When you think of Swiss cities, Zurich, Geneva and Bern probably spring immediately to mind. You’d be forgiven for neglecting to think of Basel, but you’d be missing out. Situated on Switzerland’s north western tip, Basel borders the French town of Saint Louis and the German town Lorrach. The cities tram system will indeed take you to both France and Germany, whilst Basel City Airport is actually located in France.
Despite having a population of only one hundred and seventy-five thousand, Basel is Switzerland’s third city. Much of the cities workforce is made up of employees from neighbouring countries. Whilst during rush hours, there is a bustling feeling, the city retains a sense of peacefulness. It is spacious rather than crowded and it would be rare to feel claustrophobic even whilst using Basel’s extensive metro system.
Despite its northerly location, Basel is actually Switzerland’s warmest region. During the Summer, the locals can often be seen cooling off in the Rhine River’s startlingly clean waters, which runs from the North Sea, through neighbouring Germany to the centre of Basel. For a couple of Francs, there is a ‘ferry’ connected to a wire above the river that’ll take you from one side to another. The journey lasts no more than a couple of minutes and cannot be described as anything other than pleasant especially on a sunny day. Four of these boats run on the river, and the operator of each is a fount of knowledge for all things Basel, their local knowledge is more than useful when choosing a bar or restaurant.
Most of Basel’s lures can be found on the south side of the river. The largest, of course, is the Old Town. The spacious Old Town is dominated by countless notable structures. If it wasn’t for the sporadic parked car, it would be easy to mistake yourself for wandering into a different century. If you visit around six or seven in the evening during the summer months when there are few people about, it feels like you’re falling through a dream. Even during the peak hours for visitors though, the Old Town is spacious enough so that you’ll never feel herded in. Indeed, the most imposing building is Basel Minster; an enchanting medieval cathedral with its mosaic tiled roof, looking out over the Rhine River, dominating the landscape in this charming city. Wandering into the cathedral is a humbling experience, juxtaposing with the structure’s immense grandeur. There is an area of open vegetation in the middle of the building and no filter is required for the rich green grass and the blue sky above. There are a couple of other gardens within the cathedral, with the roof removed directly above to open the garden to the elements. Though, during the summer months, the elements rarely get more varied than pleasantly warm sun.
As you emerge from the Old Town on the Western side, you’re back in the hustle and bustle of Twenty-First Century Basel. Of course, there is little bustle in this laid-back city. There is a collection of independent chocolatiers here, each with prices that will make the budget traveller gasp. But often if you’re friendly and polite, you’ll be offered a free sample and you won’t be able to resist opening your wallet for more of these delectable treats.
On the other end of the Old Town is a host of Basel’s other attractions. First and foremost is the Basel Paper Mill Museum which is perhaps as obscure as Stavanger’s Petroleum Museum. At a cost of twenty francs for an adult ticket, you can enjoy four floors of the history of paper. Whilst this isn’t to everyone’s taste, the floor detailing the printing press may be of some interest those preoccupied with literature or history. On the ground floor, there is even an exhibit showcasing the history and evolution of toilet paper, conveniently located opposite the loos.
About a twenty-minute walk from the Paper Mill Museum – or about half an hour when you invariably get distracted by some fairy tale architecture or a landmark such as Tower Alstadt – is the art museum. The museum is also a stones-throw away from the city centre and the main tram and train station and again costs around twenty francs for admission. The museum holds Switzerland’s largest public art collection and proudly displays the likes of Renaissance artists Konrad Witz and Martin Schongauer as well as the abstract masterminds Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger. Even if art isn’t your thing, the museum warrants a visit and you will be absorbed by the work on display.
Despite its Old Town and museums, Basel feels like a young city. Whilst the high street in its shopping district is home to international chain brands such as H&M, side-streets offer an eclectic mix of independent retailers catering to the cities younger inhabitants. On the river, you’ll see local teenagers canoeing and if you continue to head north, you’ll find lots of street art. The young feeling to the city is also helped by the university, which has two separate sprawling campuses. But, Basel only has a few nightclubs, which makes for an early night if you are a night-owl.
Though there are few nightclubs and only a handful of bars, the range of restaurants makes up for this. Fondue is usually enjoyed only as a winter treat by the Swiss natives, but no matter what time of year you visit, a trip to Switzerland surely isn’t complete without dipping chunks of a slightly stale baguette into melted cheese. Restaurant Steinbock in the city centre is a good recommendation for this. Established for over fifty years, the restaurant is rustically furnished and the owner himself seems like part of the furniture. There is surely no part of Basel that he doesn’t know about. Here you’ll pay about twenty-five francs for fondue, a reasonable price considering how expensive Basel, like the rest of Switzerland, is.
One of the local Swiss delicacies you have to try aside from fondue is a Butterbrezel. Like the name suggests, it is like a soft, buttery pretzel. A butterbrezel is also a lot like a sandwich; it is cut in half and filled with either meat, salad or cheese and costs around five francs from a delicatessen. It can be quite difficult to eat without the contents dripping or falling out, but it’s still nice to try even though you probably won’t rush back for a second one.
Drinking tap water is also something that you’re likely to notice yourself doing in Basel, like in any Swiss city. You’ll probably be drinking water of the same quality of bottled mineral water in the UK anyway.
Basel is a city that is great for a weekend visit, though you would probably get bored if you spent a whole week here. The city is small, and is inviting for this very reason, but a lot of what the city has to offer can be experienced very quickly. If you are staying for longer than a week, you could consider a day in neighbouring Zurich or Bern which are no more than an hour’s drive away. They are both serviced by regular trains, or the even more affordable FlixBus service, which departs from Basel City Airport. Despite the drawbacks from its small size, Basel remains a beautiful city to visit.
This post was originally serialised for The National Student.