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Basel, Switzerland: A delightful and surprising trip to see the Basel sights

We’re the only passengers, and once we’ve boarded the boat, the ferryman walks forward and grabs a large lever. He yanks at it, neatly moving it from the left to the right side of the boat. He returns to the stern and sits down on a bench. Gently, barely noticeably at first, we begin to move. We shift into the river’s current, which is running quite fast after recent floods. The boat points into the current, yet glides smoothly sideways until we very gently nudge the dock on the opposite bank.

The boat is several meters away from the dock, which is partly visible at the left bottom corner. The boat is long and narrow, and has a cabin at the back 1/3 of the boat with a curved roof over it. The open part in front of the cabin is empty of people.

This is one of the many delightful surprises we experienced during our visit to Basel, Switzerland. Why cross a river using a bridge – that’s so mundane! – when you can drift across in a motorless, sail-less boat?

Disclosure: Our visit to Basel was sponsored by Basel Tourism, which provided us with help in planning our visit, a private walking tour, and meal vouchers. They have no influence over what I write. In addition, the Fondation Beyeler provided us with free admission.

Another disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. This will not affect your price.

Reaction ferries

Four of these little “reaction ferries” cross the Rhine in Basel, connecting the two halves of the city. How do they work? Each is attached by a slender cable to a larger cable that spans the river. If you look very carefully at the photo above, you can see the cable at the bow of the boat. The lever that the boatman controls sets tillers under the water. That’s all that’s needed: the river’s current, pushing those tillers, shifts the boat sideways. Set the tillers the other way, and the boat crosses back.

Reaction Ferries: Ferries leave from four different points along the river, shown on any tourist map. CHF 1.60 children CHF 0.80.

Text: Basel-Switzerland: Lots of delightfully quirky things to see there (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). Images: top, the Basel Cathedral with its two tall spires; below, a statue of Poseidon. He holds a trident in one hand and has one foot on the head of a snake? Or sea serpent? The snake's mouth is open. Its tail is wrapped around Poseidon's middle.
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Tinguely sights

Another surprising Basel sight waiting for us was the Tinguely fountain. Designed by Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), using bits of old equipment from a theater that used to occupy the Theaterplatz, the fountain moves in all sorts of entertaining ways. A face spews water from its eyes as it rocks back and forth. A contraption seems to step in the water, scooping water and splashing it back. Who would have thought a fountain could make one laugh out loud?

This looks like it might have been a decorative piece on the exterior of a theater. It is triangular, with a face in its middle, with long curly hair. The face is smiling, and water spurts out of its eyes into the pool surrounding it.
One of many moving elements of the fountain.

Tinguely Fountain: Between Theater-Passage and Klostergasse.

We didn’t get a chance to see it, but there’s also a Tinguely Museum. If this fountain is any indication, the kinetic creations in the museum must be great fun!

Museum Tinguely: Paul Sacher-Anlage 2. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11:00-18:00. Admission Adults CHF 18, children under 16 free. Half-price with BaselCard. Website.

Basel Cathedral

More delights awaited us at the Basel Münster (Cathedral). The red sandstone structure partly dates to a 12th and 13th-century Romanesque cathedral, and partly to its 15th-century reconstruction in gothic style after an earthquake in 1356.  

The cathedral's front, seen from an angle. Big entrance right in the middle, and the St. George statue to the left onf the entrance. The entrance and the big window above it have gothic arches. Above that, two spires, not quite matching. Both are square, with a pointed top.

What drew our attention immediately were the two charming statues flanking the cathedral’s entrance. One depicts St. Martin, the saint who cut off his cloak to give to a beggar. In this statue, he is busy cutting his cloak, but there’s no beggar in sight!

Even more amusing is the statue to the left. It depicts St. George slaying the dragon. He’s on a horse and carries a very long lance … but the dragon is only the size of a large dog! It’s so cute, too, that it’s hard to see why St. George would feel the need to kill it!

