City Guide to Basel, Switzerland
As my husband and I took a road trip through Europe, we spent a week in the medieval city of Basel, Switzerland. The city is located on the northwestern border of Switzerland, neighbors to Germany and France. Basel boasts many museums, fantastic scenery, pristine lake, historical landmarks, and European charm.
We hope our experience will help you plan your visit, whether it’s a day trip from Zurich or Lucerne, a few days after a river cruise, or an extended multi-week vacation in Basel.
Basel, Switzerland will surprise you. You’ll enjoy the perfect mix of historic and contemporary architecture, outdoor fun, and sophisticated museums all in one place. Here are a few of our favorite things to do in Basel.
Old Town (Altstadt)
Basel Old Town is a lovely place to discover the city and learn more about its past. Basel Old Town is found on the Grossbasel (Big Basel) and Kleinbasel (Little Basel) side of the Rhine River, joined by the Mittlere Brücke. Many major attractions are located within Old Town, such as the City Hall (Rathaus), The Basel Munster Cathedral, and many more. We strolled the cobblestone streets admiring many of the architecture and houses. The terrace houses are beautiful in very quaint, coming in different shapes and colors. Along the streets, you will find boutiques and shops selling all sorts of unusual specialty items. To appreciate the history of Old Town, I recommend you take a FREE guided tour. Plan to spend about an hour walking the streets. You will most likely visit this area more than once.
Mittlere Brücke (Middle Bridge)
Mittlere Brücke is one of the oldest crossings of the Rhine River between Lake Constance and the North Sea. Walking the Mittlere Brücke itself and exploring the boardwalk along the Rhine River is a great place to enjoy the breeze and observe the city along its banks. On each side of the bridge, down on the boardwalk, are restaurants, bars, snack kiosks, and few souvenir shops.
Near the center of the bridge is the Kappelijoch (Old Bridge Chapel), where prisoners were sent to die in the Middle Ages. It has been told that monks once threw women into the Rhine with legs and hand-bound due to their suspicion of being witches, unfaithful, or criminals. Rebel nuns would rescue the women as they floated downstream.
Mittlere Brücke (Middle Bridge)
Kunstmuseum is considered one of the best art museums in Europe with a wide array of different styles and pieces. The Kunstmuseum is laid out in three separate buildings with a collection dating from the early 15th century to the present. Thus, the Kunstmuseum is the oldest publicly accessible art collection in the world.
- Fee: CHF 16
- Hours: 10:00 – 18:00, closed Monday
Marktplatz (Market Square)
In the center of Basel Old Town is Marktplatz dating to the 11th century. The colorful red sandstone Rathaus (City Hall) sits on one side of the square, and opposite it is many cafes, restaurants, and sweet shops to enjoy. In addition, you will often find a farmers market, food trucks, and other vendors selling their goods on the square.
Rathaus (City Hall)
Basel City Hall is an iconic sight located in the center of Old Town, featuring ornate frescoes, billowing flags, and a rising bell tower. Even though the building is over 500 years old, the Basel government still uses it. It is free to enter and explore, but I suggest a guided tour if you want more details about the building and its frescos.
Water Fountains of Basel
Basel has over 230 fountains with illustrating figures that are beautiful and unique to see. Although you don’t see many humans utilizing the fountains, all the fountains are safe for drinking. The Basel Journal calls it the city of fountains, and for a good reason.
I was intrigued by all the Basilisk fountains. So, take your time and get close to these fountains and observed the fine details of the sculptures.
Basel Cathedral (Basel Münster)
One of Basel’s main attractions to see along the Rhine River is the Münster Basel Cathedral. Sections of the Cathedral date to the 11th century, but the Gothic elements and towers were added in the 14th-15th centuries. The Cathedral is still in operation as a place of worship, so be respectful when you go inside.
The Basel Münster was once a Catholic Church and became protestant after the Reformation. The pipe organ and stained glass in the interior of the Cathedral are magnificent. Make sure to walk through the cloister and crypt where the tombs of royalty and prominent citizens of Basel were buried hundreds of years ago.
