Medieval yet modern, traditional but trendy, the Swiss city of Basel is a mass of contradictions and cultures drawn together by the all-important River Rhine, the soul of the city. Cover as much as possible in an absorbing 24 hours. Switzerland-based travel writer Caroline Bishop shares her tips.
Blow the cobwebs away at Pane con Carne (Sternengasse 18, 061 281 5011), a lively espresso bar with hanging hams and a funky décor. Slightly more sedate, Confiserie Schiesser (Marktplatz 19, 061 261 6077) has been a Basel institution for coffee and cake since 1870, while Confiserie Bachmann (Blumenrain 1, 061 260 9999) offers a sumptuous selection of breakfast patisserie.
Basel is ripe for exploring on foot. As well as a beautiful medieval town centre, the city offers excellent examples of contemporary design from stellar architects such as Renzo Piano, Mario Botta and local boys Herzog & de Meuron, whose stamp can be found all over town including on the Messe exhibition centre where Art Basel is held each June. Get a feel for the place by following well-marked historic trails using either a downloaded app or hired iPad from the tourist office on Barfüsserplatz. The 30-minute Erasmus trail (marked red) visits the famous landmarks of the Romanesque twin-towered Münster (cathedral), with its Pfaltz viewing platform overlooking the Rhine, and the richly decorated Renaissance Rathaus (town hall). The longer Hans Holbein trail (marked green) passes through the former industrial canals of St Alban-Tal – nicknamed ‘Little Venice’ – where the Paper Mill Museum (St Alban-Tal 37, 061 225 9090) gives an insight into the area’s papermaking past. Round off your wander by crossing the Rhine from Grossbasel (‘Big Basel’) to Kleinbasel (‘Little Basel’) on a wooden fahre (ferry), a little passenger boat propelled across the river by the current alone.
Culture vultures are spoilt for choice in Basel. The city’s artistic cornerstone is the Kunstmuseum (St Alban-Graben 16, 061 206 6262) with its impressive permanent collection spanning artworks from the 15th century onwards. In Kleinbasel, don’t miss the magnificently eccentric Museum Tinguely (Paul Sacher-Anlage 2, 061 681 9320), devoted to the mechanical moving sculptures of the Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely, who lived in Basel. Two more cultural treats lie out of town, but are worth the effort: Fondation Beyeler (Baselstrasse 101, 061 645 9700) is arguably Europe’s finest modern art collection, while the Vitra Design Museum (Charles-Eames-Strasse 2, Weil am Rhein, 0049 7621 702 3200) showcases world-beating architecture and interior design by everyone from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid.
Sample Swiss cuisine at Zur Harmonie (Petersgraben 71, 061 261 0718), which dishes up local specialities such as rösti and herring in a charming centuries-old house. If you’re after a taste of modern Basel, the daily changing lunch menu at Atelier, in culture centre Der Teufelhof (Leonhardsgraben 49, 061 261 1010), is a stylish choice. Alternatively, enjoy a sunny courtyard luncheon beneath chestnut trees at Restaurant Kunsthalle’s Campari Bar (Steinenberg 7, 061 272 4233) while listening to the manic whirring of Tinguely’s outlandish fountain.
Expensive and exclusive defines Basel shopping. Small boutiques, specialist shops and designer labels are found in historic Spalenberg in the Old Town. For exclusive clothing, try erfolg (Spalenberg 36, 061 262 2255) or Boutique süd-wind (Gerbergässlein 18, 061 261 9019). Seek out leather belts and handbags at 37 Format Brigitte Hürzeler (Nadelberg 37, 061 261 1504),jewellery at Elia Gilli (Rümelinsplatz, 061 261 0303) and funky homewares at Sevensisters (Spalenberg 38, 061 262 0980). Don’t forget to stock up on Läckerli, Basel’s traditional biscuit, at the Gilgen bakery (Spalenberg 6, 061 261 6229). Spalenberg aside, you can’t come to Basel and not walk down Freie Strasse, the city’s poshest street housing international designers, watchmakers and Swiss jewellers such as Bucherer (Freie Strasse 40, 061 261 4000). Basel’s quality department stores Pfauen (Freie Strasse 75, 061 260 6565) and Globus (Freie Strasse 50, 058 576 3550) are worth a look-in, too.
Dip into Basel’s varied bar scene with a pre-drinner apéro. In hip Kleinbasel, the Volkshaus Basel’s N°1 Bar (Rebgasse 12-14, 061 690 9300) is a stylish bar and brasserie recently revamped by design duo Herzog & de Meuron. Head to Consum (Rheingasse 19, 061 690 9135) to sample your pick of over 100 wines accompanied by tasty tapas. Or gather ideas for your evening at the intimate Concierge (Utengasse 28, 061 554 2227), which keeps a daily blackboard of events in Basel. In summertime, locals head to the Rhine for a plethora of riverside lounging spots. Serving drinks out of a cargo container is Buvette Kaserne (Unterer Rheinweg, 061 272 2323), while equally informal back on Grossbasel is Cargobar (Sankt Johanns-Rheinweg 41, 061 321 0072). Classiest of all for pre-dinner cocktails is the elegant bar of the five-star Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (Blumenrain 8, 061 260 5150).
Drawing on influences from neighbouring France and Germany as well as Swiss and international cuisine, Basel has no shortage of quality restaurants. For French fare, head to Au Violon (Im Lohnhof 4, 061 269 8711), a lovely brasserie in a tranquil setting. The funky Eo Ipso (Dornacherstrasse 192, 061 333 1490) is based in a converted warehouse and serves some of the best food in town in a buzzy atmosphere. Or put your taste buds in the hands of the chefs at the stylish Rubino (Luftgässlein 1, 061 333 7770), which serves a daily ‘surprise menu’ where the dishes are chosen for you. Lastly, sample the traditional Swiss feuerkuchen (flambéed tarts) at Kohlmann’s (Steinenberg 14, 061 225 9393) on Barfüsserplatz.
For the highest drink in town, head up to the 31st floor of the Ramada Plaza to sup on skyline cocktails at the swish Bar Rouge (Messeplatz 10, 061 361 3031). Check out Basel’s alternative nightlife scene around the always lively streets of Kleinbasel’s Clara district, where the infamous Lady Bar (Feldbergstrasse 47, 061 535 6738) promises an eclectic night out. In Grossbasel step back in time at the classy lounge bar Café des Arts (Barfüsserplatz 6, 061 273 5737), which has live piano music every Thursday, or head to the Atlantis restaurant (Klosterberg 13, 061 228 9696) which morphs into a club after 11pm where revellers dance the night away. More chilled is the intimate, vault-like Bird’s Eye Jazz Club (Kohlenberg 20, 061 263 3341), which hosts regular toe-tapping live performances.
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Written by World Travel Guide.