Compact and cosmopolitan, the delightful Swiss city of Basel makes an idyllic base for a pre- or post-cruise stay, says Liz Jarvis.
Settled by the Celts in around 120 BC, in 30 BC the city’s strategic position led to the Romans stationing military forces on the site on the hill that would later be occupied by Basel Minster, which was built between 1019 and 1500.
The metropolis became important in the 15th century as a centre of Renaissance humanism, and subsequently joined the Swiss confederacy in the 16th century. During the 19th century, it grew into a centre of industrialisation.
Today, however, along with Zurich and Geneva, Basel ranks among the cities with the highest standards of living in the world.
You can explore most of the city’s attractions on foot, although the trams are incredibly straightforward to use – and this being Switzerland – they do, of course, run like clockwork. A good place to start exploring is the Market Square, an easy walk from the river. Here you’ll find the Old Town, with architecture in Gothic, Renaissance and baroque styles.
Dominating the Marketplatz is the 16th-century red sandstone Rathaus, or Town Hall, with its delightful inner courtyard frescoes. As the name suggests, on weekdays there is a market in the square, and the nearby Spalenberg has medieval alleyways and colourful shuttered townhouses with boutiques, chocolatiers and cafés galore. It’s a fantastic place for people-watching – order a pastry and sit outside for a while enjoying the atmosphere.
In Barfüsserplatz you’ll find the Basel Historical Museum and the famous Tinguely fountain, featuring nine iron sculptures that are constantly talking to each other.
There are more than 40 museums in Basel, covering everything from teddy bears to antiques and design, but the Kunstmuseum is particularly worth exploring: with around 4,000 paintings and sculptures – among them some of the oldest in the world – you can easily lose track of time here.
St Johann port, where many river cruise lines dock, is minutes from the Spalentor (medieval gate), the iconic Middle Bridge and the Käppelijoch, which is covered with padlocks left
by visitors to symbolise their love.
Basel is very much an all-year round destination, but it’s absolutely delightful at Christmas, when the traditional market can be found at the heart of the festively decorated Old Town. There are rustic wooden chalets selling handmade gifts, culinary delights, such as waffles, glühwein, Basel Läckerli (a kind of gingerbread), Swiss raclette and grilled sausages. If you’re lucky, it might snow, creating an even more magical feel.
Basel has an enticing culinary scene and it would be a travesty to come here and not try the cheese fondue. Highly recommended is Kohlmanns, which is very popular with local people and has a warm, cosy atmosphere. It serves mainly Swiss food, including outstanding, and very filling, rösti with racelette cheese, spicy regional bacon and onions.
For a sophisticated dinner, and with a brilliant location right on the Rhine featuring a wonderful terrace, where you can sit out in summer, Krafft is simply superb. The menu offers creative cuisine with locally sourced ingredients and impeccable service.
Where to stay
The 4* superior Swissôtel Le Plaza Basel is one of the largest and most contemporary hotels in the city, and within walking distance of the river and all the city’s main attractions.
The spacious rooms and suites are furnished in calming tones with splashes of yellow, and all have complimentary wifi and Italian coffee machines. Rooms are priced from £95 a night.
The nearest airport is the EuroAirport. Most cruise lines dock at Dreiländereck on the border with France and Germany, 40 minutes from the city centre via tram. Others sail into Klybeck or St Johann. All overnight guests receive the BaselCard, which offers free public transport, free wifi at 17 hotspots and a 50 per cent discount on many attractions including museums. For more information go to basel.com.