Decorations on the city hall's exterior

Basel: A Center of Art and Architecture

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Housing an international art fair, several world-class museums, as well as countless galleries and exhibitions, it’s 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. Meanwhile, Kleinbasel is where visitors can experience the dynamic city life.

Basilisk – Basel’s heraldic animal. It is often seen holding the city’s coat of arms.
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Greater Basel

As the city’s former commercial and cultural center, Greater Basel contains nearly all the sights that are related to medieval Basel. The district 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.

Barefoot Square in Greater Basel

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.

Basel Cathedral overlooking the Rhine

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 distinctively red façade decorated 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.

Gorgeous café on Markplatz
Basel City Hall
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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.

Fondation Beyeler – Switzerland’s largest art museum
Fester zum Himmel (Window to Heaven) – This prominent hole is part of the new Basel Messe.

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.
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18 thoughts on “Basel: A Center of Art and Architecture”

  1. Kelly MacKay – After a successful 13 years career as a professional female jockey. I now teach fitness to our Canadian Forces soldiers' at Canadian Forces Base Gage town, In Oromocto, New Brunswick. I love what I do. In my off time, I enjoy travel sometimes to exotic places ( recently to Kenya) most often within in my local province. I also enjoy photography both landscape and wildlife. I participate in camping hiking cycling, and I love to go off the regular tourist trail. I have an interest in, art, history, geology, natural history, bird watching. I love to read and write. I enjoy cooking Vegan meals.
    Kelly MacKay says:

    Lovely photos

  2. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Oh my! Basel looks so pretty! With such a stunning exterior and unbelievably ornate interior, the Rathaus clearly is a head-turner. It’s interesting to know that the city was named after Basilisk, a creature I learned about only after reading Harry Potter. 🙂 Yet again, impressive photos, Len!

    1. Same here 🙂 Before visiting Basel, I thought Basilisk is a snake as well. But it turns out to be a hybrid between a rooster and a dragon.

  3. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
    Jolene says:

    Nice views! Wondering if all Swiss cities are alike? And how do you pronounce Basel – is it “basil” or “bowel”??

    1. Neither 🙂 It is ba:zəl. In German, the “s” in the middle of a word is usually pronounced like a “z”.
      And yes, all Swiss major cities looks very much the same. They also share many similarities to towns in Southern Germany and Austria 🙂

      1. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
        Jolene says:

        Haha, I see how you have learnt pronunciation. Very Asian way. Thanks. I’m looking forward to my week in Switzerland!

  4. fkasara – I'm Sara, a Northern Italian with experience in Italy's travel industry and hospitality sector. Other than the classic travel tips, in my blog I mainly share cultural and lifestyle aspects of the Belpaese, that often elude tourists, yet make our country unique. Be inspired, avoid cliches and let Italy spice up your life!
    fkasara says:

    Woah, the Rathaus looks majestic!! Awesome pictures, as always!

  5. You’re getting close to my city, Len! Hehehe
    Love to see Basel through your lens! I’ve been there a few times…Basel is a beautiful city, specially during Christmas! I love its Christmas markets, some of the best in Switzerland!!
    And Carnaval (or Fasnacht in Swiss German) is pretty famous!! I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my bucket list, hehehe

    1. Hihi you live in Zurich, right? I have been there (that’s why I know about Spruengli :P), but just a brief stay. The weather was also horrible, that’s why I don’t have any good photos of Zurich 🙁

  6. Mary Takawi – I'm an Architect and a CAD Manager. I'm a continuous self learner, who wishes to spread knowledge and help as much as possible!
    Mary Takawi says:

    Love the photos! Basel looks awesome! Thank you for sharing that!

  7. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, (Don is now 77) with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We will continue travelling until it's time to stop - if that time ever comes. So far it suits us very well. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    This was a wonderful tour of a city I’ve never been to, but now long to see! Gorgeous photos as usual. I especially love the photograph of the view of the street through an archway in Greater Basil.
    Alison

    1. We have the same taste, Alison 🙂 That photo is also my favourite. I took it at the Spalentor. The gate itself is special. But the view through its arch is breathtaking.

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