Housing an international art fair, several world-class museums, as well as countless galleries and exhibitions, it is not exaggerated to call Basel Switzerland’s capital of art. Adding a beautiful old town and modern buildings designed by famous contemporary architects, the city becomes a paradise for lovers of art and architecture.
Nestled in the heart of Europe in a very distinguished location – between the Swiss Jura, the Black Forest, and Alsace of France – Basel has long been a commercial hub and important cultural center. Its name is reportedly derived from the word Basilisk, a mythical creature that used to live in a cave beneath a fountain in the city. The town became a part of Switzerland at the beginning of the 16th century, making it the eleventh canton of the Swiss Confederation.
Since the 20th century, Basel has emerged as a global center for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. Titans like Novartis or Roche are all headquartered here. Basel’s lifeblood is the Rhine which divides the city into Grossbasel (Greater Basel) and Kleinbasel (Little Basel). The former features cobbled streets, beautiful market squares, and lofty cathedrals. Kleinbasel, on the other hand, is the place where visitors can experience the dynamic city life.
1. Greater Basel
As the city’s former commercial and cultural center, Greater Basel contains nearly all the sights that are related to medieval Basel. It is predominantly occupied by narrow alleyways, picturesque squares, as well as architecture dating as far as the 14th century.
Spalentor – a magnificent city gate – is an excellent example. Or the Barfüsserkirche – a 14th-century Franciscan church that is now turned into a history museum. Yet the focal point is undoubtedly the cathedral located atop a hill.
1.1 The Cathedral
Standing gracefully on the southern bank of the Rhine, Basel Cathedral is one of the city’s most important religious houses. The 800-years-old building blends Gothic exteriors with Romanesque interiors. It features intricate twin bell towers, a secluded courtyard, as well as a terrace overlooking the river.
And like its peers in Alsace, Basel Cathedral is made of red sandstone. On a side note, the world-famous humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, who lived in Basel, was also entombed in the northern aisle of this cathedral, making this place the most popular attraction in the city.
1.2 The City Hall
Down the hill, visitors will find themselves at Marktplatz – the heart of Greater Basel. This piazza is where the market takes place every day. It is encircled by a series of historical buildings, including charming café, traditional pubs, and shophouses. However, the one that stands out is the richly ornamented City Hall.
Completed in 1521, this Reinassance building has served as the seat of the cantonal government for 600 years. It boasts a vivid red façade adorned with elaborate fresco. Inside, a colorful entrance opens into a beautifully furnished conference room. There are several playful towers above the main entrance, adding eccentricity to the building.
2. Little Basel and beyond
Crossing the river visitors will see another aspect of Basel. It is grittier yet has a more “every day” vibe. Founded in the 13th century, this district is long home to immigrants and the working class. However, what used to be derogatorily called “the lesser Basel” is now a vibrant area.
It features trendy boutiques, high-end restaurants, and vibrant nightlife. A few world-class museums and iconic buildings are also constructed on this side of the Rhine. That includes the quirky Museum Jean Tinguely, the internationally renowned Fondation Beyeler, and the new exhibition hall designed by Herzog & de Meuron.
Tips for visiting Basel
- Due to its location, Basel is conveniently accessible by trains from both France and Germany. Please note that most trains from France will stop at SBB station. Meanwhile, German trains will stop at Basel Bad station.
- The nearest airport is Basel Euro Airport, the world’s only tri-national airport. There are frequent buses (Bus Nr.50) running between the airport and SBB station. It takes approximately 20 minutes.
- Basel is covered by an excellent public transport system. You can practically reach everywhere by trams or buses, even the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen.
- Spending nights in the city permits you to freely use the public transport system. The hotel staff will give you a voucher which is valid during your stay.
- The interior of the City Hall can only be visited as part of a guided tour. The tour departs from the courtyard of the building and costs 5 CHF. Most tours are in German, the English tour is at 16:30 and can be booked online.