Basel, Switzerland is a medieval city located along the picturesque Rhine River. Since Basel is close to the borders of Germany and France in the northwest of the country, multiple languages are spoken here. From the historic architecture and the romantic streets of the Old Town to the many world-class museums, this quaint city can be explored on foot in only a day or two.
If you don’t know much about Basel yet, you’re probably wondering what there is to see and do here, or why you should choose to make it your next travel destination. Read on for 15 fun and interesting things to do in Basel, Switzerland.
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Introduce yourself to the sunny city of Basel with a walking tour. Going on a walking tour on your first day in a new city is excellent for getting your bearings and taking note of any attractions you might like to spend more time visiting later on.
60-minute small-group tours are available for travellers with limited time, or you can opt for a three-to-four-hour private sightseeing adventure instead. The two-hour Stories of Basel’s Old Town tour is a fantastic option too if you want to hear about the city’s most interesting tales while also seeing the top architectural sights.
The medieval Basel Minster by the Rhine River is one of the top attractions in the city. The Romanesque building that stands today dates back to the 12th century and is the third church to be built at this location.
Its two iconic red sandstone towers, Georgsturm and Martinsturm, stand high above the city at 64 metres and 62 metres respectively. The eclectic tiles covering the roof add a unique element to the predominantly 14th and 15th-century architecture. The intricate Gothic archivolts (aka the ornamental moulding around the arches) feature images of angels, roses, prophets and kings.
Basel Minster is also the resting place of the renowned philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam, who passed suddenly in 1536. Right by the church is a viewing terrace called the Pfalz, which offers a beautiful view across the river and the Old Town.
Basel Town Hall
Another memorable red sandstone structure is the Basel Town Hall in the heart of the Old Town. As the seat of government for the canton (administrative division) of Basel, it holds the historic 500-year-old council chamber. The exterior is adorned with vibrant and eclectic Gothic and Renaissance figures with a colourful inner courtyard.
30-minute guided tours in English typically run once per week throughout various times of the year, so check in advance if learning about the city’s political history is something that interests you. Otherwise, you can join one of the more regular tours conducted in German if you just want to appreciate the interior architecture.
Thanks to the multitude of museums and galleries in the city, there are always plenty of things to do in Basel on a rainy day. The Kunstmuseum (aka the Fine Arts Museum) houses Switzerland’s largest public collection of art and is a must-visit cultural attraction in Basel.
The current building, which was designed and constructed in the 1930s, takes up almost 10,000 square metres. The ground and middle floors hold the permanent collections, while the upper floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions.
The range of works on display are expansive, from 15th-century Renaissance paintings and drawings from the Upper Rhine region to famous 19th and 20th-century impressionist masterpieces. Admire the creations of some of the most well-known painters like Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh and Rubens.
Free entrance is offered on the first Sunday of each month, as well as every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday after 5 p.m.
The non-profit Basel Zoo is the oldest and largest zoo in Switzerland. Home to many endangered species from around the world, it’s easily one of the most diverse too. Although the zoo began in 1874, the design of the enclosures and facilities are modern and continually expanding.
The zoo supports numerous global conservation projects. The breeding programs continue to be highly successful, with dozens of okapi forest giraffes, cheetahs, Somali wild donkeys and pygmy hippopotamuses born here. A biodiversity study also found that Basel Zoo has a world-record-holding 3,110 plant and animal species living freely between the enclosures.
It’s a great place to visit no matter the season, particularly if you’re travelling with kids, and a full day could easily be spent here.
Vitra Design Museum
The Vitra Design Museum is one of the world’s top museums of design. It’s a fascinating change of pace from the typical paintings and artefacts you’re guaranteed to see while travelling. The current exhibitions explore the evolution of home interiors and objects over the past century, as well as a permanent collection of vivid contemporary furniture pieces. There are typically two temporary exhibitions per year, so there’s always something new and interesting to see here.
The museum offers free guided exhibition tours in English on the weekends. Two-hour-long architecture tours of the entire Vitra Campus are also conducted in English (as well as French or German).
University of Basel Botanical Garden
The botanical garden run by the University of Basel is one of the oldest in the world, initially founded in 1539 by botanist Caspar Bauhin. Three of the unique greenhouses are open to visitors year-round, while the tropical greenhouse is currently undergoing renovations until mid-2021.
The Victoria Greenhouse was built in 1898 and holds an impressive two-metre-long Amazon water lily. You’ll find a plethora of tropical swap and aquatic plants inside too, such as mangroves and swimming ferns. As you would expect, the Succulent House contains succulent plants from around the world, including an Echinocactus over 100 years old. Lastly, there’s the Cold House that changes according to the seasons. In summer, this greenhouse supports a warm tropical climate and reverts to a cool temperature in the winter.
Outside, explore the aromatic fragrances of the Mediterranean garden, with plants like fig trees, cypresses and hemp palms. There are around 300 species of trees throughout the botanical garden, so stop by the arboretum to see sweet chestnut, pagoda, ginkgo, tulip and hanging beech trees.
Free entry is offered every day, and audio tour guides are available in multiple languages to teach you about the extensive plant collections. Located so close to the Old Town, it’s definitely worth visiting.
Gate of Spalen
One of the coolest historic landmarks in Basel is the Gate of Spalen (Spalentor), opposite the Botanical Garden. The well-preserved gate is one of three remaining from the city walls surrounding Basel. The structure dates back to the 1400s and is flanked by two cylindrical towers, almost resembling a fairytale castle. The main gate tower is topped with a triangular pyramid with a gorgeous green pattern.
