Basel, Switzerland will surprise you. While plenty of people are aware of Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland’s third-largest city should not be overlooked. There are so many things to do in Basel, it requires at least three days to explore the Old Town and life on the Rhine River, to the countryside of the German and France border. If you find yourself in Switzerland make sure to add the cultural capital of the country to your itinerary. You’ll enjoy the perfect mix of historic and contemporary architecture, outdoor fun, and sophisticated museums. In a nutshell, Basel has it all!
Things to do in Basel, Switzerland
Note: “Things to do in Basel” was originally written by Ben Kepka of Cultured Kiwi in 2018 who spent two years living in Basel. We have since updated it with our experiences from our summer trip to Switzerland in 2021. He included some things that Dave and I missed in Basel, so we have left them (with credit) in this post.
1. Take A Walking Tour of Old Town
Like many places in Europe, the Old Town is always the main tourist attraction of a city, and when in Basel that rings true. The best way to get acquainted with the Old Town of Basel is to take a walking tour. Our walking tour started at City Hall (Rathaus) by the Marktplatz (Marktplatz) where we went inside to look at the lovely square before moving on to find out-of-the-way places like the world’s smallest museum – The Hoosesagg Museum (Pocket Museum) and the hanging gardens of the Kulteren Basel (Museum of Cultures).
2. Or Just Walk the Altstadt (Old City)
To really enjoy what Basel has to offer, you must explore the old city on foot. There are many fantastic sites close to each other that are easy to miss when you’re in a car or when cycling. The Basel Munster Cathedral captures the soul of the city through its twin towers and red sandstone walls. You’ll see the same architectural style when you visit the City Hall which is over half a century old. The beautiful drawings, its red façade, and the tower reflect the historical richness of Basel.
Next to the City Hall, you’ll find Marktplatz where locals sell fresh fruit and vegetables. You can visit the many shops and boutiques in the Old City which is built on two hills along the Rhine River. You can check out here the other amazing places which are worthwhile visiting in Basel.
3. Go Weidling
One of the most unique things to do in Basel is to get on the Rhine River and do some traditional paddling. Weidling is a traditional wooden boat that dates back to the middle ages in Basel. They were used to paddle upriver using a technique called spiking.
You can try your hand at weidling on the Rhine to see what it was like for traders moving between Venice and the North Sea. Through the Association Waidlig Basilea you can book city tours on the water, rowing lessons or you can enjoy a Weidling ride with an aperitif as you take in the gorgeous views of downtown Basel. Visit the Waidlig Basilea website for more details.
4. Float Down the Rhine
In the summer, you’ll be surprised to see how many locals enjoy the Rhine river to relax and have fun. You’ll notice a stream of bobbing heads among the many ferries. If you’re a *good* swimmer, you should definitely take a dip in the Rhine and join the legions of locals! The Baselers use the current of the river to float downstream. When we were there, the water was really high due to flooding and it wasn’t recommended to swim, but some hearty locals were still facing the fast flow and watching them has a hoot.
You’ll notice everyone has blue bags they are swimming with. They’re called Wickelfisch. Every person in Basel has one in their apartment. They’re waterproof and help store your valuables while you’re floating down the river or when you’re cycling in the rain. You can buy a Wickelfisch from the many small shops next to the Rhine River. Don’t leave Basel without one!
5. Cross the Rhine
There are so many unique things to do in Basel, especially on the Rhine River. One would think that crossing the Rhine River would be like any other river crossing. Across a bridge or on a ferry. But in Basel, you can cross the Rine on a boat that doesn’t have a motor and doesn’t use a paddle. It crosses by using a cable that it is attached to. There are four places to cross the Rhine on a reaction ferry in Basel. When you get on the boat, the captain sets his or her rudder and the river does the rest taking you across from one side of the city to the other.
