While the main cities of Zurich and Geneva usually spring
to mind when planning a city break to Switzerland, smaller, under-the-radar
Basel – sandwiched between the French and German borders in the country’s north
– is Switzerland’s hidden gem.
The best way to explore the country’s third-largest
metropolis is on foot; a stroll through the diminutive city will take you past
most of the historical sites, including the Old Town and Rhine River.
Start your stroll at the north bank promenade in Kleinbasel
(Lesser Basel), a picturesque residential area thriving with local coffee and
art shops tucked in between old brick houses decorated with red and purple pansies
and colourful wooden shutters. In the afternoons, families and students stroll
along the tree-lined cobblestone path or relax on the steps leading down to the
When it gets warm, often as early as May, the
promenade is the starting point for the Rhyschimme (Swimming in the
Rhine). This cherished Basel tradition – where people put their belongings in a
waterproof, floating bag and drift or swim down the river – is a refreshing lunch break for some,
but also a popular event on the city’s calendar; more than 6,000 people are
expected to participate in 2013’s 1.5km swim on 13 August.
You could take the Mittlere Brücke, Basel’s main
pedestrian bridge and Europe’s oldest Rhine crossover between Lake Constance and the
North Sea, built in the 13th Century, to walk from the north banks to
the older southern district of Grossbasel (Greater Basel). But an exciting alternative
is just a short walk east of the bridge to the Vogel Gryff Fähre, a wooden boat
that looks like a large Italian gondola. This 20-seater vessel crosses the
river year-round; the gondolier sets off whenever enough passengers are on
board and the crossing takes about five minutes, adults pay 1.60 Swiss francs,
children just 80 rappen.
In Grossbasel, the Altstadt (Old Town) charms with its
15th- and 16th-century architecture, including many
half-timbered houses, a common architectural style in the German-speaking areas
(of both Switzerland and Germany) north of the Alps. In the 16th
Century, Basel, as well as nearby southern Germany and France’s Alsace were
part of the Upper Rhenish Circle, an imperial circle of the Holy Roman Empire, whose
influence can still be seen in the city’s architecture and its Swiss-German
On the Münsterhügel, the hill above the south bank, is
the Münsterplatz (Minster square) with the red sandstone Minster,
Basel’s Romanesque-Gothic cathedral. The Pfalz, a free observation
platform behind the church, offers excellent views over the Rhine, Kleinbasel
and even across to Germany’s Black Forest and France’s Vosges mountain range.
Walk down the hill from the cathedral, and, embedded
between medieval mansions and houses, you will find the Marktplatz, a lively market
square in the centre of the Old Town where farmers sell vegetables, fruit, bread
and cheese each day. Here is Basel’s
classy red Rathaus (City Hall), with its
distinctive tall tower decorated with Swiss flags; take a look inside to see
the artfully painted walls, some of which were completed in 1608 by German
Renaissance painter Hans Bock who resided in Basel. Most of the murals tell the
story of when Basel became part of the Swiss confederation in 1501 or portray Switzerland’s
ancient crests, one for each canton.
From City Hall, many Gässlein (a Swiss word describing
narrow, pedestrian-friendly, often cobblestone alleyways and streets) wend
their way through the enchanting city to the cathedral and along the Rhine.
Street musicians entertain passersby with saxophone tunes or the typical
Swiss-German Drehorgel – a barrel pipe organ on wheels, about half the size of
Exhibitions and art
Basel is home to more than 40 museums, multiple
theatres and Art Basel, the world’s leading annual contemporary art show
that has branched out as far as Miami and Hong Kong. Launched in 1970 by three
Basel natives – Ernst Beyeler, Trudi Bruckner and Balz Hilt – the event has
turned into an international contemporary art fair and is always held in June,
this year between 13 and 16 June. More than 300 galleries from around the world
attend and exhibitions include anything from paintings and short films to live
performances and photography.
The Kunstmuseum, a five-minute walk southwest
from Grossbasel’s minster, was the world’s first public art collection established
in 1661 and still hosts Switzerland’s largest collection, including pieces by Monet,
Picasso and Holbein.
A new Picasso exhibition, running from 17 March to 21
July, will include previously unseen Picasso works – including paintings,
sculptures and sketches –collected by Basel locals. The painter had a special
relationship with the city after it held a festival (raising 2.4 million Swiss francs)
in 1967 to purchase two of his paintings – Les deux frères and Arlequin assis – both now part of the museum’s collection. Moved
by the effort, Picasso contributed three additional creations to the museum, as
well as a pencil sketch of Les Demoiselles
d'Avignon, still on display today.
Basel is also home to a booming chemical and pharmaceutical
industry, home to the headquarters of Novartis, Roche, Ciba and Syngenta, among
others. The University of Basel puts a strong emphasis on the subject, and its quaint
Museum, which portrays the world’s most extensive assortment of
pharmaceutical pieces, should not be missed. Expect to see everything from old medical books
and medicine to a replica of an old pharmacy store, as well an exhibitions on
the history of aspirin, discovered by French chemist Charles Frederic Gerhardt
in 1853, and apothecary, the art of pharmacy and medical treatment that dates
back to 2600 BC.
Eat and drink
After walking all day, Basel’s many cafes and
restaurants offer a chance to relax and recharge. A local favourite is the Café
des Art’s, a cocktail bar with live jazz performances and an
excellent wine list, many from the
nearby French region of Alsace. Another highlight is Bar
only skyscraper restaurant bar. Head to its 31st-floor location for phenomenal
views over the Rhine.
Finally, do not leave the city without trying the hot
sweet chestnuts sold on almost every street corner of the city throughout the
year, or Basel Leckerli, a sweet, spiced, bread-like and square-shaped biscuit
exclusively sold in the city; try it at Leckerli Huus right beside the north
side of the Mittlere Brücke – the cosy shop sells the treats all year round.