It is pretty obvious to see why Mercer listed Basel within the top 10 of the most live-able cities in the world. The 3rd largest city of Switzerland rather feels like a friendly student town than a big business city. I guess that is still attainable with just over 180K inhabitants. Basel is a picturesque, tourist friendly city that is easy to walk around and offers enough to fill a long weekend. Or, like many do, use Basel as a pleasant starting point to explore Switzerland further.
The Rhine River is the longest river in Switzerland, which flows through this gorgeous country for 375 kilometers and reaches Basel in the north. The Rhine River is very important for the people of Basel. This is obvious to see as soon as the sun comes out; the swimwear will appear, people jump in the water and the BBQs start to smoke at the shores. And those sunny days ares not rare, looking at the fact that on average, Basel gets about 300 days of sunshine per year. Nice!
Quite a lot of people really swim in the river here, not kidding! Despite the strong current and boats. And whatever may be in that water… Got proper swimming skills and feeling confident enough to give it a go? Get yourself a waterproof bag (‘wickelfish’) and put your stuff in it. You will swim to the other side like a local! Switzerland gives Tarzan a whole new meaning you know. The ultimate souvenir.
Another way of crossing the river is by taking one of the four wooden ferries to the other side. These ‘floating pedestrian bridges’ are attached to a cable line to prevent the non-motorized boats to drift off the wrong way. Operations stop with high water (7.90 meters above sea level or more). See also How to get around paragraph below.
Walk along the river shores and discover the historical quarter of Basel’s city center. Alte stadt means old town. Preferably go for an early morning walk to really get the tranquil feeling that without a doubt will bring a smile to your face.
Cute cobblestone streets, authentic, old yet well-maintained houses with colorful shutters, bicycles with baskets everywhere, the beautiful red Town Hall… It’s hard not to fall in love with this city. Basel has actually succeeded quite well in achieving a fairly nice contrast between modern and traditional architecture.
While walking around in Basel, you may notice the high number of bicycles, Swiss flags hanging out and cleanness of the city. Yes, you’re in Switzerland!
Besides the river, the two main landmarks in the city center of Basel are:
- Town Hall (Rathaus)
- Basel Minster (Basler Münster)
The Basel Munster is a Gothic style cathedral with colored tiles on its roof and some medieval frescos inside. You can walk up to the top of the tower, which provides one of the best views of the city! The Basel Munster is open daily 12:00-16:00h.
The Town Hall (Rathouse) of Basel is absolutely worth seeing. You can easily get in for free. Those frescos on the wall are absolutely amazing. You can climb up some stairs to get a better view on the courtyard. Open Mon-Fri 08:00-17:00h.
Officially, St. Alban (Sankt Alban) is a neighborhood in Basel, south of the St. Alban-Tor gate (‘Dalbedoor’). Actually the prettiest streets are just around the tower, especially the streets north of the St. Alban-Anlage (large street). Such as St. Alban-Tal, starting at the Basel Paper Mill (home of the Writing & Printing Museum), St. Alban-Kirchrain and the Letziturm. Simply walk around and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, authentic, historical architecture and narrow, winding streets that give a glimpse of the Middle Ages.
Those water streams between the houses, some with water mill, are lovely to see. St. Alban is a must-see when in Basel! The area owes its name to the oldest monastery in Basel, which dates back to 1083. In Basel-German dialect, the St. Alban historical quarter is referred to as ‘Dalbe’.
A number of blocks further (southwest and southeast directions, see map below) you can walk through the Gellertstrasse, St. Jakobs-Strasse and Sevogelplatz, where you can find several nice villas. In the very eastern end of St. Alban (Gellert part) you’ll find an outdoor swimming pool called St. Jacob. Have fun exploring!
The so-called ‘brunnen’ (fountains) are scattered all over Basel, some prettier and more special than others. There are more than 1200! And yes, you can safely drink the water straight from these fountains in Basel. Cheers to Basel’s ‘municipal lager’!
In addition you may notice the city gates in Basel called ‘tor’. Besides the earlier mentioned St. Alban-Tor and Letziturm, Basel has a few other towers and gates worth seeing, for instance:
- St. Johanns-Tor
- Spalentor (Gates of Spalen)
- Thomasturm (Tomas Tower)
These gates are remains of the old city wall dating back from the 15th Century. For locations see below map. There is also a tower in Basel called St. Jacob’s Tower, but that’s a very modern tower with apartments and offices next to a soccer stadium.
