The quiet, shy and reserved Swiss city of Basel is not a top tourist city, but it should be. The most revered cultural hotspot in Switzerland, Basel is the gateway to some of the finest art collections and cultural architectural icons in the country. The historic and magical centre of the stunning Old Medieval Town is in a class of its own – bringing visitors who are in the know, from all over the world to experience it.
Some of the world’s premier architects have built some of their most famous and distinctive works of construction genius here and legendary art museums have homes built by big names like Mario Botta, Herzog and De Meuron and Renzo Piano. Contemporary and modern architecture can be found nestled between historic gems that line cobbled walkways and whom are perched majestically peering over the breeze-ruffled Rhine River.
Basel is situated at the crossroads known as Dreiländereck – Three Countries’ Corner, or border of Switzerland, France and Germany– and is the bustling gateway to cities like Lucerne, Zurich and the Swiss Jura mountains, as well as being on the fringes of the German Black Forest and the French District of Alsace. There is an absolute abundance of exciting activities to be enjoyed in and around the city and few days might not be enough to explore everything.
The summer carnival is perhaps not as famous as those of Rio and Venice, but can certainly meet the revelry and festivities superbly on par. The summer months brings an uncharacteristic summer heat to Switzerland – the hottest in all the country – bringing visitors and normally reserved locals out to party, fill up the heaving sidewalk cafes on cobbled streets enjoying wine and milkshakes out in the sunshine. The Rhine is packed with people out and about enjoying their time bobbing about on the water and children splashing about in the cool waters of the water fountains.
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The Best Time to Go
Being some 3 degrees higher latitudinally-speaking than any of the other Swiss cities in a northerly direction of the Alps, Basel is the warmest city of them all. It makes the city great in the winter time, as Basel doesn’t have the characteristic below freezing temperatures and snowy conditions of the rest of the country; however in summer it can get rather hot and uncomfortable.
Because the city is located in the basin of the Rhine Valley, the heat during summer beats down on the houses and swirls throughout the city, bringing wonderfully warm and balmy days.
The best time for visitors to come to the city would be the busy season from the middle of May, right through to the end of June.
There is a quiet spell from then until the middle of August, which then picks up again right through until the middle of October. The rainy season is usually at its peak during the spring time in April and May and everything is green and lush going into summer.
The winter season where it is really cold is actually quite short here in Basel and there are only a few short days of snow every year and unfortunately very rarely bring a white Christmas; the coldest months being from the middle of January to the beginning of March. The Basel Carnival is the 3 festive days starting directly after Ash Wednesday, and really is something special to experience if you are visiting the city during this time.
Getting Around in Basel
Getting around the small city is easy and inexpensive as the public transport is well-organized. It is not advisable for any visitor to drive themselves around the city- it can be confusing and frustrating and dangerous if you don’t know what is what. And in any event, you will have absolutely no need to drive anyway.
Walking is a great way to see the city; everything is in close proximity to each other. Plus, it will give you a chance to walk off all of the delicious chocolates and Swiss pastries on your hilly walking workout on the cobble stones.
But do be careful because the bright green trams have right of way over and above every one – including cars and pedestrians.
The buses and trams run on precise Swiss time, are clean, convenient and make traveling around the city a breeze. Just be careful to hold on when you get on a tram as they launch off very quickly and come to an abrupt halt the same way.
Cycling is very popular in the city and the locals are quite adept at whizzing in and out of lanes. Get a helmet, ride defensively and use hand signals all the time. And be careful of the tram lines so you don’t get your bicycle wheel stuck and go flying.
There are also 4 small ferries which will take you across the Rhine, but it is worth it to book a tour to explore the river while you are there as well.
Major Attractions and Sights
The most popular sights in Basel in the Old Town are easy to navigate on foot and start at the area near the Basel Zoo. Sundays are the best day to see the museums which are all mostly open then, while most of the stores are closed. There are an abundance of some 20 plus museums and if you wait until later, some of them have free entrance for the last hour of the day.
Basels Münste is a glorious medieval cathedral that was built between 1019- 1500 in Gothic and Romanesque style architecture. The marktplatz or market square is lined with gothic buildings and the cathedral is open to the public.
The Galluspforte or St. Gallus Door is one of the most popular attractions on the marktplatz and is considered to be a work of sheer architectural genius. There are some beautiful sandstone carvings and a crypt with tombs dedicated to some of the city’s early Bishops. You can climb both St Georges and St Martin’s tower, but you need to be accompanied at the entrance.
The Basel Rathaus or Town Hall is another spot also found on marktplatz and is a stunning and beautifully preserved Renaissance palace. The palace itself is still in official use, but you can still wander around the courtyard on your own or book a guided tour through Basel Tourismus.
