Bern is Switzerland's beautiful capital city, 55 mi/90 km west of Lucerne. It was destroyed by a fire in 1405 and then totally rebuilt, so it has many fine examples of early-15th-century architecture—so many that UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage site.
The Aare River loops around the compact Old Town, and on clear days there's a beautiful view of the distant Alps. Start a tour by taking a look at the Munster's intricate stone and wood carvings and its beautiful painted windows, then climb to the top of the 328-ft-/100-m-high tower for a sweeping view of the city. The thick-walled stone houses in the Old Town are brightened by boxes of geraniums on balconies, providing sharp contrast to majestic green-domed government buildings that hang on a high bluff overlooking the river.
Bern is also known for its Bear Pits, where six (usually) bears spend their days cadging carrots from tourists. (Fortunately, the pits have been expanded to give the bears more space; the habitat has been transformed into a 19,685 sq ft/6,000 sq m park that gives the bears the space they need). The city's name is believed to come from the German word for bear, and you'll see the animals prominently portrayed on the municipal flag and coat of arms.
Visit the 12th-century Clock Tower (enlarged in later times), which was once the western gate of the city. Get there at least four minutes before the hour in order to see the hourly show of mechanical figures. Stroll through the lovely botanical gardens (rare flora collection) and the Rose Garden across the Aare River overlooking the city. If it's a clear day, take a tram and cable railway up to Gurten (2,800 ft/850 m high) for a superb view of the Bernese Oberland region, including the snowy peaks of Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch.
Bern also has some interesting museums. The 21st-century Zentrum Paul Klee (Paul Klee Center) has a collection of 4,000 paintings spanning the career of this Bern native. The Kunstmuseum has a comprehensive collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs and videos covering eight centuries (http://www.kunstmuseumbern.ch). The Kunsthalle focuses on Bernese, Swiss and international artists (http://www.kunsthalle-bern.ch).
Also worth a visit is the Alpine Museum, which presents a good introduction to the culture and ecology of the Swiss Alpine region (http://www.alpinesmuseum.ch). The 500,000 or so stamps at the Museum fur Kommunikation make up one of the world's largest collections (http://www.mfk.ch). The Albert Einstein House gives an insightful view of the home where the physicist began to formulate his theory of relativity (http://www.einstein-bern.ch).
For good shopping, head to the Arcades (4 mi/6 km of centuries-old vaulted arcades), which have elegant boutiques, art galleries, fur and jewelry salons and, of course, shops selling Swiss chocolates, watches and knives. The city also hosts a number of street markets each week, with produce stands as well as antiques and handicrafts.
The area around Bern offers hiking and rafting in the summer, and skiing in the winter. The city itself can be seen on a day train trip from Zurich or Geneva, but we think it's worth an overnight stay.
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