No matter where I go , Basel will always hold a very special place in my heart. Partly because it is where Tom calls home, and his home is my home. But mostly, it is the first ever city that I lived abroad. It is where I really discovered that I can live very happily and very comfortably, in the big wide world outside of the UK all by my little self. (At least for the 18 months I was here before Tom and I got together!). I’ve been here more than six years now, and Tom most of his life. Given the number of people who ask us, we decided to write a post about things you can do in Basel. Together with some of Tom’s beautiful photography, consider it our tribute to a city we both call home.
Of course we are biased, but we believe Basel is often underrated as a tourist destination in Switzerland.
Basel may not have a lake but it has the Rhein curving peacefully through the city.
It doesn’t have big banking institutions or UN Headquarters, but foreign nationals still flock there in their thousands for jobs in one of the many pharma and chemical companies who have headquarters in the city.
It sits on the border of both France and Germany, which together with Switzerland are part of the Schengen visa zone, so you can actually walk easily between three countries in under half an hour. For this reason, it is also a gateway to the Black Forest in Germany, Alsace in France and the Alps.
There are less than 180,000 people living in the city but you can hear up to five or six different languages just walking around in the centre.
Temperatures are as low as -15C (5F) in the winter when the Christmas market hits town. They rise to as much as 38C (100F) in the height of the summer, when locals, expats and tourists alike flock to the Rhein in droves to cool off in the city river waters. Yes, river waters that really are clean enough for a swim.
It has a rich history, and is regarded both domestically and internationally as a hotspot for art, culture and academia.
Basel has a lot more to offer than first meets the eye.
We have tried to include something for everyone here, however we may have missed some things. Feel free to post in the comments if you can add anything.
If the weather is good…
Walk around the historic city centre
Visit the cathedral (Münster), a short walk up the cobbled hill from the city centre. It dates back to the Middle Ages and has some of the best views of Basel out over the Rhein.
If this doesn’t whet your appetite for churches, walk five minutes to the Elisabethenkirche, considered one of the most important Gothic churches in Switzerland. Head for Marktplatz via the Tinguely Brunnen, a fountain of moving metal structures that generally invokes open wonder, especially if viewed during sub-zero winters when it can be found coated in thick layers of delicate icicles.
On the way to Marktplatz, you will also pass Barfusserplatz, named because of it’s historical links to the Franciscan monks. At Marktplatz itself, as well as the market selling fresh fruit and veg, cheese and salami, you will find the town hall (Rathaus). Still used as an official government building, only the central courtyard section of this 500-year old palace is open to the public. See the old city gates – the Spalentor, the St. Alban Tor and the St. Johann Tor.
Basel city centre is very compact, so even this multi-stop walk will only take a couple of hours even with time to stop and look around some of the sights.
Take a boat trip on the Rhein
The budget version is to go across the river on one of the small current-powered ferries (Fähri) which still cost less than CHF2 for an adult. If you have more time and prefer a more leisurely cruise, then you can take a passenger ferry (Personenschiffahrt) from Schifflände in the city centre. Around two hours will take you to Rheinfelden, a smaller town which is around a 15 minute rail journey to return to Basel from the main rail station there. If you take this ferry, then you will go through two locks and see the views from the river of both the Swiss and German sides. You can usually get food and drinks on board as well.
Go to the Zoo
Basel Zoo occupies 11 fairly inconspicuous hectares of space just south of the city centre. They have a great range of animals – big cats (including snow leopards!), rhinos, hippos, elephants, a monkey house, aviary, aquarium, vivarium… and more. It runs breeding programmes for 5 species of animals and is involved with breeding programmes for a further 35 more, as well as being involved with various international conservation projects. It opened in 1874, and is run as a charitable initiative, with all operating profit used to keep the zoo going.
Side note: The people of Basel really love their zoo and in the course of writing this article, I found out a little more why. The zoo ownership is represented by 1700 shares, each with an original face value of CHF 250 each. These shares do not pay dividends, but the owner is entitled to an annual season ticket entry for the zoo itself. These shares trade today for between CHF 10,000-16,000 (around the same value in USD at todays exchange rates), and they rarely change hands due to the families that own them handing them down through generations. This little fact nugget really made me smile!
