In this article, you will find ideas for things to do in Basel Switzerland, along with tips for places to eat and advice on how to get around.
Basel sits snugly in the north-western corner of Switzerland, bordering both France and Germany. This strategic location on the Rhein river means Basel has historically held an important position as a commercial and trading hub. Over more recent years, it has established itself as the de facto Swiss capital of art and culture.
Today, it is a cosmopolitan city where you are likely to hear five or more languages spoken on the street. At any one time, the city is a colourful mix of business visitors to the trade fairs, tourists thirsty for art and history, students of the oldest university in Switzerland, expatriates lured in by the many headquarters of multinational companies, and of course, the ever-patient Baslers with their lilting dialect and dry humour.
Despite only being the third-largest city in Switzerland, there is no shortage of things to do in Basel.
Things to do in Basel
Explore Basel old town
Most of the Basel tourist attractions can be found in and around the compact city centre. The historic Marktplatz with the beautifully colourful Rathaus (town hall) is located right in the centre of Basel old town. Although the 500-year old Rathaus building is still used for administrative purposes, you can walk around the entrance courtyard and view the murals on the walls. Outside, there is a working marketplace selling fresh produce and flowers.
Walk up the cobbled Spalenberg hill to the Spalentor, the most impressive of the three remaining old city gates. It dates back to the 14th century and the central square tower features colourful green tiles.
Wander back down Leonhardsgraben to Barfusserplatz – or “Barefoot Square” in English. “Barfi”, as it is now affectionately known by locals, is named after the Franciscan monks who established an order here during the 13th century.
Visitors and locals alike will generally use it as a meeting point, due to its central location and the fact that it has no less than eight tram lines passing through. It is also the site of the Historical Museum of Basel.
Walk towards the Elisabethenkirche, stopping to admire the strangely hypnotic Tinguely fountain. Constructed by local artist Jean Tinguely in 1977, the fountain consists of moving mechanical statues that appear to interact with one another.
It is a quirky and mesmerising sight, one that should feature on any list of what to see in Basel.
Rising majestically above the fountain and the theatre is the Elisabethenkirche itself, a beautiful 19th century neo-Gothic building. It was actually com-missioned by a wealthy Swiss businessman and remains one of the more underrated Basel tourist attractions.
Visit the Munster and climb the spires
It is thought that the site of the Basel Munster dates back more than 2,000 years, originating as a temple and later a Roman fort. The earliest structures were erected during the 11th century.
The main Romanesque structure was completed during the 13th century, although large sections were rebuilt after an earthquake in 1356. Erasmus of Rotterdam died in Basel after a bout of dysentery in 1536 and is buried in the grounds of the Basel Munster.
Set on a small hill, the soft red sandstone and distinctive colourful roof tiles are a must-see on any Basel sightseeing itinerary.
Among the things to see in Basel, the Munster offers the most amazing panoramic views of the river and the city. If you have a good head for heights, then climbing the towers is one of my best recommendations for things to do in Basel.
Enter the cathedral building and as long as there is no service taking place, you can request access to the stairway for CHF5. You must be in a group of two or more – I believe this rule is to stop people from jumping! If you don’t like to climb, then you can still visit the small yard behind the Munster where there are also some fantastic views of the city over the Rhein.
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Immerse yourself in the art culture
If you love art, then the chances are you’ll already know exactly what to do in Basel. The city is renowned throughout Switzerland and internationally as a hub for art culture. As well as being the first host of the Art Basel fair which is still held annually at the city exhibition centre, Basel is also home to three major art museums.
The Kunstmuseum is the largest museum in Basel and houses the largest public art collection in Switzerland, including the biggest Holbein collection in the world. The overall collection spans more than 500 years of art history. It recently opened a new wing that now hosts all of the modern art exhibitions.
The Fondation Beyeler, located in Riehen just outside Basel is home to an impressive collection of modern classical art originally curated by local col-lectors Ernst Beyeler and Hildy Kunz.
They commissioned the Italian architect Renzo Piano to build the museum in the grounds of a beautiful park. The elegant structure creates an inspiring space in which to view works by Picas-so, Monet, Van Gogh and Rothko.
The Tinguely Museum is home to a permanent collection of the works of lo-cal artist Jean Tinguely, who died in 1991. Described as kinetic art, Tinguely’s moving metalwork sculptures are a sight that can veer in a moment from delightful to creepily spine-tingling.
There are many other museums in Basel including the Natural History Muse-um, a Paper Mill museum and a Puppet Museum. If you are looking for things to do in Basel on a budget, then it is worth knowing that many of the museums in Basel are free to visit on the first Sunday of the month.
Soak up the Rhein in summer
The Rhein is one of the unmissable things to see in Basel, regardless of the season. In the height of summer, you can pack your belongings into a water-proof bag and take a dip in the clear waters, letting the current carry you along.
When you get out, you can enjoy a cold drink and perhaps some grilled wurst at one of the many buvettes, small seasonal bars that pop up over the summer. Switzerland being the very essence of cleanliness and good infra-structure, you can even take a free outdoor shower after your dip if you wish.
Watch the sunset over the river
Down river as the sun sets, the action moves north to Uferstrasse. During the summer months, more than half a dozen makeshift bars pop up to occupy a strip running between railway lines and industrial architecture on one side and the Rhein river on the other.
Beards, dreadlocks, piercings and tattoos are de rigeur among the hipster bar staff. However, it is a popular spot so the clientele tend to be a bit more mixed. Watching the sun sink over the Rhein whilst sipping a cold cocktail is quite the relaxing way to spend a summer evening.