6. Take an Urban Art Tour
Basel may have a rich history, but it has embraced contemporary art with vigor. A great way to find hidden art in Basel is to take an Urban Art Tour with Artstübli Basel. On this tour, you’ll be shown much of the hidden art in the city like the several Space Invader tiles that are scattered throughout the city, and the unique places to find one of the town’s monuments, the Lällekönig (“the Tongue King”) where the king sculpture sticks out his tongue from Grossbasel (Great Basel) toward Klein Basel (Little Basel). For more information visit Urban Art Tours in Basel at Artsubli
7. Relax by the Tinguely Fountain
Jean Tinguely is one of the most celebrated artists from Basel. He was part of the Avant Guard movement in Paris France, which was known for his moving kinetic art. Basel is a city of fountains, but if there is one fountain that is not to be missed it is the Tinguely Fountain. The Tinguely Fountain was created at the site of the old Basel theater in front of the new Basel Theater beside the Kunsthalle Basel. it is one of the coolest pieces of art we’ve ever seen.
If you want to explore more of the works of Jean Tinguely, make your way to the Tinguely Museum Kleinbasel (Little Basel) on the Rhine River in Solitude Park. Solitude Park is also a wonderful place to take a stroll and to enjoy the outdoors.
8. Visit the Kunstmuseum Basel
The premier museum in Basel is the Kunstmuseum. The museum of fine arts houses permanent collections showcasing paintings from the 14th to the 20th century. The museum itself is beautiful and if you are like us enjoy the works of van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne or the 20th-century artists of Picasso and Léger, you will love this museum. Admission is free every Tuesday, Wed, Thursday, and Friday after 5 pm. See what’s on at the Khunstmuseum on their website.
You’d think that visiting three countries in one day would be an unbelievably difficult undertaking. In Basel, it’s a daily occurrence for many residents. In fact, many people who work in Basel, live across the border in Germany or France. If you’re in Basel, you should take a trip to Dreiländereck. There you’ll find a monument indicating the intersection of Germany’s, France’s, and Switzerland’s borders along the Rhine River.
10. Cycle the The Rehberger Weg
Speaking of crossing into Germany or France, one of the best ways to do that is to cycling the Rehberger Weg. We road our e-bikes as part of the cycling route between two museums. The Rehberger Weg “24 stops” connects Foundation Beyeler with Vitra Campus with the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. Both of these museums are worth seeing. Rent your e-bike from Rent a Bike in Central Station.
11. Foundation Beyeler
Even if you don’t cycle the Rehberger you should still visit Foundation Beyeler. One of our favorite museums in Basel was the Contemporary Art Museum of Foundation Beyeler. Foundation Beyeler is situated on a beautiful property that contains the private collection of Hildy and Ernst Beyeler. There are 200 pieces of art from the likes of Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh and Picasso alongside tribal art from Africa, Oceania, and Alaska. Visit the Website for current hours and prices.
12. Vitra Design Museum
Cycling to the Vitra Design Museum was one of the coolest things we did in Basel. Even though it is easy to cross the border, it felt cool to suddenly be in Germany on our bikes. The path to the museum has 24 trail markers containing works of art along the way leading us to the funky museum campus that showcases architectural designs by the likes of Frank Gehry. A cool fact is that the Vitra Design Museum is one of the world’s leading museums of industrial furniture design and architecture. Make sure to check the latest exhibits on their website.
13. Explore the Cloisters of Basel Minster
Basel Minster is the largest cathedral in Basel and it is not to be missed. The cathedral was built between 1019 and 1500 and since it took so many years to complete, it combines two styles of Romanesque and Gothic. It’s two towers stand proud over the city and are seen from both sides of the River Rhine. When exploring the cathedral, make sure to go next door to see the Cloisters. The beautiful hallways of vaulted arches are a peaceful escape from the busy square.