If you have kids or just enjoy animal parks (as we do!), then the Tierpark Lange Erlen is another animal park that has more native Swiss and European animals, but is completely free entry.
The Augusta Raurica was a Roman town and you can visit the ancient ruins in Augst, which is a 10-minute train ride outside of Basel. You can walk around the ruins yourself free of charge, but there is also a museum there with a CHF6 entry fee, that offers workshops and guided tours.
This is another short rail journey but this time from the German railway station (Badischer Bahnhof) as you are off over the border into Germany (so remember to bring your passport with you!). Burg Rötteln sits on a hill overlooking Lörrach, which is one of the German towns very close to the Swiss border. It is thought to date back to the 11th century. It is a ruin, however you can climb the tower via some modern stairs to see stunning panoramic views over the valley. There is also a very pleasant and reasonably priced Biergarten selling traditional German dishes such as sausage salad (Wurstsalat) and of course, beer.
If weather is not so good…
Experience the museum culture
Visit one of the many museums. The art museum (Kunstmuseum) in Basel is the biggest and best known, and it is home to the public biggest art collection in the country featuring works by Picasso and Holbein. The new extension opened in 2016 and houses the modern art collections including (at the time of writing) a Jackson Pollock exhibition.
The Fondation Beyeler houses an extensive collection of 19th and 20th century paintings including a permanent collection by Mark Rothko, in an exquisitely designed building by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The building itself is situated in a lush and peaceful park which you can walk around and enjoy without paying the museum entrance fee if you wish.
The Tinguely Museum overlooking the Rhein displays a permanent exhibition of the bizarre and endlessly fascinating works of Swiss sculptor and artist Jean Tinguely. This is one of my favourite museums in the world and the sculptures, which are mostly made of moving metal machinery can seem both playful and downright sinister both at the same time.
It is worth noting that many museums offer free entry on the first Sunday of the month.
Eat cheese fondue
Actually, something cheese-based should be first on any list of things to do in Switzerland. If you are at any of the fairs taking place in autumn or winter, then you can get great fondue and raclette as street food. For a more refined experience, you can visit the Elsbethenstübli (mid-range prices) or even try the champagne fondue at the Walliser Kanne (top-range prices).
Drink beer in a micro-brewery
There has been a recent boom in the beer scene in Switzerland with more than 600 breweries registered in 2016 (up from less than 100 in the year 2000). The Brauerei Fischerstube was one of the early starters, and has been brewing Ueli beer from its premises close to the Rhein since 1974. You can also eat at the restaurant. It serves traditional Swiss food (think wurst and bretzels) but aim to arrive early in order to beat the locals to a decent table.
Unser is a newer brewery, but their range of beers is highly popular in Basel. There is a small bar attached to the brewery itself that is only open on Thursday and Friday evenings but worth a visit to sample any or all of the range. The seasonal beers are particularly good – try the Sommerbier if you are there in summer, or the Kürbisbier (pumpkin beer) in autumn.
Take a ride on the vintage tram (Oldtimerrundfahrt)
The “old-timer” trams are partly constructed from wood and it is a great way to see the entire city, as the journey covers pretty much the entire Basel tram network. You can only do this on Sunday mornings and you must pre-book to secure a place as it is a popular attraction among tourists.
Escape from a locked room
Room-escape games seem to be popping up all over the place at the moment, and Basel is now home to at least three of them. The basic premise is that you usually get one hour to solve a serious of puzzles to eventually free yourself from a locked room. It is a lot of fun, especially in a group. Again pre-booking is a must if you want to secure a place.
Events in Basel
Basel hosts many different events, exhibitions and fairs throughout the year. Below are some of the biggest, but you should check in advance for information about different exhibitions or shows.
Starts the Monday after Ash Wednesday, city centre
Basel Fasnacht is known by the locals as “the three best days”. The carnival itself is opened by the Morgenstraich, the first parade of the carnival at 4am, in near total darkness. For the next 72 hours, the entire city centre is a confetti-covered party. Masked groups (cliques) of drummers and pipers roam the streets all through the day and night – many don’t sleep at all – stopping only to grab something to eat and drink in one of the thousands of clique cellars (Cliquenkeller). The music they play is called Güggenmusik. If you do decide to visit during Fasnacht, we would recommend staying somewhere outside of the city centre if you want to get any sleep during your visit.
