Basel | Tips and 1-day itinerary
Cover photo: Old town of Basel with Munster cathedral facing the Rhine river by Matheus Swanson
Basel is a charming Swiss city cut by the River Rhine, on the border with France and Germany. Known as the cultural capital of Switzerland for having the largest number of museums per square meter, Basel also has an interesting historic center and lookouts by the river banks, which allow you to see beautiful landscapes that mix its buildings of ancient architecture with the waters of the river. It is the third-largest city in the country, but its small old town – Altstadt – allows it to be visited perfectly in one day if you don’t want to dedicate too much time to museums. We were there for a day and I put together a nice one-day itinerary for you!
Basel, the cultural capital of Switzerland
Basel emerged and developed as an important commercial center and strategic stopping point for navigators on the Rhein – the Rhine River. It was part of the Roman Empire under the name of Basilia and, for a long time, it had the only land crossing between the region of the Bodensee – Lake Constance – and the distant sea, in France. Currently, it is a major center for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, with headquarters for the most renowned companies in these fields such as Novartis, Roche, Bayer, and Merz, among others.
Basel is proud to have the largest museum in Switzerland that was also the first in the world to be accessible to the general public, even in the 17th century – the Kunstmuseum. The first university in the country, Universität Basel, also was built here and the city currently has the tallest building in the country, Roche-Turm, a 584ft modern design skyscraper. To close the topic of pride, Basel has the tenth best quality of life in the world, according to a Mercer survey. This is easily noticed when walking around the city – very clean, organised, safe, with good restaurants, and excellent public transport.
A curious fact about the region is that 1% of the residents have the Romansh language as their mother tongue and it is on the verge of extinction! The number of Swiss living in the city is decreasing. The majority of resident immigrants come from Germany (8%) and Italy (4%). Turks make up 3% of the population, making the language the most widely spoken unofficial language.
Basel is reputed to have the best carnival in Switzerland!
Basler Fasnacht 2015 by Christian
Basel also has a reputation for having the best carnival in Switzerland that they call Basler Fasnacht. The celebrations begin at 4 am on Monday morning and last 72 hours in a row. Madness! I can’t confirm if it is the most exciting, but it sure is a lot of fun and different from what we usually see out there. We were there on Friday after Mardi Gras, just before 5 am and there were still parties around the city. In fact, street parties were going on every day until Saturday. They have a strange tradition of parading through the streets with giant heads of fantastic beings and ALL the stores in the city displayed them as decoration in the windows. If you are in Switzerland at the carnival, it is definitely worth visiting the city at that time!
And not just culture, chemistry and pharmacy that Basel lives on. If you like sports, watching a FC Basel football game may be a good choice. The team, locally called RotBlau (red-blue), is historically the second biggest champion in the Swiss championship. It has won 8 of the last 10 championships, as well as being a frequent participant in the UEFA Champions League. The stadium is the largest in the country and considered one of the best in Europe. In addition to football, an illustrious son of the city is Roger Federer, one of the greatest tennis players today. You can watch training games there.
Visiting Basel on your first trip to Switzerland?
Almost everyone who goes to Switzerland for the first time tends to ignore Basel. They say it doesn’t have the history of Bern, the cosmopolitanism of Zurich or the charm of the Alps in the Zermatt region. In fact, the capital of the Swiss canton that bears its own name is not to be compared but justified.
Basel is one of those charming cities with scenic houses, a historic bridge and medieval churches, with an ancient architectural set mixed with the modern on the banks of a famous river, and a number of other things that definitely justify at least a day’s escape. It can be a strategic stop between France and Switzerland, Germany and Switzerland, or a roundtrip from Zurich, just 1 hour away. The city is widely accessible by train, bus, plane, and even boat. Small, it is very easy to explore on foot. That is, if you are planning a trip of more than 5 days in Switzerland or 3 in Zurich, Basel is the most suitable choice!
