Bern or Berne (bĕrn) [key], canton (1990 pop. 937,365), 2,658 sq mi (6,883 sq km), W central Switzerland. The second most populous and second largest canton of the country, Bern comprises three sections—the Bernese Alps, or Oberland [Ger., = highlands], with many resorts and peaks, notably the Finsteraarhorn and Jungfrau, and with meadows and pastures in the valleys; the Mittelland [midlands], in the fertile northern foothills of the Alps, and including the Emmental; and the lake region around Biel. The Jura canton to the north was until 1979 a part of Bern canton. Tourism, cattle raising, dairying, and hydroelectric power generation are the chief means of livelihood in the Oberland. The Mittelland is the most industrialized region of the canton and a fertile agricultural region. The lake region has a thriving vine culture. The population of the canton is predominantly Protestant and German-speaking.
Bern was founded, according to tradition, in 1191 by Berchtold V of Zähringen as a military post. It was made (1218) a free imperial city by Emperor Frederick II when Berchtold died without an heir. Bern grew in power and population and in 1353 joined the Swiss Confederation, of which it became the leading member. Its conquests included Aargau (1415) and Vaud (1536), besides numerous smaller territories. The area was governed until 1798 by an autocratic urban aristocracy. Bern accepted the Reformation in 1528. When Switzerland was invaded (1798) by the French during the French Revolutionary Wars, Bern was occupied, its treasury pillaged, and its territories dismembered. At the Congress of Vienna (1815), Bern failed to recover Vaud and Aargau, but received the Bernese Jura (the former Bishopric of Basel). A liberal constitution was adopted in 1831, and in 1848 Bern became the capital of the Swiss Confederation.
The city is largely medieval in its architecture. It has a splendid 15th-century town hall, a noted minster (begun 15th cent.), and numerous other historic structures. There are many picturesque patrician houses and old guild halls. An elaborate medieval clock tower and a pit in which bears (Bern's heraldic animal for seven centuries) are kept are well known to tourists. More modern buildings include the 19th-century federal parliament building, many fine museums (including one devoted to Paul Klee), and the university (1834).