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Greentraveller's Guide to Basel, Switzerland

Posted by Richard Hammond at 05:12 on Wednesday 11 May 2011

With over forty museums dedicated to history, art and architecture, Basel is the cultural capital of Switzerland. On the border with both Germany and France, in the north of the country, Basel is much more cosmopolitan than Zurich, not as spick and span, yet more laid back. It is also one of the country's greenest cities - the city's entire energy supply comes from renewable sources and since 2001 the local government has promoted the idea of a '2000 watt society', aiming to reduce the population's overall energy use from 6,000 to 2,000 watts. Basel is about 6 hours by train from London, and a great base from which to go exploring the Swiss Alps using a Swiss Pass (see below).

Basel comprehensive tram network runs through the heart of the city. Photo greentraveller.co.ukBasel comprehensive tram network runs through the heart of the city. Photo greentraveller.co.ukHere are a few of things I saw on my recent trip to the city as part of our Great InterRail Adventure with Rail Europe, plus a selection of the many tips that have been sent in by readers via our twitter account: @greentraveller and via the greentraveller facebook page. Read the previous blog posts in our Greentraveller Guide to Utrecht, Holland | Greentraveller Guide to Antwerp, Belgium | Greentraveller Guide Cologne, Germany. Thanks to all those who sent in recommendations. The final destination is Valence!

What do to

Basel's fine art Kunstmuseum has an impressive permanent collection of 19th and 20th century works, including a entire room of Picasso's workBasel's fine art Kunstmuseum has an impressive permanent collection of 19th and 20th century works, including a entire room of Picasso's work1. Experience Switzerland's Cultural Capital
Basel has just about every kind of museum. (Basel-born architects Herzog & De Meuron were responsible for turning London's Bankside power station into the Tate Modern). There are over 40 to choose from: the Kunstmuseum is perhaps the best known - it has an impressive permanent collection of 19th and 20th century works (including a entire room of Picasso's work!) as well as a collection of Medieval and Renaissance paintings. On the banks of the Rhine is Museum Jean Tinguely, which is dedicated to 'kinetic' modern artists, and exhibits some fantastic animated mechanical works. Many of the museums have a free open hour at the end of the day.
Every year, the ArtBasel art show showcases the latest in modern and contemporary works from more than 2,500 artists and boasts galleries from every corner of the globe. This year, it will take place between the 15th and 19th of June. Basel's museums  


The quiet cloisers of Base's cathedral. Photo Richard HammondThe quiet cloisers of Base's cathedral. Photo Richard Hammond2. Wander the cobbled streets of Old Town
Most of Basel's 'Old Town' attractions are within a walkable area between Basel Zoo and the Rhine. If you're interested in the culture of the area, aim for a Sunday when all the stores are closed. Wander over to Munsterplatz (Cathedral Square) to appreciate the cathedral's Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Built between 1019 and 1500, the highlight is the Galluspforte (Gallus portal) on the west side, which is considered the most important Romanesque sculptural work in Switzerland. You could also head over to Marktplatz (Market Square) where you can see the beautiful Renaissance town hall or visit the market where you can pick up everything from fruit and veg to bread and pastries  - all local and fresh! 
  

The view across the mighty Rhine in the centre of Basel. Photo Richard HammondThe view across the mighty Rhine in the centre of Basel. Photo Richard Hammond3. Enjoy the natural beauty of the Rhine
For an unstructured, relaxing option, spend an afternoon walking alongside the Rhine in the sunshine, either along the promenade or across one of Basel's bridges. The two mile promenade on the Kleinbasel board offers a cool breeze and some fantastic views of the river, you can even opt to make like a local and take a dip if the weather is hot. Alternatively, crossing the bridges, especially the bridge near Munsterplatz offers fantastic views of the river, and its banks, and there's always the chance to hop on a ferry and enjoy the scenery that way - the Munsterfaehri crosses the river below the cathedral. Each August, 3000 people take part in the mass swim Rheinschwimmen, while many others simply sunbathe on the banks.

Where to eat and drink

1. Rubino a smart modern restaurant on Luftgässlein in the quiet, old quarter of town, which specialises in local, seasonal dishes. Its healthy, inventive menu changes daily and centres on regional and organic produce. During the day, the Lunch Pass offers a range of gorgeous 3-course alternatives. In the evenings, instead of being given a menu, Rubino offers a 'menu surprise' where you simply choose meat, fish or vegetarian and only find out what you're getting when it arrives. I had crab, followed by pork (with nettle filling) and an impressive five-part dessert that included basil/pineapple ice-cream and chocolate fondant. Rubino also holds various wine-tastings and events.

2. Zum Isaak is in the Cathedral Square of Basel's Old Town opposite the cathedral. The evening menu contains creative dishes such as the lemon ricotta gnocchi and seabass with sauteed fennel while all meats are ecologically sourced from a local butcher. Refreshments can be served outside in the cathedral square, weather permitting and, in the summer, the beautiful garden offers the perfect place to enjoy Isaak's varied menu.

