BASEL, SWITZERLAND — I’m not sure what to expect in a city whose name I can’t even pronounce. Is it like the herb I cook with or should I pretend I’m sporting an English accent?
Apparently, I’m not the only confused soul, as I can’t find clear consensus online about its pronunciation. But Basel is where my Viking cruise, the Rhine Getaway, starts, and I’ve opted to spend a few extra days here.
After only three days in Switzerland’s oldest university city, however, I can now say that Basel should be on any travel agenda, as I liked it even more than I did Zurich. So why, you ask, should you go to Basel?
Here are seven reasons:
Above: Basel is one of the most underrated cities in Switzerland, and maybe all of Europe.
1 You can step foot in three countries (in one day, if you want): Basel’s location on the northwestern corner of Switzerland puts it within immediate access of Germany and France, and you can easily day trip into these countries from Basel, as three railway stations, one for each country, lie within the city. As you explore Basel, you’ll see signs pointing to each country, making it easy to accidentally step foot into another country. Rule of thumb here? Always carry your passport (and when at the airport, make sure you exit to the Swiss side or else you’ll have to backtrack your steps out of France as I had to do).
2 You can put your fitness tracker to good use: European cities always rank high on the walkability scale, but Basel earns extra marks as one of the most walkable. I do rely on public transport several times during my stay – all hotel guests get a free public transport pass for their visit (and as of January 2018, the new BaselCard, which will include not only free use of public transport but also 50 per cent discounts on numerous cultural and leisure offerings). I spend hours navigating the Old Town where I find hidden squares and narrow alleys, not to mention fountains, of which there are 180 in the city, including the iconic Tinguely Fountain, which shovels water in the summer and transforms into an ice sculpture in winter. Stop by Basel Tourism to get information about its five self-guided walking tours, all of which start in the colourful, lively Marketplatz, where a year-round market takes place every day but Sundays and holidays.
3 Almost 40 museums await your exploration: Even if you’re not a museum maven, this fact alone should impress you. Because there are so many to choose from – Kunstmuseum (Fine Arts Museum), Jean Tinguely Museum and Basel Paper Mill Museum are just three – you’re bound to find something you like. I explore Fondation Beyeler, where I find a special Monet exhibition along with an extensive collection of contemporary art. It’s not just the art on the walls that’s impressive. The museum’s beautiful design infuses nature into its structure, evident from the pond at the entrance to the gallery space filled with natural light. Give yourself time to stroll the gardens and pay special notice to the Buddha-like fountain with its bunny ears.
Left: Basel is full of charming buildings.
4 You can sample dishes from the sister property of the world’s first vegetarian restaurant: Guinness awarded this designation to Zurich’s Hiltl, which opened its doors in 1898. I frequented this awesome eatery several times when I was in Zurich so I was thrilled when I stumbled upon Tibits in Basel. The sister properties operate the same: You plate your food from a large buffet, vegetarian and vegan, and then pay by the pound. Even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian, the food alone is delicious enough to warrant a stop.
5 When you’re bored with one bank, you can head to another. The Rhine splits Basel into two sides, Kleinbasel (“klein” means small) and Grossbasel (“gross” means big), both of which are worthy of a visit. The Old Town and main attractions lie on the Grossbasel side. But do take yourself to Kleinbasel, where you’ll find a charming residential area with its own selection of shops and cafés. This is also the sunnier bank and the bars, or buvettes, are all here, which is why Kleinbasel’s bank is often the more crowded of the two.
6 You can get your float on here: At one time, the only way to cross the Rhine was via ferry, (fahri). Although the city’s five bridges now allow for easier crossings, four ferries built between 1854 and 1895 still operate to take tourists, even locals, from one side to another. These ferries are unique in that they’re operated by a cable-pulley system. The Rhine’s current then directs the ferries across.
7 You can sample Basel’s famous biscuit: From cheesesteak in Philadelphia to bagels in Montreal, every city has a certain food it’s known for. Basel is no exception, as the specialty here is the Läckerli, a hard biscuit made of honey, hazelnuts, almonds, candied peel and Kirsch. The first recipes were from the 17th Century, although the whole process probably started in the 11th Century. While it’s not the sole reason to head to Basel, it might just be the sweet spot of your trip.
I’m happy to report that by the end of my visit, I’ve successfully mastered the pronunciation of Basel. But I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to work your way to Basel to unearth the answer.