Superlative art and architecture, design hotels, vegan gastronomy, river swimming and historic fountains make the Swiss city of Basel one of Europe’s most surprising destinations.
The official language in Basel is Swiss-German, but there are few places in Switzerland where the same level of diversity and the linguistic mashup of Swiss-German, French and German is electric. Weave your way through the cobbled maze of Grossbasel’s medieval Altstadt (Old town) or along leafy riverside paths fringed with café terraces overlooking the Rhine River.
Wedged in the northwest corner of the country, this city uniquely shares more of its cantonal borders with Germany and France than Switzerland. World-class modern art and architecture is Basel’s main draw and an excellent reason to visit any time of year. But summer is when this historic river port really comes into its own: chill over drinks or yoga on the upper deck of a retired cargo ship, sample artisan Swiss gin crafted from cold-smoked chestnuts and alpine salt in a rooftop bar or hobnob over fondue. The annual Rhine Swim takes place at the end of summer and the free late-summer Floss Music Festival with bands performing on a stage afloat the Rhine for a Mediterranean vibe at the Kleinbasel river bank, are among the biggest parties of the year.
Dining here is a globetrotting affair that doesn’t come cheap. Chef Peter Knogl at triple Michelin-starred Cheval Blanc, inside the city’s flagship luxury hotel Les Trois Rois, keeps the culinary bar high with haute cuisine that lets your taste buds travel far beyond Basel to Mediterranean and Asian lands.
For something a bit more low-key, vendors at the Markthalle stick to the gutsy basics, with wholesome Swiss and international dishes fuelled with local farm produce. Kombucha on tap, Vietnamese street food, fair-trade Swiss chocolate and Basel craft beer can all be found here. A similar world-kitchen concept bolsters Klara, an alternative food court cooking up Thai, Japanese and Argentinian dishes around shared tables in an upcycled clothing factory.
Contemporary table UM burst onto Basel’s foodie scene in late 2021, with mouth-watering tasting menus aimed squarely at new-gen gastronomes and vegans. Chef Pedro Limao works with organic regional produce and his seven-course gastronomic vegan menu is a Basel triumph. UM also operates a three-wheeled Piaggio Ape that cruises around town as a mobile coffee shop, serving alfresco espresso and flat whites crafted from slow-roasted beans to urban hipsters on the move.
Fun things to do in Basel come in three parts: laid-back flânerie along cobbled lanes in the Old Town; feasting on art and architecture in Basel’s smorgasbord of world-class museums and galleries—think Fondation Beyeler, Kunstmuseum Basel and Museum Jean Tinguely—and chilling by the fast-flowing Rhine River.
Guided tours organized by Basel Tourism unveil a sharp new perspective on the city: its Smart City Lab Basel tour leads curious visitors into the wings of a warehouse-based think tank where start-ups promote sustainable urban growth. Other themed tours are led by actors (join a night watchman in the Old Town) or self-guided around new foodie, brunch or craft beer hotspots. Should you rove solo, linger over sublime city views atop the Gothic towers of the 13th-century Münster and below from Münster Pfalz, the square behind the cathedral.
The 16th-century Rathaus’s burnt-red façade emblazoned with trompe l’œil cherubs and deities and the zany Tinguely Fountain are other captivating south-bank landmarks to discover. Cross the emblematic Mittlere Brücke, built in 1226, to hipster Kleinbasel on the north bank. In summer the sun-drenched riverside here, awash with alfresco bars and buzzy street-food dining, is the place to be.
Rheinbad Breite is an Art Nouveau bathing house dripping with vintage charm: dip into a cheese fondue at sunset in its restaurant Le Rhin Bleu, with romantic views of the cathedral spires and Herzog & de Meuron’s illuminated Roche Tower across the water. Nearer the port, open-air Landestelle is another riverside hotspot for drinks at dusk.
Design aficionados can eat, sleep and dream art 24/7 at this creative lifestyle venue, a clever blend of contemporary architecture and urban art in collaboration with Basel street-art gurus at Colab Gallery. The six-storey building in the lively Steinenvorstadt pedestrian district, with steel-black façade out front and whimsical pyramid of staggered terraces and glass at the rear, is the recent work of Basel architects Deiner & Deiner. Light-flooded interiors by Andrea Caputo and Salomé Fäh fuse Nordic simplicity with Japanese Zen with a seamless mix of oak, terrazzo, snow-white Lasa marble and other natural materials. Many of the 33 open-plan rooms feature Vitra furniture, wood-decking terraces and shoji-esque doors dividing sleeping areas from bathrooms. Cocktails and Californian soul food meet in the Art House Bar & Kitchen, and the cherry on top is the rooftop bar with views of the Rhine.
Basel’s original art hotel from 1989, in a twinset of 18th-century townhouses in the Old Town, is as funky as ever. Those seeking outstanding value with warm vibes and an Avant-Garde decor, will be hard-pushed to find a better match for their stay. Der Teufelhof’s smaller Art Hotel features nine bespoke rooms designed by different artists and its hybrid Gallery Hotel doubles as exhibition space. Furnishings across the house are by Vitra, meaning stylish Ray and Charles Eames armchairs and Achille Castiglioni desks Two exceptional restaurants, a pocket theatre, wine cellar, brewery, and coffee bar complete the rich cultural ensemble that is topped off by exemplary service.