And that’s exactly what we did – we spent the whole day there, on our way between Innsbruck and Barcelona, where we would take a flight. So the stay was quick, just 12 hours. Interestingly, Basel was our first experience in Switzerland. We had already planned some trips to Switzerland, but we always ended up giving up at the last moment – and always because of the price! Any tourist guide alerts – Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in Europe. And really, we immediately felt the difference by having breakfast at Bahnhof Basel – the city’s central train station.
We arrived in Basel on a cold Friday morning. It was February and it was -1 ° C cold, but the weather was stable. The streets were at the end of a carnival party, with confetti and some bottles on the streets, couples having their last moments of fun and some drunks being helped by friends. It was not long before these began to be replaced by people with suits, coats and warm overcoats on their way to another day of work.
As it was still dawn in the city and everything was still closed, we left the train station and decided to explore first, one of the central viewpoints in the city behind the cathedral – Basler Münster. It is a beautiful view that, even in the cold and without sun, entertained us for some time. From there you can see the main bridge Mittlere Brücke over the river which crosses the city and some historic buildings that embellish the landscape. It is worth leaving to come here at the beginning or at the end of the day to have good lighting in the landscape. We took the opportunity to visit the red cathedral of Romanesque architecture that is very beautiful on the outside. Another classic view of the city can be obtained by climbing the cathedral tower. Unfortunately, we did not go up due to cloudy weather.
Then we headed towards Rathaus – the city hall, on the Marktplatz. The red house is over 500 years old and is one of the city’s postcards. We entered quickly to appreciate its internal hall, which is very beautiful. You don’t pay anything to enter. The square is quite curious, as it is super wide and narrow, very different from any other main square in other old European cities.
We enjoyed the market at the square a little and continued to walk through the old city, observing the beautiful coloured buildings and details of the streets, and soon we were on the Mittlere Brücke bridge, the first bridge structure to cross the River Rhine. We crossed to the other side of the city where we walked a little by the riverbank, crossing the Unterer Rheinweg, the boardwalk on the river bank. It is interesting because the panorama changes somewhat when you see the old city. You can also cross the river by taking one of the small boats or ferries that make the crossing. On a sunny day, it must be very pleasant.
After that, we decided to cross the centre again on Freie Straße, the busiest street in the area. This is where the main establishments and shops in the old town are located. From there we continued to the excellent Kuntsmuseum. The area around the museum is also nice, with some restaurants and great stores. The buildings are more modern and contemporary in this area. Reserve plenty of time for this museum, it is very worthwhile.
We finally decided to choose a nice place to have a Swiss brunch and found a small bagel house, La Manufacture. It must have been the most expensive bagel we have ever eaten, but it was delicious, in addition to the vibe of the place, which was very nice, including the owner – and also the place attendant – who spoke (and wanted to practice) Spanish, which helped a lot to ask about the house specialties. The restaurant is on the same square as the Fasnacht-Sbrunnen fountain, which, by the way, is fantastic! Even more with part of the sculptures frozen, it was of unique beauty.
After brunch, we invested some time in getting to know some corners of the city, such as Barfüsserplatz and Spalentor. Both regions are very busy, as there is a lot of commerce and offices. It was a very pleasant day, much more than we imagined. The city surprised us positively!
The following attractions are in order of proximity from Basel’s central train station. The locations marked with ★ are the prominent places in the city that cannot be missed in any itinerary! There is a map right after the last recommendation that illustrates the route and can be saved to your Google Maps.
Fasnacht-Sbrunnen, S AM and Spielzeug Welten
Leaving the Bahnhof, a first natural stop at the beginning of the old city is Fasnacht-Sbrunnen, a charming fountain with a very curious function built by Jean Tinguely, a Swiss sculptor and one of the founders of the new realism art movement, which transforms materials and elements of everyday reality. The work, also known as Tinguely Fountain and Carnival Fountain, was built with pieces from the old theatre that is still located in the square, but completely renovated, and is a union of 10 sculptures that work in sync as if they were talking to each other. As we were there in the winter, we could see it even more beautiful, mixing ice with water. In addition to hosting the fountain and the main theatre in the city, the square is a great meeting point, where there are demonstrations, celebrations and where everyone gets together to chat.