Elisabethen, Elisabethenstrasse is not unfortunately given the credit that it really deserved in tourist guides and maps for the city of Basel – another underrated attraction. It actually has huge significance historically as it was the first new Protestant church building ever built in Basel between 1857 and 1865.
The timing of the construction was prominent as it followed the Reformation and is one of the most important neo gothic churches in Switzerland.
The Gates to the Walled City were constructed after a colossal earthquake that took place in 1356 and was built as a 3rd ring of fortifications protecting some 20,000 locals that lived here.
Some of the original gates can still be seen at the location of what used to be the original medieval city.
Kunstmuseum Basel is an impressive art museum with a permanent collection of some of the most astounding works of art from the 19th and 20th century. There is an entire room that is dedicated to works of art by Picasso and other exhibits from important renaissance and medieval artists.
The Basel Zoo is a hugely popular attraction and because of the sheer numbers of animals – the largest. Situated right in the middle of the city, it is easy to get to from the tram station.
Fondation Beyeler is a glamorous art museum that consists of some of the biggest names in art history. With a permanent collection of Mark Rothko and Claude Monet, there are also outstanding temporary exhibitions that are shown right throughout the year.
Shopping in Basel
The premier shopping mile in Basel, which is closed to vehicles and open to pedestrian traffic and cyclists runs between Clarastrasse and Maktplatz and covers Freiestrasse, Gerbergasse, Heuwaage and Bankverein. There are not that many big department stores, many of the shops being luxury , high end or boutique shops.
You’ll find plenty of places to buy Swiss watches, jewelry and chocolates but, if you are after some of the quaint and original shops head out away from Marktplatz and wander through the winding alleyways of Nadelberg and Heuberg where you will find friendly shop owners selling everything from antiques, art, books, vintage clothing and other unique items.
If you are looking for something extra special to take home with you, you should shop at Heimatwerk.
Don’t try and haggle for purchases here, it will not be appreciated and no matter where you shop, items like Swiss army knives will be the same price everywhere. The Basel Market runs all week up until lunch time (except Sundays) and is the perfect place to get organic produce. If you are looking for serious bargains, the flea market at Petersplatz held every Saturday is the best place to go.
Eating Out in Basel
The city thrives on a café culture and is literally heaving with bars, restaurants and coffee houses, with sidewalk cafes packed side to side along the cobbled courtyards. In the summertime this is the perfect place to chill out with a cup of coffee, the paper and become rooted to your seat for an hour or more. Just check beforehand, as many of the restaurants do not accept credit cards. As far as tipping is concerned, many locals prefer to round off their bill, not accepting change from a note rather than adding on to the bill. This is not universal though, and it is best to use your discretion.
Food is really expensive in Switzerland and if you are traveling on a budget it may be best to shop at one of the markets or buy food from a grocery store to prepare yourself.
Marktplatz and Barfüsserplatz are great for picking up good value for money food like sandwiches, crepes, pretzels and pizza. And on days when the butcher is around, you can purchase a tasty hot wurst (sausage) right from the grill, served with fresh bread.
Blindekuh is a new trend in eateries, where diners enjoy their meal in the pitch dark. Many of the professional waiter staff are completely blind and the idea is that you experience a sensory event through taste, sound and touch instead of using your eyes and is truly a unique experience.
Nightlife in Basel
The city offers a huge variety of entertainment and no matter how you like to relax, there is something for everyone. If you enjoy theatre, rock music, dancing, bar culture, fine dining, sport games, ballet or the orchestra, there is something going on right throughout the year. There are also opportunities to go ice skating in the winter time, go rock climbing and swimming the Rhine during the summer time.
The Basel PubCrawl is held every Monday night and is a great way to see the city mixing with locals, tourist and tour guides and all sorts of great people. Make your way from bar to bar to club to bar, have a great time and enjoy a night of revelry led by multi lingual guides
Atlantis is a fantastic music venue that has been going strong since the 1950s and has been something of everything, now being a popular rock and dance venue. Live bands play here at least 5 times a month and there are local and international DJs mixing up the dance floors in between.
Of Local Interest
There are a number of great events, fairs and festivals held here during the year, but the most notable one –Basler Fasnacht – is the Basel version of Carnival and is the single time of year that the locals really let their hair down, and all reserved and shy attitudes are shelved for 3 full days of revelry.
It starts every year on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday and is taken very seriously by the locals, many of whom take great pride in perfecting their musical skills and making their elaborate costumes throughout the year.
Starting at 4am on the Monday morning when a parade – Morgestraich– takes place, all the lights are turned off and the restaurants are opened for the duration of the parade. Traditional soup and quiche are served which may need to be followed by a glass of wine for the acquired taste to dissipate. Most people go home to sleep or get ready for work when it is over at around 7am. The following 2 days are a delight of activities, music and celebration – this is not an event to be missed.