The five best things about Basel

May 9, 2011, 7 Comments

For many Swiss people, Basel means the three Fs: football, Fasnacht and pharmaceuticals, all loved and hated in equal measure. But Switzerland’s third largest city has a lot more to offer than some effing stereotypes, a fact that is also lost on many foreigners visiting Switzerland. Basel is so tucked away on the northern edge of the country, bordering both France and Germany, that it’s not on the regular Geneva-Bern-Lucerne-Zurich route and is often forgotten.

Next week is my Basel week. First on Wednesday (the 18th), I have an author event in the evening at Thalia bookshop; then on the following Sunday (the 22nd), I have a stand at the Expat Expo trade fair. If you can’t make either of those temporary attractions, here are my five favourite (permanent) reasons to visit Switzerland’s most overlooked city:

    1. The Rhine. Basel straddles Europe’s greatest river – a small part of the city (Kleinbasel) sits on the northern shore, even though the rest of that riverbank is German – and so acts as Switzerland’s gateway to the sea. What I love most are the four wooden ferries (known as Fähri) that gently glide across the river, taking foot passengers to the other side for Fr 1.60. They use the river’s current to get across but are attached to a cable so that they don’t end up in the North Sea.
    2. The Münster. It’s more imposing than graceful but the red sandstone cathedral dominates the city skyline. Twin spires, a diamond patterned roof, peaceful cloisters and lovely views over the Rhine to Germany: what more could you want? You even get the grave of Erasmus of Rotterdam, a man who did a lot of thinking before dying in Basel in 1536.
    3. Läckerli. For the past 700 years or so, Basel has been famous for one product – Läckerli, a sort of hard gingerbread that originally was only made at New Year. Now you can buy it anywhere in Switzerland at any time, but a visit to the Läckerli Huus in Basel is always worth it. The biscuit is a mix of honey, nuts, candied fruit and spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. By the way, Läckerli doesn’t exist in English, but translates roughly as ‘small and delicious’.
    4. The Rathaus. Switzerland has many a fine Rathaus, or Town Hall, but the one in Basel is perhaps the most striking: blood-red walls, gilded baubles, pretty tiled roofs, all crowned by an enormous tower. When the 15 guilds of Basel decided to join the Swiss Confederation in 1501, civic pride and an urge to say ‘We are an important city!’ resulted in this monumental structure that dwarfs the square in front of it.
    5. The Tinguely Musuem. Amid all the musuems and galleries that crowd into Basel, perhaps the quirkiest is the one dedicated to the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. He was born in Fribourg but grew up in Basel, and created the most amazing sculptures you are ever likely to see. Many look like they were put together by a mad scientist using laboratory leftovers. If you thought the Swiss were dull, this museum will change your mind.
Five great reasons to venture to Basel anytime of year – plus swimming in the Rhine in summer and the Christmas markets in December. And of course, coming along to say hello to me next week.

7 Comments on "The five best things about Basel"

  1. Hamlet D'Arcy Tuesday May 10th, 2011 at 08:50 AM · Reply

    Some comments for readers:

    There is one and only one English language history of Basel, “Basel: a Center at the Fringe”, and it is worth reading. Also, there is a 200+ page graphic novel called “Basel Metropole” that was created by the architecture students at ETH, and it is a good vision of how the city has developed and where it should head next.

    The Foundation Beyeler is just outside Basel, easily reachable via the #6, and is a must see art museum.

    The Brauner Mutz is a great new beer-hall just on Barfüsserplatz. But the real locals now to go to Andreasplatz off Marktplatz. It offers the best rösti in town (Hasenburg), the best bakery in town (Café zum Roten Engel), and wonderful outside seating away from traffic where you can sit and sip affordable beers in the shade. Andreasplatz is a little hidden pocket behind Hasenburg and my favorite spot in town.

  2. expatraveler Tuesday May 10th, 2011 at 09:39 PM · Reply

    Great list!

    Oh walking around the city is a highlight for me as well as the Basel Zoo but that’s just because I love to see and photograph the animals.. But the Christmas market is definitely high on the list too.

  3. Patrick Wednesday May 11th, 2011 at 03:42 AM · Reply

    *The* “must see art museum” in Basel, in my opinion, is the Kunstmuseum (tramway line 2, station Kunstmuseum). Founded in 1661, it claims to be “the world’s first public municipal museum” and has a hugely impressive collection of paintings by old and modern masters such as Rembrandt, Gauguin, van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Paul Klee, Picasso (an excessive amount – I never liked Picasso…), Rubens, Munch, Ernst, Beuys… I could go on. And on. And on 😉

    But my favourite artist in the Kunstmuseum is a painter from Basel: Arnold Böcklin. I think that most will be familiar with his “Toteninsel” (Isle of the Dead), the first version of which can be seen in the Kunstmuseum. No reproduction does it justice. And it’s the only place where you can see “Toteninsel” alongside its antipole “Lebensinsel” which depicts a joyful isle of life. As well as other famous paintings by Böcklin such as “Plague”, with the riding Death figure – by the way, Basel seems to have a special relation to death and “Vergänglichkeit” (which doesn’t translate well in to English, I think); Tinguely certainly has often used animal skulls in his work, and his humour is sometimes grim… maybe the devastating Basel earthquake of 1356 has still left an impression on the artists’ collective mind?

  4. Rahel Monday May 16th, 2011 at 01:41 PM · Reply

    The Tinguely- Museum is very much worth to visit. There’s also a fountain in front of the theater that is his work and looks beautiful in winter with the partially frozen water.

  5. Zes Saturday September 17th, 2011 at 07:32 PM · Reply

    Swimming in the Rhine!

    • swisswatching Saturday September 17th, 2011 at 08:01 PM · Reply

      Yes but only in summer!

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