Whether you’re a history buff, an art enthusiast, or simply looking for a new adventure, Basel, Switzerland’s gem, will cater to everyone’s taste. It is the third-largest city in northwest Switzerland, snuggled between the borders of Germany and France and resting on the Rhine Riverbanks.
Known as Switzerland’s hub for arts and culture, Basel offers an incredible mix of old-world charm and modern vibrancy. The city boasts a rich history, a blend of cultures, and impressive art scenes around every corner.
So let us take you on a journey through the top 10 things to do in Basel that will leave you in awe of this beautiful city.
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1. Take a Random or Guided City Tour
The best way to start exploring a city is to simply explore it on foot or through the insight of a local guide. Basel, like all Swiss cities, is quite picturesque. It has some streets with fairytale vibes and other modern ones, dotted with ancient buildings in juxtaposition with sleek-designed modern structures. Leisurely walk through Basel and unravel its hidden gems.
2. Have an Exceptional Arts and Cultural Tour
Basel is known for its rich culture that fills various museums and galleries. In fact, there are nearly 40 museums dotted throughout the city, an extraordinary number for a city its size. No wonder it is called “The Cultural City” or “The City of Arts”! Here are some of the museums that should not be missed:
Inhale the Art and Culture at the Basel Art Museum
The Basel Art Museum (Kunstmuseum) is a must-visit for culture vultures. It is the most important art museum in Switzerland since it houses the oldest public art collection in the world, with its origins dating back to the 1500s. It comprises artwork from renowned artists like Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh. Start your culture tour from here and immerse yourself in a pool of masterpieces.
Explore the Peculiar Jean Tinguely Museum
The Jean Tinguely Museum is an exceptionally bizarre museum devoted to the art installations of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Tinguely was famous for his innovative moving mechanical sculptures. The museum features a wide variety of Tinguely’s works, including some of his most famous pieces like “Homage to New York” and “Méta-Matic No. 17”. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions featuring the works of other contemporary artists.
The building is an architectural masterpiece by Mario Botta, featuring an intricate system of ramps and platforms that allow visitors to fully experience Tinguely’s dynamic and interactive artworks.
Treat Your Eyes and Soul at the Beyeler Foundation
Founded by Ernst and Hildy Beyeler in 1997, the Beyeler Foundation is a world-renowned art museum that houses a vast collection of modern and contemporary art. The Beyelers were art collectors and dealers with an enormous passion for art, blessing their visitors with a chance to truly feast on art.
The museum’s collection includes works by some of the most recognised artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, from Picasso and Warhol to Monet, Van Gogh, and Henri Matisse. The museum also hosts several temporary exhibitions each year, showcasing diverse artistic styles and mediums. There is also an assortment of ethnographic art from Alaska, Africa, and Oceania.
Nestled in a scenic park, the building itself is an eye-catching work of art designed by the famous architect Renzo Piano—a must-visit destination to enjoy the exceptional arts inside and the picturesque setting outside!
Time Travel Through the Basel Historical Museum
If you are a history buff, teleport to the city’s past through Basel’s Historical Museum (Historisches Museum Basel) and explore the city’s rich cultural heritage. It is one of the largest and most important museums in Switzerland. The museum’s collection tackles the history of Basel and the surrounding region with paintings, sculptures, and medieval artefacts from prehistoric times to the present day.
Have a Quick Trip Around the World at the Museum of Cultures
The Museum of Cultures (Museum der Kulturen Basel) is a melting pot of European and non-European cultures from every corner of the world. It displays an extensive collection of objects and artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, highlighting their traditions, beliefs, customs, and arts throughout history.
The museum also offers a range of workshops and guided tours, making it a great destination for families and school groups. If you fancy a quick world cultural tour, this museum won’t disappoint.
Tickle Your Inner Child in the Toy Worlds Museum
Pique your inner child’s interest with a tour of The Toy Worlds Museum (Spielzeug Welten Museum), the largest toy museum in Europe, featuring over 6,000 historic teddy bears, dolls, and miniatures from scenes of everyday life around the world. Exhibited thematically, the toys from the 1870-1920 period come to life through computerised controls that visitors can activate. The museum also hosts special exhibitions that shed light on international cultural trends, along with a gift shop that sells collectable toys. It is such a quirky experience to relive some childhood memories.
