There are 11 reasons to enjoy Basel, Switzerland. But it can really be summed up in one word: CULTURE. This is a hardworking Swiss city that knows how to enjoy the arts, nature, and history.
As it has been over three decades since I visited Basel, Switzerland’s third-largest city, I didn’t know what to expect. I had 48 hours to explore the medieval Old Town plus its bustling cosmopolitan neighborhoods.
Basel spans the political tumult and the cultural changes that define Europe. First, the Celts were here; it is the site of the original Basel. The Romans crossed the Rhine and their occupation lasted 300 years. Then the Germanic tribes invaded. Basel became part of the Swiss Confederacy in 1501.
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One City, Three Countries
Basel’s borders touch two adjacent countries—France and Switzerland, nestled between the Swiss Jura, Germany’s Black Forest, and the Vosges in Alsace. The airport is situated in France. Little (Klein) Basel borders Germany. It is surrounded by the Black Forest.
“Where else can you visit three countries all at the same time (very conveniently on public transport), without having to travel a long way?”Basel Tourism
My adventure with Basel’s arts scene began in my hotel room listening to a concert outside my hotel window. The singers’ voices rose in melody like the Black Forest mountain range looming on the horizon of the Rhine River. I marveled that I could enjoy this free musical Gloria! church concert laying on my bed at the Hotel Rochat.
The weather was abnormally warm in June (reaching 30C in the afternoon). My air conditioning didn’t work in my room so I flung open the window to cool off. The cool air blew the curtains but also ushered in an annoying fly.
It turns out the Peters Church choir was practicing for their weekend performance.
When I stepped outside my hotel, I decided to investigate Peters Church. The present style of the church dates to the 13th century. There is a statue outside the church honoring German writer Johann Peter Hebel. I peeked into the church vestibule to see the choir practice.
But I didn’t linger as I wanted to explore the Old Town during the golden hour before sunset. Raucous chatter and tinkling laughter flowed through the outdoor patios of popular Basel restaurants. I marveled at the multicultural recipes – vegan dishes, hummus with falafel, colorful greens – but always accompanied by a stein of beer or glass of wine. No fondue in sight.
Veering north on the street, I left the diners behind to walk the quiet curving street toward the History Museum. It is one of 40 museums in Basel that celebrate the arts, history, culture, and science. But my history lesson is laid out in front of me – free of charge. I slow down to photograph the entrance doors of old houses. Many bear the name and original year when the homeowner lived on this street.
Many street names describe their purpose. Only in the 19th century were houses given numbered. Residences were previously identified by the owner’s name (and some note the year).
At 9 pm at night, the twisting street is quiet except for the occasional mother walking her baby in a carriage or a University of Basel student scurrying down an alley toward her home.
I veer off the lane to inspect the fountain. An animal statue stands guard over the water. There is no one splashing around at this hour but Baselers revel in swimming in the city fountains during the summer.
Basel Walking Tour
I originally visited Old Town Basel as part of the Walking Tour Through Basel Old Town. We met at the Tinguely Fountain outside the Basel Theatre. This outdoor sculpture features kinetic art sculptural machines moving their arms and splashing water. I was mesmerized. (Jean Tinguely was a Swiss sculptor. The Tinguely Museum is based in Roche.)
My guide is Elisbeth who will introduce us to the history and culture of the third-largest Swiss city. Elisbeth explains that the city creates parks in the middle of the city. “We try to get some green areas. We are in the medieval area. This Fountain was created by Tingley who is well known for his sculptures and art. It is situated on the old site of 19th-century theatre.”
Pulling out a map, Elisbeth shows us an old Basel map. There are different colored lines drawn to show where people settled inside (11th century) and outside the walled gates (13th century). “Basel was quite a cultural area in 19th century. There was a Concert Hall and a Theatre.”
But there was only one bridge in the 18th century. It is now known as the Middle Bridge (Mittlere Brücke). Many streets surrounding the bridge are of medieval origin.
There are five bridges today in Basel (the last two bridges were built in the 1870s. The Middle Bridge is the oldest one but it was modernized in the last century. The little chapel on top of it is part of the original bridge.
Walking across the Middle Bridge is like participating in a parade. The flags for Art Basel wave in the wind. Families stroll with toddlers riding on baby tricycles. Teenagers fly by on scooters. I like to watch the sunbathers on the riverfront below clustered in groups. I even see swimmers bobbing around in the water.
