Summary: Basel is a charming and almost provincial counterpoint to the other great cities of the Rhine. Come visit for a beautiful but relaxed atmosphere and good food.
Today Basel is one of the wealthiest cities on the Rhine, but this was not always the case. In contrast to the soaring towers of Strasbourg or the sprawling metropolises of Mannheim and Cologne, Basel is quaint by comparison. You won’t be overwhelmed by its beauty, but you won’t be overwhelmed by the tourists either. However, like these much larger cities, Basel retains a unique cultural identity in its food and way of life.
Any visit to Basel should take the time to try the food, wander the markets or visit one of many festivals. The old town is one of the best-preserved in the Upper Rhine Valley, but it’s small and can be seen easily in an afternoon. The real charm of Basel is living here, and you should let time slow down a little bit while you’re visiting.
Should you visit Basel?
I try to give ratings relative to the best that Europe has to offer. For Switzerland and its many UNESCO-protected cities, 8 is about average. Basel is not comparable to Bern or Fribourg, but it’s much nicer than Zurich.
Basel sits in a strange corner of Europe, slightly outside the standard travel itinerary for the Rhine or Switzerland, but not so far as to make it unknown to tourists. Generally, people will pass through when changing trains from Strasbourg to Zurich, and many do not give the city a second glance. That would be their loss. As for the tourists that get off the train, Basel offers a comfortable stay, plenty of accommodations, and easily accessible infrastructure.
Basel scores a maximum of 10 points in this category due to how well-organized the city is for tourists and overnight guests. The city is a major university and pharmaceutical center and host to one of the largest Carnival celebrations on the Rhine. Regardless of when you visit, you will not have any issues beyond needing to make dinner reservations. Overnight guests will also have access to the Basel Card, allowing easy access to public transport and the city’s wifi network.
Although Basel may not be as epic as cities like Strasbourg or Bern, it is abundant in charm. The old town showcases the architecture of the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, with austere white facades prevalent in the Upper Rhine area. The homes are modest, three to four stories high, creating small courtyards and plazas perfect for getting lost. The old town can be easily explored on foot within 20-30 minutes by walking along the two main roads that intersect it. There’s no need to rush to see everything, so take your time and enjoy the surroundings.
Aside from the parts of Freiburg that survived the war, Basel is the best example of an Upper-Rhenish cityscape with architecture predominantly from the early-mid 19th century. This starkly contrasts with Strasbourg, which is dominated by a mix of Renaissance, Baroque, and Historicist architecture on an epic scale, or Heidelberg, essentially a Baroque planned city.
Basel loses points, though, due to the haphazard development in the post-war period, which saw much of its historical heritage lost. Compared with its prewar old town, Basel looks and feels like a German city in many ways, despite not being bombed in the war. That said, the old town is highly concentrated and immersive, and you only lose this once you leave the designated tourist zone.
Basel is a small and relatively international city, and cultural immersion tends to suffer. On the one hand, participating in the “material culture,” so to speak, is very easy and enjoyable. Trying local food, eating at local restaurants or pubs, and visiting museums is one way to immerse oneself in the culture. However, meeting Swiss people can be a challenge if you are not a student at the University. Many of the city’s inhabitants live across the border in France or Germany and commute into the city during the day, leaving the inner city with tourists on weekends. However, I found that, for the most part, you can still go to a restaurant and hear Swiss German spoken by the other guests. Basel is a long way from becoming a historical theme park like Strasbourg or Heidelberg.
The best time for cultural immersion would be the Carnival or “Basler Fasnacht,” the only Protestant Carnival festival in Europe. The city comes alive with celebrations like in Cologne or Mainz, the other big Rhineland Carnival celebrations.
The city is easily accessible and well organized by the city’s tourism board. It should be easy finding opening hours or assistance with any major landmarks, museums, or events.
That said, the number of things to interact with is limited. There are several historical museums dedicated to specific topics, such as religious or decorative arts. Additionally, there is the cathedral, but it is small, and there are no other churches in the city of particular interest. That leaves the city hall among the precious few in the Rhineland to have survived WWII. While it is undoubtedly worth the tour, it is hardly comparable to the Heidelberg Castle ruins or the Strasbourg Cathedral.
For Basel, the main thing to do is to experience the restaurants, the chocolate shops, the markets, and the shops in general. I recommend picking one or two museums to visit and spending the rest of the time just enjoying the city’s daily life. However, the lack of things to do does leave Basel with a fairly low score for interaction.
Should You Visit?
Yes, you should see Basel. It has an optimal combination of quaintness and authenticity, making it a good destination for anyone.
How to See Basel
Below is a map with my main highlights for Basel. I would recommend visiting as part of a day trip or a single overnight stay. That said, there are different ways to approach touring around the city.
The Highlights Tour
This tour takes you through the main highlights of Basel and will take about 2-3 hours at a leisurely pace.
- Start at the Old Bridge Viewpoint: A beautiful old bridge with the best view of the old town above the Rhine.
- Spalen Gate: This is the largest and most impressive of the surviving medieval towers. Built to replace the walls destroyed in the earthquake, it protected the road to Alsace.
- Basel Town Hall: Originally a Renaissance building, it was expanded in the 19th century. To go inside, you will need to book a tour from the tourist bureau’s website.
- Chocolate Shops: Basel is famous for its chocolate, and there are dozens of shops to look through. The local specialty is called “Läckerli,” a type of honey cake or lebkuchen covered in chocolate.
- Lunch on the Old-Town Square: Or lunch anywhere in the city, but the old-town square has a lot of charm and is away from the bustle of the main streets.
- Basel Minster / Viewpoint: The cathedral in Basel is a remarkable monument to the late Romanesque of the Rhineland and has a beautiful cloister and city views.
- End at the East Bridge Viewpoint: The bridge sits higher up on the hill than the town and has some good views of the old town.
Some additional stops for those interested in the history of Basel:
- The Three-Kings Hotel and the Old Catholic Church: The Three-Kings Hotel is in a spectacular historicist building and restaurant. The Old Catholic Church is an exciting segway into the city’s history. The church is an early Gothic basilica destroyed by the earthquake in 1356 and later fixed with late Gothic additions.
- Basel Historical Museum (Barfusser Church) / Kirschgarten House: The Historical museum is home to collections about the city’s history. The Kirschgarten House is an 18th-century palatial estate devoted to the life and decorative arts of everyday life in Basel.
- St. Alban’s Gate: At the far eastern end of the city is the gate of St. Alban, one of the medieval towers guarding the old town.
|Town Hall||Only Saturdays – Guided Tour Only|
|Minster||Everyday 10:00 – 17:00|
|Historical Museum||Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 – 17:00|
|Pharmacy Museum||Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 – 17:00|
|Modern Architecture Museum||Tuesday – Sunday 11:00 – 18:00|
|Museum of Antiquity||Tuesday – Sunday 11:00 – 17:00|
|Fine Arts Museum||Tuesday – Sunday 11:00 – 18:00|
|Kleines Klingental Museum||Sunday/Wednesday/Saturday 14:00–17:00|
Basel is a must-visit destination that offers a perfect blend of history, culture, and art. It is a cultural center of Switzerland and boasts an impressive array of museums and galleries with world-class art and exhibits. The city has a rich history, evident in the beautiful architecture and landmarks throughout the Old Town. The food scene is not to be missed, with plenty of restaurants and cafes serving up delicious Basel and Swiss cuisine.