Against a reddish stone wall where the bricks are clearly a range of ages, the St. George statuel. On the left is a knight in armor (St. George) on a horse, carved from red sandstone. He holds a metal lance, longer than the horse's length. It extends to a separate statue of the dragon, facing him, with the lance in its moutn. It is very small compared to the horse, and has a small curled tail.

Inside, wandering the ancient and quiet interior, lit mostly through stained-glass windows, we came upon a tomb from the 14th century. A beam of sunlight illuminated it from above. Was it planned this way all those centuries ago?

A plain rough stone wall. At the bottom of the photo, a carved tomb top portray a woman in a robe, hands folded in prayer on her chest. A section of the wall and her body are lit by a beam of light.
The words on the wall above the tomb read: “Katharina . Markgrafin van Baden . Geborene Grafin van Thierstein . 1385”

We touched on Erasmus’s life in Freibourg when we saw a house he lived in there. Here in the cathedral, we came upon Erasmus’s tomb, or rather a carved panel on the wall stating that he was buried there. Given that he was a Dutch man from Rotterdam, both were a surprise to us.

Have you ever noticed how ancient cloisters immediately give you a feeling of rest and reverence? That’s true here too, where the cloister is attached to Basel Cathedral, right in the middle of a city.

Seen from a couple of stories up, the cloister is square, with green grass and a few bushes in the center. Around the grassy open space is the cloister itself: large openings line the sides looking out on the green. The all have gothic arches and two pillars holding up lacy carved elements in the arch. Behind the cloister are the old monastery buildings, in this picture 2-3 stories higher than the cloister: very plain, light brown, with dark brown roofs and a small turret at the corner.
The cloister as seen from above.

After the somber inspection of the interior, we climbed one of the cathedral’s two spires – both can be climbed. The narrow stairways (about 250 steps) and even narrower walkways on the spire made me distinctly nervous, but the views over the city were worth it.

Looking down on Munsterplatz, the open square around the cathedral. It is lined with neat buildings of 3-4 stories. All are painted white and have neat rows of windows on each floor, with shutters open. Beyond the  Munsterplatz the view looks over the roofs of the city, all quite low on this side of the city.

Basel Cathedral: Münsterplatz. Open during the summer Monday-Friday 10:00-17:00, Saturday 10:00-16:00 and Sunday 11:30-17:00. During the winter, Monday-Saturday 11:00-16:00 and Sunday 11:30-16:00. The towers have the same hours except that they are closed during midday prayers from 12:00-12:20. The cloister is open daily 8:00 until dark. The crypt is only viewable in the summer months. Fee for tower climb: Adults CHF 6, children under 14 free.

Kunstmuseum

Walking from the Basel Cathedral along the Rittergasse – a lovely street lined with tidy rows of historic houses – we were a bit taken aback at seeing what looked like a big blank wall blocking the end of the road in the distance. I thought it was horrible, like some sort of alien wall in a sci-fi movie, plunked down at the end of a street.  As we neared it, we realized it was a separate building in a very modern style: minimalist and grey.

A fairly wide road with cobbled sidewalks on either side. Buildngs on both sides are 3 stories high and very simple, painted in pastels and with shutters around the windows. The road ahead curves slightly left. At the end, a grey wall, not flat but with a few angles in it. It's about the same height as the buildings in the street.

Our tour guide explained that this structure is an expansion of the older Kunstmuseum (Art Museum), founded back in 1661. The original building is so well-designed that the idea was to keep the new building plain so as not to compete with the old. That way the old building would remain the focal point. The art museum is huge and exhibits centuries of artworks, with the newest pieces in the new building.

Kunstmuseum: St. Alban-Graban 8. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-18:00 and on Wednesday evenings until 20:00. Free on Tuesday-Friday after 17:00 and on the first Sunday of the month. Website.

Wandering the streets of Basel, Switzerland

Wandering the streets of the old part of Basel south of the river was a delight as well. With its narrow streets – sometimes mere stairways – cobbled sidewalks and historic buildings, it just oozes charm, yet the modern is never far away: clean streets, a modern tram system, excellent restaurants and chic shops.