14. Visit the Neighborhood of St. Alban
Known as the Venice of Basel, this lovely neighborhood was once home to the aristocrats of Basel. The now residential neighborhood is a peaceful portion of the city with chestnut trees lining the Rhine and a portion of the old city wall still intact. The main attraction here is the Basel Paper Mill Museum. The medieval paper mill showcases the traditional ways that paper was created. Basel was built on paper and dye and today it is
15. Explore the Old City Gates of Basel
Basel’s Old Town is an incredible place to explore and while you are perusing the old houses (you can often spot the year they were built above their doors) keep an eye out for the old city walls and gates. Three of Basel’s original gates are still standing with the most beautiful gate being The Spalentor gate dating back to the 1400s. Another gate can be found in St. Alban near the Basel Paper Museum. This has one of the best-preserved parts of the city wall as well. And unfortunately, we didn’t make it to St. Johanns Tor, the Third City Gate of Basel but I am sure it is beautiful too!
16. Have a Cocktail at Les Trois Rois
Well, you may not have the budget to stay at the swanky hotel, Les Trois Rois, but when in Basel, it is worth cleaning yourself up and heading to the River Rhine for a sunset cocktail at Les Trois Rois. This historic hotel is one of the oldest city hotels in Europe dating back to 1681. The grand chandelier greets you as you enter the front lobby and you’ll be whisked away outside to the terrace to watch the boats and ferries navigate the river. It is recommended to make a reservation, especially in the busy season.
17. Botmingen Castle
There is a castle just on the outskirts of Basel. Riding our e-bikes took us on an 18-minute journey from downtown to this picturesque castle complete with a moat. Dating back to the 13th century, it has been completely restored and its picturesque setting is the perfect romantic escape from the city.
On the way out to the Castle, we passed the Basel Zoo. Did you know that Basel boasts Switzerland’s oldest and largest zoo? It was founded in 1874. We didn’t go in, but it is located very close to downtown Basel.
18. Stop at Käppelijoch chapel on Middle Bridge
It’s an unassuming castle in the middle of a busy road and pedestrian bridge. People cross this bridge every day as it connects Grossbasel with the Kleinbasel. While walking across, make sure to stop at the little chapel in its center. It was here that some very bad monks threw women into the Rhine with legs and hands bound. They put them to their death for being suspected witches, unfaithful, or were considered criminals. Lucky for the many women who were sentenced to death, there were some rebel nuns who rescued the women as they floated downstream. Nice!
19. Drink the spring water – Fountains all through Basel (and Switzerland)
Basel has around 231 fountains with many illustrating figures such as the basilisk. The Basel Journal calls it the city of fountains, and for good reason. You shouldn’t worry about drinking the water in Basel (or anywhere in Switzerland), it’s clean and fresh. Fun Fact, people also use the fountains as swimming pools and a popular thing to do in Basel in the summer is to go Fountain Bathing.
You’ll notice two metal bars fitted across the diameter of the fountains which would help support the buckets used by locals to collect water. That’s when no plumbing was available. Today, you can use the fountains whenever your water bottle is low or you need a sip while jogging.
I was fascinated to see all the Basilisk fountains on the right side of the Rhine which interestingly enough are all pointing towards the river. Why? It’s so that when you take pictures of the fountains, the mythological bird is looking straight at you and you can capture the city in the background.
20. Shop on Spalenberg
If you can afford to do any shopping in Switzerland, Spalenberg is the best shopping street in Basel. Even if you aren’t up for shopping, this street is a beautiful street to explore. Located in Basel’s Old Town, boutiques and galleries are scattered within historic buildings lining cobblestone streets. With buildings dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, you are truly in the heart of the old town. Keep an eye out for the signs above the shop’s windows with the dates of when the house was built.
21. Cross into Germany or France
Although the Schengen agreement doesn’t require that you carry your passport to cross the borders, if you’re not from the EU, it’s a good idea to have it on you when walking across borders. Sometimes there are police making random stops, but this is rare.
You can take a tram to Saint-Louise in Alsace for a wine tour and enjoy a relaxing afternoon walking through the Petite Camargue Alsacienne park. Or, you can hop on a tram to Weil am Rhein where you can visit the Tri-Countries Bridge and the Vitra Design Museum.
