How to get under the skin of beautiful Basel

Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker

More hip than Heidi, Basel reveals a side of Switzerland that few get to see; a forward-thinking, culturally on-the-ball city beyond the Alpine peaks and cheese and chocolate clichés.

Old Basel from the Wettstein Bridge
Old Basel from the Wettstein Bridge © Balakate - Adobe Stock Image

Reclining on the banks of the Rhine* and snuggling close to the French and German borders, Basel is the capital of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

Cue a city with an architectural edge (courtesy of an extraordinary line-up of Pritzker Prize-winning architects) and booming arts, food and nightlife scenes with a serious hit of urban cool.

Whether you want to dabble in European art or dive into the fast-flowing waters of the Rhine, don't miss these top ways to experience Basel.

Getting to Basel: check out the current offers from TUI River Cruises* on itineraries through the waterways of Europe including the Rhine.

Tune into the arts scene

Basel plays host to the world-famous Art Basel in mid-June, described as the 'Olympics of the art world', shining a light on 200 galleries and more than 4000 artists from across the globe.

The fair is the icing on Basel's cultural cake, with events happening all over the city, but you'll find a cracking roster of exhibitions at any given time of year.

Summertime Art Basel in full swing in Basel, Switzerland
Summertime Art Basel in full swing in Basel, Switzerland - photo courtesy of Basel Tourism

Art is everywhere here: behind glass, on canvas and outdoors. But no intro to Basel's arts scene is complete without a visit to the Kunstmuseum, lodged in a striking modern building designed by Swiss architects Christ & Gantenbein.

The museum opens up an entire world of art, with a stash of 4,000 paintings, sculptures and installations, skipping from Old Masters like Rembrandt and Hans Holbein the Younger to Paul Klee, Picasso and Van Gogh.

Top tip: enjoy free entry to the Kunstmuseum between 5 pm and 6 pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and between 5 pm and 8 pm on Wednesdays.

A hop across the Rhine brings you to Mario Botta's rose-pink sandstone Museum Tinguely, presenting works by kinetic artist Jean Tinguely (1925–1991) and his playfully ingenious motorised inventions.

In Basel's historic market hall, Artstübli Gallery zooms in on urban art and culture with events, exhibitions and expert-led street art tours that track down some sensational graffiti.

Swim in the Rhine

If you want to feel Basel's heartbeat, jump into its beloved river. The Rhine forms the backdrop to the city and going for a dip is a way to connect with it on a deeper level.

Wild urban swims have become insanely popular in recent years, so much so that even the tourist office on Barfüsserplatz stocks the Wickelfisch, a fish-shaped waterproof stuff sack that keeps your gear nice and dry while you swim.

Swimmers making the most of the Rhine in summer
Swimmers making the most of the Rhine in summer © Image Professionals GmbH - Alamy Stock Photo

Bring bathers and make for the riverbank in the central Kleinbasel neighbourhood to splash past city landmarks as you drift downstream.

For an above-water perspective, rent a standup paddleboard or join a sunset SUP tour with Birs73.

Wander the medieval Old Town

The new often upstages the old in Basel, but the city's pleasingly walkable Old Town, centred on the riverfront Grossbasel neighbourhood, is nevertheless beguiling.

The crowning glory is the Gothic Münster, a medieval marvel in red sandstone, topped off with a chevron-tiled roof and twin towers with filigree spires.

Gemsbrunnen fountain in the historic centre of Basel
Gemsbrunnen fountain in the historic centre of Basel © Balakate -

The terrace commands fabulous views over the Rhine and the square in front is a popular Basler meeting place.

Take a serendipitous stroll through town and you'll also spy the 13th-century Mittlere Brücke (Middle Bridge), one of the oldest Rhine crossings, and the rosy-bricked, romantic Rathaus, with a courtyard concealing a feast of frescoes, arcades and dancing cherubs.

Take a design detour

Take a quick tram ride north of Basel Bad station and over to Germany for a morning at the astonishing Vitra Design Museum.

A vision in white plaster and titanium-zinc alloy, the building bears the daring, curvaceous, deconstructivist hallmark of Frank Gehry. Its cutting-edge exhibitions turn the spotlight on industrial and interior design and architecture.

