Basel Switzerland Travel Guide (2022 update)
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Situated on the Rhine where Switzerland, Germany and France touch noses, Basel’s voters are the most pro-European of Switzerland’s German-speakers, and their enthusiasm for neighbourly relations has energized the city. Plan your trip to Basel with our guide to Basel, based on The Rough Guide to Switzerland, your travel guide for Switzerland.
The success of Basel’s international airport and high-speed rail links to Strasbourg, Paris, Frankfurt and Milan have helped to blow the cobwebs away. Basel really is a city rejuvenated.
Its historic centre, dominated by the soaring Münster, is definitely worth seeing. But, with a long history of banking excellence, a major port on the Rhine, and the research headquarters of several pharmaceutical multinationals, Basel still cherishes its reputation as one of Switzerland’s wealthiest cities.
Yet, oddly, what’s made the biggest difference has been the city’s resolutely high taxes: recent years have seen an exodus of the rich to the lower-tax haven of the Fricktal in nearby Canton Aargau.
In their place have come artists, young professionals and, most notably, international expats. The Swiss pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Roche have both invested in major constructions on their existing sites, helping to draw new lifeblood into the city.
In short, business is booming. Big-name architects are revitalizing the cityscape. New restaurants with fresh ideas are springing up all over town, and the city’s long-standing patronage of the arts has resulted in dozens of first-rate museums and public art installations.
Three annual events above all define the city for different markets. Every June the art fair Art Basel is one of contemporary art’s highest-profile gatherings, with world-famous artists, dealers and wannabes packing the city amid glitzy shows and events.
Held in March, Baselworld is the most prestigious jamboree in the more traditionally Swiss world of watchmaking and jewellery.
But Basel's most accessible event is the extraordinary annual carnival, Fasnacht.
Basel is famous for its unique, ancient masked carnival, or Fasnacht. This three-day affair starts on the Monday after Ash Wednesday — think exultant music, parades and much merry-making. Festivals in Switzerland are plentiful, and this is one of the best.
The highlight of a visit to Basel’s red sandstone Münster cathedral is a peaceful stroll through the cloisters before stepping out onto the panoramic viewing platform. Built in the thirteenth century, its tower of St George has stonework dating from the original church (consecrated in 1019), plus a statue of the saint impaling a dragon.
This medieval watermill is now a delightful little museum with fascinating demonstrations of printing and papermaking. Alongside exhibits of paper and typography, the museum stages demonstrations of typecasting, typesetting, bookbinding and papermaking. You can also work through the whole process yourself.
Set on the north bank of the Rhine in Solitude Park, the building occupied by the Museum Tinguely was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta and is a work of art in its own right. Tinguely is perhaps Switzerland’s best-loved artist, a maverick who broadened the confines of static sculpture to incorporate mechanical motion.
If you had to pick just one of Basel’s many top-rated museums, go for the gallery run by Fondation Beyeler. This masterfully elegant building houses an exceptionally high-quality art collection of works by some of the twentieth century’s best artists – Picasso, Giacometti, Warhol, Rothko, Rodin, Klee, Kandinsky, Bacon, Miró and more.
The River Rhine creates an elegant curve through the centre of Basel, flowing from east to north and dividing the city in two.
On the south/west bank is Grossbasel (Greater Basel), focused on the historic Old Town. Shopping streets connect Barfüsserplatz and Marktplatz, the two main Old Town squares.
Medieval charm is retained in the steep lanes leading off to either side, where you’ll find leafy courtyards surrounded by sixteenth-century townhouses, medieval churches and the majestic Münster dominating the skyline.
Taking a walking tour with a professional guide is a great way to see Basel's Old Town attractions, and sure to be a memorable Basel travel experience.
The focus of the Old Town is Barfüsserplatz, crisscrossed by trams and surrounded by terrace cafés. Rubbing shoulders with the fast-food joints and raucous pubs, on the corner with Steinenvorstadt, is the Yellow House, designed by Roger Diener, a yellowish concrete building adored by architects but ignored by the general public.
Walk up Steinenberg on the south side of Barfüsserplatz to Theaterplatz, to admire Tinguely’s Carnival Fountain, where the spluttering sculptures were created from parts of the city’s old theatre. Just behind, Intersection is a fine example of American artist Richard Serra’s rusting walk-in sculptures.
