At first glance, Basel looks like a typical Swiss city. Picturesque Old Town? Pretty flowing river? Clockwork public transport? Tick, tick, tick. Yet this seemingly staid matriarch of Swiss society hosts the world’s premier modern art event, is home to avant-garde architecture and has an energetic social scene.
Located in northern Switzerland, at the intersection of Germany and France, the city’s multicultural heritage ensures varied food and nightlife, and its inherent wealth (thanks in no small part to pharmaceutical and chemical industries) means the streets are pristine and the museums filled with pricey acquisitions. Despite being home to only 190,000 people, a weekend in Basel will only scratch the surface.
Sights to seek out
After soaking up the serenity of the 15th-century cathedral (Münster), checking out the fruit-and-veg stalls and romantic tower in postcard-cute Marktplatz square, and rambling the cobbled streets of the Old Town (see if you can spot the ‘world’s smallest museum’ in a doorway on Imbergasslein), you’re ready to discover the real Basel.
First-rate contemporary art and architecture are the city’s twin dynamos, thanks in no small part to the annual Art Basel show (see Events) and the city’s home-grown starchitects Herzog & de Meuron, best-known for London’s Tate modern and Beijing’s Olympic ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium.
Fans of cutting-edge modern architecture should head to Vitra Design Museum, in the Basel suburb of Weil am Rhein in Germany. Here, you’ll see a dazzling array of buildings by the likes of Herzog & de Meuron, Californian Frank Gehry, Japanese Tadao Ando and even British-Iranian Zaha Hadid’s first-ever completed building.
The swirling-white Design Museum was Gehry’s first project in Europe, completed in 1989. Explore its tilting walkways and amorphous interiors as you take in the latest exhibition (always design focused, currently Zoom: Italian Design and the Photography of Aldo and Marirosa Ballo). Try to get there for 12noon or 2pm for the English guided architectural tours of the rest of the Vitra site – the only way you’ll be allowed inside the other buildings, with the added bonus of a look at Vitra’s unrivalled 20th-century furniture collection, with dozens of original Eames chairs (Vitra and Eames worked closely together), along with iconic pieces by Verner Panton, Gerrit Rietveld, Philippe Starck and Corbusier.
On the way back into Basel, take a detour to Fondation Beyeler, as much for its 19th and 20th century artworks as for the red-stone and glass building designed by Italian starchitect Renzo Piano in 1997. Ernst and Hildy Beyeler were one of the world’s power couples in 20th century contemporary art, amassing a collection of international greats, thanks to a keen eye that spotted and nourished talent early on. Lichtensteins, Miros, Giacomettis and Rothkos are eloquently displayed in spacious rooms, with natural light and views of the tree-filled grounds beyond.
Even if you’ve no plans to see a classical music, dance or theatrical performance at Theater Basel (theater-basel.ch), hop a tram to it, just south of the Old Town, to seek out the nearby Tinguely Fountain. Mechanical sculptures spring to life in this small pool, made by Basel-raised Swiss artist Jean Tingueley. Water shoots, spins and swirls randomly from the playful machines in the small fountain. A few minutes watching the waterplay is enough for most people, but if you’ve a healthy appetite for kinetic art, pop along to Museum Tinguely (Paul Sacher-Anlage 2; +41(0)61 681 9320, tinguely.ch) on the banks of the Rhine.
Live like a local
Flowing from the Alps to the Netherlands, the Rhine cuts Basel in half. Most of the Old Town, tourist spots and hotels are south of the river, and the trendiest bars, restaurants and shops are on the north. Locals throng to it, strolling along The Rhine promenades on weekends, flopping to catch the sun on its green spaces and tiny beaches, or sharing bottles of Swiss wine at riverside cafes. The Rhine is a haven of life in the city, always busy with barges, boats and even the occasional water-skier.
To rub shoulders with locals, go for a swim in the Rhine. Although it’s as big as the Thames in London, on hot summer days – even weekday lunchtimes – it’s filled with people madly bobbing up and down in the water. To join in, climb down into the river from the Breiti platform on the north bank. You can just have a splash here, but strong swimmers who want a riverview of the city should go out a little until the current picks you up, then let it carry you downstream, exiting at Kaserne. Unless you want to walk back upstream in your swimwear, make like the locals and put your clothes in a waterproof bag that doubles as an inflatable device, making floating downstream even easier.
Even when it’s too cold to swim, Kaserne (Klybeckstrasse 1b) is a happening hang-out. Hip creative types mooch around this multi-cultural space for its free gigs, installation art, alternative theatre and modern dance. But even if none of these appeal, it’s still worth lounging in Kaserne’s leafy courtyard or popping into its buzzy Kabar café, a horse-and-barn themed space that somehow manages to look stylish and serves excellent cocktails, beer and wine, all-day snacks and hot dinners.
WHAT TO BUY
Skip the Swiss milk chocolate and stock up on boxes of the city’s honey-and-spice Läckerli biscuits to take home instead. Can’t afford a modern masterpiece from one of the city’s galleries? Pick up at art book or magazine at Stampa.
