15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Basel
Few cities in Europe can match Basel for its concentration of cultural attractions. Tourists to Switzerland's second-largest city will find more than one museum per square kilometer with a total exceeding 40. Moreover, many of these are housed in buildings that are themselves works of art, designed by great architects that include Renzo Piano, Frank O. Gehry, and Mario Botta. The two sides of Basel are joined by six bridges over the Rhine, as it makes a sharp turn before flowing north to become the German-French border. It's the higher left bank where you'll find the old town and cultural attractions.
After being ruled by Burgundy and the German and Austrian Empires, Basel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501. Basel's university became a center for humanism in the 16th century and continued to be a magnet for distinguished scholars and teachers, which may account for its remarkable cultural heritage today.
See also: Where to Stay in Basel
1 Old Town
The part of Basel that lies roughly between the river and the old city gate at Spalentor is not large but quite atmospheric with its stone streets, medieval churches, beautifully maintained old homes, and brightly painted fountains. But leave it to Basel to introduce a thoroughly modern and whimsical fountain by Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely in the midst of the stately historic houses. Filling a pool in Theaterplatz is a series of playful and ingenious water-spouting contraptions made of scrap metal. In winter, these freeze into fantastic ice sculptures. From Marktplatz, wander west along Spalenberg with detours into some of the narrow side streets such as Leonhardsberg and Spalenberg, Heuberg. This was the old artisans' neighborhood.
Or wander along Freiestrasse, which begins with the Renaissance Geltenzunfthaus, from 1578. At number 25 is the guild-house of the locksmiths dating from 1488 and decorated in Baroque style in 1733. Look for more wall paintings at the guild-house of the Hausgenossen at 34. In the little Fischmarkt, you'll find a reproduction of a Gothic fountain whose original you can see in the historical museum.
2 Rathaus (Town Hall) and Marktplatz
The focal point of the Old Town is Marktplatz, where you'll still find the colorful daily market selling local produce, flowers, and food specialties. Dominating the square is the bright red Basel Rathaus with its colorful painted facade. The arcaded main building is in Late Burgundian Gothic style dating from 1504 to 1521; the new wing to the left and the tall tower on the right are 19th-century additions. The clock dates from the building's origins, the work of the Master Wilhelms from 1511 to 1512. Be sure to step into the beautiful courtyard to see the wall paintings, restored from 1608-11 originals. The statue, from 1574, on the outer staircase represents the legendary founder of the town, Munatius Plancus. You can also see the two council chambers, the Regierungsratssaal with its impressive wood paneling and the Grossratssaal, decorated by 15 coats-of-arms of the Swiss cantons.
3 Basler Münster (Basel Minster)
Set atop the highest point on Münsterhügel (Minster Hill), Basel's Minster is easily spotted by its prominent spires and brightly patterned roof tiles. The spacious Münsterplatz, formerly the site of a Roman fort, is an elegant 18th-century square. Built of red sandstone from the Vosges mountains of France between the ninth and13th centuries, the minster was rebuilt in Gothic style after an earthquake in 1356. But some of the original church remains. The high altar and much of the furnishings were destroyed by Protestants in 1529, but the greatest treasures were hidden in the sacristy vaulting and survived; you can see some in the historical museum.
Be sure to see the St. Gallus doorway in the north transept, with its many 12th-century Romanesque stone carvings - one of the oldest figured doorways in German-speaking Europe. The tympanum above the doorway shows the Wise and Foolish Virgins, with Christ enthroned above flanked by Peter and Paul. A large rose window lies above the doorway. Inside, the lower part of the choir is Romanesque; notice especially the capitals carved with rich foliage and animals. The Romanesque capitals in the nave and ambulatory are also noteworthy. In front of the pulpit, under glass, is a piece of the Late Romanesque pavement from the 12th century. From inside the church, you can access the stairs to the top of the south tower. The crypt, which can be entered from beside the choir, contains the tombs of 10th- to 13th-century bishops and an excellent Romanesque frieze on the piers; ceiling frescoes depict scenes from the life of the Virgin and other New Testament themes. The beautiful 15th-century double cloister, entered from Rittergasse, contains monuments ranging over a period of five centuries.
Address: Münsterplatz, Basel
4 Kunstmuseum Basel (Museum of Art)
The Kunstmuseum, enhanced by the added exhibition space of a 2015 wing, is considered the finest collection of paintings in Switzerland, representing both old masters and modern art. On the first floor are the old masters and a collection of French and Dutch paintings. Outstanding among these are the 15th-century Heilsspiegelaltar (Mirror of Salvation Altar) by Konrad Witz, 16th-century portraits by Holbein the Younger, Crucifixion by Mathias Grünewald, and Rembrandt's David with Goliath's Head from 1627. The second floor houses an outstanding collection of 19th- and 20th-century Impressionists, Expressionists, and Surrealists. You'll find major works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Corot, Cézanne, Braque, Picasso, Kandinsky, Léger, Chagall, Klee, Dali, Max Ernst, and others, along with later works and special exhibitions. Note that the main building of the Kunstmuseum Basel is closed for renovation work until April 2016.