Looking down a road that curves to the right out of sight. The buildings also seem to curve. They are all white and have lots of windows, each with open green shutters.

The architectural styles we spotted as we walked ranged from gothic – mostly churches and monasteries – to very sober and plain white plastered houses, to charming half-timbered houses, to positively baroque creations like the Rathaus (City Hall) on Marktplatz.

One of the best known of the Basel sights, the Rathaus is painted bright red. It has three gothic arches on the ground floor for its entrance while the rest of the windows are all simple but very narrow rectangles. The left side of the building has the center windows on the upper stories extending outwards like bay windows. The right sid of the building has a tall tower, with fanciful turrets at the top. The building has decorative elements - paintings and sculptures - across the middle, and the roof is colorfully tiled.
Rathaus in Basel, Switzerland.

Some of the older houses have painted flourishes around their windows. At one point I wandered into an open entryway that led into what appeared to have once been a monastery cloister. At the end of the passageway, I came to a place where I could see across to a neighboring building with elegant decorations around its window and a fanciful fish adorning its drainpipes. You’ll spot quirky touches like this everywhere in the old city if you keep your eyes open.

On the right, a drainpipe with a green metal form of a fish: it faces downwards and the drainpipe extends out of its mouth. Its tail curves away from the drainpipe. Bottom of the photo and top left, some painting around windows is visible: dark red on a beige background, it shows stylized leaves and flowers.

Elisabethenkirche

We passed Elisabethenkirche (Elizabeth Church), a 19th-century gothic revival church. It is home to an “Open Church” which caters to everybody of any faith. It is used as a counselling center, event hall and concert hall, and the rainbow-colored banner across its entrance, when we visited, proudly proclaimed “Gott ist (jede) Liebe” [God is (every) love], followed by “LGBTQI welcome in this church.”

Elisabethenkirche: Elisabethenstrasse 10-14. Open Monday-Saturday 10:00-19:00 and Sunday 12:00-19:00. Website.

Basel sights: city gates

Three of Basel’s city gates remain from its original fortifications, all dating to about 1400. Spalentor is the most impressive, with its decorative roof tiles and the two round towers that flank it. St. Johanns-tor is simpler: a square tower of stone and white plaster. St. Albantor is similar: a square, simple tower, but with one projecting window near the top.

Looking down a street with buildings on either side (white with rows of windows, each with shutters open). At the end of the road, the gate is large, several stories taller than the buildins and blocking the entire road. The tower has an archway at the road level to the other side. The tower is made of stone blocks and has just a few windows on each level. The roof is very steep and pointed and covered in green tile with yellow flowers. On either side of the tower are two more towers, somewhat shorter; they are cylindrical with crenellations at the top.
Spalentor

Spalentor: Spalenvorstadt. St. Johanns-tor: St. Johanns-Vorstadt. St. Albantor: St. Alban-Vorstadt.

Hoosesaggmuseum

We never would have noticed it without our tour guide, provided to us by Basel Tourism: a quirky little “museum” called Hoosesaggmuseum. It’s a “pocket” museum, meaning it’s extremely small. In fact, the whole museum is a window in the door of a small house in a narrow alley. Whoever lives there has lots of collections of very small items. Every couple of months, she puts another set into the display window. When we were there, the window showed a collection of small pins and ribbons – the kind that stores often give away for free – in a patriotic theme.

A window says Hoosesagg Museeum at the top and the number 31. A cloth covers the window behind its glass; the cloth shows the swiss flag: red with a big white cross in the middle. On the cloth are many small items: ribbons and flowers and such, almost all in red and white and many showing the same Swiss cross.

The advantage of the entire exhibit being in a street-facing window is that it’s always open!

Hoosesaggmuseum: Imbergässlein 31.  

Street art

There’s plenty of street art, as well, so keep your eyes open. Check out the sculpture by Picasso, for example, on Picassoplatz (where Dufourstrasse meets Lautengartenstrasse), or a dragon sculpture by Tomas Schütte, complete with smoke coming out its nose, at Aeschengraben 31 where it meets Nauenstrasse.

