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. Despite that I moved there after spending just one day in Basel, 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. I’ve lived in Basel for exactly seven years, and Tom most of his life. Given the number of people who ask us, we decided to write a post about things to do in Basel. Together with some of Tom’s beautiful photography, consider it our tribute to a city we both call home.
Why visit Basel?
Of course we are biased, but we believe Basel is often underrated as a tourist destination in Switzerland. Basel attractions are plentiful, within the city and outside.
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.
Basel winters see temperatures 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 in Basel city centre 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 sightseeing has a lot more to offer than first meets the eye. If you are planning a visit and wondering just which things to do in Basel, Switzerland, then this is the guide for you!
We have tried to include something for everyone in this list of what to see in Basel. Feel free to post in the comments if you can add anything to our Basel guide!
Things to do in Basel
What to do in Basel when the weather is good…
1. Visit the historical churches
A Basel must-see, the cathedral (Basler Münster), is just a short walk up the cobbled hill from Basel 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</, another of the Basel sights, and considered one of the most important Gothic churches in Switzerland.
2. Walk around the historic Basel old town
After visiting the churches, your next stop for sightseeing Basel is to head for Marktplatz via the Tinguely Brunnen. One of the most fascinating things to see in Basel, this is a fountain of moving metal structures. It generally invokes open wonder, especially if viewed during sub-zero winters when it can be found coated in thick layers of delicate icicles.
On your way to Marktplatz, you will also pass Barfusserplatz, named because of it’s historical links to the Franciscan monks. This marks the very centre of town and a hub for the Basel public transport network. It is also home to the one of the Basel Museums – the Historical Museum. It is not really one of the Basel tourist attractions by itself, but it is generally used as a meeting point and is also home to the Basel tourist information office
At Marktplatz itself, as well as the market selling fresh fruit and veg, cheese and salami, you will find the Basel town hall (Rathaus). This beautiful red decorated building is one of the most beautiful things to see in Basel. Still used as an official government building, the central courtyard section of this 500-year old palace is open to the public.
Other things to do in Basel should include a visit to the old city gates – the Spalentor, the St. Alban Tor and the St. Johann Tor. They are somewhat spaced out, but each are easily accessible by tram or bus if you don’t fancy the walk and should feature on any Basel tour.
The 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 top things to see in Basel. If you are wondering what to do in Basel for one day, then this walk is a great Basel city guide.
3. 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. This is one of the very easy Basel activities to do.
A two hour cruise 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.
4. Go to the Zoo
The Zoo is one of the best Basel day trips for families especially with young children. 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 perfectly represents the pride that the Basel people have in their beloved city, and it 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. It is a great Basel visit for those on a tight budget, as you can also take a walk along the Wiese river there.
5. Roman ruins
One of the top places to visit near Basel is the Roman ruins! 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.
6. Rötteln Castle
This is another of the day trips from Basel short rail journey but this time from the German railway station (Badischer Bahnhof) as you are off over the border from Switzerland 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 your Basel visit extends for a few days or more, then a trip out to Rötteln castle is well worth the journey.
If you are looking for other things to do near Basel, then there are a number of other cities within an hours train ride away. Zurich, Lucerne and Bern are close by in Switzerland. Over the border in France, you can visit the gorgeous Alsatian town of Colmar or any of the surrounding villages, or visit Freiburg in Germany.
If weather is not so good…
Wondering what to do in Basel Switzerland in the rain? We have you covered.
7. Experience the museum culture
Basel is a museum hub and heaven for art lovers!
The art museum (Kunstmuseum) is the biggest and best known Basel museum. 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 is one of the most beautiful of the museums in Basel. It 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. Despite being close to the German border the Foundation Beyeler museum is still in Switzerland.
The Tinguely Museum is one of the most fascinating places to visit in Basel. In a modern building overlooking the Rhein, it 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 even after many years living in the city, it is one of my recommendations of top things to do in Basel. The sculptures, which are mostly made of moving metal machinery but may also feature feathers, stuffed animal parts, bones or old toys, can seem both playful and downright sinister both at the same time.
There are many other museums in Basel covering different specialities such as natural history or even toys. It is worth noting that many Basel museums offer free entry on the first Sunday of the month.
8. Eat cheese fondue
With apologies to our vegan and lactose intolerant readers, 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) which is always one of my recommendations for good places to eat in Basel. If you are feeling flush, try the champagne fondue at the Walliser Kanne (top-range prices).
9. 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. Located close to the Rhein, it is housed in one of the old town houses and is one of the most traditional Basel places to visit.
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.
10. Take a ride on the vintage tram (Oldtimerrundfahrt)
The “old-timer” trams are partly constructed from wood and it is a great activity if you want a quick way to get around all the Basel things to see, 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.
11. 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.
12. Carnival (Fasnacht)
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.
Check out our comprehensive Basel travel guide to Basel Fasnacht if you want to learn more!
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.
14. Art Basel
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.
15. Basel Tattoo
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.
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. Street food festival Basel
This is a fairly new event however is it hugely popular among locals. It is one of the best things to do in Basel if you love food and happen to be visiting when it is on! It features street food stalls from all over the world, many offering a sample plate. Check out our post about the Street Food Festival Basel.
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 and buses are the easiest way to get around all the places to see in Basel, and will always 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.
If you are looking for the best hotel deals in Basel then our deals finder can help you find the perfect Basel hotel for your dates and budget.
We hope this guide is helpful to you if you are planning a visit and looking for things to do in Basel. The city is compact but there are a whole host of Basel activities to enjoy for all ages and budgets.
Have you visited Basel? Do you have anything to add to our list of Basel Switzerland things to do? What sights are in your Basel Top 10?
Let us know in the comments below!
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