Resting on the Rhine River in northwest Switzerland, near to both the French and German borders, the city of Basel is rich in history and culture, which combine to provide visitors with a wide array of unique travel experiences.
Basel’s medieval old town is one of the most picturesque anywhere in Europe, dominated by the 16th century, red-sandstone Town Hall and 12th-century Gothic cathedral which affords magnificent city views. Here you can also find the tomb of the 16th century Dutch scholar, Erasmus. Yet you need not venture far from the city’s well-trodden sights and attractions to discover lesser known gems.
With a blend of cultures, a colourful history, and a youthful vibrancy courtesy of its large university student population, Basel is a city offering plenty to visitors from all backgrounds. We’ve selected 14 of the most unique of those experiences awaiting you in Basel.
Explore a medieval paper workshop at Basel Paper Mill Museum
Anyone who enjoys the distinctive aroma of fresh paper and ink will want to visit this medieval paper mill, which offers a unique insight into the history of paper production, showcasing many of the traditional techniques that are still used today along with a number of antiquated items such as quills, old stamps, printing machines and even typewriters. During tours of the museum there are a number of activity points, demonstrations and workshops, while at the end visitors are invited to try and make their own paper using specialist hand-operated machines before drying it in a heated press.
St. Alban-Tal 37
Tue-Fri & Sun 11am-5pm, Sat 1pm-5pm
Encounter the bizarre art installations of the Jean Tinguely Museum
Switzerland’s artistic heritage may not quite be up there with the great painters of Paris or the Italian Renaissance, but it does have a small, distinguished alumni responsible for a hugely impressive body of work down the years. One of the most important Swiss artists of the 20th century was Jean Tinguely, most famous for his innovative moving mechanical sculptures. This museum houses the world’s largest collection of Tinguely art, including a permanent exhibition presenting a cross-section of his work over some four decades, along with temporary exhibitions that build on his ideas by throwing light on a broad spectrum of artists who inspired him. The building that houses the museum is also a work of art in itself, designed by the architect Mario Botta.
Paul Sacher-Anlage 2
Take a tour of a city neighbourhood with a local via Getyourguide
If you’d like to get to know a specific area of the city better through the insight of a local guide, then there are plenty of walking, bus and segway tours available. Perhaps you aim is to better understand the history or architecture of an area, or simply to uncover some of Basel’s hidden gems. Tours are an ideal option for larger groups and families, who prefer to let somebody in the know take care of the smaller details and planning. There’s also the invaluable chance to get a unique local perspective on Basel that might not be garnered from the guidebooks. Click here to see a comprehensive list of tours available in Basel.
View a 500-year old art collection at Kunstmuseum
This internationally important art museum is a must-visit for culture vultures coming to Basel. Home to one of Switzerland’s most diverse and admired collections of art, the museum can lay claim to what is perhaps the world’s oldest municipal art collection. With its origins dating to the 1500s, the gallery serves as a catalogue of the continent’s most significant art movements, but also places a strong focus on looking to the future. An ambitious expansion programme saw a new gallery open in 2016, and the Kunstmuseum Basel collection includes an exceptional array of newer artworks.
St. Alban-Graben 16
Tue, Wed, Sat & Sun 10am-6pm, Thu 10am-8pm
Dine in the medieval-chic surroundings of Volkshaus Bar & Brasserie
Housed in a building that dates back to the fourteenth century, the Volkshaus bar, brasserie and beer garden is one of Basel’s most famous dining and entertainment venues, and for good reason. Once a medieval manor, in recent times it underwent a major refurbishment by renowned local architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron that transformed it into a hotch-potch of eclectic furnishings, including LED pendant lamps and bistro chairs with computer generated backs. Even the restrooms are worth checking out for their visual impression, with sinks made from recycled items and wallpaper depicting imagery from 17th-century etchings.
Explore the world of design at Vitra Design Museum
You’ll need your passport to visit this museum. Although technically located in the city of Basel, it actually lies across the border in Germany and, at 2.6 km (1.6 miles) from the Swiss border, it is technically closer to France then it is to Switzerland. Nevertheless this should not pose too many problems with an EU passport or a Schengen visa. And the museum is well worth the visit for anybody with an interest in design, especially that of interiors. Frank Gehry designed the building, so you know that things are already off to a good start. The exhibits within often deal with the theme of future designs of furniture and lighting, whilst posing questions about sustainability, ethics and social responsibility.
Charles-Eames-Straße 2, Weil am Rhein, Germany
Encounter 5,000 years of Mediterranean history in Basel
Exhibiting a collection of historic pieces from around the Mediterranean is the Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, which is a bit of a mouth-full, so we’ll stick to calling it the Ludwig Collection. Here you will see relics from the civilisations of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Romans and others, with decorative art and functional earthenware among the treasures. What is even more remarkable about theLudwig Collection, besides the wonderfully-curated pieces, is how impressively they look in juxtaposition with the old townhouse’s elegant architecture. The museum runs workshops aimed at younger visitors that are designed to connect participants with the ancient culture through learning the techniques used thousands of years ago to make things like clay models and bowls.
