Cosy, walkable and straddling the Rhine, Basel is at the tripoint where the Swiss, German and French borders meet. Basel’s art and culture put it on an equal footing with almost any city in the world. The Kunstmuseum is the shining light, replete with Renaissance, Baroque and modern art.
And the Altstadt is a confusion of alleys and streets with monumental wayfinders like the Basel Minster (Cathedral) and the 15th-century City Hall. In the Altstadt you can make your own paper at a water-powered mill from the 15th century, or step into a house where Erasmus would meet up with his friends 500 years ago.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Basel:
1. Kunstmuseum Basel
Switzerland’s largest and richest assortment of art is yours to enjoy at this superlative museum.
The roll-call of names says it all: Beginning in the Renaissance there’s Konrad Witz, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Holbein (the museum grew from an early collection of his works). There are Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Brueghel the Elder and Rubens.
From the 19th century you can admire pieces by van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne, Manet and Gauguin.
The Kunstmuseum has an entire room just for pieces by Picasso.
And elsewhere Giacometti, Klee, Franz Marc, Braque and Chagall are just a taste of the 20th-century art collection.
Basel’s old town has an uncommon array of Swiss national heritage sites.
If you check in at the tourist office they’ll suggest a few themed walks around Grossbasel on the left bank and Kleinbasel on the right bank of the Rhine.
As the many plaques make clear, the Altstadt’s oldest buildings are from the 14th century.
These streets were once walked by historic figures like Erasmus, the 16th-century theologian and humanist.
We cover many places in the Altstadt later, but some spots to keep in mind are the sweeping Münsterplatz, the irregular townhouses on Petersgasse and the jovial monkey fountain on Andreasplatz.
At Spalenvorstadt is the Holbein Fountain, a Renaissance masterpiece by Hans Holbein the Younger from the 16th century.
Suggested tour: Walking Tour through Basel Old Town
3. Basel Minster
There’s no missing Basel’s medieval minster church and its two 60-metre towers, Georgsturm and Martinsturm.
It’s a mesmerising edifice with pinkish red sandstone walls and a glazed patterned roof.
A lot of the architecture is from the 14th and 15th centuries after an earthquake in 1356 toppled the high medieval Romanesque church.
One of the earlier elements is the main portal, which was partly dismantled by iconoclasts in the Reformation.
But they left the Gothic archivolts, which boast angels, prophets, roses, kings and an image of Abraham.
To the right of this see the “Seducer” courting a young virgin, with snakes and toads behind his back to symbolise evil.
For €5 you can struggle up a narrow spiral stairway to survey Basel and the Rhine.
4. Museum Tinguely
In the Solitudepark on the Rhine’s right bank is a museum for the 20th-century kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely.
His wacky, needlessly complicated machines are anchored in the Dada spirit and satirise mass production and materialism.
But on any level they’re also fun, fanciful and interactive, so it’s an art museum where kids will never be bored.
You can push buttons and pull levers to start these machines whirring.
The exhibition chronicles Tinguely’s career, from the 1950s to 1980s.
One of his final pieces was Grosse Méta Maxi-Maxi Utopia from 1987, a tangle of pulleys, wooden wheels and electric motors with steps allowing that you can climb.
5. Basel Paper Mill
As early as 1453 this mill on the Gewerbekanal was in the business of producing paper.
Since 1980 the mill has been a working museum where you can get in touch with historic methods for dipping paper, printing and bookbinding.
Machines powered by a waterwheel turn rags and pulp into leafs ofpaper: You’ll be able to make a page of your own on the first floor.
Upstairs are the early printing presses, and quills invite you to perfect your calligraphy, while the crafts of bookbinding and paper marbling are demonstrated on the top floor live before your eyes.
6. Basel City Hall
The City Hall feels at the centre of Basel in every sense.
Martkplatz in front is a nexus for Basel’s tram network, while citizens and tourists flock to the square for the daily market.
The red sandstone behemoth that confronts you on Marktplatz is from the start of the 16th century and no expense was spared in its construction.
There are many symbols to decipher on the facade, like the 12 coats of arms of the Old Swiss Confederacy, including Basel’s, adorning the merlons at the top.
Go through the arch to enter the enthralling courtyard where there’s a 17th-century fresco by Hans Bock and a statue of Basel’s Roman founder Lucius Munatius Plancus sculpted in 1580.
7. Basel Historical Museum
HMB for short, the Basel Historical Museum has four locations.
Three of these are inside the city, and one, the Coach and Carriage Museum, is in Münchenstein to the southeast.
The main attraction is in the converted Barfüsserkirche and concerns itself with the late medieval period and early modern age.
