Say Basel and you’ll probably think of Art Basel – one of the world’s biggest exhibitions, which lights up the city every June. Outside this most creative of months, though, what’s Basel’s draw? Answer: the people. Basel sits across not one, not two, but three borders, with commuters flooding in every day from France and Germany. And they bring all the best bits of home with them. Think brasseries and beer mixed with Swiss heritage, and open-hearted locals who’ve got warm welcomes written into their DNA.
Volkshaus: alfresco dining where all three borders collide
Baselites excel at giving their historic buildings new life: take Volkshaus, a famous 1925 house-turned-restaurant serving mainly French dishes with modern European twists. The newly renovated interiors by architects Herzog & de Meuron are very swish, but it’s the leafy, lightbulb strewn courtyard that steals the show. You must order the wienerschnitzel, one of the few Germanic dishes on the menu and the ultimate comfort food.
Zur Harmonie: a lesson in Basel tradition
Get to know Basel’s history at this 100-plus-year-old restaurant, which comes with a sprinkling of French influences. Serving Basel classics, like the much-loved Swiss sausage salad, it’s a hub for locals, some of whom have been regulars for 30 years – like Hans-Pieter, a 76-year-old university lecturer who’s there most nights for conversation and coffee. Bonus fact: the stained-glass window here was found in an antiques market and has been verified as a Matisse.
Der Teufelhof: a multitasking art hotel
This isn’t just a hotel. It’s a cultural centre, art exhibition space, brewery, Michelin-starred restaurant, theatre with music, plays and cabaret productions and winery in one. Step through the wisteria-covered entrance for a taste of the city at its finest: Parisian dining, German drinking and gorgeous art-themed rooms to stumble into later. Try the aromatic and cloudy Heller Engel (‘Bright Angel’) beer in the bar, made in the on-site brewery.
Schloss Bottmingen: a restaurant in a castle
The stuff of fairytale princess dreams, Schloss Bottmingen is a local-ingredient-focused restaurant housed in an almost unbelievably pretty 13th-century castle. No, really, it has a moat and everything. The medieval structure is miraculously still intact and now filled with baroque architecture and Michelin Guide-recommended French cuisine. Warning: chef pâtissier Alain Schmidlin’s deconstructed fruit desserts will ruin you for all others.
RIVIERA: A TACTILE HEAVEN FOR SHARP DRESSERS
Everything in Riviera, a tiny boutique in the Kleinbasel district, is addictively strokeable. All the clothes come from European brands selected by owner Andrea Otto and crafted ethically from ultra-local fabrics. It’s like a soft play area filled with effortlessly chic cotton jumpsuits, linen dresses and light sweaters, all washed with a Farrow & Ball colour palette.
St Johanns-Park: A border-straddling green oasis
Basel shares borders with both France and Germany, and there are few more scenic spots within easy reach of both than this peaceful riverside park. As you lounge amongst the greenery and admire the views over the Rhine, consider the fact that you’re a mere 1km (or a 12-minute walk) from easterly France, and 2.5km from a south-west corner of Germany. Soak up some cross-border vibes by heading north a little from the park to the Three Countries Poet Path (‘Dreyland Dichterweg’) that traces the riverbank, looking out for plaques with – you guessed it – poems penned by poets from all three countries. Afterwards, head back to St Johanns and make a beeline for the Kleiner Wassermann park cafe, a lovely spot for refuelling (they have a mighty piadina menu during summer months) that also hosts live music.
Market-hopping: Browse your way through Basel and beyond
A fine place to see Basel’s multicultural atmosphere in action is at one of the city’s many fantastic markets. Stadtmarkt, the Basel City Market, is a good starting point. Held weekly in front of the grand City Hall on Marktplatz, it’s Basel’s largest fresh produce market, and you’ll find delicious international foods from around the world sitting side-by-side with regional produce – we’re talking everything from artisan bread to natural wine to colourful veg. If daytime markets aren’t quite exciting enough for you, try Nachtflohmarkt, a monthly indoor evening market. Held in the cavernous Markthalle, Nachtflohmarkt is packed with vintage fashion and second-hand goods, including plenty of global offerings. Elsewhere, there’s the Schlemmer-Markt gourmet market, flea markets in Petersplatz and Barfüsserplatz – the list goes on. Dive in and discover all kinds of international treasures.
Fondation Beyeler: Globally minded artwork
Borders are certainly no barrier to this innovative art museum, found on the outskirts of Basel in Riehen and strikingly designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. At any given time, attendees might find themselves face-to-face with works by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani or Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, for example, alongside pieces from big-hitting names like North American artist Jeff Koons or long-standing British duo Gilbert & George. It’s no wonder, then, that Fondation Beyeler is one of Switzerland’s most popular museums, and it probably doesn’t hurt that it’s set within gloriously green and leafy surroundings, which just happen to be a ten-minute walk from the German border.