Shop-lined Gerbergasse and Freiestrasse, as well as a dense network of narrow, sloping medieval alleys such as Schneidergasse (Tailor Street), Sattelgasse (Saddle Street) and Imbergässlein (Ginger Alley), run north from Barfüsserplatz to Marktplatz, the Old Town’s other main square, crowded every morning with fruit-and-veg stalls.
Lighting up the broad rectangular space with a splash of eye-catching colour is the elaborate scarlet facade of the Rathaus (Town Hall), its central arcaded section sixteenth-century, the tower and side annexe both late nineteenth-century. Feel free to wander into the frescoed interior courtyard.
On the north/east bank of the Rhine is down-to-earth Kleinbasel (Lesser Basel), more residential and less historical than its neighbour, with some laidback nightlife around Claraplatz diluting the weighty presence of the giant Messe conference centre nearby.
Basel thrives on the conference and convention trade: the Messe in Kleinbasel is Switzerland’s largest exhibition centre, and attendees of major events often fill all accommodation in the city (and most in neighbouring cities too).
As a result, reserving ahead is strongly advised. Basel’s hoteliers tend to focus more on providing comforting extras, such as minibars and big-screen cable TV, than on character. You’ll also find prices hiked during the week and/or while a big trade fair is on.
All hotels, hostels and guesthouses offer overnight guests a free BaselCard with an integrated Mobility Ticket, covering city transport .
Drawing influences from the cuisines of France and Germany into its native Swiss culinary tradition, Basel deftly manages to sit on the fence as far as eating and drinking go.
Beer and sausages is the snack of choice, but it’s equally possible to find venues in which to savour classic French cuisine.
If the city could be said to have a local speciality, it’s salmon (originally plucked from the Rhine but these days more likely to be imported) marinated in the fruity local white wine and topped with fried onions.
If food and drink is your thing, book a self-guided, food-themed tour of Basel, or a craft beer tour.
Basel’s main draw is its burgeoning theatre scene — universally in German — while classical music is also a strong point.
Basel’s public transport, run by BVB, focuses on trams, virtually all of which pass through Barfüsserplatz. Swiss Pass holders travel free; otherwise, choose between a short-journey ticket, a multi-use ticket or a day ticket. Ticket machines take Swiss coins and euros, but rarely notes.
There are three city-centre bridges, but a more fun way to cross the Rhine is on one of the traditional cable-ferries. The most useful, from north to south, are the Vogel Gryff, or Klingentalfähre; the Leu, or Münsterfähre; and the Wild Maa, or St Alban-Fähre. All three run continuously during the day, with restricted hours in winter.
Basel’s taxis are ferociously expensive. The 33er Taxi is as good a choice as any.
Across the border in Germany, 10km north of Basel, is the small town of Weil-am-Rhein, location of Vitra, a famous design company that collaborates with top international designers to produce office and home furniture, and whose premises – on an out-of-town greenfield site – are the work of some of the world’s leading contemporary architects.
In its heyday, Augusta Raurica, a Roman Rhineside provincial capital 20km east of Basel near the modern village of Kaiseraugst, was home to twenty thousand people. These days it comprises the largest set of Roman ruins in Switzerland. Two or three slow boats run each day (May–Oct) from Basel to Kaiseraugst, then it's a 15-min walk.
A pleasant, relaxing spa town on the River Limmat, 24km downstream from Zürich in Canton Aargau, Baden makes for a good stopover on a journey across the north of the country. People have been coming to Baden for centuries to sit around doing very little, and there are few more congenial towns in the country in which to follow suit.
The Jura Höhenweg (or High Route) makes for a multiday hiking tour through a region unlike any other in Switzerland, stretching 299km along the length of the Swiss Jura from Dielsdorf, 12km east of Baden, to Borex near Geneva. End to end it takes about fourteen days — you can often find yourself walking for long distances without seeing signs of habitation.
Into the idea of exploring further afield? Read up on the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland.
If you feel inspired by this Basel travel guide, The Rough Guide to Switzerland and our tips on things not to miss in Switzerland will help you plan your Basel vacation — think of them as your personal travel guide to Switzerland.
Not a fan of planning? Consider booking a hassle-free tailor-made trip to Switzerland, with customisable itineraries covering everything from unforgettable highlights of Switzerland, to touring the Grand Circle.
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