At Saint-Louis in Alsace’s Sundgau, you’re just a couple of kilometres from the Tripoint, where France, Germany and Switzerland meet. A day out might entail a trip on the river ferry in the Swiss city in Basel before a meal at a traditional Alsatian restaurant and then a few hours seeing the design classics at the Vitra Museum in Germany.
There’s an almost overwhelming choice of attractions in the Basel area, dealing with fine art, textiles, industrial design and medieval crafts. With the Upper-Rhine Museum Pass, you can cross borders as much as you like, darting from one first-rate museum to the next.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Louis:
1. Basel Cable Ferry
The journey across the Rhine on one of Basel’s four ferries is just a short one, but you won’t forget it in a hurry.
The ferries use the fast-flowing waters of this river for their propulsion, and make the crossing without using an engine: The craft are tethered to a steel cable suspended above the river, and shuttle back and forth between Grossbasel and Kleinbasel throughout the day.
The four have different names: Leu, Ueli , Vogel Gryff and Wilde Maa, and on board it’s tradition for the ferrymen to tell stories to the passengers.
2. La Petite Camargue Alsacienne
As soon as you leave Saint-Louis heading north you’ll enter a national nature reserve covering more than 900 hectares and with an ecosystem that resembles the Camargue in the south of France.
You’ll be on the former floodplain of the Rhine, in a mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, marshes and flooded forest.
There are 15 orchid species, and more than 600 types of mushroom in autumn.
Something to spark your interest as you stroll is the Imperial fish farm, established under the rule of Napoleon III in 1852 for salmon and trout.
There’s a museum about the history of the farm, as well how the straightening program on the Rhine in the 19th-century affected the landscape on the left bank.
3. Fondation Fernet-Branca
Set in the old Fernet-Branca distillery is a modest but engaging contemporary art museum hosting temporary exhibitions for French and international, 20th-century and present- day painters, sculptors and graphic designers.
In summer 2016 there was a display for the French engraver and painter, Philippe Cognée, while in the last few years the foundation has shown retrospectives for the likes of Serge Poliakoff, Olivier Mosset and American abstract artist, Charles Pollock, the older brother of Jackson.
There’s a small shop at the museum, where you can still buy a bottle of Fernet-Branca, a bitter herbal liqueur.
4. Mémorial Maginot de Haute-Alsace
The Sundgau is scattered with defences built in the run up to the Second World War as part of the Maginot Line.
A few minutes outside Saint-Louis by the village of Uffheim is a sombre remnant, a concrete artillery bunker, and the last survivor of seven built in the Altkirch sector to protect the left bank of the Rhine.
You can poke around this two-storey structure for a few minutes, and inspect the armoured observation bell above two 47mm anti-tank guns, two 8mm Hotchkiss mle guns and two smaller calibre machine guns.
5. Basel Fine Arts Museum
You can browse one of of Switzerland’s great art collections in this museum.
Its roots can be traced to 1661 when the city bought the Amerbach Cabinet, a collection of pieces by the 16th-century German artist Hans Holbein.
The museum still boasts the largest set of works by the Holbein family on display anywhere.
These are joined by a large number of renaissance and baroque works by Hans Baldung, Rembrandt, Rubens, Breughel the Elder, and later contributions by impressionists like Manet, van Gogh, Cézanne and Monet.
There’s also a top-notch assortment of 20th-century art by Kandinsky, Chagall, Alberto Giacometti and many more.
6. Basel Paper Mill Museum
Right next to the 13th-century Gewerbekanal is a museum in an authentic 15th-century paper mill.
It’s one of the few attractions in Europe to be able to preserve late-medieval paper-making workshops, and you can see how the surprisingly sophisticated machinery would have been powered by water wheels on the canal.
More general displays shed light on the development of paper manufacturing, and what this meant for writing, printing and the dissemination of information in the coming centuries.
There are daily demonstrations of historic skills like typesetting, typecasting and bookbinding, and you can even make your own piece of paper and try some old-fashioned calligraphy.
7. Basel Munster
More than five centuries after they were completed the red sandstone towers of Basel cathedral still draw the eye like no other landmark in the city.
There had been a romanesque church on this spot, but it was toppled by an earthquake in the 14th-century, and drafted in for the rebuild was Ulrich von Esingen, architect of the iconic towers of Strasbourg cathedral.
You can climb the 250 steps up both the south and north towers and see the city and Rhine, but there’s just as much to discover below: Erasmus, the hugely influential Dutch humanist, is buried in the cathedral.
