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Oozing culture and history, yet overlaid with ultra-contemporary architecture and youthful trends, Basel is a jumble of contradictions drawn together by the River Rhine. Cover as much as possible in an absorbing 24 hours, with Switzerland-based Caroline Bishop’s insider tips.
In Kleinbasel, tuck into a sumptuous Swiss breakfast at Cafe Frühling (Klybeckstrasse 69, 061 544 8038), which offers homemade muesli, organic yoghurts, Swiss cheeses and some of the tastiest croissants in town. On the other side of the Rhine, the bustling Grand Café Huguenin (Barfüsserplatz 6, 061 272 0550) is a great place to watch Grossbasel wake up.
Basel is ripe for exploring on foot. As well as a beautiful medieval Old Town, the city is packed with contemporary design from stellar architects, not least local boys Herzog & de Meuron, whose stamp can be found all over town including on the Messe exhibition centre where Art Basel is held each June. But start by vsiting the city’s major landmarks – the Romanesque twin-towered Münster (cathedral), with its Pfaltz viewing platform overlooking the Rhine, and the richly decorated Renaissance Rathaus (town hall) – before walking over the historic Mittlere Bridge, for centuries Basel’s only Rhine crossing. For a fascinating overview of the city and its history, spend the morning hiking the Rhine trail. This riverside path starts at the Kaserne (site of the Basel Tattoo show each July) and follows old fishing trails past Basel’s port, fishermen’s cottages and ancient Roman ruins to finish at preserved Roman town Augusta Raurica. Now the country’s largest open-air archaeological museum, it’s well worth a visit. Bus 81 will take you back into town.
The Swiss tend to eat lunch early, so join them around midday for the best atmosphere. Basel has a huge variety of restaurants, but if you’re after typical Swiss cuisine, try Kleinbasel’s Fischerstube (Rheingasse 45, 061 692 9200), where you can have a beer and a bretzel, or a wienerschnitzel with rösti or spätzli (Swiss-style pasta). In Grossbasel, enjoy French cuisine in a sunny courtyard at Restaurant Kunsthalle (Steinenberg 7, 061 272 4233), or head to Basel’s ‘Little Venice’ to eat modern Swiss food at Restaurant St Albaneck (St Alban-Vorstadt 60, 061 271 6040) before a stroll around this former papermaking district’s pretty canals. For a lighter meal, baguette bar 1777 (Im Schmiedenhof 10, 061 261 7777) offers good quality sandwiches, soups and salads.
There’s an eye-popping array of art and culture in Basel. While the city’s artistic cornerstone, the Kunstmuseum, is closed for renovation until April 2016, some of its impressive permanent collection can be viewed at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst next door (St Alban-Graben 60, 061 206 6262). In Kleinbasel, don’t miss the magnificently eccentric Museum Tinguely (Paul Sacher-Anlage 2, 061 681 9320), devoted to the mechanical moving sculptures of the Basel painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely. Two more cultural treats lie out of town, but are worth the effort: Fondation Beyeler (Baselstrasse 101, 061 645 9700) is arguably Europe’s finest modern art collection, while the Vitra Design Museum (Charles-Eames-Strasse 2, Weil am Rhein, +49 7621 702 3200) showcases world-beating architecture and interior design by everyone from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid.
Back in town, explore small boutiques, specialist shops and designer labels in historic Spalenberg in the Old Town. For clothing, try Erfolg (Spalenberg 36, 061 262 2255), Boutique Süd-wind (Gerbergässlein 18, 061 261 9019) or local designer Tanja Klein’s boutique Kleinbasel (Schneidergasse 24, 061 322 4482). Seek jewellery at Elia Gilli (Rümelinsplatz, 061 261 0303) and funky homewares at Sevensisters (Spalenberg 38, 061 262 0980). Nearby Freie Strasse, the city’s poshest street, houses international designers, watchmakers and Swiss jewellers including Bucherer (Freie Strasse 40, 061 261 4000). Basel’s quality department stores Pfauen (Freie Strasse 75, 061 260 6565) and Globus (Marktplatz 2, 058 578 4545) are worth a look-in, too. Take a coffee pit stop at Confiserie Schiesser (Marktplatz 19, 061 261 6077), which serves delicious sweet treats including Basel’s speciality Läckerli biscuits, or the less touristy Zum Roten Engel (Andreasplatz 15, 061 261 2008), a lovely café tucked away in a quiet courtyard.
Time to dip into Basel’s varied bar scene with a pre-drinner apéro. In hip Kleinbasel, the Volkshaus Basel’s N°1 Bar (Rebgasse 12-14, 061 690 9300) is a stylish bar and brasserie designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Or head to Consum (Rheingasse 19, 061 690 9130) to sample your pick of over 100 wines accompanied by tasty tapas. Slightly off the beaten track, urban microbrewery Volta Bräu (Voltastrasse 30, 061 690 9129) serves quality craft beers in a former electricity sub-station, while funky bar Werk 8 (Dornacherstrasse 192, 061 551 0880) attracts a hip crowd for drinks and tapas in a converted warehouse near the SBB train station.
Influenced by neighbouring France and Germany as well as international cuisine, Basel has no shortage of quality restaurants. For French fare, head to Au Violon (Im Lohnhof 4, 061 269 8711), a lovely brasserie in a tranquil setting, while Kohlmann’s (Steinenberg 14, 061 225 9393) is ideal if you want to sample traditional Swiss feuerkuchen (flambéed tarts). Acqua (Binningerstrasse 14, 061 564 6666) is the sort of place you could hang out all evening, for cocktails at the bar, modern Italian dishes in its industrial-feel Osteria and after-dinner music in the Lounge. Its pretty outdoor terrace opens in summer, while the attached fondue hut Baracca Zermatt brings alpine chic to the city in winter. For a special occasion, choose from the Mediterranean-style cuisine of Peter Knogl at the Cheval Blanc in Basel’s poshest hotel, Les Trois Rois (Blumenrain 8, 061 260 5007), or the wonderfully different one-colour dishes of German chef Tanja Grandits at Stücki Basel (Bruderholzallee 42, 061 361 8222). Both are Michelin starred.
For the best view in town, head up to the 31st floor of the Ramada Plaza to sup on skyline cocktails at Bar Rouge (Messeplatz 10, 061 361 3031). In Kleinbasel’s lively Clara district, the infamous Lady Bar (Feldbergstrasse 47, 061 535 6738) promises an eclectic night out. Or head to Sud (Burgweg 7, 061 683 1444), a cultural centre that has regular club nights and 80s parties. In Grossbasel, Atlantis restaurant (Klosterberg 13, 061 228 9696) morphs into a club after 11pm where revellers dance the night away. Balz Klub (Steinenbachgässlein 34, 061 283 1818) is a good city-centre spot for laid-back, friendly clubbing, while tented venue Kuppel (Binningerstrasse 14, 061 564 6600), works for live music, cabaret and comedy nights.