In the square, next to the fountain, is the Swiss Architecture Museum that tells the history of architecture in the country and is focused on establishing a dialogue with society about contemporary architecture. As Basel is regarded as the reference in architecture in Switzerland, there was no better place to be placed than in this city.
Spielzeug Welten – World of Toys, in English – is the museum with the largest collection of teddy bears in the world. However, they have much more than this, such as carousel collections, several miniatures, dolls, and old dollhouses, among other artefacts. It is on the corner of the square.
The Antikenmuseum has the largest collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman pieces in the country. Admission is free every Thursday and Friday from 5 pm, when it is open until 10 pm.
The Kunstmuseum – Museum of Fine Arts – is the oldest museum in the country and is considered one of the best in the world! There are paintings dating from the 15th century to the present day. Among the highlights of the museum are famous works by Cézanne, Dürer, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Monet, and Van Gogh, among many others. If you want to see properly all the main works of the museum, save half a day for him. Admission is free for fixed viewing every day from 5 pm, except Wednesday and Sunday (only on the first of the month) – Mondays are not open.
Basler Münster, Müsterplatz and Pfalz ★
The Basler Münster – Basel Cathedral -, in Romanesque style, is one of the symbols of the city, being the third version of the church, completed in the 16th century. On a beautiful day, it is worth climbing one of its towers to have a beautiful view of the city. It is located in a beautiful square that bears its name – Müsterplatz. Always very busy, it hosts events throughout the year, that is, you will probably find some fuss here when you visit the cathedral.
At the back of the cathedral is a lookout known as Pfalz, which has one of the most beautiful views in the city. From there it is possible to see various areas of the city on the banks of the River Rhine, and possibly even the Black Forest, in Germany, weather permitting. From here, a small staircase leads to the banks of the river, which can be crossed by boat.
Barfüsserplatz and HMB
The charming square is named after the barefoot Franciscans – Barfüsser – and is surrounded by architectural buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Usually, the square is very busy and hosts events open to the public.
Still in the square, inside an old church – the Barfüsserkirche -, there is the Basel Historical Museum that tells all the history of the city since its Celtic times.
Freie Straße ★
Freie Straße – or Shopping Street – is the most popular street in the old town. This is where tourists and locals meet to shop.
Hotel Der Teufelhof
Hotel Der Teufelhof is one of the classic hotels in the city for two reasons – for the sculpture of the tightrope walker on its roof and for functioning as a small art and theatre gallery. In addition, it has a Michelin star restaurant. If you want to stay there one night, the daily rates are around CHF 185 for two people.
Spalentor is one of the ancient portals of the wall that surrounded the city, one of the three that still stand. It was the gateway to the old city facing France.
Marktplatz and Rathaus ★
Marktplatz – Market Square – houses a historic open-air market, in addition to the city hall building. The square is a good place to grab a snack in the city or buy some mässmogge sweets in the fall. The market only does not work on Sundays and it is in the fall when it brings more varieties. From late November to Christmas, it becomes a charming Christmas market.
The large and beautiful red building on the square – the Roothuus (red house) in the local dialect – is the city hall. The building is all in art nouveau style and has an internal area open to free visitation, where there is a classic statue of Munatius Plancus, the Roman founder of the city. It is also possible to climb its tower to have a view from the top of the old city. It was the building that most marked us when visiting the city, it cannot be missing in any itinerary!
Mittlere Brücke and Rhein ★
The Mittlere Brücke – or Middle Bridge – is the oldest bridge to cross the Rhine, having been inaugurated in the 13th century. It is the main crossing point between the two sides of the city. By the way, the Rhine River which rises in Switzerland and flows into the Netherlands, for a long time marked the northern border of the Roman Empire and currently divides the borders between Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, and France. It is one of the charms of the city. If you have some time on a sunny day, go down the Rhine with a ferry boat, crossing the five bridges of the city, or cross from one bank to the other in one of the small boats that make the crossing.
