Last Updated on 12th January 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
A traditional Swiss city on the border of France and Germany, Basel (also known as Basle or Bâle in French), is a beautiful place to visit, filled with plenty of interesting activities. Best known for its art scene, Swiss architecture, and mouth-watering chocolate creations, here’s a quick guide to the best things to do in Basel, including where to stay and day trips from the city!
A brief history of Basel, the art capital of Switzerland
Located along the River Rhine, Basel is currently home to around 180,000 residents and is the third most populous city in Switzerland. The two largest cities being the University city of Geneva and the vibrant city of Zurich. While the city of Basel itself was first attested as late as the 4th-century (as the Roman fort of Basilia), traces of Romano-Gaul forts in the surrounding area date back much earlier.
Truth be told, the Swiss city didn’t rise to true prominence until the 5th-century when the bishop of Augusta Raurica moved his See to the city. By the mid-15th-century, Pope Pius II had founded the first university in Switzerland in Basel. So prestigious was this institute of learning, that during the 16th-century, famous Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus even taught at the university.
Now, thanks to its location at the beginning of the Swiss Rhineland and close to the border with France and Germany, Basel has since become an important city for foreign trade and banking. As well as being one of the most beautiful places to visit in Switzerland, those with an interest in culture will be pleased to know that the city has also become an art city of sorts, filled with numerous beautiful museums and galleries.
Best Things to do in Basel Switzerland
#1 Visit the Basel Altstadt (Oldtown)
One of the very best things to do in Basel is to simply to wander around the city and allow the settlement to reveal itself to you. After all, parts of Basel’s old town date all the way back to the 15th-century and the Altstadt is often said to be one of the prettiest and best-preserved old towns in all of Europe. Best explored on foot, old and new blend beautifully.
#2 Admire the Rathaus (Town Hall) and Marktplatz
Much of the old town is centred around the Rathaus (town hall) and the building itself takes pride of place in Basel’s central square (Marktplatz). The Rathaus dates back some five hundred years and it is now where the meetings of the Cantonal Parliament (Switzerland is divided into Cantons and Basel is in the Canton of Basel-Stadt) now take place.
#3 See Baseler Münster/ Basel Minster (Cathedral)
In the heart of the city, Basel’s impressive cathedral is a must-see on any trip. Gothic and imposing, the ecclesiastical building dates back to the 11th-century. Originally a Catholic Church, the Münster is built in a beautiful blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Now, the cathedral is the final resting place of several notable figures, including Erasmus.
#4 Visit the Vitra Design Museum
As quirky on the outside as the designs its holds on the inside, the Vitra Design Museum is located around forty-five minutes from the city centre via public transport. Dedicated to the research and presentation of design, the building itself was designed by Frank Gehry and hosts two temporary exhibitions annually.
#5 Enjoy art at the Kunstmuseum
As a city well-known for art, it should come as no surprise that one of the very best things to do in Basel is to head to its gigantic art museum. Home to the largest and most significant collection of artworks in Switzerland, the first roots of the museum date back to the Amerbach Cabinet, when the city of Basel purchased numerous works by Hans Holbein for the benefit of the public. And thus, Kunstmuseum is not only one of the most significant collections in Switzerland, but one of the oldest art museums in Europe.
#6 Explore Spalentor Medieval Gate
If you’re interested in medieval history, then you simply must head to the Spalentor Medieval Gate, which was once part of the fortified walls that surrounded the city. Today, the tower can be found close to Basel’s old town and can be found if you take the Tram 3, stop Spalentor.
#7 Explore another side of Basel at the Dollhouse Museum
For those who are fascinated with teeny-tiny things, then a trip to the Dollhouse Museum is simply a must on any visit to Basel! A hidden gem of Basel, the Toy Worlds Museum is the largest of its kind in Europe. Home to a collection containing some 6000 exhibits, the Dollhouse is open on a daily basis from Tuesday through to Sunday.
#8 Visit St Paul’s Church
Known as the Pauluskirche in German, St Paul’s was constructed at the turn of the 20th-century. Featuring several beautiful stained glass windows and Art-Nouveau architecture, the ecclesiastical building also happens to be Basel’s only round church. Nearby, you’ll find some of the best spots to view fall foliage come autumn time.
#9 Learn something new at the Papiermühle (Basel Paper Mill Museum)
If you want to visit a museum but aren’t particularly interested in dolls or art, then maybe you should consider a trip to the Paper Mill Museum. Open from Tuesday through to Sunday and also known as the Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing and Printing, this cultural space is dedicated to the art of bookmaking and all things writing-related!
#10 Take a day trip from Basel
Basel’s prime position on the border of Switzerland, Germany, and France means that a venture into any of the three countries is an easy trip. From the city, it’s possible to see the fairytale towns of Colmar and Lausanne, visit the glittering Lake Geneva, or marvel at one of the many German fortifications and castles which characterise the country. Read more: Best day trips from Basel.
Where to stay in Basel
Thanks to its proximity to the rest of Switzerland, France, and Germany, Basel makes for the perfect base for exploring the wider region over the course of several days. Here are some accommodation recommendations to make the most of your stay in this pretty Swiss city:
Hyperion Hotel Basel: Well-reviewed online, this four-star establishment is located a little walk from the historic city centre. Home to amenities such as a restaurant, 2 bars, and a sauna, rooms and modern and comfortable. Check prices and availability here.
Hotel Basel: Situated on the fringes of the historic city centre, this four-star hotel boasts amenities such as a brasserie, bar with regular live music, and modern rooms complete with free WiFi and a seasonal restaurant with outdoor seating. Check prices and availability here.
Hotel Brasserieau Violon: If you like your accommodation to be served with a side of history, then this popular hotel is housed within a former prison. Today, amenities include Free Wi-Fi and laid back rooms. Check prices and availability here.
Best time to visit Basel
For those who wish to see all of the galleries and enjoy some good weather, Summer is the best time to see the city. However, if you’re looking to enjoy spring blossom or autumn tones, then the European shoulder seasons should be when you go. Finally, while many miss out on the offseason on account of the bad weather (which is often wet and rainy), winter in Basel will guarantee lower hotel rates and generally cheaper prices!
How to visit Basel
Basel is home to an international airport (just be sure to exit into the right country when leaving the terminal and don’t make the mistake I did!) and plenty of train connections to the rest of Switzerland and beyond. A trip to Basel can easily be combined with a visit to Strasbourg or Colmar. Should you visit in the winter, you’ll be pleased to know that one of the best Christmas markets in Switzerland can be found in Basel.
Tips for visiting Basel Switzerland
If you’re planning to visit a number of attractions and museums while in Basel, you might consider purchasing a Basel Card in advance (check prices and further information here). Like many European cities, Basel is best explored on foot and has plenty of cobbled streets, meaning that comfortable walking shoes are a must.
If you’re looking for a guided tour of the city, then this walking tour through Basel provides the perfect introduction to the art city. Available in English or German, highlights of the guided route include Tinguely Fountain, Cathedral Hill, and an introduction to the history of the city.
While Swiss German is the official language of the city, English is fairly widely spoken, as is French. However, if you do need to know some simple phrases while visiting this art city, then I recommend bringing along a simple German phrase book like this one. It’s also worth noting that while Switzerland is in Europe, some phone plans will charge extra for using your mobile phone there as Switzerland is not in the EU.