Facing the borders of France and Germany, Basel is a Swiss city that refuses to be put in a box. Sure, the pretty, pastel-coloured townhouses lining the banks of the Rhine and fairytale lights of the Christmas market speak of tradition, but the vibe here is altogether more left-field when you scratch beneath the surface.
Case in point, swimming in the city’s many water fountains is not only permitted, it’s actively encouraged. And its most celebrated artist creates noisy sculptures using scrap metal. Throw in a bevy of interesting architecture and a burgeoning street food scene, and you have the makings of a great city break.
What to do
Check out the art
As the city where the annual Art Basel fair was founded – now a global phenomenon with events in Asia and North America – it’s unsurprising that you’ll find some pretty edgy artworks here. Museum Tinguely is the most interesting if you’re travelling with kids: it houses the single largest collection of works by Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, whose noisy kinetic sculptures made from scrap metal are chaotic and joyful all at once. The Kunstmuseum is best if your tastes are more traditional, and the building is an architectural marvel in itself.
Get on a boat
The best way to see the city is from the water and the year-round brunch cruise is hugely popular with locals and tourists alike. For 59CHF (£52), you can hop on board from 10am and enjoy a leisurely sail between Dreiländereck (the tri-nation meeting point) and Museum Tinguely until 2pm, all the while eating breads, cheeses and charcuterie to your heart’s content. Or catch one of the four ferries – “Wild Maa”, “Leu”, “Vogel Gryff” and “Ueli” – for a mere 2.50CHF (£2); these are propelled between the two banks by the force of the river.
Delight your inner child
Spielzeug Welten Museum Basel is a treasure trove of toys, with four floors dedicated to everything from dolls’ houses to miniature figurines; a level focused solely on teddy bears features some terrifying-looking specimens.
Stroll down Imbergässlein and you’ll see Basel’s other museum of wonder, Hoosesagg (pants pocket). Set in the door of a 600-year-old house, this two foot by two foot display is the city’s smallest “museum”. What began as a way to stop tourists from peering into the private home has since taken on a life of its own, with a regular changing display to keep visitors coming back.
Go for a swim
Drifting down the Rhine with your belongings in a Wickelfisch – a fish-shaped dry bag invented in Basel – is an essential part of summer in the city. Enter from the pebble beach just down river from Schwarzwaldbrücke, next to Museum Tinguely. For safety, stay within the boundaries of the red buoys and watch out for passing ferries. Not much actual swimming is needed – the river will gently take you all the way to Dreirosenbrücke. If you can see the Novartis Pavilion, you’ve gone too far; swim back with haste.
Like many Swiss, German and Austrian cities, Basel has the right architecture, quaintness and wholesomeness for a December or January break. This year, the city’s twinkly Christmas market, on Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz, runs until 23 December. Meanwhile, classical concerts are held throughout the month and there’s ice skating at the Eglisee rink until 23 February 2023.
Where to stay
Relatively new on the scene is Silo, a boutique hostel in a converted grain store. The feel is industrial chic meets minimalism; it’s a little out of the centre, but well connected by public transport. Private doubles from 110CHF (£96) or a bed in a four-bed dorm from 35CHF (£31), both room-only.
Located right by the Rhine in one of the aforementioned townhouses, Krafft Basel has been around since 1872. You’ll still see traces of period features, like the spiral staircase that sweeps up to the fourth floor or the colourful tiles, but the rooms are smart, modern and well equipped. Book a river-view room with a balcony if you can. Doubles from 190CHF (£166), room-only.
Perfect for late-night arrivals or early-morning departures by train, Gaia Hotel is right next to Basel SBB station. The family-run property has a big focus on sustainable living, including organic breakfast, a zero-waste strategy and, of course, clever recycling bins. It’s a bit of a treat too, as you can enjoy the sauna all to yourself for an hour as part of your stay. Doubles from 249CHF (£218), B&B.
Where to eat
Restaurants in Basel are frankly heaving at the weekend and the most popular options are always booked up at least a week in advance – unless you’re happy to sit down after 9pm, as the locals tend to eat early.
French dominates the fine dining end of the spectrum here, with traditional Swiss fare firmly in the middle – but this is a university city, so there’s a good spread of budget and walk-in friendly food halls, too. The biggest is the cavernous Markthalle, where you can sample everything from Afghan to Thai dishes, with prices around the 10-20CHF (£9-£18) mark. Avoid Sundays, when most stalls are closed.
Klara is a smaller alternative that’s open daily. The hip coworking space is surrounded by nine food stalls – dishes at the Indian and Greek outfits are among the choicest – with a central bar. Go there as part of a self-guided food tour of the city (33CHF/£27).
If you don’t mind taking a short walk through the red light district (the tram is also an option, but not as frequent), Restaurant Union is a vibey spot for oversized burgers and bites. There’s also an enclosed courtyard that’s buzzing in the summer.
Where to drink
Basel is at its best in the summer when everything heads outdoors. Le Rhin Bleu is the watering hole to head to after visiting the nearby Tinguely Museum. The pontoon-style building, semi-perched over the Rhine, is dreamy for sundowners. Or save yourself some money and do as the locals do: buy a bottle of something chilled and go and sit by the water.
Most bars have a winter version, too. Take the Sandoase – in summer it’s a “beach” bar with sand underfoot but, come winter, the chalets and fairylights come out and it’s suddenly a Christmas market.
Meanwhile Campari Bar, where chestnut trees provide ample shade to the sun-dappled courtyard, is the place to meet before dinner, after the theatre or on a summer’s eve. In winter, simply cosy up inside to enjoy the warm glow of the impressive bar. The menu is mostly classic cocktails reimagined, plus a smattering of wines. But given it has a signature cocktail, the Kunsthalle Spritz, you might as well start there.
Where to shop
Freie Strasse is the main shopping street with all of your usual international brands, and high-end flagships like Kurz where you can buy Swiss watches and jewellery. But if you’re looking for small boutiques with unique design, Spalenberg is your best bet. It’s worth it just for the novelty of Johann Wanner Christmas House, where you can pick up your Christmas decorations year-round.
Before you head home, go to Jakob’s Basler Leckerly to pick up a bag or box of Läckerli. These spiced biscuits – a Basel specialty – are made with flour, honey, almonds, candied peel and spices, and they’re just the right sweetness for a cup of espresso.
If you like the modern stuff, it’s hard to beat the Novartis Campus in St Johann. Designed as a city within a city, the micro hub has everything from office buildings and apartments to shops and restaurants. Every building has been designed by a different architect – Frank Gehry’s Cloud building is a highlight – so there’s plenty for enthusiasts in one spot.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Tips are generally included in the price.
What’s the time difference?
They’re an hour ahead.
How should I get around?
Basel is very walkable. All buses and trams in the city are included with your BaselCard, which is free when you book an overnight hotel stay.
What’s the best view of the city?
From the Mittlere Brücke (Middle Bridge).
Unless otherwise signposted, all of the fountains in the city pump out drinking water so refill liberally.
Trying to fly less?
The most direct route is to take the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, then hop on the metro to Gare de Lyon (about 10 minutes) where you change for the TGV Lyria to Basel.
Fine with flying?
The closest airport is EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, which is actually in France. British Airways and easyJet both fly there from the UK and it takes just over 20 minutes to get to the centre of Basel by public transport.