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The inside guide to Basel, Switzerland's cultural powerhouse

Sitting on the banks of the Rhine, the Swiss city champions ingenuity in art, architecture and food, and thrums with a vibrant cafe culture.

Published 12 Jul 2021, 06:07 BST
Boaters catch up in the shadow of Middle Bridge, in the heart of Basel.

Boaters catch up in the shadow of Middle Bridge, in the heart of Basel.

Photograph by Getty Images

Other Swiss cities charm with their picture-perfect good looks, but that suits Basel just fine. There’s a hidden chemistry to this city — at the helm of the country’s biotech and pharmaceutical industries, it’s also busy making pioneering waves in avant-garde art and architecture, with its raft of galleries to rival any world-class capital and buildings by Pritzker Prize-winning architects. Sitting astride the Rhine where Switzerland, Germany and France converge, there’s also a sparkling waterfront for wild swims and sundowners, and a food scene that dives into unchartered creative waters.

Before all that, however, brunch and a freshly roasted coffee is order of the morning at retro-flavoured Café Frühling in the riverfront Kleinbasel neighbourhood. Near here, the medieval Mittlere Brücke bridge leaps across the Rhine to Grossbasel and the Altstadt, where history is writ large across the Münster, with its spires and chevron-tiled roof. Just south is the red-sandstone Rathaus, giving way to arcades festooned with frolicking cherubs.

The Altstadt is pretty, but it’s the future, not the past, that marks Basel out. Host of September’s mammoth Art Basel fair, the city muscles in on the international contemporary art scene in a big way. You could devote an entire weekend to browsing the city’s best galleries, but high on any itinerary should be the phenomenal Kunstmuseum, straddling two modernist buildings and harbouring a collection swinging from Holbein’s Renaissance masterpieces to Van Gogh, Picasso and Paul Klee originals.   

Heading east reveals a trio of big-hitters, too. First up, in a Mario Botta-designed edifice of rose-pink sandstone, is Museum Tinguely, showcasing the eponymous Swiss artist’s madcap sculptures. A 20-minute tram ride north of Basel Bad station (and across the German border) brings you to the Vitra Design Museum, where Frank Gehry has left his curvy, decontructivist imprint in white plaster and titanium-zinc alloy. The boundary-pushing exhibitions zoom in on architecture, industrial and interior design.   

If the sun’s out, walk the three-mile Rehberger-Weg. Switching back and forth across the Swiss-German border, the trail takes in vineyards and also skirts the town of Weil am Rhein, ticking off 24 public art installations by German sculptor Tobias Rehberger. The end goal is Fondation Beyeler. Overlooking wooded hills and lily-filled ponds, the low-slung, light-drenched Renzo Piano presents a private-turned-public collection of modern works, from Miró to Ernst, Pollock to Lichtenstein.  

Read more: The inside guide to the Olympic capital of Lausanne, Switzerland

Basel is renowned for its artistic assets. The Museum Tinguely is one of the highlights, a museum showcasing the eponymous Swiss artist’s madcap sculptures.

Photograph by AWL Images

Back in the centre near the station, the elegantly revived 1920s Markthalle offers hungry lunchtime crowds the world on a plate under its huge domed roof. Expect cheese and wood-fired bread, street-food stands dish up everything from Ethiopian tibs to Venezuelan arepas (maize patties) and Italian gelato. Grab a regional beer from HausBAR

The Rhine is Basel’s backdrop and lifeblood and jumping in for a swim is something of a rite of passage. At the tourist office on Barfüsserplatz, get yourself a Wickelfisch, a fish-shaped waterproof bag to keep your kit dry, then head to Kleinbasel’s riverbank, strip to your bathers and go with the flow, splashing past the city landmarks as you float downstream. If you prefer to stay above water, you can rend standup paddleboards by the hour or hook onto a tour with Birs73. Part of the fun is washing up at a riverside bar, or buvette, for drinks, snacks and socialising.

Speaking of drinks, this is an excellent city for a pre-dinner aperitif. Try lavishly muralled Grenzwert for craft beers, antipasti and a chilled courtyard garden. Or, as the evening wears on, the moodily lit, boho-flavoured Renée Bar entices with good vibes, gigs and DJ sets.   

Dinner? You’re spoilt for choice. With a terrace right by the river, retro-hip Ufer7 pairs Basel brews and Swiss wines with its own spin on regional dishes like Pizokel (stubby buckwheat dumplings) with speck, Savoy cabbage, raclette cheese and onions. Or for a dash of contemporary decadence, book ahead at Michelin-starred Roots, where chef Pascal Steffen delights with daring, ingredient-led tasting menus that seem deceptively simple on paper. Dishes include poulard, fig and mushroom, or duck, pumpkin and quince.     

The highlights of Basel, according to local Philipp Brogli

Philipp is the founder and owner of Artstübli, Basel’s leading exhibition, exchange and project space for urban art and culture. 

1. Kulturbeiz 113
Climb 113 steps to the top of this restaurant and you’ll be rewarded with a view over the city’s rooftops from the beautiful terrace. Or take the elevator if you prefer not to climb. The food is young, unconventional and prepared with the freshest ingredients, and there are often cultural events in the evenings. 

2. Holzpark Klybeck
The temporary-use island of Klybeck is crammed with many small, colourful studios, bars, food pop-ups and workshops, and hosts theatrical, musical and other cultural events. They’re creating a versatile new cultural space in the form of a rare and nostalgic lightship from the 1950s. 

3. Artstübli Gallery
In Basel’s historic market hall, my gallery has been a platform for showcasing the many contemporary facets of urban art and culture — from graffiti to street art — with events, exhibitions and on-theme books.

4. Angels’ Share
Located in Kleinbasel’s ‘Bermuda-Triangle’ nightlife district, this relaxed, intimate bar is a real find. Besides cocktails, the bar offers an exquisite whiskey and rum assortment. On the small, monthly changing cocktail-menu there are classics and signatures, such as Angels’ Fizz (gin, lemon, egg white and soda). 

5. Urban Art Tour Basel
Basel has a huge collection of art, with many exciting discoveries in public spaces. I organize multi-lingual urban art and graffiti tours, guided by artists and experts of the scene. I recommend seeking out the 25 ‘Space Invaders’ that have been dotted all over the city by the anonymous French street artist Invader. 

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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