Basel University area
The area around the Basel University is quite picturesque too. Let me walk you through. Start at St. Urbansbrunnen near the Rhine River. Walk into Petersgasse and admire the pretty houses dating back to the 14th and 15th Centuries. Check out Peterskirchplatz, Peterskirch (church), pedestrian only street Totengasslein with the Pharmacy Museum, etc. On Saturdays there is a Flea Market at Petersplatz (see also Shopping below).
Walk further to Spalengraben, so pretty! Wouldn’t you just want to live here?! Not to miss out on the earlier mentioned Spalentor gate. If you have enough time, you may also want to visit the Botanical Garden of Basel University, which is open daily 08:00-17:00h (Nov-Mar) or 18:00h (Apr-Oct).
Those Basel folks are true art lovers! Being the first in Europe who made an art collection available to the public back in 1661. Today, the Kunstmuseum a.k.a. Museum of Fine Arts is still the largest art museum in Switzerland. In addition Basel has many other museums, such as an Antiques Museum, Cartoon Museum, Dollhouse a.k.a. Toy Museum, Natural History Museum, Museum of Writing, Paper & Printing, etc. For locations see below map.
On top of that Basel has street art and is home to two large orchestras to entertain fans of the classical music. At the House of Wine (love that name!) they brought together lifestyle, art, wine, music and enjoyment. You may also want to check out the Musical Theatre and Volkshaus for live music performances. Sometimes large concerts are held at the Event Halle.
Language and culture
German, Italian and French are national languages in Switzerland. Swiss-German is not the same as regular German and it’s not an official language, so it’s not included in Google Translate. In addition there is also High Swiss-German, which is not the same either. Moreover there is a Basel dialect. Good luck!
Did you know that milk chocolate is a Swiss invention? Wow!
The Swiss are known for their high quality watches, the Swiss knife, Swiss cheese and chocolate and winter sports for example. During the short time we were in Switzerland, I found the Swiss to be friendly and polite yet not very talkative and quite reserved. I guess it is in their nature. The Swiss are known worldwide for their banking secrecy and neutral position in conflicts. They are also punctual so be in time or call if you are late for an appointment. Questions about someone’s income are considered rude, whereas parking and speeding tickets are based on the offender’s annual income.
Swiss appreciate their traditional Sunday rest; most shops are closed on Sundays. At the Marktplatz a market is held every Monday till Saturday and on Saturday there is a flea market at Petersplatz (07:30-16:00h). Furthermore Basel has quite some antique shops to explore. It is the place to be to finally get yourself that funky cuckoo clock or a Swiss fondue set. Or, if you have big money left, a precious Swiss watch! Check out the cute boutiques at and around Spalenberg.
Other well-known places in Basel include soccer club FC Basel, the earlier mentioned Basel University (Switzerland’s oldest university), the biggest congress center of the country and the zoo. Check GetYourGuide or Viator for interesting tours and activities in Basel, such as a guided walking tour to learn more about the history of the city.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Nomad Design & Lifestyle Hotel and loved it! Right in the center of Basel so everything within easy walking distance. Friendly staff, spacious and clean room with nice amenities, separate bathroom and toilet, umbrellas to use when it rains, free Wi-Fi, a pretty bar downstairs, etc.
When staying at Nomad Design & Lifestyle Hotel, you get a Basel Card for free use of public transport, 50% discount to museums, the zoo, etc. The hotel is also close from the central Bankverein tram stop to the parking. Breakfast is not cheap (like nothing else here really) but it’s cheaper when booked in advance than when paid on the spot. Plus there are a sauna, a gym and bicycles available.
For low budget travelers and backpackers I would recommend having a look at the Basel Youth Hostel (Jugendherberge Basel) in St. Albans, Basel.
Where to eat
In summer Basel is full of refreshment stalls and food trucks called ‘buvettes’ that offer drinks and snacks. See map below for locations. A bit out of the direction but in summer Sandoase is also fun.
After a few glasses of wine at Vin Optimum we had a lovely dinner with river view at the nearby Italian restaurant Fiorentina. OMG that Pizza Fiorentina is really to die for! Rarely tasted that good. And pizza is one of those relatively affordable dishes in Switzerland. A pizza easily costs here EUR 25. Excluding the drinks or anything… Yikes!
