It may not be the first place you think of when you hear the name Switzerland, but this not-so-little town has a lot to offer. It is a major hub for trains heading to bordering France and Germany, as well as having the Rhine River pass through its centre, so if you find yourself passing through, stop and see what it has to offer. Officially Switzerland’s third largest city, the population is supported by some large international pharmaceutical companies with many foreign staff living and working here. This, combined with the close proximity to France and Germany give Basel an international feel.
With a largely intact old centre, Basel has a lot of character and historic buildings to admire. Divided into Gross Basel and Klein Basel (big and small Basel) by the Rhine River, several bridges link the two sides. Traditionally the wealthier and more important side being Gross Basel, most of the sites are on this side. A large church, known as the Munster, perches on top of Basel and is distinctly visible from the Rhine. It’s possible to go up the tower to the top where you will get a spectacular view out over the city. A large market place (Marktplatz) is the heart of the city with a perfectly maintained city hall that is painted red with a brilliant gold roof that shines in the sunlight. On many days the Marktplatz has a market selling a range of cheeses, meats and fresh vegetables. The main shopping streets radiate out from this centre and on a busy day the streets bustle with shoppers, buskers and people-watchers taking it easy from the street-side cafes as they enjoy the scenes of the day unfold.
Another central area nearby is Barfusserplatz which is home to the Historic Museum. Again it is a pleasant square that attracts all kinds of passers-by and during festival times is a hub of action. Baslers enthusiastically embrace festivals through-out the year. The biggest and best-loved is Carnival (Fasnacht) which happens around early March to mark the end of winter. Enthusiast groups spend the whole year preparing floats and lanterns that they parade around the streets for three days. The streets are covered with confetti each day which is then cleared overnight by efficient street cleaners. It is said to be Basel’s biggest party, but the rest of the year is not forgotten, with many summer events such as free concerts held on a floating barge on the Rhine, the annual Rhine swim in August where everyone jumps into the water together and floats downstream to collect their medal – despite it not being a race and nobody swims, you just float! Autumn sees the Herbsmesse in October/November which turns the whole town into a carnival with rides throughout the squares and stands selling fried, cheesy indulgences to be washed down with a hot chocolate or Gluwein. Finally, the year ends with an elaborate Christmas market which sees the town lit up with Christmas lights and stalls line the streets so you can shop for last minute gifts.
Basel is small enough to be enjoyed on foot, although trams and buses do run frequently through the city. Another fun way to enjoy getting around Basel is to use the traditional ferries that cross the river in between the bridges. These ferries are connected to a cable overhead and use the current of the river to drift from one side to the other. At only CF1.80 it’s a bargain. While you’re at the Rhine and in the mood for boat travel, there are some boat tours that leave from Schifflande, by Mittlerebrucke (Middle Bridge, the oldest bridge in the middle of Basel). You can take a trip to where Switzerland meets France and Germany, known as the “Three Lands Corner”, or do a lunch trip a bit further up where you’ll pass through a large lock and you can visit the next town up stream, Rheinfelden, which is home to the Feldschlossen brewery, Switzerland’s largest.
Basel is also known throughout Switzerland for being a cultural centre. There are many art galleries and museums that are well worth a visit. The Kunstmuseum in the centre of town and the Beyeler Museum a bit further out both have excellent permanent collections and showcase special exhibitions. A local artist, Tinguely, famous for his moving artworks, has his own museum on the Klein Basel side of the Rhine. Seemingly inspired by junk-yards, visitors can press buttons that make his creations move and creak. There is also a fountain created by him in front of the theatre, near Barfusserplatz. This is entertaining for children, as well as the Puppenhaus Musuem which is cram-full of toys from all eras. Some older children may also find the Basel Paper Mill interesting, set in a former mill you can make your own paper to take home. Lovers of design will enjoy the Vitra Design Museum, just over the border in Germany where you can see famous furniture designs. For museum locations and more information (this list just scratches the surface of what museums there are here) visit the tourist office at Barfusserplatz and they can help you with directions.
Basel also has an active nightlife, concentrated around Barfusserplatz and the central areas. There are lots of restaurants and bars to choose from. Check menu prices first, as there are several Michelin star restaurants around and unless this is what you are looking for, you may have a delicious but expensive evening. Klein Basel has some cheaper eating options. The very distinct glass modern building over on the Klein Basel side is home Bar Rouge, a bar on the 31st floor so you can enjoy the view as well as your favourite cocktail.
So although it may not be at the top of everyone’s list of European highlights, Basel is worth spending a day or a few. It’s a city with a relaxed pace and on a sunny day you could do worse than to follow the locals and just sit by the Rhine River and watch life flow calmly by.
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