Address: St. Alban-Graben 16, Basel
Dating from 1370, the Spalentor is a fortified gate marking the end of the old town. The town gate, once part of the old town walls, has stood alone since their destruction in 1866. Look to the left of the gate to find an early 19th-century letter box with the emblem of the Basel pigeon. The adjacent Peterskirche (St. Peter's church) was rebuilt in the 15th century, but the vaulting in the choir is from an earlier 14th-century building. There are frescoes in the Eberler chapel and the nave. Adjacent is the university, with its botanical garden.
6 Papiermühle (Paper Mill Museum)
Set on a medieval canal with an operating waterwheel, an old paper mill has been turned into a museum of writing, printing, and paper, showing the printing and papermaking processes with actual working machinery. You can watch the laborious production of handmade paper, explore the evolution of printing from before Gutenberg's press through the demise of lead type in the 1980s, and see how books are bound. Displays follow the development of writing from primitive pictographs through modern typography.
Address: St. Alban-Tal 37, Basel
7 Haus zum Kirschgarten
One of the finest of Basel's patrician houses, the Haus zum Kirschgarten was built between 1775 and 1780 in the early Classical style. It was the home and office of a prosperous Basel manufacturer of silk ribbons and is among Switzerland's best museums of domestic life. Throughout the 25 furnished rooms are displays of the furniture of a wealthy 18th-century commercial family as well as internationally important collections of decorative arts. The Pauls-Eisenbeiss Foundation's collection of porcelain, a significant watch and clock collection, and major groups of Basel silver and scientific instruments are displayed.
Address: Elisabethenstrasse 27/29, CH-4051 Basel
8 Vitra Design Museum
Because Basel lies right on the international border, some of its suburbs spread over into Germany and France. So it is with the Vitra Design Museum, which although considered a Basel institution, is a five-minute train ride just across the German border from central Basel. By any measure, it is one of the world's most important museums of design. The building itself is a landmark, designed by Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry. Inside are changing exhibitions - two or three each year - examining current and historical design trends and themes. The displays are stunning and provocative, often inviting interaction.
Address: Charles-Eames-Str. 2, Weil am Rhein, Germany
9 Zoologischer Garten (Zoo)
Basel's large zoo is affectionately known as the Zolli by locals. Founded in 1874 with 510 European animals, today the zoo is known more for exotic species. With predators, primates, mammals, reptiles, birds, and aquatic life, the population ranges from seahorses to elephants, the latter now enjoying a new elephant enclosure added in 2015 with wallowing pools, showers, and a savannah-like environment. The lion enclosure and monkey house are highlights, along with the penguins in the vivarium, which also houses fish and reptiles. The aviary houses both indigenous and exotic birds, as well as birds of prey. The zoo has been particularly successful in breeding rhinoceros and cheetahs.
Address: Binningerstrasse 40, Basel
10 Historisches Museum (Historical Museum)
The 14th-century Barfüsserkirche (Church of the Barefoot Friars) was renovated in the 1970s to house the Historical Museum with important collections on local history and culture. It spotlights particularly the city's unique position at the crossroads between Swiss, German, and French cultures. In the nave of the church are the Late Gothic tapestries and the curious Lällenkönig (Babbling King), a crowned head with a movable tongue and eyes that was the emblem of Gross-Basel in the 17th century. In the aisles are weapons and furnished period rooms, in the choir religious art, and in the crypt is the minster treasury, recovered after being saved from destruction during the Reformation. Interesting exhibits deal with the importance of silk ribbon manufacture in Basel from the late 18th through the 19th century.
Address: Steinenberg 4, Basel
11 Spielzeug Welten Museum (Toy Museum)
The collection of more than 6,000 toys, including dolls, stuffed animals, dollhouses, shop models, and carousels is not just for children. The dollhouses are exceptional, not only the historical examples, but the newly commissioned works of artists who create rooms and shops in miniature. One section is devoted to the Neapolitan folk art of nativity scenes set in the context of everyday life in early Naples, with figures dressed in infinitely detailed costumes. The museum's collection of 2,500 teddy bears is thought to be the world's largest.
Even if you don't tour the museum, don't miss walking around to look in the windows. Six display-sized windows facing the street are dedicated to changing displays from the collections, based on seasonal and other themes and representing current special exhibitions.
