Basel, in the very northwest of Switzerland, at the borders with France and Germany, is a charming city, ideal for discovering by walking thanks to its relaxed and laid back atmosphere. Despite its small size of only 37 km2, with around 40 museums, Basel is Switzerland’s cultural capital with a lot to offer. Once a year, it hosts the world’s oldest and most important fair for contemporary art and turns the pocket-size cosmopolitan city into a bustling place for one week. Urban and green at the same time, Basel is ranked among the most liveable cities in the world. Therefore, spending one day in this place certainly seems like a great idea.
What’s the best time to visit Basel?
Located in the valley of the Rhine at the Belfort Gap, Basel has an exceedingly mild climate during the whole year compared to the rest of the alpine state. Whether you like to spend chilly days exploring the many museums or if you want to enjoy the summer vibes, Basel is always worth a visit. There is one reason in particular why you should visit Basel during the summer, though, and that’s Art Basel, but more on that below.
A Few Facts About Basel
Basel is Switzerland‘s third most populous city after Zurich and Geneva with about 180,000 inhabitants and the second-largest economic centre. Situated in the German-speaking part of Switzerland in the tri-national metropolitan area where the Swiss, French and German borders meet, it has suburbs in both these countries, as well.
While Basel was first documented in the 8th century, its origin leads all the way back to the Celts and was later conquered by the Romans on Ceasar’s campaign to Gaul. Hosting Switzerland’s oldest university, founded in 1460, it has been an intellectual centre ever since, with famous figures such as humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam buried in the Minster.
Basel was hit hard by an earthquake in 1356. This unusually strong quake for Central Europe of nearly magnitude 7 caused not only damage to important buildings like the old Minster but also the loss of Basel’s oldest documents about the famous Carnival, Fasnacht.
The city is not only the host of the Art Basel every June but also of Switzerland’s biggest carnival, the Basel Fasnacht. It takes place every March and enlivens the city for three days with traditional costumes and parades through town, beginning on the Monday following Ash Wednesday. The protestant carnival is included by UNESCO on its Intangible Heritage List since 2017 because of its meaning for the city’s identity.
One Day in Basel Itinerary
The Rhine is undoubtedly the heart and lifeblood of Basel. It divides the town into Grossbasel, greater Basel, to its left, and Kleinbasel, the newer part of the city, to its right. In Grossbasel, you will find the main attractions. Visit the viewpoint or sit next to the Rhine for the best possible experience of the city.
Head from Spalentor to…
The Spalentor is one of three remaining town gates from the 15th century and an impressive entrance to the old town. Have a closer look at its figurative sculptures and you will find next to a Madonna and two prophets the city’s coat of arms held by two lions.
Strolling further through the old town, you will get a good feeling of this almost Mediterranean city where people love to enjoy being outside as soon as the sun comes out. Walk down the hilly cobbled alleys to the Marktplatz where five times a week local merchants sell everything from fresh fruits to handicrafts. Have a look at the historical red-stoned Rathaus, the town hall, with its imposing tower and murals. Further down to the famous Tinguely Fontaine, pass the Läckerli Huus and get yourself the city’s famous gingerbread.
From the Tinguely Fontaine it is only a stone’s throw to Kunstmuseum Basel, actually the biggest art collection in Switzerland and the oldest public art museum worldwide opened in 1661. It shows a magnificent collection from the Renaissance to 19th- and 20th-century artworks. After your visit, head back to Rittergasse and reach Basel‘s most noticeable landmark, Basel Minster.
Visit the Basel Minster
The former Catholic bishop’s church is not only a remarkable point in Basel’s skyline, with its red sandstone architecture, slim towers, and coloured roof tiles but also a beautiful example of architecture in the Romanesque and Gothic styles. The Galluspforte, a portal on the north facade, is the oldest Romanesque figurative portal outside of France. Historically, the Basel Minster is significant because in 1440 the last Catholic antipope Felix V. was elected at the Minster.
Go around the Basel Minster to the viewing platform above the river Rhine. Basler Pfalz offers you a wonderful view over Basel onto the valley of the Rhine. Take the steps down and get on a ferry to cross the river. On the other side, now in Kleinbasel, walk straight up and have a well-deserved lunch at Hirscheneck that provides, even for a small pocket, delicious food. If you can afford more, though, go a bit further to Volkshaus Basel, a traditional Bar, and Brasserie that comes in a new design from Herzog & de Meuron.
After that, to aid digestion, take a walk alongside the river to the Museum Tinguely and enjoy the beautiful view of the cityscape with the Mittlere Brücke, Basel’s oldest bridge, and the Pflaz platform on the other side.
Go in the Museum Tinguely
The hometown of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely has been a host, since 1996, to a rich collection of works of the pioneer of kinetic art. His widow and a popular artist herself Niki de Saint Phalle donated to Basel sculptures, drawings, letters and documents from all periods of Jean Tinguely’s long artistic life.
Swim in the Rhine
After your visit, it‘s time to start the more relaxing part of the day. And the most fun that Basel has to offer! Tired of walking? No problem! On your way to your well-deserved lunch break, you pass by a lot of little stores that sell the bags called Fisch (German for fish). Get one straight away because you need it now.
Especially on one of Basel’s hot summer days, the best way to refresh yourself is to take a swim in the clean and fresh Rhine! Put your clothes in your drybag and float down the river among others. Get out at the Mittlere Brücke or even further down the river close to the German border. Buy yourself a sausage at one of the points next to the riverside and make yourself dinner at one of the public bbq’s and drink a fresh Panache, a beer mixed with lemonade. After that, cross the Johanniterbrücke and have a drink right underneath at Cargobar. What a day, right?!
Where to stay in Basel
Day Trips From Basel
It is worth to stay longer in Basel for a while, not only for the many things to do in this beautiful city but also to get the chance to explore its surroundings. When coming in summer you can take a day trip to Lake Bienne. The strawberries you can get along the way on the streets are amazing and cheaper than in the city.
The Roman city has one of the most stunning Roman theaters north of the alps. Take a guided tour and learn more about the daily living and see the biggest silver treasure of late antiquity.
One of the most beautiful museums designed by the famous architect Renzo Piano opened 1997 in the suburb of Riehen. Just a 15-minute drive by tram, Fondation Beyeler hosts the collection of Basel’s patrons Hildy and Ernst Beyeler containing classic modern art, ethnic art from Africa, Oceania, and Alaska. Their program also contains contemporary art for special exhibitions.
Extra tips for visiting Basel
During the busy art week, Basel’s hotel rates are twice the usual price or even bigger. However, many inhabitants of Basel use the time and rent their flat on Airbnb for a short getaway. Check that if you plan to come during Art Basel!
Day tickets for Art Basel are around CHF 58, around € 55. Public opening hours are from Thursday to Sunday, but the event opens for VIPs on Monday.
Due to the proximity of Basel to France and Germany, you can pay with euros here. However, you will get the change in Swiss franc.
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Nicole Guether is a full time nomadic freelance writer and art historian. After years of working in
galleries on contemporary art, guiding through exhibitions and much more, she decided to follow her
two passions: travelling and writing. She writes about art, exhibitions and travel expieriences for
different kinds of media.