A Day In… Basle (Basic Basel)

By | Category: Travel destinations

Modern Basle

Modern Basle

For a start a day isn’t going to be enough. The city demands a short break. It’s a fairly widespread city so unless you’re a regular walker this is one for having a car or buying day passes on the buses and trams. So I am going to concentrate on one particular area south of the river.

I first came here about thirty five years ago and, to be honest I remember very little about it other than drinking hot chocolate and going to the zoo so I came to it with no preconceptions. Which was probably just as well because it’s a confusing place. Start at the airport. There is a French part and a Swiss part so there are different passport lines and different security areas. Yet most of the signs are in German. I suppose this confusion starts in the airports name. It is EuroAirport, Basle (or is that Basel?)-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport. And Basle is spelt the German way, Basel. In my stay I didn’t hear anyone use French and the signs are just in the one language. As is the tourist information on the street corners and the information underneath exhibits in the museums. The only place that you have a choice is on the machines that you wish to buy tram, bus or train tickets. There you can get French, German, English and Italian and in some you can pay in Swiss Francs or euros. Once you’ve decided that this is a virtually only a Germanic speaking area, then you can accept this is Basel and not Basle.

From the airport, the bus ride (no. 50) takes about 20 minutes and costs SwF4. It runs about every 7 or 8 minutes during the day. Don’t be put off by seeing one just leaving. There’ll be another looping back around after dropping people off. If you wait for more than 2-3 minutes before being able to sit down on a bus I’d be surprised. It takes you to the main railway station which I would suggest you use as a landmark so you can easily get back to the bus. Even with a map, I was still taking wrong turns as there are some similarly named roads. At the station there is a tourism office (like at the airport) but it doesn’t have a lot in it. Upstairs in the station where there is a concourse of shops and train platforms leaving from it, there is a better travel office, largely about the train services but you will be able to pick up a free map. The best one is in a guide called “Welcome to Basel” and it is available in a number of languages

Basel is an industrial city as well as an historic city so as you come in or as you gaze from one of the high points you will see tall smoking chimneys. And talking of smoking , one surprise (although I don’t know why it should surprise me) was that a lot of people smoked. It will be one of those strange things that will define Basel for me.

The zoo is perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Basel and is within walking distance of the main station. To find it go to the left of the station as you leave at the front. Go the wrong way out of the station and you end up in a series of small streets where the buildings look a bit like those concrete blocks from the Soviet area. Go out of the front, cross the road carefully avoiding the trams that will bear down on you, and you will eventually end up at the Rhine. This artery of Europe is wide in Basel and you can either cross it on the bridges or go down steep steps and take one of the boats that will ferry you across. These are attached by a wire to a hauser stretched across the Rhine and the boat is pulled across. Watch the way the boat pulls against the hauser and you realise how powerful and fast flowing the Rhine is. There are 4 crossings that you can use.

Basle -  St Pancras cathedral roof

Basle - St Pancras cathedral roof

Near the river is the cathedral dedicated to St Pancras. Currently being restored (isn’t every cathedral?) it nestles in a square of attractive buildings that are much more like your mind tells you a Swiss building should look like. Except the cathedral has an almost unaustere roof with multi-coloured, bright tiles. At the moment (Jan 2011) there is a lot of building and improvement work going on so it is rather noisy. Go through the cathedral though and there is a small area overlooking the Rhine. There are benches and a stone bench surrounds three quarters of the area. It is a popular area for locals and visitors to eat lunch, (there are masses of supermarkets and takeaway shops around) watch the Rhine and people watch.

From here go down Rittergrasse (which is a short road of elegant buildings well worth pausing and thinking wouldn’t it be nice to own one. But don’t walk too close to the wall. the reason? There are shuttered windows and the fittings,often with points, stick out at about thigh level so you could easily snag your clothing. You are now in the museum quarter of Basel but you might wonder at one point. Would you see in the UK three buildings together as you see here? I’m thinking of the Basler Billard Club (Billiards club as I’m sure you’ll have guessed) being sandwiched between an art gallery, Gallerie Karin Sutter and the Vorstedt Theatre.
Officially known as the St Alban area, be a little careful with the street signs. There are at least 4 different streets called St Alban something or other so make sure you are in the one you want.

A typical Basle street

A typical Basle street

Further on Rittergrasse splits. Wander down Muhlenberg and you come to the Cartoon Museum, one of only a few in the world, and which at the moment has an exhibition of Chinese Comics. Inside it is a minimalist design which suits the hung comics/cartoons. Most museums in Basel seem to cost about SwF15. The Cartoon Museum is just SwF7. Further down the street is the museum of contemporary art (Museum fur Gegenwartskunst). It is slightly tucked away and you will know your there when you hear gushing water for a rivulet streams as a waterfall under part of the building. If you can’t see it as you go down the road look out for 9 aluminium signs which stand in the corner of a small park area. These contain a poem, translated into French and Russian as well as English. By now you will have walked down a hill and are almost at river’ edge. Here there is a pathway that follows the river and provides a walk and a view of a working river. The riverside walk is one of the St Alban streets , this one being the St Alban-Rheinweg. It can be a very different view from the rivers we see at home which are there for pleasure and tranquility. Here you have a working river. Be warned. If you have followed Muhlenberg you have a steep hill to climb back up. If you stayed at the top, you might be surprised to see almost an Italian feature, There are quite a few fountains including one spectacular big one, almost the size of a couple of baths, Rittergrasse has restaurants, jewellers and hand made paper shops as well as elegant houses. For a meal expect to pay between about SwF27 and SwF45 per person so it isn’t cheap. Again, as I mentioned earlier, It’s just as easy to get some Swiss cheese and a variety of bread and eat al fresco instead.

As a city known for its museums (there are 33 that I counted but some sources claim thre are over 40) it’s not surprising that the oldest public museum in Europe, the Kunstmueseum is here. (And in another road called St Alban, this one the St Alban-Graben.) See it at twilight when you go through the arched entrance into a courtyard. Each of the 4 corners has neon lighting of different colours going up the five storey buliding. Above the main entrance is stained glass and the colours reflecting off this in the evening light is quite a sight to see.

Basle -  A kinetic statue

Basle - A kinetic statue

But art isn’t only in the museums. Stroll around and you soon come across public architecture such as the huge powered statue of a man who slowly brings his hammer down as this craftsman works continuously at his task. Or the little area tucked away that has what the artist, Luciano Fabro, calls Giardino all’ Italiana. This is a combination of what seems to me a reconstruction of a Celtic dolmen area – a bit of a modern take on stone circles – and the trees erupting from the earth.
Public architecture in Basle

Public architecture in Basle


As they erupt they break through the stone crust that is suggested was there before they grew. For a more formal setting you’ll need to go north of the river to see the Vitra Design Museum and Architecture Park. Here is Frank Gehry’s first European designed building and Zaha Hadid’s first public work as well. Not far way is the Exhibition Tower, a modern, eye-catching tower from which you can see the whole city. If nothing else it shows you how the modern city of the new is largely split from the old city by the Rhine.

This sketch of Basel is just that, – a sketch of just a small part of a city straddling old and new, industry and heritage. But f you just have a day or a weekend to see it, you will be kept busy. Apparently the Romans first came to Basel in about 40BC. Visitors have been coming ever since.

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