Today the Cathedral has two façade towers. Before the 1300s, the Cathedral had five towers, but due to an earthquake, they all fell. So the two standing today were rebuilt. You can climb one of the towers for a small fee (payable at the gift shop). The steep climb of 250 stairs is narrow and winding, and the upper area is quite open. Here you will have an incredible view of the Rhine and Mittlere Brücke.
If climbing the tower is not your thing, take a walk around the terrace behind the church, which is a wonderful place to see the incredible view of the Rhine River and Kleinbasel (Little Basel). You will find locals enjoying a picnic or eating gelato.
- Fee: Free to enter the church and cloister. CHF 4.50 to climb the tower
- Hours: Monday – Friday 10:00 – 17:00; Saturday 10:00 – 16:00; Sunday 11:30 – 17:00
Open Church of Elisabeth (Offene Kirche Elisabethen )
Open Church of Elisabeth is the first Swiss church that caters to the spiritual, cultural, and social needs of urban people of all backgrounds. Built in 1857 in Gothic Revival style, the Open Church of Elisabeth is the first new church erected in Basel following the Reformation. A wealthy businessman and his wife, Christoph and Margarethe Merian, built the church and are buried there. You can see the black marble coffins in the crypt below the church’s main floor.
The Jean Tinguely Museum
Jean Tinguely is one of the most celebrated artists from Basel. He was part of the Avant Guard movement in Paris, France. He is known for his moving kinetic art. As a young person, he was fascinated by machines, how they worked, and their sounds. As a result, the museum is filled with moving and many touchable works of art.
Tinguely Fountain is a must-see while in Old Town. Built-in 1977 by Tinguely, you will find various machinery parts created to make an artistic water fountain that all those in the community can enjoy.
Jean Tinguely Fountain
Visit the gates to the city as you can see magnificent old medieval walls with spiked doors ready to drop to protect the city. Three gates dating back 1400s still stand today. The most stunning is Sankt-Alban-Tor.
Dreilaendereck is the three corners where three countries, Germany, France, and Switzerland, meet. How cool to be able to be in three countries within a couple of footsteps away! My husband and I took a bus that dropped us off near Dreilandereck. A short walk along the boardwalk, and you will arrive. Not much to see or observe, but a fun place to take a photo. You will find a monument indicating the intersection of all three borders along the Rhine River.
If you wish, you can walk from Basel to Weil am Rhein (DE) to Saint Louis (FR) in a couple of hours but make sure you carry your passport and covid information.
In the distance, you can see the Three Country Bridge that connects Weil am Rhein, Germany, to Huningue, France. The bridge is one of the longest self-supporting pedestrian and cyclist bridges worldwide. Rent a bike (read below on renting a bike) and experience crossing borders.
One of Switzerland’s most visited art museums is known to be one of the world’s best. The gallery is located in a beautiful garden and the convenient tram route takes you through some lovely green suburban areas. It is a great museum to visit!
Located near St. Peter’s Church is the Petersplatz. Petersplatz dates to 1277. This square has been used for many public events, markets, and military grounds. On Saturday, you can find a Flea Market selling various antiques, clothes, and cell phone gadgets.
St. Peter’s Church was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1356. The only part of the original building left is the west wall and the choir area. Inside the church is a stone pillar with pointed arches separated with nave from the side aisles. A fresco wall painting of Christ’s body being laid to rest in the tomb is breathtaking.
- Make sure to check out the chancel, where you will see the old choir stalls with carved armrests of unique faces.
St. Peter's Church
I am a mural junkie! Basel has many murals and graffiti art throughout the city. For example, if you walk down Steinenvorstadt, you may notice a few murals near Espresso Café, on the back street. So if you are like me and love mural art, keep your eyes open as they are in unusual places throughout Basel.
CHURCHES of BASEL
Many people prefer visiting museums or joining guided tour groups, but we enjoy exploring old churches. I love photography and find some of the most interesting paintings, architecture, and sculptures in many of these historical church buildings. Here are other churches we explored.