Les Trois Rois
The city’s magnificently grand hotel has an unrivalled location on the Rhine, right in the heart of the city. It’s steps from the historic centre yet just a short walk across pretty Mittlere bridge to the trendy northern side. A hotel has been on this site for more than 300 years, but this is no dusty relic. Black-suited doormen usher you into the chandeliered, colonnaded marble atrium, where the city’s elite might be mingling in ball gowns and white ties before adjourning to the ballroom for a banquet, or celebrities waiting with their suitcases to check in or out. Visiting dignitaries and local socialites share cocktails on the terrace bar overlooking the Rhine, while guests luxuriate in opulent rooms with antique furniture and historic silk-print wallpaper. Allow a good hour or more to fully enjoy the vast breakfast buffet, with table upon table piled high with treats and tastes from around the world. At the heart of Basel society for centuries, this hotel is a must-see, even if you aren’t staying here. Doubles from CHF300. Blumenrain 8; +41(0)61 260 5050, lestroisrois.com.
Basel’s affordable Hotel D doesn’t break the mould in its contemporary minimalist design, but its location on the edge of the Old Town, high-tech amenities (huge in-rooms LED TVs, iPod docks, media hubs to connect laptop to TV), fitness centre and reasonable rates make it a hit with business people and families. Doubles from CHF208. Blumenrain 19; +41(0)61 272 2020, www.hoteld.ch
Visiting gallery owners book out Der Teufelhof far in advance for Art Basel, but you should be able to nab one of its 33 individually designed rooms at other times. Made of two historic houses, the Art Hotel (nine rooms) and the Gallery Hotel (24 rooms) merge in a central area, made up of theatre, lounge, sunny courtyard cafe and buzzy restaurant. Theatre is the backbone of Der Teufelhof, with the hotel and restaurant created as a funding source for the cabaret, plays and musical performances in the small theatre. Nonetheless, it’s the art that stands out here, with sculptures, installation pieces and paintings gracing the common areas and bedrooms, all of which were designed by different artists. Currently, the Art Hotel rooms are all about colour, each a different hue with tonal interiors, while the Gallery Hotel rooms have been curated by three different artists, two Italian and one Swiss, all with unique styles, furniture and artworks. Its location in the Old Town is handy for tourists, but Der Teufelhof is one of the few hotels popular with locals, too, who come here for drinks, meals and theatre. Doubles from CHF175. Leonhardsgraben 49; +41 (0)61 261 1010, teufelhof.com.
Cosy up for tartes flambees and other regional specialities in this popular, bijou eatery. Wine barrels line the wall, oak chairs and benches make up the main dining area, and guest sharing tables, making for a convivial atmosphere. Food gets rave reviews here, even if service can be slow. Start with hors-d’oeuvres served in little jars (the aubergine caviar and warm mushroom cassoulet are both highly recommended), followed by tartes flambees, which are a bit like German-style pizzas, large salads or dishes baked in a wood-burning stove. Mains around £16. Am Barfusserplatz im Stadtcasino; +41(0)61 225 9393, kohlmanns.ch.
Grab a table on the terrace in summer for views of the Rhine and Les Trois Rois hotel opposite, or in the two-floor restaurant for seasonal dishes served with Mediterranean flair. The menu changes frequently, but you’ll nearly always find pasta and seafood dishes, with occasional appearances by truffles in season. Mains around £22. Unterer Rheinweg 10; +41(0)61 683 3202, rhywyera.ch.
Cantina Don Camillo
Housed on the second floor of a former brewery north of the river, vegetarians and meat-eaters come here for Asian-Italian food (tofu with beluga lentils; risotto with shitake mushrooms; sea bass with ratatouille) in industrial-chic surroundings. If it’s sunny, head out back for al fresco dining with glimpses of the river. Make sure to take a map as this is hidden down a back street. Mains around £18. Burgweg 7; +41(0)61 693 05 07, cantina-doncamillo.ch.
Dine on fine Italian food among artworks by Andy Warhol, Jean Tingueley and Jean-Michel Basquait. This Michelin-starred restaurant, owned by Les Trois Rois, but in a separate building down the river near Johannes bridge, is said to serve the best Piedmontese cuisine north of Italy. No matter how delicious the main courses, make sure to save room for the mouth-watering dessert trolley. With professional, formal service, crystal chandeliers and priceless artworks on the wall, this is the place to book (far in advance) if you want to impress. Mains around £35. St Johanns-Vorstadt 48; +41(0)61 322 0919, lestroisrois.com.
THE BIG EVENTS
Three hundred galleries from around the world bring their wares to the world’s premier modern art event. Collectors and curators come here to buy, but tens of thousands attend what is temporarily the world’s most extensive modern art collection under one roof. It spreads beyond the main venue, too, with all kinds of art-themed events and activities throughout the city. artbasel.com
Swiss National Day
Although Swiss national day is celebrated on 1 August, 100,000 people throng to the banks of the Rhine in Basel the night before for the river-based fireworks display and to drink and eat at the pop-up tents and tables on the riverbanks. basel.ch
February or March
Switzerland’s biggest carnival is a three-day affair of parades, parties and masked participants. Around 18,000 costumed Fasnächtlers run around the old town playing music in between parades, dressed as either famous people from history to present day or in flamboyant traditional outfits. Bonkers family fun in the daytime, and decadent debauchery at night. fasnacht.ch
NEED TO KNOW
All guests staying in Basel hotels, hostels or holiday apartments receive free transportation passes for the duration of their stay. Many shops, restaurants and galleries are closed on Sundays. Find out more about the city at basel.com or download its free Basel City Guide app from the iTunes store.
Originally published in bmi Voyager magazine.