The dragon is green metal in front of an office building. It is sitting and looks like the kind of friendly dragon you'd see in a children's book. Steam comes out its nose.

Not all street art is new, of course, and often the earlier embellishments are quite funny. Take, for example, the odd-looking lions on the zur Mücke building at Schlüsselbergstraße 14. The local nobility used to meet here in the Middle Ages and have grand feasts.

The two lions hold a shield between them. They both stick out their tongues, one looking at the other, and one looking toward the camera.

I already mentioned the Rathaus (city hall) on Marktplatz above. If you see it, check out the detail sculptures on the ornate facade.

Above left, a face with very wide eyes, and then a decorative image of vines? or branches? painted green along the top. Below, left, some sort of creature, perhaps a lizard. Middle, two naked children: one seems to be pulling the other's ear, holding a wooden spoon. Right, a face with green hair and a menacing, yet comical grin.
A small sample of the detail on the Rathaus.

Also, make sure to notice the fountains you’ll come upon here and there: this cute statue of Poseidon from 1706 tops a fountain with a very expressive face.

A naked, bearded Poseidon holds a trident. One foot is on top of a snake's head - or perhaps it's a sea serpent or eel. The eel's mouth is open and its tongue is sticking out. It's tail is wrapped between Poseidon's legs and around his waist. Below his statue is the fountain itself: a pipe emerging from a person's mouth.

We liked this one too, with a bagpiper on the top. Below, a series of figures dance to the bagpipe’s tune, circling the column he stands on.

The bagpiper holds a bagpipe, of course, and leans on a tree trunk. His legs are crossed, making him look relaxed.

Fondation Beyeler

Probably the most surprising experience from our short time in Basel was the Fondation Beyeler, a modern art museum. We knew nothing about it, and we went only because several people had urged us to do so. The Beyeler also sponsored us by providing our tickets.

Having said that, the Beyeler turned out to be one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. The quality of the artworks by world-renowned artists that they exhibit is astounding. You can read all about it in my separate post. The museum is outside of town but easy to get to by public transportation.

The paintings are set very close together on the wall, all in frames. The are all abstract, or semi-abstract.
This wall alone includes two Leger paintings, a Cezanne, a Mondrian, two Kandinskys, three Picassos, and an Ernst.

Fondation Beyeler: Baselstrasse 101, Riehen. From the main train station take Tram 2 towards Eglisee and get off at the stop called Basel, Badischer Bahnhof. Transfer to Tram 6 toward Riehen, Grenze. Get off at the Fondation Beyeler stop which is right in front of the entrance. The whole route takes about 25 minutes. Open daily 10:00-18:00 and on Wednesdays until 20:00. Admission: Adults CHF25, up to 25 years free. 50% off with BaselCard. Website.

Swimming in the Rhine

Here’s another quirky thing about Basel. On hot days in the summer, the residents of Basel go swimming in the river. That’s not so unusual, but the local way to do it is to use a wickelfisch, a waterproof sealable bag. You fill it with your clothes and whatever else you have with you, and leave some air in it as well, so it floats. Then you use it as a flotation device as you drift down the river in the current.

You can buy a wickelfisch at the Visitors Information Center at Barfüsserplatz, Steinenberg 14.

Where to stay in Basel, Switzerland

We stayed in a bright blue (again, surprising!) hotel called Grand Hotel Euler, which I would certainly recommend. Our room had lots of space and a big, spotlessly-clean and modern bathroom. I particularly liked having a proper full-size solid-wood desk instead of the usual narrow plank attached to the wall.

The building is bright blue and stands on a street corner. It is five stories tall, and the top floor has a shallow balcony around it. Here and there some of the lower floors have them as well.  In front, cars pass.

Our room overlooked a big intersection where lanes of car traffic and trams crossed, with the tram station on one side and a park on the other. Yet with the windows closed, all sound was blocked out and we slept very well. The hotel offers a continental breakfast, and I liked that we could eat outside when the weather was good.