Our tour stops at the Stadtcasino Basel so our guide can discuss the arts in Basel. Dating from 1876, the Concert Hall is the heart of the Stadtcasino Basel. Designed by architect Johann Jakob Stehlin, the interior is reminiscent of baroque halls.
“Stuccowork, crystal chandeliers, busts and portraits of famous composers create an entirely unique ambiance whilst also providing optimum sound diffusion.”Stadcasino Basel
“In the 20th century, the Concert Hall was modernized but when they dug out more room for the cellar, the archeologists arrived to find out what Basel was like and to find the smallest of items to investigate,” explained our guide.
Basel is the home of two orchestras: the Sinfonieorchester (symphony orchestra) and the Kammerorchester (chamber music orchestra). They perform around the world.
Historical note: There used to be a little river flowing through it at the marketplace by the Concert Hall. But cholera and typhus epidemics in the 19th century resulted in it being covered.
Next, we travel to see Basel’s historic cathedral in the Old Town. The red-brick Basel Minster dates to the 15th century. The previous cathedral was destroyed at the end of the 10th century. Designed in Romanesque style, it features round arches. But sections were redesigned after the 1356 earthquake. Our guide described the new resolve to “build cathedrals reaching toward the heavens.”
During the Reformation, the Cathedral was stripped of its Catholic identity. All the statues of saints were removed. One prominent exception is the statue of Saint George conquering the dragon on the outside of the edifice.
Today Switzerland is ecumenical. But in medieval (Catholic) times, there were many monasteries. “It was Secularized after the Reformation. There were no masses,” declared our guide. With the influx of immigrants from Germany, Catholic services were reinstituted in Basel in the 1800s.
Basel is a city that celebrates the role of water for its citizens. The Rhine River divides the city into Big and Little Basel. For a mere 3 Swiss francs, a visitor can cross the Rhine on a wooden ferry.
Elisbeth said Baselers love to swim in the river: “The Rhine invites everybody to go swimming. The plastic bag (wickelfisch) is used to hold your clothes. You must turn it around seven times. Then the bag is waterproof.”
Swimmers can use the inflatable object as a raft to float down the Rhine. “But you must be a good swimmer because of the current,” she warned.
The water in any Basel fountain is safe to drink. It is filtered from the Rhine River. You will see parents filling a thermos. Dog owners use fountain water for their dogs to drink. I saw a little boy continuously fill his water pistol to shoot in the air.
Basel operates the oldest fair in Switzerland and the Upper Rhine region. It last two weeks. It starts on the last weekend of October. It is then followed by the month-long Christmas Market. “The Basel Christmas market on Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz is considered to be one of the prettiest and largest in Switzerland,” according to Basel Tourism.
The Basel Carnival runs from 4 am from Monday through Wednesday. Only performers can wear Carnival costumes and masks. The celebration starts with the sound of the pipers playing music. There are also two parades. There are Carnival kiosks set up in the squares.
“The largest carnival of Switzerland is so unique and of such exceptional quality that it appears on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.”Basel Tourism
I saw a house in Old Town decorated with images of the Carnival jesters, clowns, and musicians. The city’s residents take great pride in the annual event.
When visitors arrive in Basel, they always want to shop. The main shopping street is located on Kaufhausgasse. But it could be any avenue located in any city lined with global brands—Fossil, Pandora, Breitling, or C&A. But we learn it was home to famous Swiss department stores at the end of the 19th century.
An alternative is to head to the Old Town to visit unique local Basel shops selling clothes, jewelry, homemade bakery items, and Basler Lackerli (gingerbread treat). I highly recommend Gilgen, a Swiss bakery that specializes in delectable pies, tarts, rolls, and loaves of bread. I bought a slice of Quiche Lorraine to eat as a snack.
You can also head to the Marktplatz, which is a stop on the tram line. Vendors sell fresh flowers, vegetables, and fruits. The backdrop for the market square is the red brick Basel City Hall (Rathaus Basel).
If you book a hotel room in the city, you will receive a Basel Card for the length of your stay. It provides free transportation on the city’s trams and buses as well as half-price admission to many museums. In addition, your airport transportation will be free! Outside the Euro Airport, you will find the #50 bus. You can transfer to a tram that runs past the neighborhood where you booked your hotel. Both rides are free if you book a hotel in Basel.