The avenue that borders the Rhine River and from where you can enjoy the view from the other side of the city. You can reach it by crossing the Mittlere Brücke or the river – in the summer, people swim across it!
The Beyeler Foundation is a bit out of the tourist area of the city, but it is nonetheless one of the most visited museums in the country. The museum displays the contemporary art collection of the founder of one of the main art events today, Art Basel. In their fixed collection, they have renowned paintings by Chagall, Degas, Klee, Matisse, Miró, Mondrian, Picasso, and Van Gogh, among others. And the museum is already an attraction in itself, as it is a beautiful architectural work by the renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, who built here a space that conveys modernity and tranquility. It opens every day of the year and tickets have reduced prices on Mondays and Wednesdays. When buying the ticket online, it can be combined with the ticket of the tram line that goes there.
Vitra Design Museum
The Vitra Design Museum is actually in the German border city of Basel, Weil am Rhein. It is an essential museum for those who enjoy architecture and design. It displays in its collection countless furniture and decorative objects that are part of our daily lives, telling the whole story of how each of the original pieces came about. Among the most famous, details for projects by Basilei designers Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Iraqi Zaha Hadid, Japanese Tadao Ando, and world-famous American Frank Gehry, including some of his famous chairs. The museum is open every day of the year.
Where to eat
In addition to good restaurants, Basel has two curious little specialties when it comes to sweets. One is Basler Läckerli – delight from Basel – a kind of gingerbread cookie made with honey, spices, candied fruit, and almonds, among other ingredients. The best known produced in the city is that of the Läckerli Huus store, so be sure to check out this sweetie!
The other specialty is an autumn sweet. The season arrives with several novelties in the local markets and fairs, one of which is this sweet, the mässmogge. They are sugar candies stuffed with hazelnut praline.
And, of course, it is almost mandatory to also take some time to enjoy the city’s cafes on the river bank. Be sure to invest some time in it!
1777 – A bit hidden, but right in the center of Basel is the 1777 Kaffee Restaurant Bar, a restaurant-café-bar with a good retro atmosphere. They have excellent choices of coffee and iced tea accompanied by chocolate pie, salads and sandwiches (the famous 1777 is worth trying) during the day, and a small variety of meat dishes at night for a candlelit dinner on the sidewalk. Options from CHF 10 to 25.
La Manufacture – The small bistro La Manufacture is in front of Jean Tinguely’s Fasnacht-Sbrunnen fountain and is super cozy. Specialised in hamburgers, bagels and sandwiches, it is an excellent option for a brunch or snack. Options from CHF 5 to 20.
Manger & Boir – Manger & Boir is a good option for homemade food. Ravioli are super recommended. Dishes vary between CHF 10 and 20.
Manora – The Manora restaurant is part of a Swiss chain of restaurants and focuses in seasonal foods, that is, with each new season, the menu changes to make better use of the products that are on the rise in that season and purchased within a maximum radius of 18 miles from the restaurant. It is a good option for all meals of the day. Dishes are around CHF 15.
Ufer 7 – The Ufer 7 Basel is on the banks of the River Rhine, next to the Mittlere Brücke. It is a good place to dine on a well-crafted dish or to stop during the day to enjoy a glass of good wine, a local beer (taste the Heller Bengel, from Stadtmauerbrauer, it’s an excellent Swiss hell), a drink, or even a good cafe with a beautiful view of the city. Good selection of burgers. Dishes vary between CHF 15 and 25. Booking is recommended.
Volkshaus – The Volkshaus Basel brasserie-bar-Biergarten is actually located inside a small complex with a concert hall, ballroom, art gallery, Biergarten, bar, and brasserie. It was designed by Basilei Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron that brings a touch of a refined brewery to the place, combining tradition and modernity. The brasserie serves everything from sandwiches and simple foods to refined dishes. The bar has live music in the evening and the Biergarten unites the tastes of both environments, creating a very romantic atmosphere at night. The tuna tartare with avocado and aioli is one of the most requested dishes. Prices from CHF 15 to 55.
