Few cities in Europe can match Basel for its concentration of cultural attractions and things to do. 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.
Mittlere Bridge in Basel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and 13th 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.
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.
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 letterbox 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 a botanical garden that was founded in the 16th century, one of the oldest in the world.
Antikenmuseum and the Sammlung Ludwig (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. The museum also operates Skulpturhalle Basel, located near Basel University, which features more than 2,200 plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures including a complete set of casts of the Parthenon, part of the Acropolis in Athens, as well as scale-size architectural sculptures.
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.
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.
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. Guided tours in English are available with advance notice and are included in the admission price.
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.