3. It's really cheap and easy to make up a picnic using ingredients from the Marktplatz in Old Town. Street vendors in the area sell everything from crepes to sandwiches and pizza slices, while stalls specialise in local, organic food and you can choose from a huge selection of fresh veg, cured meats, cheeses and pastries. Once you've made up your picnic, head over to the banks of the Rhine and enjoy your spoils in the sunshine.

Where to stay
I stayed at the Basel Hilton, which is conveniently just a few minutes walk from the station.

Basel's tram network dates back to the 1920s. Photo Richard HammondBasel's tram network dates back to the 1920s. Photo Richard HammondWhat the locals say
My local guide - the art historian Dr Rose Schulz-Rehberg - was a font of knowledge about the city... she's writing a book on Basel's architecture and offers tours of the city, such as art tours, walking tours and museum tours.

Getting Around Basel
The city has an extensive (bright green/yellow) tram network. Tickets are available at each tram and bus stop, at the bright green ticket machines that take both Swiss Francs and Euros. If you're looking to explore Basel itself, the Day Pass (CHF8) will be your best option, while a couple of days would necessitate the 6-Trip One Zone Multi-Ticket.

Impressively, all hotels in Basel (including the youth hostel) offer each guest a free Mobility Pass at check-in that gives free, unlimited travel within Basel and its suburbs for the duration of their stay (up to 30 days). On the date of arrival, reservation confirmation from the hotel also guarantees a free transfer from your station to the hotel via public transport.

Cross the Rhine using one of several line ferry services accessed along the banks of the river. Photo Richard HammondCross the Rhine using one of several line ferry services accessed along the banks of the river. Photo Richard HammondIt's also possible to cross the Rhine using Basel's ferry service. What's more, each of the four ferries is powered solely by the Rhine's natural current. Basel's ferry services | Timetables for Basel's public transport

Basel is also a bicycle-friendly city, with many well-marked bicycle lanes throughout, and bicycles can be rented locally from the Rent-a-Bike service positioned underneath the Basel SBB railway station. You can choose to pick up and drop off your bike from a number of select Swiss train stations, and you can choose to rent a bike for anything from half a day (CHF25) to 12 days (CHF128). If you visit the website, you can even reserve a bike online, making it even easier to simply pick up and go. Basel's Rent-a-Bike service 

Specific bike trails also connect Basel with other parts of Switzerland via the enviable Veloland Schweiz network. The network's helpful website lists all available routes, as well as providing a wealth of extra information - from listing particular places of interest to offering safety tips.

Getting to Basel by train
Basel is served by two major train stations, the Basel SBB station in the south of the town (serving Swiss 'SBB' and French 'SNCF' lines, and the Basel Badischer Bahnhof (Basel Bad Bf) further north in Kleinbasel serving German 'DB' trains. The town has good high-speed ICE train links with Frankfurt and Berlin, and other fast train links with Paris, Strasbourg, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Brussels and Milan. It is also possible to travel on night trains from a variety of cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Moscow, Paris, Prague and Rome

Travelling from London can take around 10 hours including a including a change from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de l'Est in Paris. Taking the 0922 train from St Pancras will get you into Paris Gare du Nord by 1247. Having crossed to Paris Gare de L'est, the 1424 Lyria TGV service gets into Basel at 1756. To book a train ticket, go to Rail Europe's page: Train from London to Basel.

For more information on the journey to Basel by train, or to book an InterRail ticket through Rail Europe, see its excellent guide to InterRail.

The beautiful lake Spiez high up in the Swiss Alps. Photo Richard HammondThe beautiful lake Spiez high up in the Swiss Alps. Photo Richard HammondSwiss Pass
I travelled through Switzerland using the Swiss Travel System's
Swiss Pass. This pass entitles the holder to free travel throughout the entire Swiss Travel System, including the transport services of 36 Swiss towns and cities. In addition, a pass holder also receives a 50% discount on the majority of mountain rail and cableways, as well as free admission to more than 400 museums throughout the country.

On my second day in Basel I took the train to Bern and then boarded the RegioExpress Lötschberger, which travels over the mountains to Brig. It's a wonderful trip - travelling high up into the Swiss Alps via the beautiful town of Spiez where I had a quick dip followed by dinner at one of several lakeside restaurants overlooking the marina. I left Basel after lunch and returned at about 10.30pm, but you could easily do the return trip earlier in the day or of course make a whole day of it. Highly recommended! 
Switzerland's Swiss Pass.

Thanks to the Cologne Tourist Board for hosting us.

By Richard Hammond with help from Tom Watts.

Thanks to Swiss Tourism for hosting us. For the latest info on visiting Switzerland, see the MySwitzerland facebook page.

The Swiss Alps from on board the RegioExpress Lötschberger en route from Bern to Brig. Photo Richard HammondThe Swiss Alps from on board the RegioExpress Lötschberger en route from Bern to Brig. Photo Richard Hammond

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