Travel review: Basel - historic, picturesque and brimming with culture

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Historic, picturesque and brimming with culture, the Swiss frontier city of Basel casts a spell over Phil Penfold.

On the front of the impressive Basel cathedral a medieval mason with a devilish sense of humour has been at work. Looking out across the Swiss city and the River Rhine, there’s a figure of a man who appears to be flirting with a young woman. Attached to his rear quarters is a collection of serpents, demons and the like. This, our tour guide explains, is Satan tempting a virgin.

Basel is a city full of surprises. Right on the borders with France and Germany and not so far from Italy, it has three major railway stations and a tram and bus system that has to be the envy of Europe.

When you arrive at your hotel or guest house, along with your room keys, you are also handed a little slip of numbered card, to which the desk people will add your name and room details. This is your ticket to ride – as many times as you wish, all free, and at any time of day or night.

One of the main events of the year in Basel is the military tattoo – second only to that of Edinburgh in size – which attracts many thousands to performances in the huge courtyard of an old barracks. The spectacle is stunning, a constant flow of musicians, marching bands, and gifted performers from all over the world. And, of course, pipers.

One of the add-ons to the Tattoo is the Drummer’s Apero – what the organisers like to describe as their “pub”. Anything less like the traditional British pub cannot be imagined. It’s a set of hospitality spaces, where your ticket will get you suitably refreshed before the events in the arena.

The mighty Rhine, rather than the city centre, is probably the beating heart of Basel. The waters here are deep, wide, and fast-moving – but that doesn’t stop the locals using this fluid space to the full. On warm and sunny days, when the light is dancing on the water, they’ll be taking their breaks at lunchtime, or coming out after work, going for a swim, or idling on the narrow beaches and concrete jetties that pop up along the banks.

From a little landing in the fascinating St Alban-Tal area, near the Museum of Contemporary Art, there is a jetty with a ferry – it’ll cost you only a few Swiss Francs – which will give you a Rhine-edge view of the city and its bridges.

There are some wonderful buildings to see from this vantage point. Opinion is divided, however, on the Roche Tower, the highest building in Switzerland, a massive silver sliver of glass that can be seen from miles around.

Where else but Basel could you get into conversation with the English-speaking leader of a group of gentlemen seated in the corner of one of the city’s most-respected restaurants, each of them wearing a distinctive and well-worn peaked cap? The Löwenzorn has been going for more than 150 years – if you can get a seat in the courtyard, so much the better – and this is a regular rendezvous, explains our cheery Swiss, for the members and past members of the local university fencing group. They are a cross between an athletic society and a fraternity club. And yes, rather like the Sigmund Romberg Student Prince of musical comedy legend, they do all have a duelling scar.

They are clearly having an enjoyable night out, but this is a city where clubs and guilds are rooted in history – the Furriers were the first, and by the end of the 13th century, there were 15 of them. Their heraldic devices are a glorious splash of colour at the imposing Town Hall.

Löwenzorn is only a few metres away from the main city square of Basel – where a stop on the pavement seats of any of the little cafes is a must, to enjoy a glass of wine, a coffee or in my case possibly the best lemon/citron sorbet that has ever tickled my taste buds. Many are Basel institutions that have been dispensing coffee and cake to customers for centuries. Right opposite is the imposing and colourful town hall, much of which dates from 500 and more years ago. And between cafe and municipal HQ are the tram lines, and, on certain days, a market that sells everything from fruit and flowers to specialist Swiss cheeses – as well as pastries and chocolates.

If you venture up the streets and passages behind the market, you’ll find dozens of quirky shops and stores selling pictures, antiques, prints, and pottery, as well as a lot of other “I have to take that back home!” souvenirs. One shaded cafe/bar and courtyard leads to another, often with a splashing little fountain.

It is worth seeking out Restaurant Atlantis for lunch, and trying for a table on their roof terrace. It’s on Klosterberg, and is one of those little hideaway places that only the locals seem to know about.

Basel is rightly proud of being the cultural capital of Switzerland. Many of the superb museums, art collections and public organisations are housed in new buildings designed by architects with international reputations, such as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano and the late Zaha Hadid. Basel has art aplenty, but it also has a charming, relaxed attitude. It’s impossible not to fall in love with this well-adjusted city.


Swiss International Air Lines offers up to 119 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick (seasonal), Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal) and Dublin to Zurich. All-inclusive fares start from £67 one-way, with the price including all airport taxes, one piece of hold luggage and hand luggage, plus meal and drink. For more information visit or call 0345 601 0956.

Train fares from Zurich to Basel start at £31 standard class return. For booking visit or call 0844 848 5848.

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