweizerisches Alpines Museum
Beside the Historical Museum, the Schweizerisches Alpines Museum (Swiss Alpine Museum; May–Oct Mon 2–5pm, Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; Nov–April Mon 2–5pm, Tues–Sun 10am–noon & 2–5pm; Fr.5; SMP) is surprisingly good, taking an intelligent, sensitive look at all aspects of life in the mountains, from tourism, the history of mountaineering and the social identity of mountain dwellers to surveys of Alpine flora and fauna and the impact of industry on the mountain environment. There’s plenty to play with and read up on (in English). Crowded all over the museum are dozens of examples of relief mapmaking gone berserk, with mountains, whole valley systems and complete Swiss ranges rendered in perfect scale detail, almost rock by rock, by enthusiasts whose energy and patience can only be imagined.

Other museums
There are plenty of other museums on or very close to Helvetiaplatz. The porticoed Kunsthalle (Art Gallery; Helvetiaplatz 1; Tues 10am–9pm, Wed–Sun 10am–5pm; Fr.6) has changing exhibits of contemporary art, usually of very high quality. Behind the Historisches Museum, the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum; Bernastrasse 15; Mon 2–5pm, Tues, Thurs & Fri 9am–5pm, Wed 9am–8pm, Sat & Sun 10am–5pm; Fr.5; SMP) has the largest diorama exhibit in Europe – a somewhat fancy way to describe an array of stuffed animals behind glass, including a rather threadbare “Barry”, the famous St Bernard mountain-rescue dog. Its mineralogical displays are more engaging, with meteorites and cut diamonds, but they’re scant recompense for fighting the tide of schoolkids. The Museum für Kommunikation (Helvetiastrasse 16; Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; Fr.5; SMP) surveys media and communication from postage-stamps and early telephones to the Internet and beyond.

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