St. Paul Church (Kulturkirche Paulus)
St. Paul’s Church was constructed in 1898-1901 and featured a neo-Romanesque architectural style. Although not as stunning as many other churches in Basel, the outer structure offers much to admire. In 2019, the church was converted into a cultural center hosting cultural events, weddings, and concerts.
While visiting, a choral group was rehearsing. In front of the church is a small coffee truck offering up various drinks and pastries while sitting outside to enjoy the summer day.
Roman Catholic Church of St. Mary’s
Although we came upon this church by accident as we walked to the tram, St. Mary’s Church is worth the stop. It was built around 1884 when the Roman Catholic community made up a good quarter of Basel’s population. This was the first Catholic Church since the Reformation for the 22,000-member Catholic community. The architecture is designed in the neo-Romanesque style, while the interior is a colorful neo-Byzantine style.
Today, the church offers English-Speaking services with approximately 180 families from over 20 countries.
Church of St. Matthew (Matthäuskirche)
The Matthäuskirche, built in 1893-1895, is designed in the neo-Gothic style and stands in the middle of the Matthäusplatz. The area around this church was filled with school children playing and had a beautiful tree surrounding the church. It is the tallest church in Basel with its 80-meter-high church tower. Inside the main entrance are beautifully painted walls and ceiling.
- When you exit Matthäusplatz, make sure to take a drink at one of the many Basilisk Fountains. These Basilisks have been a primary symbol of Basel since the 15th century. There are dozens of them throughout the city.
St. Martin’s Church (Martinskirche)
St. Martin’s Church dated back to the 12th century and was originally a Romanesque church built for the great Saint Martin. It is the oldest parish church in the city. After the earthquake in 1356, the church was completely reconstructed. Since 1529, Martinskirche has been used as a Reformed Protestant church. Inside are three glass windows designed by artist Augusto Giacometti in 1919 to depict the Christmas story.
St. Martin's Church
St. Theodor Church
St. Theodor Church (Theodorskirche)
At the beginning of the 12th century, the church belonged to the monastery of St. Alban. The earliest documents mentioned St. Theodor Church in 1084. Outside of the church are burial sites from the 11th century. The church has been Protestant Reformed since 1529.
Nearby the church are many great little cafes and restaurants to enjoy.
Synagogue of Basel
Although little information was available about the Synagogue of Basel, I believe that the building was built in 1866-1869 designed in the neo-Byzantine cross-dome style. An add-on was constructed later to the east side of the building.
The Jewish community has had its struggles in Basel. Today, Basel is home to both liberal and conservative Jewish families. The population of Jews continues to fall in Basel as many have moved to other parts of the world.
WHERE TO EAT
You will find a wide variety of food options in Basel. We found that they genuinely love Asian food! I like to eat local cuisine or at least mix it up. Here are a few recommendations.
If you are looking for a variety of choices, visit Markthalle. It is an excellent location with food stalls from all over the world serving Argentinian, Thai, Turkish, to Seafood. The location is here.
- Hours: varies daily, but open during meal times (Sundays hours are limited)
Dio/Mio Pizza Napoletana
Although we arrived at Dio Mio without a reservation, they were able to seat us at a table outdoors. You will overlook the Tinguely Fountains that are across the street.
Dio Mio offers fresh, handmade pasta and pizza and has impeccable service. We savored a delicious radish salad along with a margarita pizza sipping on a glass of wine. The location is here.
Dio Mio Restaurant
Holy Cow! Gourmet Burger Co.
If you are missing your weekly hamburger, stop in at Holy Cow and enjoy a juicy burger. Holy Cow offers beef, chicken, and veggie burgers. Also available on the menu are signature salads. Most of the menu items provide a full meal which includes fries and a drink. Be prepared to pay more than usual for a burger when in Switzerland. The average cost of a Cheeseburger is about CHF 12 (12.98 USD)! The location is here.