It makes a difference that in Switzerland no 25% service charge or some other kind of mandatory tip is added to the restaurant bill. If my bill is like 27.95 CHF I would probably pay 30 CHF, but that’s completely voluntary because I like the service. Not because there is a mandatory service charge or I would insult anybody because it would be totally expected.
If you have piles of money burning in your pocket and you want to spend it big time, there are more than 20 Michelin restaurants waiting for you in Basel. There is even one restaurant with three Michelin stars, Cheval Blanc (White Horse). Rösti is considered a national dish in Switzerland, but I doubt they would serve it. For more restaurant and bar suggestions, buvettes, etc. check out the map below.
How to get around
We only used the tram to get from the parking to the city center, almost not in the center itself since it’s so easy to walk around, only to get to St. Albans. The Basel Card makes usage of the tram very easy. On Sundays there is this vintage tram ride you can take if you’d like (additional charge and pre-reservation).
As mentioned earlier, there are these traditional wooden ferries that you can take from one side of the river to another. The names are (from northwest to southeast): Ueli, Vogel Gryff, LEU and Wild Maa. For locations see map below. Make sure you have small cash ready when boarding. The boats run between 11:00-17:00h in winter and in summer 09:00-19:00h/20:00h. Two of them on a daily basis and the other two are only operational during the weekends.
Other methods of transport besides walking could be bicycling (you see a lot of them in Basel) or e-step. Some hotels like the Nomad Design & Lifestyle Hotel offer rentals. Cycling will get you many times faster from A to B than walking. Most streets in the center of Basel are pretty flat. But I can imagine this may sound a bit scary if you normally never ride a bicycle. If you cannot walk that much or cycle, or if the weather isn’t too great for either of those, you could consider taking the Hop-On Hop-Off bus.
Should you wish to travel further in Switzerland after Basel, there are several transportation methods to choose from, each with their own pros and cons.
For a car you will need a vignette which is valid for one year and can be bought from gas stations near the border or in advance online (in The Netherlands from ANWB for example). Parking out of the city will be the only affordable way.
How to get to Basel
The airport closest to Basel is actually located in France: EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg (BSL). This shows once more how close Basel is at the borders with France and Germany. It takes about 15 min to reach the airport from Basel Sbb central station by public transport. EasyJet is one of those low cost carriers that fly on Basel, but also Eurowings, Ryan Air, Wizz, Lufthansa, AirFrance, KLM, Austrian, TUI, Vueling, Turkish Airlines, etc. Swiss is the national airline and it’s good but not flying on Basel as far as I know. You may want to check out Skyscanner for all flight possibilities.
From elsewhere in Switzerland like Zurich or Bern for example, or from Freiburg in Germany for example, it’s easy to take the train or travel by bus to Basel. FLIXBUS is the cheapest, train is not so cheap. We calculated that going by train from Freiburg im Breisgau to Basel would cost approximately the same for two people as it would be by car including cheap parking and vignette (EUR 41.95 per car). So we decided to go by car as the gasoline would not cost me anything extra (lease car). Otherwise the train might have been a good option too; they ride quite frequently between Freiburg and Basel.
We parked at outside the city at P+R Oberwill, address: Grenzweg 1 in Oberwill. It was CHF 12 per 24 hours. In the city parking a car is difficult and expensive and your car will be of no use anyway there. The entrance of the parking is at the P+R Frei sign on your right hand, the tram stop is at the left, maybe 200 meters from the parking. There are at least five or six levels in this parking garage, do not park in the yellow parking spaces. You pay the parking when you come back. Officially you should be able to pay by any type of credit card but when we were arrived back the machine did only allow us to pay cash. Luckily we had that because there was not a soul around.
Do not ask for free parking in Switzerland; it is almost nowhere and Swiss would see that question as an insult because paid parking is considered completely logical and normal here.
From P+R Oberwill, tram 10 in the direction of Dornach bf will take you to Basel center, or take tram 17. This parking tram stop at P+R Oberwill is called Oberwill Hüslimatt. You can buy a tram ticket at the tram stop machine (credit card accepted). If you do not know if you need 1 or 2 zones, type the name of the tram stop in the center you want to get to (like Bankverein) and the machine will calculate the fare. Children get a discount. If you travel by tram without a valid ticket and you get caught, you get a 100 CFH 100 fine! The tram ticket single way from the parking to Basel city center was CHF 4.70.
