Travel Guide - A Weekend in Basel
You say a weekend city break in Switzerland and most would assume you were jet setting off to one of Geneva or Zurich. Even as an avid traveler, I must admit I knew little to nothing about Basel before one of my closest friends recently took a new job and moved there. With a reason to go, I wasted no time in packing my bags and after only a couple of days, was honestly dumbfounded by how beautiful this hidden gem is.
A juxtaposition of hard set rules and fun-fueled partying*, and a bewildering mix of German, French and Italian influence, Basel is an exciting roller coaster of bafflement and definitely one for your bucket list!
*Fun Fact - Whilst on one hand it is illegal to shower and flush the toilet after 10PM because of noise (and other such specific and seemingly irrational rules), Basel is also Europe's unofficial LSD capital and has a very relaxed and fun-loving attitude to life. This bewildering contrast between strict law abidement and raving enjoyment was really present throughout our stay.
Here are my top tips!
(1) Climb a top Basel Minster
The Basel Minster is a characteristic feature of the city's skyline and stands prominently on the Rhine. A Catholic cathedral turned Reformed Protestant church, Basel Minster is free to enter unless you want to climb to the very top of one of its two red stone towers for close up views of its colourful tiled roof and sweeping views of the surrounding city. All of this for just 5CHF!
Top tip - presumably because of health and safety you can only ascend the tower as a group of 2 or more people, so be sure to take at least one pal along with you!
(2) Explore Basel's Old Town
Definitely worthwhile, but perhaps a little underrated, is a walking tour of Basel's medieval Old Town. Flanked by beautiful architecture, bars, restaurants, bakeries and shops, you could easily spend a couple of hours at least, exploring its streets. Be sure to visit Gilgen's bakery for a freshly baked apple strudel.
(3) Get political at Basel's Rathaus
Rathaus, or City Hall, is the seat of Basel's government and parliament. Hard to miss, this vibrant red castle-like hall dominates Marktplatz and is adorned with colourful frescoes and statues. The courtyard is free to enter right off of the square and whilst the rest is usually closed off to the public, I believe a daily tour does run that we sadly missed!
Fun Fact - you will notice that scattered around the city on fountains, walls, street corners and more are a number of medieval basilisks, the symbol of the city of Basel. A legendary reptile allegedly hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad, it is also said that a basilisk can kill with one stare and can only be killed itself by a cockerel’s crow, a weasel or by looking at its own reflection. How many can you find?
(4) Stuff your face at Schlemmer-Markt
Open from 7am everyday but Sunday & Monday, this quaint little market sells all things foodie, from fresh (and plastic free) fruit, veg and herbs, to ready to eat bratwurst complete with mustard dollop and a hunk of warm bread. We got talking to a cheese + cured meats vendor who proceeded to feed us samples for the good part of 15 minutes. Winning.
Top tip - be sure to buy a block of hard Swiss 'cream cheese' and some cured filet mignon to bring home with you. You're very welcome.
And another thing...this was where I most noticed the mix of German, French and Italian influence. Just as you are saying 'thank you' and 'goodbye' in German to one vendor, another is greeting you in Italian and/or French. It's hard to keep abreast of common terms in one language when travelling, but three?! It was equal parts amusing as it was unsettling!
(5) Take a dip in the Rhine
Of all the things I saw and experienced in Basel, the fact that you can swim in the Rhine, which to be clear is still a functioning industrial river in those parts, was perhaps the most surprising. The current is strong and the water is nippy but regardless, all along it's shores locals can be found jumping in and basking in the sunshine. It was glorious!
(6) Cross the bridge to explore Kleinbasel
Just north of the River Rhein is Kleinbasel and as per the Old Town, it is well worth spending a couple of hours exploring its streets, being baffled by it's hodgepodge of pan-European architecture and sampling it's street side coffee shops and bakeries.
An alternative route - whilst we sadly did not get a chance to try one, there are four small city ferries with which you can cross the Rhine using only the natural power of the river's current. With a Basel card you get your first trip for free but otherwise, it's a decent 1.60CHF (£1.20) per journey.
(7) Party in Klybeck
For those of you familiar with London, Klybeck felt like the love child of Camden and Shoreditch in all its grotty festival-meets-trendo glory. Positioned alongside the river, Klybeck has a number of bar huts to drink at, plenty of places to lounge and swim, and a calendar of events on the go through the year. We positioned ourselves at a bar right between a street food festival and an LSD Rave event. Hilarious!
(8) Cheese. Potatoes. Meat.
Whilst the Swiss are obviously big fans of melted cheese they are also, to my delight, lovers of a potato rosti the size of an adult human face. You can get fondue and raclette at many restaurants but this rosti caked in melted cheese, steak, egg and bacon (excessively indulgent) can be found at a restaurant called Hasenburg with outside seating in a quaint ivy-clad courtyard. Get in my face!
Fun fact - The airport actually serves 3 cities and as such goes by 3 names: Basel for Switzerland, Mulhouse for France and Freiburg for Germany. It is situated on French soil and on arrival/departure there are very separate routes of entry/exit depending on which of the countries you are entering/leaving.
(9) Scour the street food stands of Markthalle
Sadly we arrived just after Markthalle's vendors had shut up shop but I have it under good authority that this is the place for a multicultural smorgasbord of street food-style cuisine, from tapas to sushi. I haven't yet found a definitive explanation of what the building was used for before this market, but it has a glorious feeling of concrete repurposement.
(9) A day trip to Lake Luzern & Mt Rigi
Luzern (or Lucerne) is home to a stunning town and the fourth largest lake in the world, and is a mere 55-min train journey from central Basel. Not to be confused with Lausanne, a return journey will set you back 60CHF (£45). Alternatively, jump on the paddle boat cruise to Vitznau, change for the oh-so-steep cog train to Mt Rigi's summit for sweeping views of the lake, snow capped mountains and nearby valleys, and then descend the other side of the mountain to Arth-Goldau from which you can get a train back to Basel.
Top tip - should you know a local, they can get you a 39CHF (£30) day pass for all transport within 1 day, to include trains, boats and the cog rail.
(10) What we missed...the museums & galleries!
Sadly, we had no time to commit to this part of Basel's culture, but be sure to visit the Kunstmuseum for it's infamous array of famous artworks, and the Basel Paper Mill to learn all about the origins, history and processing of paper...rumour has it you may even get the chance to make your very own leaf!
All in all, whilst Basel may not, at first glance, appear to be the cheapest nor the most attractive city to visit, expenditure is manageable and the sights are truly stunning. I went there with little to no expectation and left pining for more time to explore (and of course to eat cheese...melted where possible!). Want a weekend away that is only 1.5 hours from London?! Basel is your girl and I can't wait to go back!