There aren’t many places where you can still use a 17th Century map to navigate your way around. Then again there aren’t many places quite like Basel. Tucked quietly away in the northwest corner of Switzerland, the cultural city of Basel has often appeared in weekend European flight searches, yet I’d assumed it was simply a jumping off point to more interesting places and hadn’t given it a second thought. Until now.
First things first though, lets clear up a bit of pronunciation. Prior to arrival I was adamant that the city was called ‘Bah-zle‘ whilst my mother-in-law argued it was ‘Bahl‘. So I decided to clear up the matter and who better to ask than our local Basel guide, the wonderful Elsa Martin who took delight in showing us her favourite hidden city secrets whilst we were there. Anyway, it turns out that we were both correct. In France they call it ‘Bahl‘ whilst in Switzerland it’s ‘Bah-zle‘. One point each!
Dating back to pre-Roman times, Basel is a city where a rich heritage peacefully coincides with modern high tech development and a thriving avant-garde modern arts scene. Cutting edge contemporary hotels reside happily alongside centuries old churches, and traditional eating houses are as popular as venues offering state-of-the-art global cuisine. It’s perhaps a surprising mix, but it works well and means there is something for everyone.
The history bit – the great Basel earthquake
Elsa repeatedly mentioned the great Basel earthquake which destroyed much of the city, meaning most of the buildings today of course post-date this epic event.
They still looked quite old to me and I was a little disappointed that there was virtually nothing left of the original infrastructure.
Assuming we should have heard of this devastating natural occurrence and feeling a little embarrassed at our ignorance it took some time to pluck up the courage to ask about the date it happened. On hearing it was in 1356 we felt a little better that it hadn’t escaped our notice in the news recently, and this in fact meant all the buildings were still pretty ancient! Phew.
This however means dating buildings in Basel is a little tricky. Many have foundations that pre-date the earthquake, but the stones we see today are of course 14th Century onwards. In other words, old!
So what exactly is there to do in Basel?
Tours aren’t usually our cup of tea, but when we’re in a new city and don’t have a clue what we’re looking at, we’re the first to admit a little local knowledge helps. So we enlisted the help of the lovely folks at Basel Tourism who suggested we try out one of their city tours. Being a bit of a history geek I really enjoyed wandering around the old town with Elsa, learning all the fun and quirky facts that aren’t mentioned in guide books. It makes it more real somehow, and infinitely more interesting.
We began our tour by exploring the heart of the old city, Grossebasel on the south bank of the Rhine. This is where most of the historic sites can be found, with plenty of quaint and colourful cobbled streets lined with ancient architecture.
You can’t help but be drawn to the towering medieval cathedral looking majestically down on the city from the hill top. Gothic in design and constructed with the trademark local red Vosges sandstone, it’s distinctive pyramid shape and colourful pattered roof make it a striking city icon not to be missed.
You can look around inside if there isn’t a service on, as well as climb to the top of the tower to get a feel of the city layout.
Built between 1019 and 1500, this former episcopal church is the final resting place of the famous Dutch humanist and theologian Erasmus, and easily has the best view in town.
The Pfalz behind the cathedral is a wonderful panoramic terrace with views over the Rhine and Kleinbasel far below. On a good day you can even see the Black Forest and the Vosges.
The best place to see the main square is from the top of the cathedral tower! If you have a head for heights and legs for the climb that is! At least the 250 thigh-burning steps made us feel less guilty about checking out the local confiserie later that afternoon! The square is a popular meeting place and often used for festivals and concerts, and is a great place to wander around if you like old buildings with beams and colourful window shutters.
Münsterfähre Rhine Ferry
After admiring the cathedral hubbie noticed the Münsterfähre Rhine Ferry – a traditional little boat operating across the Rhine between Grossbasel and Kleinbasel, still using a rope technique that simply harnessed the power of the current to pull the craft backwards and forwards with her passengers. Amused by our childish excitement, Elsa suggested we try it out ourselves. Hubbie couldn’t run down the steps quick enough, and within minutes we were all aboard, not realising until we were already part way across that the journey had even started.
As well as the daily food market (except Sundays) this square is dominated by the colourfully adorned Rathaus (town hall). Once a Renaissance palace, the Rathaus is the seat of the Basel government as well as the city council. I’ve worked for several local councils in my time, and perhaps if our building had been so spectacular I might have stayed longer! Inside the courtyard there is a statue of Munatius Plancus, the chap who founded the first Roman settlement in the area.
