Bern or Lucerne: Which Swiss City to Visit?

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by Neota Langley


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Switzerland is home to stunning landscapes, rich history and timeless charm. With endless adventures on offer, deciding on which city to explore can be a difficult task. Choosing between Bern or Lucerne is a popular conundrum, taking two of the most incredible cities this country has to offer, we embark on a journey to compare and contrast.

In general, choose Bern for a great base for Alpine day trips with more affordable accommodation options. On the other hand, choose Lucerne for lakeside vibes and a great nightlife.

Bustling nightlife or historic charm, a glistening lake or glacial river? Armed with the essential details, the choice is yours. 

Bern

Bern, the Swiss capital, is a picturesque city perched on the banks of the Aare River. Its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts painstakingly preserved mediaeval architecture and a charming rabbit warren of cobbled streets.

This city is full of historical sites, like the Zytglogge clock tower, and charming restaurants serving traditional Swiss cuisine with terraces looking out on incredible mountain views. 

Swiss Federal Palace in Bern
Swiss Federal Palace in Bern

Accessibility

When considering Bern vs Lucerne, accessibility is often the first consideration. Both cities are well connected to the rest of Switzerland’s transport network but there are a few key differences. 

Reaching Bern is incredibly straightforward, whether you are arriving by air or land. Zurich is the nearest airport, around 75 km away from the city.

There is a direct train that acts as a shuttle service between the airport and the city centre that takes just over an hour. Lucerne is slightly closer to the airport but not by any considerable amount. 

Switzerland also offers a very reliable rail service, with trains that whisk you away from city to city and beyond, reaching many other European cities such as Paris, Frankfurt and Milan. The trains are relatively affordable considering Switzerland’s pricey reputation and they are one of the most reliable, clean services in Europe. You can view schedules here.

Once you have arrived in Bern, the public transport system is easy to navigate. You can choose between buses, trains and inner city trams, with most areas of the city and the outskirts covered. 

If you would rather soak in the city sights at a slower pace as you travel from one activity to another, Bern is home to Switzerland’s largest bike share programme, with stations dotted across the city where you can pick up and drop off bikes to suit your needs. 

The centre is fairly walkable and you can easily explore the old town and the modern-day city centre on foot. 

Exploring Bern's Streets
Exploring Bern’s Streets

Affordability

It’s no secret, Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries to visit in Europe. With that in mind, there is not a huge difference between Bern and Lucerne but there are a few key differences worth mentioning if you are a budget-conscious traveller hoping to save some pennies. 

Bern is a larger city, which means there are more options available to suit a wider range of budgets. Taking accommodation as an example, Bern has a wide variety of offerings, from high-end spas and 5-star hotels to backpacker-friendly hostels and hotels. Lucerne doesn’t have as many options and finding a hostel bed in the smaller city can be challenging. 

If you are hoping to discover some free activities or are travelling with a young family, Bern is the best option for you. Some of the top activities such as the Bear Park and the Federal Palace are free to visit. 

When it comes to eating out, both cities are comparable. A meal out is a nice treat but if you are hoping to travel on a budget, try to buy food from supermarkets and take a packed lunch with you so you don’t get caught out by any tourist traps. 

Zytglogge clock tower
Zytglogge clock tower

Things to do in Bern

Running alongside the tranquil Aare River, Bern’s UNESCO-listed Old Town is a masterpiece of mediaeval architecture, with cobblestone streets, Gothic spires, and charming fountains. 

One of Bern’s highlights is its impeccably preserved historic centre. The iconic Zytglogge, or Clock Tower, comes to life with its animated figurines every hour.

Take in the beautiful Bern Cathedral and wander the elegant arcades, where you can indulge in some window shopping or savour Swiss delicacies such as fondue or comforting potato rosti in cosy cafés. You can join a walking tour if you want to learn more from a guide.

A highlight for history enthusiasts is the Swiss Federal Palace, where you can embark on a free guided tour to gain insight into the country’s political system. There are several other museums perfect for a cultural visit such as the Museum of Communication, Einstein’s House and the Erlacherhof Archaeological Site.

Don’t forget to pay a visit to the Bärenpark, home to Bern’s beloved bears, a symbol of the city. Historically, the bears were kept in a deep, pit-like enclosure in the heart of Bern’s Old Town, but in recent years, efforts have been made to provide more spacious and humane living conditions for the bears.