Besides that the rooms are tastefully done and comfortable, this hotel has several special things going for it. The fact that it’s right next to the train and tram stations makes it particularly convenient. Even in our case, arriving by car rather than train, staying at that location made using public transportation to see the Basel sights a no-brainer: since many tram lines start and end at the train station, it was easy to know which ones to take to get to the hotel.

And speaking of arriving by car, the Hotel Euler also has a parking garage in its basement. It’s surely the smallest parking garage I’ve ever seen, with only a handful of spaces, but you can reserve a space. You have to pay extra for it, but it’s worth it not have to deal with a commercial garage further away.

Once we’d parked, we left the car there and used public transportation during our stay.

To see what other accommodations are available, just click on the map below:

Eating in Basel, Switzerland

We’re not foodies, but we appreciate good food. While we were only in Basel for two nights, I still want to point out two restaurants that we greatly enjoyed. A representative from Basel’s tourism board took us for a meal at Rubino, a Mediterranean restaurant where I had a delicious white tomato soup – leading to a whole discussion about how one makes tomato soup that has no tomatoes in it – and an excellent salmon with vegetables. Rubino emphasizes organic and locally-produced ingredients as much as possible. In the evening they do surprise menus where you only choose vegetarian, meat or fish and then how many courses you want.

A plate of food. Salmon with a green sauce at one end. The salmon sits on some mixed stewed vegetables and roast potatoes, and it all sits on a bed of rucola or similar.

The second night we wandered into a restaurant called Kunsthalle, which offers German food, but with a bit of a twist. We ate outside in a pleasant quiet courtyard and I ordered a hamburger that somehow managed to be both chic and tasty, and much too big to eat with my hands. The fries are the thin “allumettes,” which I love.

Basel has lots of restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. It boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants, including one that has three stars: Cheval Blanc. For a more homey (and less expensive) meal, try a traditional pub, many of which serve good, hearty food that’s not exorbitantly priced.

The local traditional sweet treat is called Basler Leckerly, baked in Basel for centuries. It’s a sort of small gingerbread biscuit with an airy texture and a sugar glaze. They’re a great gift to take home too; they can keep for a couple months if unopened.

BaselCard

All hotels in Basel will give you a free BaselCard when you check in. I wish more cities would do this! The card (which you can also use via an app on your phone) provides free use of public transportation and also 50% off admission to 23 different museums, including the ones I’ve mentioned above. It gives you access to guest wifi hotspots around the city as well as discounts on things like bike rentals, a bus tour, boat trips, the zoo, or a guided walking tour. Ask at your hotel for help with booking tours and finding their starting points.

A typical Basel house: simple white plaster, with rows of windows, each with green shutters open around it. The door is large and arched right in the center of the front. Three stories, plus one in the roof. Exactly symmetrical, with 7 windows across each of the upper stories.

Where to find out about other things to see and do in Basel, Switzerland

There are lots more Basel sights besides the things I’ve mentioned here. For instance, the Basel Tourist Information’s “Basel Museums Guide” lists 34 museums, to be exact. You can pick up the guide at the Visitors Information Center at Barfüsserplatz, Steinenberg 14. Remember that your BaselCard gives you 50% off admission to many of them.

If you’re into architecture, the Visitor’s Information Center also has an excellent booklet about modern architecture, with three tours mapping out routes to see it all.

Another flyer you can pick up gives the routes for five different walking tours around Basel, if you prefer to wander at your own pace.

At this point I think you can see why I call Basel surprising and delightful and quirky: we found so much humor in so many of the Basel sights. If you’re planning a trip to southern Germany or to Switzerland, add Basel to your itinerary!

Have you been to Basel, Switzerland? Did you find it as enjoyable as we did?

Text: Basel, Switzerland: Street art, old and new, and lots of other charming and quirky things to see (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). Image: Statue of Poseidon, holding a trident, with his foot on the head of a snake or sea serpent or eel, whose tail is wrapped around Poseidon's middle.
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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more...

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We love Basel and spent spent pleasant days there in early December a few years ago! The Christmas market was wonderful as well!

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