Although Zurich and Geneva usually spring to mind when planning a city break to Switzerland, smaller, under-the-radar Basel is the country’s hidden gem.

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.  

City sights
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 water.

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 dialect.

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 a piano. 

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 Pharmacy 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 Rouge, Basel’s 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.