Tucked up against the French and German borders in the northeast of the country, Basel is an arty, youth-conscious city with bags of history. Cover as much as possible in an absorbing 24 hours with Ben Lerwill’s insider tips.
The broad waters of the Rhine bend right through the heart of Basel, and you can make the most of the scenery by having breakfast in style at Brasserie Les Trois Rois (Blumenrain 8, 061 260 50 50), a grand riverside spot that opens at 6am on weekday mornings and 7am at weekends.
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, who also created London’s Tate Modern. Their angular motifs can be found all over town, not least at the Messe exhibition centre, where world-renowned art fair Art Basel is held each June. But start by visiting the city’s major landmarks – the Romanesque twin-towered Münster (cathedral), where you can climb its soaring spires, and the richly decorated Renaissance Rathaus (town hall) – before walking over the historic Mittlere Bridge, for centuries Basel’s only Rhine crossing. Wander north before recrossing the water on the Johanniter Bridge and intersecting with the newly opened St Johann River Promenade, an attractive public walkway stretching for 600 metres up to Herzog & de Meuron’s other Basel masterpiece, the space-age Novartis Campus.
The Swiss tend to eat lunch early, so join them around midday for the best atmosphere. Back in the centre 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 wienerschnitzel with rösti or spätzli (Swiss-style noodles). It even has its own in-house brewery. Alternatively, in Grossbasel, head to the atmospheric Restaurant Atelier (Der Teufelhof Basel, Leonhardsgraben 49, 061 261 1010), a well-priced lunch spot with good daily specials and a massive wine list. Not far away, Tibits (Gurtengasse 3, 031 313 0222) is a top-notch veggie and vegan restaurant. Choose from anything from superfood salads to risottos and curries.
There’s an eye-popping array of art and culture in Basel. Big news this year is the reopening of the Kunstmuseum (St Alban-Graben 16, 061 206 6262). It threw open its doors again in April 2016 following 12 months of closure, and now boasts a stunning new £70m wing, a fitting venue for what is Switzerland’s best public art collection – you’ll find works by everyone from Rembrandt to Picasso. In Kleinbasel, don’t miss the magnificently eccentric Museum Tinguely (Paul Sacher-Anlage 2, 061 681 9320), devoted to the witty mechanical sculptures of the Basel painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely. The other unmissable art gallery, of course, is Fondation Beyeler (Baselstrasse 101, 061 645 9700) which sits on the city’s northern outskirts but makes for a hugely rewarding trip thanks to its varied collection, amassed by a private collector. A new art-themed hiking route beginning at Fondation Beyele opened in June: the five-kilometre Rehberger Weg stretches into Germany.
Back in town, explore small boutiques, specialist shops and designer stores on and around Spalenberg, a gently sloping lane in the Old Town. Check out local Swiss fashion labels at shops like Tarzan (Spalenberg 39, 061 361 18 67) and local designer Tanja Klein’s boutique Kleinbasel (Schneidergasse 24, 061 322 4482), or head slightly further afield to seek out a fresh outfit at Naked (Henric Petri Strasse 26, 061 261 0619), which shares premises with vogueish shoe shop Schritt für Schritt. If you’re visiting over the weekend, there’s a good Saturday flea market on Petersplatz which runs until 4pm, while across the Rhine in Kleinbasel you’ll find Basel’s oldest department store, Manor (Greifengasse 22, 061 686 1135).
Have a couple of pre-dinner drinks at the arty Cargo Bar (St Johanns Rheinweg 46, 061 321 0072) – tables are laid out on the pavement outside in warm weather, and it’s also a good place for finding out about some of the city’s more under-the-radar live music events. Elsewhere, urban microbrewery Volta Bräu (Voltastrasse 30, 061 690 9129, closed Sundays) serves quality craft beers in a former electricity sub-station, while the summer-only Chill am Rhy (riverside underneath the Münster) gives awesome river views from its waterside cobbled terrace.
The proximity of France and Germany means Basel’s restaurant scene is heavily influenced by its neighbours, while Switzerland’s wider multicultural make-up has impact of its own. For European fare in historic surrounds, head along to Restaurant Schlüsselzunft (Freie Strasse 25, 061 261 2046) set in Basel’s oldest guild house and serving up a good-quality, meat-heavy menu, while Kohlmann’s (Steinenberg 14, 061 225 9393) is ideal if you want to sample traditional Swiss feuerkuchen (flambéed tarts) – there are nine different varieties on offer. Elsewhere, 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, splash out on a meal at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Matisse (Burgfelderstrasse 188, 061 560 60 66), where creative, locally sourced fine dining is the order of the day.
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, +41 61 361 3031). For seeing out the night with a swing, try the small but seductive Bird’s Eye Jazz Club (Kohlenberg 20, 061 263 3341), which has been putting on top-notch musicians for more than 20 years. In Grossbasel, Atlantis restaurant (Klosterberg 13, 061 228 9696) morphs into a club on Saturdays from 11pm to 4am. 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 6601), works for live music, cabaret and comedy nights.