Enlighten Yourself at the Vitra Design Museum
This one is for interior design enthusiasts. Designed by Frank Gehry, the Vitra Design Museum exhibits the future of furniture and lighting design, focusing on sustainability, ethics, and social responsibility. The building itself is a masterpiece of interior design. Even though it’s technically located in Basel, it lies across Germany’s border and is located 2.6km from the Swiss border. Nevertheless, it is still accessible with an EU passport or Schengen visa.
Create Your Antique at the Museum of Antiquities and Ludwig Collection
Let’s time travel 5000 years ago. The Ludwig Collection (Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig) features a fascinating collection of ancient artefacts from around the Mediterranean region, mainly from 1000 BC to 300 AD. Here, you’ll see antiquities from old civilisations such as Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Cyprus, and the Romans. The collection includes both decorative art and functional earthenware.
What makes this museum stand out remarkably is how well the pieces are curated and displayed within the elegant old townhouse’s architecture. The museum offers workshops for young visitors, allowing them to learn ancient techniques used to create clay models and bowls, giving them a hands-on experience of the ancient cultures represented in the museum.
Feel Blessed at the Pharmacy Museum of the University of Basel
If you are passionate about medicine or have a medical background, the Pharmacy Museum (Pharmaziemuseum der Universität Basel) might interest you. It reveals the interesting history of Pharmacy and Pharmacology in medieval times, housing a vast collection of pharmaceutical artefacts, from outdated pharmaceutical books and obsolete formulas to ancient mortars and laboratory utensils.
The pharmacist Josef Anton Häfliger donated this valuable collection for university study during the early 20th century. The displays will definitely make you thankful for how the pharmaceutical industry has progressed from medieval times to the present day.
Make Paper From Scratch at the Basel Paper Mill Museum
Are you a paper sniffer? One that opens a book and enjoys the chemical, slightly acrid aromas of fresh print? If so, you will surely love the Paper Mill Museum (Basler Papiermühle) since it allows you to peek into the history of paper production.
The museum demonstrates the different traditional techniques and tools that are still in use today in paper production as well as antiquated items such as quills, typewriters, and old stamps. At the end of the tour, you are invited to make your own papers using hand-operated machines, which are then dried in a heated press.
3. Explore Basel’s Heart, The Old Town
Basel’s Old Town is a joy to stroll through! It is a charming, well-preserved district that is dipped in history. You’ll pass by medieval buildings with some striking architecture, winding streets, colourful cobbled streets, and shops with a quaint ambience. A must-visit location is “Läckerli Huus pastry shop”, where you can try the traditional mouthwatering Basel honey cake.
Keep an eye out for Basel’s fabled basilisks, which you’ll encounter at numerous fountains all around the old town. The Basilisk, a creature from ancient Greek mythology that is half-cock, half-snake, serves as the city’s emblem and is responsible for guarding bridges and fountains.
The old town is dominated by the bustling market square—a vivid and colourful place where visitors come to shop, socialize, or enjoy its lively atmosphere. The square is adorned with some charming cafes, making it an excellent place to spend an afternoon or have a quick snack and a cup of coffee.
The Market Square is also dominated by two prominent historic landmarks: the City Town Hall (Rathaus) and the Basel Cathedral (Basel Minster). The 16th-century City Town Hall is a red sandstone building that is probably the most ornately decorated town hall you’ll ever see. It is where the Cantonal Parliament meets.
The Basel Cathedral dates back to the 11th century and is characterised by its Romanesque-Gothic architecture. With its unique location on top of a hill overlooking the Rhine River, its vibrant stained-glass windows, colourful roof tiles and twin towers, no other building adorns the cityscape of Basel like the Basel Cathedral. Climb up to the top of the tower for an incredible panoramic view of Basel—a view that will make you awe-struck.
4. Cruise on the Rhine River
If the Old Town is Basel’s heart, it is the Rhine River that keeps it beating, giving it life. Born in the Swiss Alps, the Rhine flows from Switzerland through Austria, Germany, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, feeding a multitude of towns and cities in the process.
Don’t miss a boat ride on the pristine river and marvel at how the river embraces the houses on its banks, the surrounding greenery, and the skyline. The ferry boat still uses an old rope technique to pull the vessel across, further evidence that tradition beats through the city. For some adrenaline rush, take a fast-paced thrill ride on a jet ski. On a scorching summer day, there is nothing more perfect than cooling off in the Rhine and letting yourself be carried along by its gentle currents as you watch the background of the city.