When to go to Basel
The city is especially charming in the spring and summer, with beautiful panoramas of the city with the River Rhine. The colours of the city’s old buildings also come to life at this time. However, it is also an option for more closed weather days, as it has several indoor activities. Therefore, any day of the year is a good one.
If you want to go to Basel in late winter or early spring, going during the Carnival to enjoy the Fasnacht can be a good thing. It is the best place to be at that time in Switzerland, if you are not enjoying some winter sport.
If you choose to go in late fall or early winter, the Basel Christmas markets – Weihnachtsmarkt – are also one of the best known in Switzerland. It usually starts on the penultimate weekend of November and runs until Christmas Eve. The whole population gathers in the markets together with countless tourists to drink a lot of glühwein (mulled wine) and different types of punch (alcoholic and non-alcoholic, mixed with fruits and spices, served hot), and to eat typical Christmas foods. And the city is beautiful, all lit up and well decorated.
Another festival in the city is Art Basel, the largest contemporary art event in the world that takes place every year in the city for a week. The event usually takes place sometime in June, in early summer. The city is filled with several art events, with exhibitions in numerous galleries and museums, as well as public exhibitions. Works by over 4,000 artists from around the world are shown.
Getting to and from Basel
By land, the most popular options are:
- Zurich – 1 hour by train for CHF 30 and 2 hours by bus for CHF 5;
- Stuttgart, Germany – 3 hours by train for CHF 50 and 4 hours by bus for CHF 10;
- Paris, France – 3 hours by train for CHF 85 and 8 hours by bus for CHF 25;
- Luxembourg City, Luxembourg – 5 hours by train, for CHF 50, or by bus, for CHF 10;
- Munich, Germany – 5 hours by train, for CHF 90 (via Stuttgart), or by bus, for CHF 15 (via Zurich);
- Tours, in France – 6 hours by train for CHF 90 (via Paris) and 11 hours by bus for CHF 25 (via Paris);
- Brussels, Belgium – 6 hours by train for CHF 120 (via Cologne) and 9 hours by bus for CHF 25 (via Luxembourg City);
- Salzburg, Austria – 6:30 train journey for CHF 95 (via Vaduz and Zurich) and 8-hour bus for CHF 25 (via Munich and Zurich);
- Venice, Italy – a 7:30 train ride for CHF 50 (via Bern) and a 9-hour bus ride for CHF 25.
By air, there are direct flights to the main European cities. Of those that do not border, you can find good prices for:
- London and Edinburgh, UK, from CHF 10;
- Bucharest, Romania, from CHF 15;
- Budapest, Hungary, and Dublin, Ireland, from CHF 20;
- Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville, Spain, from CHF 25;
- Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, and Split and Dubrovnik, in Croatia, from CHF 35;
- Lisbon and Porto, in Portugal, Prague, in the Czech Republic, Kraków, Poland, Belgrade, Serbia, and Istanbul, Turkey, from CHF 40.
By water, there are only regular lines of boats to the cities closest to Basel by the River Rhine.
Where to stay
As the city’s tourist attractions are concentrated in the old town, the best is to stay within this area in Altstadt Grossbasel, Altstadt Kleinbasel and Vorstädte, or close to it, in the neighborhoods Gundeldingen, Am Ring, Matthäus, Clara, and Gellert.
Our hotel tip goes to Hyve Boutique Hotel Basel City, located in Gundeldingen, very close to the central train station and a short 15 min walk from the city’s tourist attractions. Usually, hotels in Switzerland give their guests a Mobility Ticket from the city, giving access to the entire public transport network during the days they are staying. The good news is that Stay also offers this option to its guests.
The hotel has simple but well-organised rooms. The hotel staff is also very welcoming and, if you choose to have breakfast, you have a great continental breakfast. Rates for two people with a private bathroom start at CHF 85.