Inside you can examine works from the Cathedral treasury, collections of coins and stained glass, tapestries, altars and possessions belonging to Erasmus.
There are also historic cabinets of curiosity, put together by wealthy collectors in the 1600s and 1700s.
But maybe the most haunting piece of all is Basel’s Danse Macabre fresco attributed to the 15th-century painter Konrad Witz.
Basel was once defended by two layers of city walls.
The Inner Wall was built around 1230, and following the earthquake in 1356 a new Outer Wall with 40 towers was raised to accommodate the growing city.
Practically all of these walls were torn down to allow Basel to grow and provide a healthier living environment in the 19th century.
Three gates remain, the most impressive of which is Spalentor.
This controlled the western approach to the city from France and was part of that outer wall begin in the 1350s.
As well as a pair of towers and patterned there’s a lot of ornamentation to look for on the facade, like Basel’s coat of arms framed by two lions.
9. Basel Zoo
With more than 640 species, few zoos on the planet can claim to have as much diversity as Basel Zoo.
This is the largest and oldest zoo in the country, dating back to 1874 but with a completely modern approach to enclosure design.
Expansions and renovations happen by the year, and in 2016 a new elephant house was opened, providing 5,000 square metres for them to roam in.
The aquarium (vivarium) is a perennial favourite and has almost of 500 species of fish, reptiles and amphibians, as well as king and gentoo penguins.
Maybe the zoo’s most famous inhabitant is Goma, the first western lowland gorilla born in Europe and turning 58 in 2017.
Under the minster towers the Pfalz is possibly the best spot on street level to contemplate the Rhine and the rows of houses on the right bank in Kleinbasel.
This terrace is above the Münsterfähre jetty, and is roughly on the site of Basel’s former episcopal palace.
Here and there you’ll notice ornately designed ledgerstones for Basel’s noble families dating back as far as the 1500s.
There’s a telescope on the wall, while the benches in this little square are shaded by trees and just right for a packed lunch.
11. Antikenmuseum Basel
Basel has the only museum in the country dedicated solely to ancient civilisations.
This deals with Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Middle Eastern and Roman objects across more than 3,000 years up to the 1st century AD. The collections were first put together in the 17th century and the museum opened in its current form in 1986 after a major donation by the industrialist Peter Ludwig.
One spellbinding item from Ancient Greece is an intact Laconian volute-krater (a vessel for watering down wine) from the 6th century, while the Egyptian galleries are rich with jewellery, sculptures and sarcophagi.
12. Pharmazie-Historisches Museum
Historic medicine is the subject of this world-class museum in a listed building in the Altstadt.
In the early 16th-century there was a printing press here, part-owned by Johann Froben, a close friend of Erasmus, who would often call in.
The amount of artefacts inside is almost overwhelming and has ceramic vessels from floor to ceiling.
There are mortars, first-aid kids, laboratory instruments, entire pharmacy interiors including cabinets, strange contraptions for practising alchemy and the preserved remnants of historic medications.
But maybe most exciting are the 15th and 16th-century books by physicians Johann de Cuba and Leonhart Fuchs.
13. Spielzeug Welten Museum
On Barfüsserplatz is as a museum to catch the imagination of both grownups and children.
A five-storey building has been made fully accessible, and holds more than 6,000 dolls, miniatures and dollhouses.
But it’s the record-breaking army of over 2,500 teddy bears that makes the headlines.
Many of the exhibits are interactive, including miniature scenes that light up, play music and have moving parts.
It might be hard to believe but this cornucopia of toys was assembled by just one person, the German-Swiss billionaire Gisela Oeri.
14. Fondation Beyeler
Six kilometres outside town, on the German border, the Fondation Beyeler is worth every second of the journey.
Awaiting you is the fabulous modern art collection of the 20th-century dealers Ernst Beyeler and Hilda Kunz.
In the 1990s this trove of 200 works was given a swish permanent home designed by Renzo Piano.
You’ll savour 23 Picassos, and paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Lichtenstein, Pollock, Warhol, Monet and Cézanne.
On top of this there’s an ethnological exhibition of 25 works from North America, Oceania and Africa.
15. The Rhine River
The Rhine flows so quickly through Basel that ferries don’t need any form of propulsion other than the river’s currents.
These vessels are tethered to steel lines and zip across the water.
You can catch a “Fähri” at four points along the river in the centre of the city, the most popular being Münsterfähre below the Pflalz.
There are also “Badhysli”, bathing areas where stronger swimmers pit themselves against the currents and others rest in the shallows.
These spots have a resort atmosphere in summer when people lounge in the sun and chat at cafe terraces.
Outside the city the Rhine takes the place of a sea or lake, and has beaches for sunbathing, watersports and barbecues in summer.