5. Discover the Basel Zoo
The Basel Zoo is home to over 6000 animals in a relaxing, naturally landscaped park with over 1000 trees. What makes Basel Zoo fascinating is that it created an environment for each species as similar to its natural habitat as possible. The zoo is also known for its excellent animal welfare practices and has seen the births of many rare animals, including okapis, rhinos, gorillas, flamingos, lions, and cheetahs, making it a leader in the field.
Visitors can observe animals up close. Moreover, the zoo gives young visitors the opportunity to pet, care for, and even feed the animals. They can play with chickens, llamas, goats, and ponies—a perfect way to increase children’s connectivity to nature. It is the ideal place for an adventurous family day out.
6. Chill at the Tinguely Fountain
Built in 1977 by Jean Tinguely, the fountain stands in the same place that once housed the stage of the old city theatre company. The Swiss artist created 10 playful sculptural machines in the middle of a shallow fountain lined with black asphalt. The iron mechanical figures orchestrate harmoniously, powered by a low-voltage current. Their synchronised motion with the tuneful flow of water resembles the actors, mime artists, and dancers that once performed in the same spot. Just note that the Tinguely fountain doesn’t operate during cleaning on Wednesday mornings.
7. Walk Around Basel’s Botanical Gardens
Basel’s botanical gardens are verdant oases of the city. The gardens feature nearly 7,000 plant species from around the world, including rare and endangered plants. Strolling around in the gardens is a visual delight and a soul tranquilliser. They are the perfect places to relax and linger while admiring the stunning flora.
8. Capture the Moment at the Dreiländereck
Don’t miss the chance to visit the Dreiländereck, a geographical curiosity that’s been given tangible form in a monument. It stands at the exact point of intersection of the borders of Switzerland, Germany, and France. Tripoints, also called trijunctions, allow you to easily jump from one country, culture, and language to another in a single step. Fascinating, isn’t it? The monument was built in 1957 as a symbol of peace and resembles the shape of a fighter plane. The colours of each of the countries’ flags adorn the monument from every side.
Today, the area surrounding the monument serves as a leisure area with an events hall and a terrace with a spectacular view of the Rhine. During summer, the “sand oasis” on the ground and the surrounding palm trees make the area adopt a seaside spirit, inviting visitors to relax and enjoy picnics by the river. Nevertheless, the Dreiländereck is also a strategic transit hub serving as a base for trade in raw materials.
9. Taste the Exceptional Swiss Cuisine and Swiss Chocolate
Switzerland is well-known for its mouthwatering chocolates, and Läderach is one of the best places to taste true Swiss delight. It is a famous chocolatier that offers handcrafted chocolates made from top-notch ingredients. You can indulge in their delicious treats at the shop or take a chocolate-making class for an unforgettable experience.
We can’t forget to mention the dining-in-the-dark experience. Blindekuh offers a unique dining adventure by allowing guests to eat in pitch darkness. This bizarre sensory experience was originally designed to create employment opportunities for people who are blind or sight-impaired, who make up the waiting staff. However, the focus is on fun, frivolity, and quality food.
Interestingly, the restaurant’s name actually means “blind cow”, the German equivalent of “Blind man’s buff”, which is a traditional game where one player gets blindfolded and should attempt to catch the other players.
For a luxurious foodie experience, visit Cheval Blanc by Peter Knogl restaurant. It’s one of the few restaurants in Switzerland awarded a 3-Michelin star award, making it a must-visit for food enthusiasts.
10. Venture on Some Day Trips from Basel
Due to its strategic position on the Swiss-German-French border, Basel makes the perfect base if you’re planning to explore central Europe. You can venture outside Basel in a 40-minute train ride to Freiburg, Germany, or an hour’s ride to Strasbourg or Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg in France.
Basel is the perfect getaway to many other cities in Switzerland, like Bern, Zurich, Lucerne, and Lausanne. The Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest are only a stone’s throw away from Basel. It’s also worth visiting the charming countryside of the Basel region in spring; it will serve as the best getaway with its many cherry trees and picturesque blooms.
Tip: If you stay overnight in Basel, the BaselCard is a bonus when you book accommodation. With the card, you can benefit from discounts on numerous cultural and leisure activities.
In a nutshell, Basel should definitely make it on your itinerary if you are in Switzerland. You can’t miss this splendid city with its so many exciting contrasts, where historical buildings cuddle with modern architecture, young, dynamic art coexists along artefact-loaded museums, and a cosmopolitan ambience orchestrates lively traditions. You can’t just read about Basel; you have to experience the city for yourself.