The new Bear Park is located along the Aare River, providing a more natural environment for the bears. This is a central hub of the city, where tourists and locals gather so keep an eye out for street performances and events, which grace the city during the warmer months.

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, Bern’s surrounding hills and forests are perfect for hiking and picnicking.

The perfect day trip from Bern, the Bernese Oberland region is easily accessible from Bern and is known for its stunning alpine landscapes. Popular destinations include Interlaken, Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, and Wengen, all offering opportunities for hiking, skiing, and breathtaking views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains.

Lauterbrunnen Valley
Lauterbrunnen Valley

Where to Stay in Bern

Hotel Landhaus – This hotel is great for mid-range visitors to the capital of Switzerland. Located close to the old town of Bern, they have a number of clean rooms and are pet-friendly.

The Bristol – This upmarket hotel is fantastic for luxury travellers. Situated in the old city of Bern, there are several modern rooms and amenities such as a bar, fitness centre and breakfast each morning.

da Maurizio Suites – These suites are great for those looking for an apartment when they visit Bern. They offer both one- and two-bedroom flats, a central location and plenty of good amenities for guests.

Bern Backpackers – This highly-rated hostel is a good option for backpackers and solo visitors to Bern. They have good common areas, clean facilities and have a range of room options.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Bern hotels!

Bern cityscape
Beautiful Bern

Lucerne

Often referred to as ‘The City of Light’, Lucerne has been a centre of education and enlightenment since the Renaissance period. Its picturesque setting on Lake Lucerne, with the majestic Swiss Alps as a backdrop means this city blends the best of natural Swiss beauty with its bags of mediaeval history and culture. 

Accessibility

The difference in accessing Lucerne or Bern is minimal, especially if you are arriving into the nearby Zurich airport. From the airport you can catch a direct train into the city centre which takes around an hour. 

The rail network across Switzerland is one of the best in Europe and you will find that Lucerne is well connected to other Swiss cities as well as other cities across Europe.

With a handful of changes, you could easily find yourself as far away as Barcelona, Paris or even London. Of course, taking the train from further afield would take up a chunk of travel time compared to flying but if you are backpacking, it is a great way to hop on and off to see a couple of cities in one trip.

Driving into Lucerne is straightforward but you won’t need a car to explore the city so if you are on a road trip, it’s best to use one of the outer city car parks and rely on public transport to save money. 

Unlike Bern, Lucerne does not have an inner city tram system but there are buses that connect most areas around the city so that doesn’t make much of a difference. You can easily explore the city centre, old town and chapel bridge on foot and by doing so, you will discover hidden gems along the way.

To head out into the mountains, you can catch a boat taxi across Lake Lucerne before hopping in a cable car and cog railway to the summit. 

Chapel bridge
Chapel Bridge in Lucerne

Affordability

When comparing Lucerne vs Bern, affordability is often the first question you will ask. Swiss city breaks tend to be on the pricey side but there are steps you can take to visit this beautiful country without blowing the budget.

Lucerne is a slightly smaller city than Bern meaning you have fewer options when it comes to accommodation, restaurants and activities. Whilst there is plenty to see and do in Lucerne, Bern has more free activities dotted around the city. Activities are not expensive in Lucerne but you will end up spending more if you want to see all of the highlights. 

Accommodation options are fairly similar between the two cities, with Lucerne averaging slightly more expensive down to its lack of backpacker hostels and budget hotels. There are a handful of budget options but they often book up quickly during the high season. 

Both Lucerne and Bern are home to a wide range of cafes and restaurants offering a taste of traditional Swiss cuisine, Italian and even Japanese. As with most things in Switzerland, eating out can be expensive so if you are keeping a close eye on the budget, it may be best to buy most of your food from the supermarket and try to avoid the more touristy central eateries, especially the town squares. 

Lucerne's Old Town
Lucerne’s Old Town

Things to do in Lucerne

Whether you are seeking cultural enrichment, scenic serenity, or alpine escapades, Lucerne provides a gateway to the best of Switzerland. There is something for everyone, spend an entire day meandering through the city centre or lace up your hiking boots and head out into the surrounding countryside and towering mountains. 

The city centre is home to some of the most iconic landmarks (you can join a walking tour here), including the Chapel Bridge, a masterpiece of mediaeval architecture. This wooden structure spanning the River Ruess is considered to be Europe’s oldest covered bridge and the world’s oldest Truss bridge.

