Few cities in Europe can match Basel for its concentration of cultural attractions and things to do. Tourists to Switzerland’s second-largest city will find more than one museum per square kilometer with a total exceeding 40. Moreover, many of these are housed in buildings that are themselves works of art, designed by great architects that include Renzo Piano, Frank O. Gehry, and Mario Botta. The two sides of Basel are joined by six bridges over the Rhine, as it makes a sharp turn before flowing north to become the German-French border. It’s the higher left bank where you’ll find the old town and cultural attractions.
1 – Vitra Design Museum
Because Basel lies right on the international border, some of its suburbs spread over into Germany and France. So it is with the Vitra Design Museum, which although considered a Basel institution, is a five-minute train ride just across the German border from central Basel. By any measure, it is one of the world’s most important museums of design. The building itself is a landmark, designed by Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry. Inside are changing exhibitions – two or three each year – examining current and historical design trends and themes. The displays are stunning and provocative, often inviting interaction.
2 – Historisches Museum
The 14th-century Barfüsserkirche (Church of the Barefoot Friars) was renovated in the 1970s to house the Historical Museum with important collections on local history and culture. It spotlights particularly the city’s unique position at the crossroads between Swiss, German, and French cultures. In the nave of the church are the Late Gothic tapestries and the curious Lällenkönig (Babbling King), a crowned head with a movable tongue and eyes that was the emblem of Gross-Basel in the 17th century. In the aisles are weapons and furnished period rooms, in the choir religious art, and in the crypt is the minster treasury, recovered after being saved from destruction during the Reformation. Interesting exhibits deal with the importance of silk ribbon manufacture in Basel from the late 18th through the 19th century.
Address: Barfüsserplatz 7, Basel
3 – Rathaus (Town Hall)
The focal point of the Old Town is Marktplatz, where you’ll still find the colorful daily market selling local produce, flowers, and food specialties. Dominating the square is the bright red Basel Rathaus, with its colorful painted facade. The arcaded main building is in Late Burgundian Gothic style dating from 1504 to 1521; the new wing to the left and the tall tower on the right are 19th-century additions. The clock dates from the building’s origins, the work of the Master Wilhelms from 1511 to 1512. Be sure to step into the beautiful courtyard to see the wall paintings, restored from 1608-11 originals. The statue, from 1574, on the outer staircase represents the legendary founder of the town, Munatius Plancus. You can also see the two council chambers, the Regierungsratssaal, with its impressive wood paneling, and the Grossratssaal, decorated by 15 coats-of-arms of the Swiss cantons.
4 – Spielzeug Welten Museum
The collection of more than 6,000 toys, including dolls, stuffed animals, dollhouses, shop models, and carousels is not just for children. The dollhouses are exceptional, not only the historical examples, but the newly commissioned works of artists who create rooms and shops in miniature. One section is devoted to the Neapolitan folk art of nativity scenes set in the context of everyday life in early Naples, with figures dressed in infinitely detailed costumes. The museum’s collection of 2,500 teddy bears is thought to be the world’s largest.
5 – Antikenmuseum and the Sammlung Ludwig
Basel’s Museum of Antiquities and the Ludwig collection features Egyptian, Greek, Italian, Etruscan, and Roman works of art, covering antiquity from about 4000 BC to the 6th century AD. The strongest areas are sculptures and Greek vases, although there are outstanding exhibits of gold jewelry, bronze sculptures, and clay figures. The museum also operates Skulpturhalle Basel, located near Basel University, which features more than 2,200 plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures including a complete set of casts of the Parthenon, part of the Acropolis in Athens, as well as scale-size architectural sculptures.
Address: St. Alban Graben 5, Basel
6 – Jean Tinguely Museum
The Jean Tinguely Museum contains the largest collection of this influential Swiss artist’s work thanks to a generous donation by his widow Niki de Saint Phalle, as well as contributions by other collectors. The collection includes Tinguely’s sculptures and drawings, as well as an extensive library of documents and photographs. The museum also hosts visiting installations that change every three months, focusing on artists who inspired Tinguely, as well as the work of contemporary artists. The building housing the collection was designed by famed architect Mario Botta.
Paul Sacher-Anlage 2, 4002 Basel
7 – Fondation Beyeler
The Fondation Beyeler was created by collectors Ernst and Hildy Beyeler, opened in 1997 to allow the public to enjoy their extensive personal collection of Classic Modernist art. Among the art on display are a staggering number of works by both Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, including drawings, paintings, and sculpture. There are also multiple sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and Max Ernst, and a variety of works by celebrated artists, including Georges Seurat, Marc Chagall, Marlene Dumas, Paul Klee, and Vincent Van Gogh. The collection also includes pieces from the Beyelers’ world travels to Africa, Oceania, and Alaska. The museum is set in a lovely park, housed in a building designed by architect Renzo Piano.
Baselstrasse 101, 4125 Basel
8 – Basler Münster
Set atop the highest point on Münsterhügel (Minster Hill), Basel’s Minster is easily spotted by its prominent spires and brightly patterned roof tiles. The spacious Münsterplatz, formerly the site of a Roman fort, is an elegant 18th-century square. Built of red sandstone from the Vosges mountains of France between the ninth and 13th centuries, the minster was rebuilt in Gothic style after an earthquake in 1356. But some of the original church remains. The high altar and much of the furnishings were destroyed by Protestants in 1529, but the greatest treasures were hidden in the sacristy vaulting and survived; you can see some in the historical museum.
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9 – Kunstmuseum Basel
The Kunstmuseum, enhanced by the added exhibition space of a 2015 wing, is considered the finest collection of paintings in Switzerland, representing both old masters and modern art. On the first floor are the old masters and a collection of French and Dutch paintings. Outstanding among these are the 15th-century Heilsspiegelaltar (Mirror of Salvation Altar) by Konrad Witz, 16th-century portraits by Holbein the Younger, Crucifixion by Mathias Grünewald, and Rembrandt’s David with Goliath’s Head from 1627. The second floor houses an outstanding collection of 19th- and 20th-century Impressionists, Expressionists, and Surrealists. You’ll find major works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Corot, Cézanne, Braque, Picasso, Kandinsky, Léger, Chagall, Klee, Dali, Max Ernst, and others, along with later works and special exhibitions.
Address: St. Alban-Graben 16, Basel
10 – Papiermühle
Set on a medieval canal with an operating waterwheel, an old paper mill has been turned into a museum of writing, printing, and paper, showing the printing and papermaking processes with actual working machinery. You can watch the laborious production of handmade paper, explore the evolution of printing from before Gutenberg’s press through the demise of lead type in the 1980s, and see how books are bound. Displays follow the development of writing from primitive pictographs through modern typography.
Address: St. Alban-Tal 37, Basel
After being ruled by Burgundy and the German and Austrian Empires, Basel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501. Basel’s university became a center for humanism in the 16th century and continued to be a magnet for distinguished scholars and teachers, which may account for its remarkable cultural heritage today.