Basel is the farthest upriver that any of the Rhine River cruise ships can navigate, and I suspect that it may be a good source for the city’s tourism. To be honest, had it not been for the fact that our Rhine cruise began there, we may never have visited. But unexpected travel delays have been known to happen, and so we planned one day in Basel beforehand so we could be sure we wouldn’t miss the boat.
Besides, what travel lover wouldn’t enjoy visiting a new city?
History of Basel
It wasn’t until we got to Switzerland that we learned that you pronounce its name BAH-zul, rather than BAY-zil like the herb. As it turns out, it has quite a long history, dating back 2000 years, to Celtic and Roman times. No doubt they found its location perfect, tucked securely between the Swiss Jura, Germany’s Black Forest and the Vosges in Alsace.
It really came into its own, though, when a university was founded there in 1460. At that point it became a center of learning and book printing, and many of Europe’s greatest minds came to Basel, including Paracelsus and Erasmus. Actually, Erasmus is still there, honorably buried in the town’s münster.
Basel is now a world hub for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. (Yikes!)
The city’s oldest annual trade fair has been held every year since 1471. Coincidentally, for your history buffs, that’s only a few years before Erasmus moved there from Rotterdam. It’s also quite the cultural hub. Not only does it have quite a few world class museums, it’s also renowned in Europe for its music and jazz festivals and small music clubs.
Zurich sticker shock!
Early on Saturday morning, we checked out of our Zurich hotel and took a tram to the train station. Practically every train station in the world has a coffee shop, and coffee and a pastry would pass the time while waiting for departure.
Serendipitously, we stepped off the tram only to find ourselves directly in front of a Starbucks coffee shop. Figuring the coffee might be an improvement over train station fare, we almost fainted when we saw the massive size of their Venti mugs. They hold almost a liter of coffee!
Now, don’t get me wrong – we enjoy our morning brew, but that was way overkill for us. We settled instead for two small coffees and two delicious chocolate pastries. The total came to 20.80 Swiss francs (about US$26)!
I’m not sure I want to know how much those Venti-sized mugs of coffee would cost.
One day in Basel, sightseeing the highlights
It only takes an hour to get from Zurich to Basel by train, and there’s a huge city map in front of Basel’s train station. Knowing our hotel was nearby and still smarting from the high-priced breakfast fiasco, we decided to walk there, wheeling our carry-ons behind us. We figured there was no point in risking another dent in our wallet just to have a taxi take us a few blocks.
Quite a few wrong turns later, we finally found it. The Raddison Blu is a very nice, new, contemporary hotel, and the friendly desk clerk was happy to hold our bags until check-in time. He offered a map of the city with some walking tours around Basel’s old town.
Tip: The map is easy to follow, but it doesn’t explain a lot about the various sights. If you want to know what you’re looking at, spend the money for a guided walking tour. It’s hard to refer to a guidebook while you’re walking around. We’ve tried it and don’t recommend it.
Marktplatz – Basel’s town square
Do you like history and architecture? We do, so Basel’s medieval old town center was fascinating. Medieval towns always have interesting architecture and people that are worth photographing. Besides, it’s fun to walk through winding narrow streets, discover interesting shops and elegant boutiques, and there’s always an interesting square or two.
The most interesting square was definitely Marktplatz. This square dates back to 1260 as a grain market and shifted to a full market by the 15th century.
It’s impossible to miss the Rathaus, a beautifully renovated Renaissance palace that has been the town hall for over five centuries. It is also the seat of the cantonal government for Basel-Stadt.
Just as it has been since the 1500s, Marktplatz was chock full of stalls when we were there. You can’t miss it if you’re anywhere near the Rathaus. Known as Stadtmarkt, you can find almost anything you might need for your weekly shopping. Judging from the (obviously local) shoppers who were chatting with the vendors, it’s probably the favorite place in town to pick up the freshest local produce.
Stalls had flowers, cheeses, jams, olives, meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits and street food on offer. We stopped at one of the stalls for lunch, where I had a small quiche and Dan enjoyed a meat-stuffed, croissant-like pastry.
We also bought a bottle of a tasty, fizzy apple drink called Apfelschorle. It’s like a 50/50 blend of apple juice and carbonated water. Verdict: America’s missing a treat.
Tip: The market is open from Tuesday to Saturday, beginning at 7 am. It closes at 2 pm Tues.-Thurs, and at 6 pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
Elizabeth church, or Elisabethkirche in German, is the best known neo-Gothic building in Switzerland. Almost 50,000 people a year visit this beautiful structure. It was built around 1857-1864 by a wealthy businessman named Christoph Merian.
This was the first church built after the Reformation and is now home of the first Swiss “OpenChurch.”
When the city tore down the old city theater in the late 1970s, a famous Swiss kinetic artist decided to use the vacant space to design a fountain that would commemorate it.
Jean Tinguely used black asphant to build a shallow fountain, then created a series of sculptures out of iron to look like mimes and other performers. The nine moving figures are powered by low voltage current and appear to be romping in the water, performing for passersby just like they once did on the stage that formerly stood in this spot.
Basel’s Rhine River waterfront
The winding streets eventually took us downhill to the lower part of Old Town, where we got our first glimpse of the Rhine River. The clean water and warm weather invited plenty of swimmers and pleasure craft. We even saw a water skier or two.
We strolled across the bridge to the other side, where the vibrant riverfront was full of nice restaurants and shops. It was quite a festive atmosphere, what with all the street performers and people buying food and beers from vendors or sitting and chatting along the waterfront.
We stopped to check out some of the menus as we passed. They were all multilingual with an incredible variety of options – no surprise, considering that three countries converge here.
Tip: Detours with Daisey has written a useful guide to Where to eat (and drink!) in Basel.
Tour Basel by tram
One of the perks of staying in Basel is that all hotel guests get a free pass for local trams and buses. This worked out well, because wandering through all those hilly streets gave us a workout.
So, when our feet got tired we took the desk clerk’s suggestion to see the city from the tram, and hopped on the suggested 15/16 line. No matter where it took us, we saw crowds of people enjoying the museums, shopping and restaurants.
There’s no lack of things to do in Basel, that’s for sure.
Strolling Basel after dark
Our tram returned to our starting point just as night set in. After a wonderful dinner and with the moon in full glow, we decided to explore the riverfront further. Crowds lined the riverfront area where a band played on a platform that was anchored in the river. Seeing Basel in lights is a memorable – and colorful – experience.
Basel as we saw it
Picturesque Basel is really underrated as a tourist destination. It’s a multicultural city with a good atmosphere, quaint buildings, and a good economy. Plus, it’s a good jumping-off point for visiting France and Germany, because both countries are only a few kilometers away.
Truth be told, we preferred it to Zurich.
If you have more than one day in Basel, you can add to your list of things to see and do. This video will help you find more highlights.
Want a guided tour?
We walked around town on our own, and it was easy and fun. However, if you would prefer to have someone show you around, you might enjoy these tours:
- Basel: Perfect Old Town Walking Tour
- Limited time? How about a customize-able and affordable private tour
- Hungry? Try this self-guided food tour of Basel
- Arts and Culture buff? Check out this specialized tour
Have you visited Basel or anywhere else in Switzerland? Please share your tips below.