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.
Bern is also known for its Bear Pits, and the city's name is believed to come from the German word for bear. You'll see the animals prominently portrayed on the municipal flag and coat of arms.
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 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.
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.
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 it's definitely worth an overnight stay.
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