Astride the Rhine where Switzerland, France and Germany touch, Basel (Bâle in French) is a logical staging post en route north. Despite its pan-European location, the city has gained a reputation for insularity. Certainly, Basel feels like a working city; it’s neither as picturesque as Bern or Luzern, nor as vibrant as Zürich. Yet it’s a wealthy place and boasts first-rate museums and galleries, in addition to some superb contemporary architecture. It also holds a massive three-day carnival in February (fasnacht.ch), beginning at 4am on the Monday after Mardi Gras.
The River Rhine curves through the city, flowing from east to north. On the south/west bank (1km north of the main station) is the historic Old Town, centred on Barfüsserplatz. Across the river, on the north bank lies Kleinbasel, historically scorned by the city’s merchants as a working-class quarter. Nowadays, the steps down to the Rhine are a popular place to catch the sun.
Basel's pre-eminence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is amply demonstrated in the Barfüsserkirche, home since 1894 to the Historisches Museum; don’t miss the sumptuous medieval tapestries hidden behind protective blinds. On a terrace between the river and the Historisches Museum the Münster. Inside, in the north aisle, is the tomb of the Renaissance humanist Erasmus, and behind the church is the Pfalz terrace, perfect for a picnic.
Just east of the Old Town, you’ll find Basel’s Kunstmuseum, which has a dazzling array of twentieth-century art, plus an outstanding medieval collection, including many works by the Holbein family. Tucked away by the river, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst contains installations by Frank Stella and Joseph Beuys.
On the north bank of the Rhine at Paul Sacher-Anlage 2, the beautiful Museum Jean Tinguely is dedicated to one of Switzerland’s best-loved artists. Tinguely used scrap metal, plastic and everyday junk to create room-sized Monty Pythonesque machines, veering between grotesque and comical, that – with the touch of a button – judder into life, clanking and squeaking.