22. Carnival Time
The Basler Fasnacht. It’s the place to be if you’re visiting during February or March. It kicks off in the historic center of Basel at exactly 4 AM on Monday morning. All city lights are turned off and the festivities begin. You’ll see thousands of costumes and masks parading across the city for 3 days.
Musical groups playing small flutes (piccolos) and drums while carrying themed lanterns to entertain the crowd. This Unesco heritage event is more of a Protestant manifestation than a Catholic tradition. You’ll have fun watching how the Fasnachtiers which follow two ring routes, one clockwise and the other counterclockwise. They throw confetti over the crowds while handing out candy and other delicious treats. It is the one time of the year you’ll see the traditionally organized Swiss go absolutely crazy!
23. Take A Trip To the Roman Ruins
If you don’t mind venturing out of Basel a bit, you should visit the Augusta Aurica open-air museum which is situated on the southern bank of the Rhine and only 20 km away from Basel. These magical Roman ruins include the Temple, the Gravestone from Cirencester, the amphitheater and the Basilica. Excavations have shed light upon the Roman roots of Basel.
When I visited the Roman Museum I was overwhelmed by the reconstruction of a Roman house and the silver treasure of Kaiseraugst which is thought to have been owned by a Roman commander. Seeing ancient Roman aqueducts that are caked in calcium from years of use is a truly humbling experience.
24. The Christmas Markets
If you’re visiting Basel during November/ December you should take a walk around the magnificent Christmas Markets at Barfüsserplatz, Münsterplatz, and Claraplatz. Barfusserplatz is the largest of the three and its where about 140 merchants in decorated small chalets sell Christmas goods and seasonal delights. Although it’s tightly packed, the market is sublime.
The Munsterplatz holds around 40 stalls set out in a larger area so it’s easier to navigate through. You can also enjoy the amazing sights of the Rhine River and the Gothic Basel Minster. The smallest Basel Christmas Market Is the Claraplatz in Kleinbasel. However, it’s worthwhile visiting.
Where to Stay in Basel
We stayed at The Art House Basel (Design Hotels) right in the heart of the action. This cosmopolitan hotel was a fantastic base for exploring Basel. It was contemporary and had an urban design. The breakfast was fantastic, the rooms were filled with modern amenities offering plenty of USB chargers, and yet it combined a funky mid-century style with old fashioned telephone and other artistic touches. There’s a rooftop bar and they offer a free welcome drink of beer or wine.
Final Words on Basel Switzerland
So, why visit Basel? Well, for starters you’ll enjoy the wonderful experiences offered by the Rhine River. You’ll get to visit marvelous sites throughout the city including the Basel Cathedral, The City Hall, the fountains, the Christmas markets, and beautiful small boutiques in the Old City. Let’s not forget about the magical three-day Carnival.
Basel will always hold a special place in my heart. Every year I return to swim in the Rhein, join in on Fasnacht, and drink some mulled wine at the Christmas markets. If you have any questions about Basel or need any advice on planning your journey, leave me a message in the comments below or you can contact me at Cultured Kiwi!
Basel’s history dates back thousands of years to Celtic and Roman times and during the middle ages when a university was built in 1460 it became the cultural hub of Switzerland. Basel remains the cultural hub today and should be put at the top of any Switzerland Itinerary.
Bonus Tip – Accommodation for Basel
If you’re like me, you’re on a budget. Due to its proximity to other countries, the best way to visit Basel is to book a hotel across the border, in Germany. The accommodation rates are around half of what you’ll find in Switzerland. From here, you can simply hop onto the Number 8 tram which will take you straight to the center of Basel.
Some Ben is a travel photographer and filmmaker, from New Zealand, now living the nomad lifestyle in Europe. He has partnered with outlets like Lonely Planet and Stuff.co.nz just to name a few. If you are planning a trip to New Zealand and have any questions feel free to contact me at Cultured Kiwi / Facebook / Instagram /
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