Take a ferry
Even visiting Basel in colder temperatures when the water is too cold to swim, you can still enjoy the Rhein. The small current-powered ferries are a fun and very eco-friendly way to cross the river for a cheap price (around CHF 2).
If you have an afternoon to spare, you can take a bigger ferry out along the Rhein to view Switzerland on one bank and Germany on the other. No matter what the season, the Rhein is one of the standout Basel attractions to be experienced.
Enjoy traditional Swiss cuisine
When most people think of Swiss food they think of cheese. This is not entirely unfair. Cheese fondue served with chunks of bread for dipping is a staple winter dish in Switzerland.
Raclette is also very popular, and also now be-coming more popular outside of Switzerland. Consisting of cheese melted over potatoes and pickles, this is stomach-warming comfort food at its best.
However, for anyone who is not a lover of lactose, Swiss cuisine does offer other options. Wienerschnitzel (veal or pork escalope) and Rösti (fried potato cakes) are also popular items on Swiss menus. I will say that eating out in Basel is never a cheap experience for visitors.
However, for a good Swiss menu at reasonable-by-Basel-standards-prices then you cannot do better than the Elsbethenstubli. If you visit Basel during any of the winter festivals (see be-low) then you can get many traditional Swiss dishes as street food.
Being on the doorstep of the Alsace region means that Basel has also adopted many of the local Alsatian specialities. One dish that is fairly ubiquitous is the Flammkuche (literally “firecake”). It is a bit like a kind of pizza, made of a thin dough base and you choose from the menu based on the toppings.
However, sour cream features in place of tomato sauce. The traditional recipe is with onions and bacon, but there are other choices. It is a lighter alternative to the traditional cheese- and meat-heavy Swiss dishes.
Try them at Kohlmanns in the city centre. Experiencing the local cuisine should be one of the top things to do in Basel.
A word about wurst
Deliciously hot and steaming fresh from the grill, wurst is the food of summer in Basel. You can head to the permanent stand on Marktplatz called Eiche. Choose whichever freshly grilled wurst you would like, and eat it there and then from a paper plate. As a rule, it comes served with a hunk of bread and a blob of mustard.
Walking along the Rhein during the summer months, the air is thick with the smell of burning charcoal. You will see dozens of small disposable barbecues brought along for the day by hungry local sun worshippers, in order to grill their favourite street food on demand.
If you are looking for things to do in Basel on a budget, then make like the locals do and head to a supermarket for supplies before a day at the Rhein.
Stand on the border of three countries (almost!)
On far north side of the city, on a walkway jutting out into the Rhein, is the Dreiländereck. This represents the geographical point where the borders of the three countries of Switzerland, France and Germany meet.
The precise geographical point is unfortunately in the Rhein itself, but this point is the closest you can get. There is a small monument there, representing peace be-tween the three countries. You can actually also walk between the three countries. Make sure you have your passport with you, just in case.
Starting from Kleinhüningen in the north of Basel you can cross the border into Germany. You will enter the border town of Weil-am-Rhein. From there, you can walk across a footbridge over the Rhein to the edge of the town of Huningue in France.
Indulge your sweet tooth
Basel actually has it’s very own traditional sweet treat – the Basler Läckerli. These are flat almond biscuits that are sometimes coated in chocolate. However, this is Switzerland, and chocolatiers and confiseries are also to be found all over the city.
One of the oldest and best known is Schiesser on Marktplatz, which also houses a chi-chi tea room.
Enjoy a local festival
Basel has a full annual calendar of local festivals and events. More if you count all of the different shows and exhibitions hosted at the city Messe (exhibition centre).
The main local event of the year is the winter carnival – Basel Fasnacht, the biggest carnival in Switzerland. Known as the “three loveliest days” by the locals, it transforms Basel into a city of costumes, confetti and parades.
The “Waggis” costume is the most well-recognised, also serving as a symbol of Fasnacht and sometimes of Basel itself.
During late October and early November, the annual Herbstmesse (autumn fair) takes over the city. A mixture of traditional winter market and funfair, it is more than 500 years old and one of the biggest festivals of its kind in Eu-rope.
Finally, anyone visiting Basel around December cannot miss the traditional Christmas markets. Let’s be honest, all of the European Christmas mar-kets are now becoming more crowded and touristic than ever.
Nevertheless, there is still a cosy feeling in sipping a warm Glühwein among the wooden huts and Christmas lights on a cold December evening.
Getting to and around Basel
Basel is served by a comprehensive network of trams and buses. All of the places we list above are easily accessed by either tram or bus. Basel is actually small enough that you could walk between areas and landmarks. However, don’t be afraid to use the public transport. It is clean, safe and efficient.
Tickets are available via the machines at every stop. You must buy before you board. Many hotels will give you a “Mobility ticket” that allows free use of public transport within the city.
Taxis are expensive in Switzerland. Expect to pay around CHF20 for short journeys within the city centre, and up to CHF50 for an airport run. Trains arrive from many destinations in France and Switzerland at the main Basel SBB railway station just outside of the city centre.
Arriving by train from Germany, you are likely to alight at the Badischer Bahnhof, the German railway station on the northern side of the city. From there, you can take trams to the main SBB railway station or the city centre.
Basel Euroairport serves many European destinations via a number of different airlines including easyJet, British Airways, AirFrance, Lufthansa and KLM. Bus line 50 runs every 5-10 minutes from early morning until late evening from the airport to Basel SBB rail station.
It may be a small city but the abundance of things to do in Basel makes it a great option for a weekend getaway within Europe.
The central continental location means many visitors also use it as a natural stopping point on a longer multi-leg trip, and as a gateway to the Alps. If you are looking for a convenient but less crowded taste of history, art and culture in Europe, then Basel could be just for you.
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