Basel – an Overlooked Gem in the Heart of Europe
Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city, is often overlooked in favor of the more major cities of Geneva and Zurich. However, it offers plenty of attractions as well as a convenient location within easy reach of some of the country’s most spectacular mountain scenery. It’s also a good base to visit neighboring Germany and France, and near the city, you can see the obelisk marking where the borders of the three countries meet. Basel is also one of Europe’s most culturally rich small towns, with over 30 museums and art galleries; it is also famous for hosting the world’s largest contemporary art fair every year.
The heart of Basel is the old town along the south bank of the Rhine River, a maze of narrow streets, many of which are not open to traffic. The center of the old town is the huge square called Barfusserplatz, which is lined with cafes and restaurants and is within easy reach of the city’s major hotels and shopping areas. One of the most impressive buildings in the city is the Rathaus, or town hall, which has a lovely decorated façade and a mechanical clock surrounded by figures. The old town can easily be explored on foot, with help from signs depicting famous historical figures to guide you.
Dominating this area is the Munster, with its striking red sandstone walls and colorful yellow and green tiled and patterned roof. The highlights of the 12th-century cathedral are the ornately carved Romanesque doorway, the beautiful ceiling frescoes in the crypt, and the 15th-century pulpit carved from a single block of stone. From the top of the two towers, there is a spectacular view over both the city and the Rhine.
Basel boasts what is considered to be one of the world’s greatest art galleries, the Kunstmuseum. The museum has collections of 15th- and 16th-century paintings as well as the largest collection of paintings by Holbein. There are also several paintings by Picasso, donated by the artist himself, who was impressed when the city decided to buy two of his paintings. The courtyard of the 1930s building, by which you enter the museum, is filled with sculptures, including several by Rodin.
The Basel Zoo, considered one of the best zoos in the world, is well known for its work in breeding endangered species in captivity. The zoo contains over 4,000 animals and around 600 species, and many children consider the highlight to be the performing elephants and sea lions. The oddly shaped building, called the vivarium, offers an interactive tour of the world depicting the story of evolution on earth. The whole zoo is in a park-like setting, and it’s hard to believe you are just a few minutes’ walk from the center of Basel.
The Rhine divides Basel in two, and apart from one of the six bridges that cross the river. One of the most romantic ways to pass is by one of the four Rhine ferries, which are powered only by the flow of the river. There are also regular boat trips up and down the Rhine that you can take from the city, as well as miles of riverside promenades.
One of the easiest excursions from Basel is to the beautiful Black Forest region of Germany. This wooded and mountainous area is the home of cuckoo clocks, the famous gateau and is also said to be where St. Nicholas was born. The area also offers skiing in the winter, some excellent German wines and the historic small town of Freiburg with its famous cathedral, described as one of the most beautiful churches in the world.
If you are looking for a relatively undiscovered European city, with easy access to the countryside as well as some must-see attractions, Basel is a good choice.