What does it cost
Being Switzerland’s second-largest economic center (after Zürich) and having the highest GDP per capita, you can imagine this city comes with a price. I guess Switzerland is known as expensive anyway. Obviously, you can highly influence yourself what you will be spending. Just take into account you will get less for more money than what you night be used to. My advice: visit but do not stay too long and be careful where you spend your money on. Getting drunk is expensive here LOL
In Switzerland you pay with the Swiss Franc (CHF). The value is almost the same as the Euro (EUR). As mentioned earlier, a pizza easily costs around 27 CHF, which is about 25 EUR. A glass of wine starts at about CHF 8. Breakfast at a hotel costs usually somewhere between CHF 20 and CHF 28 per person per breakfast, at a bakery you would spend about CHF 5 to CHF 18 perhaps, depending on what you will buy. For example you’d pay about CHF 7.00 for a luxury ham and cheese sandwich at a lunchroom and CFH 4.50 for a piece of cheese cake.
We paid CHF 76 pp per night at Nomad Design & Lifestyle Hotel excluding breakfast but including the Basel Card, VAT and City Tax. Parking was CHF 12 p/24h. The ‘fahrpreis’ (fare) of the Rhine ferry is CFH 1.60 for an adult and CFH 0.80 for a kid or dog. Tram CHF 4.70 pp. Vignette CHF 45. The vignette is available at gas stations near the border and in The Netherlands for example via ANWB.
When to go to
On average, in Basel the summers are warm and the winters are cold. Warm as in 25 degrees Celsius and winter around freezing point. That is on average, obviously this varies. As mentioned earlier, Basel gets about 300 days of sunshine per year so not bad at all. We came there in July and there were pretty heavy showers those days. Bad luck!
Between November 28 and December 23 one can enjoy the Christmas markets at the Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz in Basel. Or make a whole Christmas market tour in the region! The winter sports season in Switzerland basically runs from November will April, so then you could use Basel as starting point of your ski trip for example. Trains run from Basel further into the country, so you can easily reach your ski resort (Switzerland has more than 300!).
There is this three day event called Fasnacht, the Basel version of carnival that turns the city into one big party. Basel Fasnacht is held every year in February. If you like that sort of thing, Fasnacht is a must do! The locals prepare for Fasnacht the whole year, everybody is wearing costumes, etc. Fun!
The national holiday in Switzerland is called Bundesfeier; it is held every year on August 1. On the evening before, July 31, there are fireworks above the Rhine River. The earlier mentioned Fiorentina restaurant offers a great view on the fireworks with Bundesfeier. Definitely reserve a table in advance if you would like to be there & then.
Should you be staying longer in Basel than a few days or have a special interest, the following are close to the city and could be an option for a (half) day trip:
- Aquabasilea tropical swim paradise with sauna and hamam in Pratteln (10 km)
- Augusta Raurica an old Roman settlement (12 km)
- Cassiopeia thermal springs 1000-year old Roman wellness
- Les Médiévales de St-Ursanne a super cool medieval festival held annually mid-July (60 km)
Basel is super close to the borders with Germany and France, so easy to reach by car, train or bus. Visit for example:
- Colmar in France (70 km)
- Freiburg am Breisgrau in Germany (75 km)
- Black Forest in Germany (40-180 km)
As mentioned earlier you could use Basel as the starting point for your winter sports trip. If you like or would like to learn skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding etc. Switzerland is your place to be – as soon as the temperatures drop and the snow starts to fall. Places like Zermatt and Grindelwald near Interlaken are popular for winter sports in Switzerland. However, lots of places are also worth visiting in the warmer, sunnier months. For example Schilthorn (famous from James Bond), Bernese Oberland, Jungfraujoch and Lauterbrunnen can be visited as a guided day tour from Basel.
This map includes places and spots mentioned in this article (and more). This one is ‘smartphone friendly’; you can easily use it via the Google Maps app. Click the icon at the top left to open the menu and see the categories. To adapt the map to your own preferences and interests, (de)select a category. Via Google Drive you can copy the map to your own My Google Maps account.
For more information about Basel and the Black Forest, which we also visited during this same round trip, check out my other articles:
- What to do in the Black Forest, Germany’s largest forest area Schwarzwald?
- Colmar: practical tips for visiting the cutest French town that became a social media hit
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I hope you find this article useful and that it triggered you to add Basel on your to-do list, if it wasn’t already. Do you have any plans to visit Switzerland? Please feel free to leave any question you may have, personal experience or additional tip you would like to share by leaving a comment below.
Last Updated on 01/06/2023 by Elisa Flitter Fever