St. Alban-Graben 5
Tue, Wed, Sat & Sun 11am-5pm, Thu & Fri until 10pm
Encounter the dark world of medieval medicine at Pharmazie-Historische Museum
It may be a niche area of interest, but the world of pharmacology has an undeniably fascinating history. Offering a window into its intriguing past, this museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of pharmaceutical artefacts, including an alchemistic lab, laboratory utensils, outdated pharmaceutical books, 15th century ceramic mortars, apothecaries’ shops and historic medicaments, all of which were donated by the pharmacist Josef Anton Häfliger during the early 20th century. More than anything else, this museum provides a stark reminder of how far the pharmacology industry has progressed since those comparatively rudimentary days. If you are visiting Basel with a group and are interested in learning more about the city’s history elsewhere, there is an excellent walking tour for groups available on Getyourguide here.
Museum der Universität Basel, Totengässlein 3
Discover an urban legend at Eine gefahrliche Uberfahrt
Gently resting along the Rhine river, about a mile from centre of Basel, there is a street with a plaque that pays tribute to the heart-rending tale of two lovers torn asunder. Intrigued? You should be. The plaque is the brainchild of Eames Demetrios, creator of ‘Kcymaerxthaere’, a story of a fictional alternate universe, and is meant to remember two protagonists who were in the midst of crossing the Rhine when Kmpass, the Urgend God of Directionality, straightened, causing the couple to be ripped from each other’s arms. Today bronze plaques have been erected in their honour throughout the physical world, from New York to Dubai to Australia to Basel.
Visit the tomb of a great European scholar
One thing that unites all great historic cities of Europe is that most of them will hold the grave or tomb of an individual whose name is still celebrated today. Be they poets, musicians, political thinkers or, like Erasmus, scholars and theologians, their final resting places are sure to attract the curious and respects-payers. Erasmus is considered to be one of the finest minds of his time, which happened to be the Renaissance period, a rare period when human understanding and evolution underwent a huge paradigm shift. Erasmus was a voice of moderation in a tumultuous sea of medieval identity politics. Even today, his via media, or middle road approach seems to be poignantly relevant, calling for the kind of discourse that recognises the beliefs of all and finding the common ground on which to build for the future. His tomb lies in Basel Minster, the twin-towered Basel landmark that symbolically converted from a Catholic to a Reformed Protestant church. Notably (and aptly), the European Union’s student exchange programme is named Erasmus.
Dine in the dark at blindekuh
For a unique dining adventure, you won’t find anywhere more original in Basel than blindekuh, a restaurant that offers guests the bizarre sensory experience of eating in the pitch dark. The quirky concept has altruistic roots, originally designed to create employment opportunities for the blind or sight impaired (who make up the waiting staff), but the main focus here is fun and frivolity, with top quality food thrown into the mix too. Patrons can either browse the menu before entering the dining room, or order the “surprise” three or four-course dinner and then guess what they’ve been served as they eat.
Browse contemporary art at Fondation Beyeler
Founded by Ernst und Hildy Beyeler in 1997, this museum combines exceptional art, a picturesque setting and eye-catching architecture. Set in an idyllic park, it was designed by the world-renowned architect Renzo Piano and within it, visitors can find an incredible collection of mainly Classic Modernist art, from Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh by way of Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Giacometti, Warhol and Bacon. There’s also an equally impressive assortment of ethnographic art from Africa, Alaska and Oceania.
Thu-Tue 10am-6pm, Wed until 8pm
This cute, atmospheric toy shop is a veritable wormhole into a bygone era, long before the ubiquitous presence of X boxes and iPads that can now be found in homes across the land, when the primary source of entertainment for children was the comparatively simple pleasures of puppets and dolls. The store is filled to bursting point with bears, dolls and antique toys, while puppet shows and workshops are also occasionally held here. For picking up a unique souvenir or gift while in Basel, you’ll find Zur Puppenfee hard to beat.
Tue-Fri 1-6.30pm, Sat 10am-3pm
Attend a cultural event at Elisabethenkirche
One of the most famous buildings of its style in the whole Switzerland, this neo-Gothic church dating back to the mid-19th century is a serious attention-grabber. But far more than merely a place of pious worship, the church is also the first Swiss “Open Church”, and is a vibrant cultural venue that hosts all kinds of thoroughly modern events including banquets, fashion shows, art exhibitions, concerts and even disco parties. Additionally, a diverse programme of activities includes Zen-Meditation sessions, spiritual advice for people of all backgrounds, and Eucharist services led by women or the LGBT community. You can also climb the 72 metre high tower and admire the magnificent views over the city.
Mon-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun noon-7pm