March, at the Messe
BaselWorld is the worlds largest watch and jewellery trade fair. It has more than 2000 exhibitors from all over the world and pulls in around 95000 visitors each year.
June, at the Messe
More than 4000 artists exhibit to around 95000 visitors at Art Basel, one of the most renowned art festivals in the world. Over recent years, sister festivals in HongKong and Miami beach have also sprung up.
Tip! For both Art Basel and BaselWorld, if you are not attending the shows, then we’d recommend visiting Basel another time. Accommodation is highly sought-after (also read, highly priced!) and you can forget eating out anywhere without a reservation.
The Tattoo is a military music festival, the second largest of its kind after the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo. It attracts around 100,000 people each year. You need to buy tickets to see the bands. However the streets around the Kaserne area are always packed with stalls and street food vendors. You can go and soak up some of the festival atmosphere without needing to buy a ticket if you wish.
Swiss National Day (Schweizer Bundesfeiertag)
1st August, firework displays at the Rhein the night before
Marking the foundation of the Swiss Confederacy, 1st August is a national holiday in Switzerland. The Swiss flag is fairly ubiquitous in Switzerland under normal circumstances. However it is also the symbol of Bundestag and hence you see it on flags, lanterns and bunting everywhere. In Basel, thousands of people flock to the bridges and banks of the Rhein on the evening of 31st July to watch the firework display that starts at midnight.
Autumn Fair (Herbstmesse)
Starts during late October and runs for three weeks, various locations
The Herbstmesse is the oldest autumn fair in Europe and has plenty to enjoy for young and old. There are many different rides and funfairs, a traditional market and street food stalls all over the city. You can read more in the post we wrote about the Herbstmesse.
Wine fair (Weinmesse)
November, at the Messe
Recently, the Weinmesse has also been sharing space with the Feinmesse, a smaller fair selling fine local foods. One ticket will get you entry to both events. At the main event, you can decide which of the 4000 wines for sale you would like to taste. Most of the stallholders speak at least a little English. They are often happy to spend time telling you about the wines on offer. They can also make recommendations if you are feeling overwhelmed by choice. Read our post from last years event.
Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt)
From early December until just before Christmas – Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz
Christmas markets seem to be everywhere over the last few years. Basel is no exception. Every year the small wooden stands selling glittery knick-knacks and steaming mugs of spicy Glühwein return to cater visiting crowds. My advice would be to visit during a weekday afternoon if you want to avoid the worst of the crowds. Fellow blogger BecBoop visited during December and made a great vlog featuring the Christmas markets and some of the other activities from this list.
Arrival/departure and how to get around
Euroairport has flights to/from many major European cities. You can get to the city from the airport by taking the 5o bus. This takes you from right outside the arrivals hall to Basel SBB, the main Swiss/French railway station. From there you can pick up trams and buses to pretty much anywhere in the city.
Most hotels offer a “mobility ticket” which will give you free transport on the trams and buses in the city. We cannot encourage you enough to take advantage of the clean, safe and efficient public transport in Basel. Trams or buses will get you to within a five-minute walk of where you need to be. Taxis are widely available but very expensive.
Need to know
You can get by in Basel as an English-speaker without too much trouble. Most of the younger generation speak at least some English. If you know a few words of German, it won’t do you any harm. However, don’t be alarmed when you hear Baslers conversing in language totally unrecognisable from any German you learned at school. Swiss German has many different dialects and Baseldytsch (Basel German) is near incomprehensible even to many native Germans. In fact, I have known Swiss people from outside Basel tell me that the Basel dialect sounds strange to them!
A few words that are useful – Swiss German speakers greet each other by the word “Gruezi”. This is pronounced something like “gretzy” with a long E and a rolled R. They also use the French “Merci” to say thank you. These two words alone will help you to be mistaken for an expat rather than a tourist ?.
This article contains many links and resources to help you plan your trip to Basel. Some of them are in German but the “Translate page” function on Google Chrome will usually work sufficiently well. You can also visit the Basel Tourism site itself.
If you want to get out and explore beyond the city, there are some beautiful hiking trails around northwest Switzerland, and other cities close by over border in France and Germany. Click here to see our photo gallery from our hikes around Basel or our photo gallery from Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany.
Have you visited Basel? Do you have anything to add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!