Although I travel to Europe fairly frequently, a major notable omission has and continues to be Switzerland. And I have no good explanation for it either. From all appearances, the country seems to be in possession of all that I look for in a new travel destination: great food, amazing natural landscapes and vibrant cities. Although I can’t explain why I’ve spent so little time in the country, I can say that my second date with this Alpine nation was just as much fun as the first. This time though the experience was completely different as I explored Basel and the pastoral countryside surrounding this border city.
What you should know about Basel
I think we all have certain preconceptions about Switzerland and for most of us those include snow-capped peaks, yodelers, cheese and a lot of chocolate. Well in Basel, you’ll find plenty of cheese and chocolate but that’s where the similarities between fact and fiction end. Located on the Rhine River, Basel sits at the intersection of three countries. Both Germany and France are just a couple of miles away and the airport even straddles an international border. The effect on Basel over the centuries of this cross-cultural interaction has been substantial which is why it usually surprises many first time visitors. It’s always been this way though, starting in the Middle Ages its unique position made it an important shipping hub and even today Basel is home to some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies. The result is a population that is active, international, young and energetic, qualities that also make it a fun place to explore.
Exploring Basel properly
The central core of Basel thankfully is very compact, so if you stay at a centrally located hotel as I did, you can easily walk to everything there is to see and do. In case you want to explore a little further afield though, the city offers a unique perk to visitors I’ve never seen before. Anyone who spends the night at any hotel in town automatically receives a free transportation pass for use on any of Basel’s public transportation options. I’m still amazed by this and it’s such a great idea I wonder why more cities don’t follow suit.
The first thing I do in almost every new city I visit is to just wander, and in Basel that aimless exploration was well rewarded. Basel has been around since Roman times and those basic town layouts still persist to this day, which is amazing. Roman squares and main streets serve the same purpose today, a continuation of tradition through the millennia. What struck me most about Basel almost immediately was just how colorful a city it is. Every building seems to be covered in a different hue of paint and on a sunny day, the net effect is a vibrant rainbow of urban color. Rather than just drone on about how much I enjoyed walking around Basel, here are a few of my favorite experiences.
Basel Münster – Anyone who has traveled around Europe before won’t be surprised that the city’s cathedral is an important experience, but not necessarily for the reasons one would think. Sure, this stunning 13th century Gothic cathedral is well worth a visit in its own right, but my interest was what was on top of church. For 5 Swiss Francs, visitors can climb all the way to the top of the cathedral’s tower, a not so hard climb that is well worth the effort.
From the top of the Münster I enjoyed the best views of the city in all directions. The Rhine sits next to the cathedral and from the top I gained a better idea of how the city must have been formed. Looking off into the other direction the city spread out in all directions, with the nearby mountains forming a hazy border. I always try to find the highest place in new cities I visit and in Basel, that means a visit to the cathedral is a must-do experience for any visitor.
The Rhine – Two years ago I took a Rhine River cruise starting in Amsterdam and ending in Basel and while I never had the chance to explore the city on that trip, I did gain a greater appreciation for this mighty river and the important role it enjoys in Basel. The river bisects the city and of course traditionally one side was better than the other. Today though those divisions are largely gone and on both sides of the Rhine there are plenty of experiences to enjoy. A fun way to get a taste of river life is to take the ferry from one side to the other. For a nominal fee you can cross the Rhine just as people have before for centuries. Once on the other side, there are a number of waterside restaurants and cafes, a perfect place to enjoy a drink or meal on a nice summer’s night. Another popular summertime activity for locals though is to swim in the river itself. Placing their clothes and other personal effects in a special fish-shaped dry bag, throughout the summer months people enjoy a leisurely float along the Rhine, getting out at a man-made beach to enjoy a drink or meal at the restaurants lining the waterway. No matter how you choose to enjoy the Rhine, it’s an important part of the travel experience in Basel, a city that owes its formation to the river.
The food – Swiss cuisine doesn’t get the respect it deserves internationally, its national dishes I think are amongst the best in Europe. In Basel you can find all of those great Swiss classics, but also be sure to enjoy local and even international favorites. Since I have a fierce sweet tooth and deep love of all desserts, I was naturally immediately attracted to Basel’s special take on gingerbread, the Basler Läckerli. Closer to gingerbread than the German lebkuchen, the läckerli is simply a small spiced cookie made with a variety of ingredients, all vestiges of the massive spice trade that once flowed through the city. Topped with a sweet glaze, it’s a nice light snack and a perfect window into what makes Basel’s cuisine so special.
Basel though naturally also enjoys some amazing restaurants and since I only had one night in town I knew that a visit to the Restaurant Atelier was a dining experience I couldn’t miss. Located in the Teufelhof hotel, the restaurant’s courtyard was the perfect venue for a leisurely dinner enjoying both Swiss and Mediterranean cuisine. Add to that an expansive wine selection and excellent service, and my dining experience at the Atelier was the ideal way to sample the city’s famous restaurant scene.
Architecture – What I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did was the architecture found throughout Basel. As an incredibly old city, the centuries are well reflected almost everywhere you look, from the traditional to the intensely modern. Hundreds of small courtyards and fountains serve as unexpected treats for the wanderer, little rewards for a day of exploration. But the city isn’t all about Gothic architecture and Renaissance design, some of the world’s top architectural and design firms also call Basel home and you can see their influence as well in the many museums around town and the public art that seems to permeate every city block. Basel is a city that is very much alive, it’s a bustling place and the art and architecture found literally everywhere reflects that attitude in a fun and even engaging way.
Smallest museum – What I didn’t necessarily expect to find in Basel was the smallest museum in the city and most likely the world, the so-called Trouser Pocket Museum or Hoosesagg Museum. This undeniably quirky museum started more than 20 years ago partly out of frustration. The owners live in a historic building on a common tourist route. Hundreds of people passed by every day, many of who took the opportunity to peek through the windows to marvel at the ancient home. Naturally, the owners grew somewhat frustrated but instead of shuttering up their windows, they decided to offer something of value. There in the window they created a small, very small, exhibit space where they feature a variety of collections. It can, and has been, just about anything. The day I visited it appeared to be a set of antique barometers. The subjects don’t really that much, what’s amazing to me is that the tiny museum has now lasted decades and draws as much interest as any other site in town.
Getting out of town
I intend to devote an entire post to my day spent exploring the countryside near Basel, but I couldn’t finish this piece without including at least a mention of the pastoral perfection that is Basel-Land. Simply translated to mean the countryside around Basel, Basel-Land must surely be one of the most underrated regions in all of Europe. Famous for rolling hills, sweeping vistas, cute little villages and pastoral perfection, the hours flew by as I ventured deeper into the countryside. The highlight wasn’t a particular church, village or even a viewpoint, it was the simple act of driving itself. I love visiting new places that are so overwhelmingly beautiful I feel the need to keep stopping every few minutes to get out, take some photos and enjoy the moment. That was the case in Basel-Land and I could have spent the entire day doing just that.