Address: Steinenvorstadt 1, Basel
12 Museum für Gegenwartskunst (Museum of Contemporary Art)
Housed in an old paper mill with modern extensions, Basel's Museum of Contemporary Art highlights art from 1960 to the present. You'll find paintings and sculptures by artists that include Chagall, de Chirico, Dali, Braque, Mondrian, Klee, Giacometti, Moore, and the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely. It was the first public museum in Europe dedicated exclusively to art works created in the late 20th century.
Address: St. Alban-Rheinweg 60, Basel
13 Antikenmuseum (Museum of Antiquities and the Ludwig Collection)
Basel's Museum of Antiquities and the Ludwig collection features Egyptian, Greek, Italian, Etruscan, and Roman works of art, covering antiquity from about 4000 BC to the 6th century AD. The strongest areas are sculptures and Greek vases, although there are outstanding exhibits of gold jewelry, bronze sculptures, and clay figures.
Address: St. Alban Graben 5, Basel
14 Jüdische Museum (Jewish Museum)
One of central Europe's best collections of Judaica depicts religious and everyday life as it explores the Jewish history of Basel and its surrounds. In addition to documenting the local history, it introduces visitors to Jewish ceremonies and customs from the broader diaspora through exhibits focused on Jewish Law, the Jewish Year, everyday life, and history. In the courtyard, medieval gravestones and documents go back as far as the medieval Jewish communities with documents printed in Hebrew by the city's book printers from the 16th through 19th centuries. Significant documents focus on the two World Wars.
Address: Kornhausgasse 8, Basel
15 Theodorskirche (Church of St. Theodore)
Near the Wettstein Bridge across the Rhine, the Late Gothic church of St. Theodore dates from the 14th century. It is especially notable for the sandstone baptismal font dating from about 1500; the 16th-century choir with a wall tabernacle; and the old choir windows, which date from about 1375. Between the square and the river stands a Carthusian monastery that has been in use since 1669.
Address: Theodorskirchplatz, Basel
Where to Stay in Basel for Sightseeing
The Old Town, which lies between the river and the Spalentor gate, is relatively small, but many of Basel's several dozen museums are here, along with medieval churches, the old artisans' neighborhood, and Marktplatz, with the magnificent Rathaus (city hall). These highly-rated hotels in Basel are in or close to the Old Town. Most Basel hotels include a free city bus pass.
- Luxury Hotels: With old-world elegance enhanced by modern luxuries, Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, which often hosts royalty, overlooks the Rhine River in the center of the Old Town. Close to the Munster and several museums, Der Teufelhof Basel rooms are designed by artists, so guests live in a work of art instead of just looking at it. Radisson Blu Hotel, Basel has a pool and is in the center of a cluster of museums; the tram from the central station stops right in front of the hotel.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Near the Spalentor and botanic gardens and a short walk from the heart of the Old Town, Hotel Spalentor Basel has spacious modern rooms. On the hill above the Old Town, on a bus line, and a 15-minute walk from the train station, Steinenschanze Stadthotel is literally steps away from the shopping and restaurant area. Near the Spalentor and a tram stop with regular trams into the town center, Hotel Bildungszentrum 21 offers a free continental breakfast.
- Budget Hotels: Beside the university, a few blocks from the Rathaus, and an easy walk to the Munster and art museums, Hotel Rochat has plain rooms but includes breakfast. Adjacent to the train station and airport bus stop, Ibis Basel Bahnhof is on a bus line to the historic center. A five-minute walk away, Ibis Budget Basel City is only two minutes from two tram lines into the Old Town.
Day Trips from Basel
Lying astride the river Aare, about 67 kilometers from Basel, Solothurn is an elegant town of Renaissance and Baroque buildings that indicate its splendor in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries as the residence of the French ambassadors to the Swiss Confederation. Earlier, the town of Salodurum ranked with Trier in Germany as one of the oldest Roman settlements north of the Alps.
Marktplatz is a beautiful square with a 12th-century clock tower, the Zeitglockenturm that has mechanical figures from 1545. The Mauritius fountain is decorated with a figure by the master Hans Gieng of Fribourg. You'll see several more fountains with colorfully painted figures as you stroll down picturesque old Hauptgasse. Stop there at the Jesuit church to see its interior, decorated with stucco work by 17th-century artists from the Swiss Ticino region. In the cloister is a collection of stones with Roman inscriptions. Just inside the 1508 Baseltor gate stands the Italian Baroque Cathedral of St. Ursen, built from 1763 to 1773. Its treasury is especially rich in goldsmiths' work and textiles from the 15th to 19th centuries. In the hills outside of Solothurn, be sure to visit Schloss Waldegg - Waldegg Castle. The palace is set among lovely Baroque gardens and its beautiful interior gives an idea of the splendor in which the French ambassadors lived.