Bern is the capital of Switzerland, and also the capital of the canton of the same name.
As the seat of government, the city houses the federal ministries and a number of other federal institutions, including the National Bank. It is also the headquarters of the Universal Postal Union, one of the specialised agencies of the United Nations. In addition it is the seat of public services, such as Swiss Post (the state-owned post office) and the Swiss Federal Railways. The city has a small airport in the suburb of Belp. Although Zurich is Switzerland's main rail hub, Bern has a direct rail service to several of the major cities of Switzerland, as well as to European cities such as Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and Milan.
The city was founded in the 12th century on a tongue of land surrounded on three sides by the river Aare. However, the first settlements in the area go back to pre-Roman times. It grew rich as a trading centre, and subsequently became an aggressive political and military power, ruling over a number of subject territories. It was one of the leading members of the old Swiss Confederation. Although the French invasion of 1798 put an end to the system of rulers and subjects, Bern retained its leading position, and in 1848 was chosen as the permanent capital of the modern Swiss state.
There are several theories as to the derivation of the name. It may come from Brenodor, the name of a Celtic settlement built on the site. However, the popular story has that Bern was named after the bear (German: Bar), the first animal to be killed by its founder, Duke Berchtold V von Zahringen, when he went hunting near his new city. Bears have a long association with the town, which has had a bear pit since the end of the 15th century.