One thing you will quickly learn about Basel is that it is packed with many great dining options. Overall, Switzerland is more expensive than what you are accustomed to in the United States (and extremely more costly, especially Turkey!). If you are looking for fine dining check out Cheval Blanc or Restaurant Atelier im Teufelhof. Other great options for a more casual and traditional restaurant in Basel are Kohlmanns or Volkshaus.
A specialty you will only find in Basel created more than 100 years ago is Lackerli. I love the flavor as it reminds me of a soft, nutty ginger snap cookie (maybe a little less ginger flavor). It is made with almonds, hazelnuts, candy peel, and kirsch (cherry brandy). It is delicious!
Lackerli Huus has shops throughout Old Town on either side of the river. These delicious sweets make for a great gift. I picked up a box as a souvenir, but sadly I ate them all before reaching home! The location is here.
After visiting the Rathaus (City Hall) or Marktplatz, step across the street to Confiserie Schiesser. This is one of Basel’s oldest chocolatiers and confectioneries. It has been in operation for over five generations. My husband’s sweet tooth brought us back here more than once. In addition to a variety of chocolate sweets such as Elvesia, Huimbi, and truffles called Kirshstangeli, ice cream is also available. The location is here.
TIP: In Switzerland, you will find the restaurants close early. When I say early, I mean around 6 or 7 pm! We found ourselves often shocked to arrive at a restaurant after a long day of sightseeing to be closed. Some restaurants require reservations.
WHERE TO STAY
During our stay in Basel, we pet sit so we did not have any hotel stays. I highly suggest checking out Hotels.com or Airbnb for some options that fit your budget. If you want to stay in the city center, you might stay at Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, Hotel Rochat, or Motel One Basel. I recommend you read the reviews to learn what other travelers experienced while staying in the hotel. I like to cross-reference with comments on Google reviews.
TIP: When you book a stay at a hotel in Switzerland, you can ask for a card that allows you to travel for free during your time in that city. To take advantage of this to get to your hotel from the airport or train station, carry your hotel confirmation with you.
Although we drove to Basel in our car, we rarely used it because parking is a tremendous challenge in Basel. If you stay at a hotel, get a transportation pass, as I mentioned above. Otherwise, purchase Basel Card, which will give you access to tram, buses, and free (or discounted) entrances into many of the attractions. The tram and bus systems are straightforward to understand and run on time.
You will notice that many locals ride bikes throughout the city. Therefore, you can rent a bike and ride around Basel. Although we did see some bikes were not locked, I recommend you bring your lock.
A great place to ride your bike is crossing into Germany, France, and back into Switzerland. Another great route to explore is the Rehberger Weg which makes 24 stops connecting the Foundation Beyeler with Campus with the Vitra Design Museum in Germany.
Take a small open-top ferry boat ride across the Rhine River. These boats do not have motors. Instead, it is hooked to a rope across the Rhine River that connects Grossbasel and Kleinbasel and uses the river current to get across. Between Basel’s five bridges are four ferries, “Wilde Maa,” “Leu,” “Vogel Griff,” and “Ueli.” It takes approximately 15 minutes to cross the river.
- Fee: CHF 16
Swim the Rhine River
As you walk along the Kleinbasel side of the Rhine, you’ll see people swimming/floating in the fast current of the Rhine River. Anyone can swim, but I recommend you be a strong swimmer as the current is powerful and has no lifeguards on standby! If you consider swimming, I suggest you visit this website for more details.
If you want to tour the Rhine River by boat, you can take various tours with Basler Personenschifffahrt, which offers regular cruises on the Rhine from March to October. In addition, there’s a one-hour harbor tour that’s perfect for sightseeing along the water’s edge.
Basel, Switzerland, has a lot to offer as a travel destination. With over 40 museums to visit, a scenic city to walk, historic churches and buildings to explore, you will find it a wonderful vacation.
Here are some other destinations that we have explored, and I have shared sightseeing guides:
- Exploring Geneva, Switzerland