You can see his tomb monument, as well as beautiful medieval frescoes in the crypt depicting the Annunciation and Nativity.
8. Basel Altstadt
On this bend in the Rhine, Basel’s old town has many of the city’s historical landmarks in one place.
Crossing the river is the Mittlere Brücke (Middle Bridge), dating to the 1300s and one of the symbols for the city.
The district is good for a wander as it has many 15th-century buildings in mint condition, on a tangle of steep lanes delivering you to handsome squares.
The quieter parts give you a decent idea of what it might have been like to live here in medieval times, but there are also streets like Freie Stresse with modern shops, and several places to eat and sip a coffee on Gebergasse.
9. Jean Tinguely Museum
There aren’t many modern art museums that can engage with children as well as adults, but the Jean Tinguely is certainly one.
It’s filled with the whimsical metallic contraptions designed by the 20th-century sculptor.
Grown-ups will appreciate the irony and humour in TInguely’s works, while kids’ imaginations will be set free by these colourful machines that are constantly in motion.
Many are also interactive, and open up or come to life by putting your foot on a pedal or pushing a button.
10. Cité de l’Automobile
Back on the French side of the Rhine, what could be the world’s greatest car museum is in Mulhouse, less than half an hour by car to the north.
This was a secret private collection, put together by the Schlumpf brothers, a pair of textile industrialists and hidden in the old mills that contain this museum.
It’s the world’s largest single collection of Bugattis, a car brand so elegantly crafted that you don’t need to be an auto connoisseur to fall in love.
There are 400 cars in all, arranged in chronological order, with the earliest vehicles dating to the 1870s.
The rarest and most valuable are the two Bugatti Royales from the 1930s; that’s two out of only six in existence!
11. Musée de l’Impression sur Etoffes
An attraction sure to wow anybody inspired by fashion, textiles or industrial history, this museum is essentially an archive of printed fabrics dating from the 18th century to the present day.
It’s the largest collection in the world, with two million samples.
This database is a valuable resource for design professionals, and brands such as Ikea and Kenzo regularly turn to the archive for design inspiration.
There are also extensive displays of vintage factory machinery, helping to tell the story of cotton printing in Alsace.
12. Vitra Design Museum
Crossing the border into Germany, you can tick a third nation off your list! But there’s a greater incentive to come, as you can see one of the world’s top design museums, attached to the Vitra factory.
As you’d guess from the name, the museum is devoted mainly to furniture and interior design, exhibiting the work of luminaries in the field like Dieter Rams, Charles and Ray Eames, Michael Thonet, Alva Aalto and George Nelson.
It’s all contained within the first building created in Europe by Frank Gehry, in his characteristic deconstructivist style.
In a recently opened side- building you can see part of Vitra’s huge design archive.
13. Basel Zoo
Switzerland’s largest and oldest zoo, is also the most popular paid attraction in the country.
The zoo is noted internationally for its success with breeding programs, and has conducted numerous successful births for pygmy hippos (53), okapi (22) and cheetahs, with 18 born at this site.
There’s much to see, with 645 different species living here, but there are some exciting new additions like an expanded monkey enclosure and a new elephant house, inside a 5,000 square-metre enclosure.
Also, see if you can come in winter you get to catch the penguins making their daily commute from the Vivarium to an outdoor exercise area at around 11:00.
14. Regional Wine and Beer
Starting a short way north of Saint-Louis the countryside is covered with endless rows of green vines, growing Gewürztraminer and Riesling grapes.
The former is often enjoyed as an aperitif, while the latter pairs superbly with classic Alsatian cuisine, which we’ll cover next.
In the town, the Saint-Louis’ brewery has been making beer for 200 years, despite a hiatus for a couple of decades at the end of the 20th century.
You can drop in at the brewery shop, where they sell blonde, white, amber and an unfiltered and unpasteurised “spring” beer, which has a natural yeast deposit at the bottom.
15. Alsatian Food
Many tourists come across the border just to indulge in Alsace’s wonderful cuisine, which harmonises French and German flavours.
Traditionally taverns or “winstubs” prepare satisfying classics like baeckeoffe, wine-marinated beef, pork and mutton slow-cooked in a stew with onions, potatoes and vegetables.
Tarte flambée is another great savoury dish, with bacon and onions baked on a flat dough with fromage frais.
And then there’s the localal interpretation of sauerkraut, in which fermented cabbage is served with regional charcuterie, morteau sausage and frankfurters.