Moving from old to new, you’ll find outdoor works of art around every corner in Basel, but it’s the first time I’ve seen them in a fountain! These cheerful mechanical sculptures rhythmically shovel water in front of the theatre in Barfüsserplatz, and are the brainchild of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. More of his unique exhibits can be found at the famous Tinguely Museum in Basel.
If we hadn’t taken a city tour, we’d never have known that on 1st January each year the water in this Basilisk fountain turns into ale to get the New Year celebrations flowing! The tradition began when a guild of craftsmen attached the underground water pipe to a beer keg, and understandably they’ve never looked back! I wonder if they do it anywhere with wine? Now that I’d have to try!
Basel’s heraldic animal is the Basilisk, surrounded in myth and yes, inspiration for the infamous Harry Potter snake. The creature appears on fountains throughout the city in the form of a cockerel with dragon wings, a lizard tail and an eagle beak. It apparently comes from a ‘poisonous worm emerging from an old rooster egg brooded by warm dung from a snake or toad’. Lovely. The fact that they bring forth beer once a year makes them a little more palatable!
Basel is famed for it’s museums (nearly 40 of them!) and their internationally renowned exhibitions, including the Kuntsmuseum which is one of the oldest public art collections in the world. The Foundation Beyeler and the Tinguely Museum are also big crowd-pullers, and with themes both historical and contemporary they cater for every taste. You could easily spend a week here and not see the same thing twice!
There’s always something cultural going on in the city, from Art Basel (the summer contemporary art fair), to the Basel Tattoo which after Edinburgh is the second largest military music festival in the world.
We arrived in Basel a couple of days before Fasnacht (Carnival), which meant the place was pretty quiet with everyone either resting in anticipation or hidden away making final secret preparations for the week of celebrations ahead. It also meant there were masks and rather strange looking heads displayed in every window. Not realising it was Carnival season we were rather bemused until Elsa enlightened us on our second day. Then it all made sense. Almost.
The Basel Carnival is the largest Protestant one in the world and dates back to at least the 12th Century. It begins at the ungodly hour of 4am on the Monday following Ash Wednesday, when about 20,000 Basel inhabitants march through the streets playing piccolos and drums, accompanied by decorative lanterns. A spectacle indeed.
Eating Swiss Style
I’m a sucker for cheese fondue, so where better to sample one than in the country of origin. We tried the traditional Walliser Kanne restaurant and although we almost choked on the bill when it came (about £85 for a fondue, 2 desserts and 2 cokes) it did taste extremely good. And it is Switzerland after all.
At the opposite end of the culinary spectrum we were also impressed with Atelier restaurant in the Der Teufelhof Basel. An art hotel with restaurants, theatres and culture all under one roof, this cultural venue is a popular meeting place, linking tradition and history with a modern urbane atmosphere. Doesn’t do a bad risotto either!
For something a little sweeter (ok, a lot sweeter) we took it upon ourselves to test out the Confiserie Bachmann which handily was just opposite the main Bahnhoff SBB train station. They certainly know how to satisfy a sweet tooth, the famous Schoggimakrones went down rather too well!
Whilst we’re talking about food, you can’t leave Basel without trying my new favourite thing. The Basler Läckerli, literally meaning ‘delicious’ and living up to it’s name, is a spiced rectangular gingerbread biscuit originally invented in the 1400s to sustain assembled church dignitaries. The rate at which we consumed them was decidedly undignified, but they certainly sustained us during our weekend in Basel!
Sleeping in style
In such a vibrant city, deciding to stay in a design hotel really is a no brainer. We chose the excellent The Passage for our weekend, read about our experience here.
Should you go to Basel?
Without a doubt, yes, if you enjoy tangible history, good food and impressive architecture. Basel is certainly underrated as a tourist destination but it is perhaps this which enables it to retain it’s charm. It’s also perfectly located for visiting France and Germany too, with great train connections heading all the way up into Alsace. Which is where we went next!
- Basel hotel guests are all given a complimentary Mobility Ticket which allows free travel on public transport in the city and surrounding area (including the EuroAirport line). You can use this even before arriving at the hotel by showing your reservation to the ticket inspector.
- A 2 hour City Tour with Basel Tourism costs CHF18 per adult and CHF 9 per child. They also offer several other tours and are full of ideas when it comes to exploring the city.
- An ascent of the cathedral tower costs CHF5 per person and cannot be done alone, presumably for safety reasons. If you are visiting by yourself you will have to wait for the next visitors and climb up with them.
We received a complimentary City Tour and dinner at Atelier courtesy of Basel Tourism, but all words and opinions are my own.