Jean Tinguely was one of Switzerland’s most innovative modern artists of the 20th century, best known for his unusual kinetic art sculptures. The interactive exhibitions at Museum Tinguely mostly cover his works from the 1960s until his death in 1991. Niki de Saint Phalle, Tinguely’s wife and artistic collaborator, donated 55 sculptures to the museum.
The huge 17-metre-long, eight-metre-high Grosse Méta Maxi-Maxi Utopia sculpture was one of Tinguely’s last pieces. Made from wooden wheels, transmission belts, metal moulds and various other industrial elements, this chaotic creation can be partly climbed and is sure to fascinate any kids with you.
Works by other artists who influenced or were influenced by Tinguely are on display as well, such as Yves Klein, Arman and Schwitters.
Carnival Fountain, also known as the Tinguely Brunnen, is a charming little attraction in the Old Town. Created by Jean Tinguely in 1977, the shallow fountain contains 10 mechanical sculptures that move as though they are playing in the water. In winter, the entire fountain becomes a delightful ice sculpture. You won’t regret stopping to watch for a few minutes in between visiting the other major attractions.
Basel Paper Mill
The Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing and Printing, also known simply the Basel Paper Mill, is dedicated to the art of book printing, papermaking and typography. The museum is located inside a charming four-storey medieval mill from the 1400s, creating an authentic environment to learn all about these ancient techniques.
The workshops and hands-on exhibitions here allow you to witness demonstrations and try out crafts like calligraphy, paper marbling and bookbinding. This fascinating and surprisingly engaging attraction also has an excellent gift shop full of unique souvenirs.
Swiss Chocolate Shopping
Although there unfortunately aren’t any chocolate factories around Basel, there are still many delicious ‘confiseries’ for taste-testing (and purchasing!) some cocoa treats.
Right opposite the Town Hall is Confiserie Schiesser, one of the oldest chocolatiers in the city. Their tea room allows you to sit down and enjoy your treats with a warm beverage. To avoid carting blocks and blocks of chocolate home with you, you can order any of their products and have them shipped to you.
Confiserie Bachmann has a shop in the heart of the Old Town, another near the Middle Bridge by the river, and a third by the main railway station. This confiserie is one of the best places to try some local treats from Basel, including Basler Läckerli, a hard spice biscuit with hazelnuts and almonds, and Schoggi Weggli, sweet chocolate buns.
If you want to learn more about the production of chocolate, Basel Tourism offers two-and-a-half-hour group chocolate tours in English or German upon request.
Basel Historical Museum
The Basel Historical Museum is comprised of three buildings in the city and is one of the most culturally significant museums in Switzerland.
The Barfüsserkirche in the centre of Basel is considered the main historical museum. It houses an extensive traditional handicrafts collection from the Upper Rhine region, with a focus on objects from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. Learn about Basel’s dance of death, see intricate medieval tapestries and textiles, and view items once belonging to Erasmus. English translations can be limited, so pick up a tablet or an audio guide from the front desk to find out more about the exhibitions.
Next is the Haus zum Kirschgarten. This early Neoclassical house was built between 1775 and 1780, and now offers an insight into domestic life during 18th-century Basel. See authentic toys and clock collections as you admire the affluent interiors.
Lastly, there’s the Musikmuseum above the Barfüsserplatz square. This thousand-year-old complex was once a convent and was used as a prison before it became a museum. Across three floors are 650 instruments dating back to the 16th century, making it the largest collection of musical instruments in Switzerland. You’ll hear all sorts of fascinating tunes play as you wander through. In addition to learning about the different instruments, you will discover the history and significance of music-making in the city.
Free admission is offered to all three museums on the first Sunday of every month.
A ferry ride along the stunning River Rhine is an absolute must while in Basel. There are four different ferries you can catch along the river: the Wilde Maa, the Leu, the Vogel Gryff and the Ueli. They pass under Basel’s five bridges and offer a unique perspective of the city’s landscape. Each ferry has its own website that provides the timetable according to the season or day, as well as information on ticket pricing.
Known locally as a fähri, these ‘reaction ferries’ don’t have motors and instead follow a cable guided by the natural currents of the river. They are used by the city’s residents as well, not just tourists. For larger group bookings, you can enjoy cheese fondue on board.
Natural History Museum of Basel
The Natural History Museum of Basel explores zoology, anthropology, mineralogy, palaeontology and more. There are over seven million objects currently being preserved, documented or displayed here. The design is impressively modern, with bright and airy displays on butterflies and other invertebrates to darker atmospheric exhibits on the evolution of mammals. Don’t miss the Animaloculomat photo booth, which shows you how different animals see your face.
Both adults and children will enjoy spending time here. Like many other museums in Basel, you can get in for free if you visit on the first Sunday of the month.
Recommended tours in Basel
- Stories of Basel’s Old Town
- The natural wonders of Switzerland: private tour from Basel (1 day)
- Basel’s Heritage with a local specialty Private Tour
- Glacier Express Panoramic Train Round Trip in one Day Private Tour from Basel
- Basel: Self Guided FoodTour
- The Best of Basel’s Hidden Treasures: A Self-Guided Audio Tour
- Basel’s Beer Brewery Visit and Tasting Private Tour
- Half day wine tour to Alsace with WineWeinVinoVin
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