Be sure to glimpse the Vitra Slide Tower by the German artist Carsten Höller while you're here; an eye-catching helter-skelter slide, lookout tower and art installation.

On the Swiss-German border is another unmissable for art lovers: Fondation Beyeler, a light-drenched Renzo Piano edifice, immersed in lily pond-dotted gardens, overlooking vineyards, pastures and the wooded hills of the nearby Black Forest. The gallery exhibits a phenomenal collection of modern works, from Miró to Lichtenstein.

If you're coming from central Basel, you could hike the three-mile Rehberger-Weg, zigzagging through vineyards and stopping off at 24 public art installations by German sculptor Tobias Rehberger.

Looking for an affordable city break? Don't miss our guide to the top 60 cheapest cities in Europe that you can visit in 2024/2025 for a great value escape.

Go for riverside drinks

Basel fizzes with upbeat bars and buvettes pop up along the riverfront in summer, with deckchairs, cocktails, good vibes and DJ-spun tunes.

Riverside pop-up buvette in Basel, Switzerland
Riverside pop-up buvette in Basel, Switzerland - photo courtesy of Basel Tourism

These casual little bars are terrific for grabbing nibbles and drinks and watching the sun go down over the Rhine. You'll find a sprinkling of artsy, alternative options, alongside community vegetable gardens, a sauna and petanque at cultural hub Holzpark Klybeck, just north of town.

Otherwise, check out the more central Angels' Share in the Kleinbasel 'Bermuda-Triangle' nightlife district, a retro-style speakeasy serving knockout cocktails like soda-topped, sake-laced lemon verbena with yuzu. Gathered around a courtyard, Grenzwert is a relaxed choice for craft beers.

Eat at markets & Michelin-starred temples

Few cities in Switzerland can rival Basel for food. Whether you're talking about a gourmet brunch by the Rhine, a brasserie lunch, a snack on the hoof or a full-on tasting menu, it's got it all.

For a taste of Switzerland and the world beyond, nip into the beautifully domed Markthalle. The gorgeously restored 1920s market hall is an atmospheric spot to shop for the freshest produce.

Lunchwise, it casts its net wide: come to graze on fresh fish, imaginative salads and everything from Thai curries to South American arepas (cornmeal cakes), Afghan kebabs, and Indian and Israeli flavours.

Special occasion? Snag a table at one of the top restaurants in town. Roots shines brightly with two Michelin stars, with wizard Pascal Steffen at the stove.

The softly lit, slickly contemporary restaurant riffs creatively on veggies in ingredient-led tasting menus where they are the main act (hence the name). In summer, the riverside terrace is the dream.

See the wonder walls

Starchitects like Richard Meier, Frank Gehry and Mario Botta, and Basel-based whizzes like Herzog & de Meuron and Christ & Gantenbein have kept Basel right at the cutting edge of architecture

In contrast to the quaintness of many Swiss towns, Basel raises eyebrows with stark, contemporary icons.

Devise your own self-guided architecture tour to admire the lofty likes of Herzog & de Meuron's Roche Towers, which jut up like silver blades above the Rhine. At 205 m, the taller of the two is Switzerand's second-tallest building and one of the world's most energy-efficient skyscrapers.

Herzog & de Meuron's Roche Towers
Herzog & de Meuron's Roche Towers © Michael Derrer Fuchs - Adobe Stock Image

Other showstoppers include Herzog & de Meuron's Museum der Kulturen (Ethnological Museum) on Münsterplatz, with a jagged concertina-like roof clad in shimmering tiles, Mario Botta's cylindrical BIS building and Frank Gehry's postmodern marvel, the Vitra Design Museum.

Weather in Basel

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall

The above guide shows the weather in Basel. You can find out more about conditions across the country in our complete guide to the weather in Switzerland.

Ready to discover Basel? Don't miss the latest offers on itineraries from TUI River Cruises, which cruises through the Swiss city on many of its Rhine tours.

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Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker is a Wales-based travel writer and author. Kerry specialises in Wales, Central and Southern Europe. She regularly writes for The Telegraph and National Geographic Traveller among others. She's also authored/co-authored over 20 travel guides. Kerry's a qualified translator, avid photographer and lover of mountains and remote destinations.

Posted on Wednesday 15th February 2023 in: City Culture Europe

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