Whilst sections of the bridge have been destroyed over the years, you can still visit the remaining tower and marvel at the 17th-century paintings that adorn interior triangular frames. 

Lucerne is also home to the Lion Monument. Carved into a sheer rock face, it pays tribute to Swiss Guards who sacrificed their lives during the French Revolution.

The sculpture is located just above the city centre surrounded by beautiful gardens and the Glacier Garden, where you’ll find ancient glacial potholes, fossils, and an observation tower that offers panoramic vistas of Lucerne and the surrounding Alps.

Lion Monument
Lion Monument

If you are a museum enthusiast, Lucerne has plenty of history to offer. You could explore the life and work of the legendary composer Richard Wagner at his former residence, situated in the scenic Tribschen district or delve into the Swiss Museum of Transport. Take a journey through time with the interactive exhibits, from vintage vehicles to modern innovations.

Lucerne is surrounded by the picturesque Swiss Alps and heading out to explore the snowy peaks makes a great day trip from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Mount Pilatus and Mount Rigi are the two most popular nearby summits and if you have time, it is worth visiting both.

At the top you will find restaurants, souvenir shops and plenty of adrenaline-inducing activities such as paragliding, tobogganing and during the winter months, skiing and snowboarding. You can go independently or join a half-day tour.

If you don’t have a head for heights but still want to head out to the surrounding countryside, you could venture to the nearby vineyards in the canton of Lucerne. Experience wine tastings and vineyard tours with the most spectacular alpine backdrop. 

As darkness descends, Lucerne comes alive with a vibrant nightlife scene. From cosy bars to lively nightclubs, this city is full of entertainment options long into the night. For a dose of culture, you can catch a classical music performance at the KKL Lucerne or enjoy jazz and live music at various venues. 

Mount Pilatus
Mount Pilatus

Where to Stay in Lucerne

Hotel Central Luzern – This 3-star hotel is a good mid-range choice for those looking to stay in the centre of Lucerne. They offer a range of comfortable rooms and also have breakfast available.

Cascada Boutique Hotel – This boutique hotel is a great luxury choice. They have a good location in Lucerne’s centre and they have several large, comfortable rooms to choose from.

KoBi Apartments Hirschenplatz – These apartments are a good option for visitors who want their own flat. They have a great location in the centre of Lucerne along with a range of apartments on offer.

Backpacker’s Lucerne – This hostel is a good option for backpackers and budget travellers. They have a good location and a range of room options along with self-catering facilities.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Lucerne hotels!

Town of Lucerne
Town of Lucerne

Bern vs Lucerne: Which is Better to Visit

So, which city in Switzerland will it be? When deciding on Bern or Lucerne as a base, there are a few key differences to consider. 

Both cities are home to bags of culture, museums and historical sights but if you are travelling with a family, Bern is home to a wider range of options to suit all ages and many of them are free. 

You will find that Bern has more options for affordable backpacker accommodation. Whilst eating costs the same in both cities, the money you save on accommodation makes Bern the obvious choice for those on a budget. 

If you are looking for a city to use as a base to explore the Alps, Bern is the best choice. Whilst Lucerne has access to several mountains, Bern is a short trip away from highlights such as Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen. 

Visiting both cities at the height of summer can be busy, but Lucerne is the perfect choice if you want to take a dip in the glistening alpine lake, take part in watersports or simply relax on the shores with a book in the sunshine.

Lucerne is also a hotspot for nightlife and entertainment, whilst Bern does have a few late-night bars, if you are looking for theatre performances or DJs playing into the early hours, Lucerne is the destination for you. 

After deciding which city to use as a base, you could always visit the other on a day trip. There is a direct train between the two which takes just over an hour or you could drive in an hour and a half. If you plan on doing this, it would be best to use Bern as a base. Lucerne is smaller and therefore you can fit more highlights into a day trip. 

Whether you choose to visit Lucerne or to head to Bern, both of these small cities have a lot to offer visitors and there’s not a bad choice between the two!

Are you choosing between Bern and Lucerne? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Neota Langley

Neota is a writer for The World Was Here First. Born and bred in Cornwall, she can usually be found with hiking boots on, ready to embark on an adventure. For the last 6 years, she has travelled throughout Europe in her self-built campervan with her trusty canine companion, Ivy. She loves exploring France, the Nordics and spending time in Alpine destinations.

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