36 Hours in Basel – The New York Times

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Basel is, perhaps, the only city in the world that’s best experienced at 4 a.m. on a Monday. On a particular Monday, that is: the one after Ash Wednesday, when nearly every local with a pulse turns up in the Old Town for a parade known as the Morgenstreich. Then, on the fourth chime of the bells at Basel’s oldest church, all the lights of the city are turned off, and costumed marching bands called “cliques” fire up a tune to signal the start of Basel’s Fasnacht. This uniquely exhilarating, 72-hour Lenten Carnival illustrates an essential truth about this cosmopolitan riverside city of 170,000 that hugs Alsace and the Black Forest. Basel may be best known for Art Basel, the world’s biggest art fair (June 18 to 21 this year), for its museums and pharmaceutical companies, and as the birthplace of the tennis legend Roger Federer. But it is, above all, a city of traditions, none more cherished than Fasnacht (March 1 to 4), which locals call the three best days of the year. Travelers on quick grand tours of the Continent might overlook Basel, which is a shame because it boasts an Old Town as lovely as any in Europe, a collection of 40 museums, and hospitable locals who are proud to show off their hometown. In an era in which the world’s most popular destinations are often under siege with too many tourists, underrated but equally alluring places like Basel deserve a second look.

Start your weekend adventure in Kleinbasel along the banks of the Rhine, the lifeblood of this city since a Celtic tribe first settled along this bend in the river during the Bronze Age. The Kleinbasel (Lesser Basel) side is a great place for a riverfront ride on an ebike, available at the main train station for 20 Swiss francs per day, or about $20.50 with a BaselCard (free with any hotel stay, also includes 50 percent off museum admissions and other perks). But if you want to become an honorary Basler, you’ve got to also feel the current of the river. In the summer, swimming in the cool, clean Rhine and then repairing to a riverside buvette (stall) for a drink or snack is the quintessential Basel tradition. Another tradition, which can be done year around (weather permitting), is crossing over to Grossbasel (Greater Basel) on one of the city’s four wooden ferry boats (1.60 francs), which use only the natural power of the river’s currents.

Basel’s cathedral was consecrated 1,000 years ago on Oct. 11, 1019, on the site of an earlier church and in the presence of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II (who became the patron saint of Basel) and his wife, Cunigunde. The two were a medieval power couple who took vows of virginity and inspired a cultlike following. It’s an awe-inspiring place best seen with a knowledgeable guide like Dr. Helen Liebendörfer ([email protected]), a charming, English-speaking guide who will show you fascinating sites here and elsewhere in the city you’d otherwise walk by without a second look. Inside, don’t miss the grave of Erasmus of Rotterdam, who settled in Basel and lived for a time in a home that’s now an interesting pharmacy museum.

Basel’s Old Town is a paradise for aimless wandering. Three of the city’s original seven gates are intact and many homes have their year of construction painted above their doorways. Venture down the steps to No. 31 Ginger Street, and you’ll find the irresistible Hoosesagg Museum, a tiny museum that features a different themed collection of miniatures each month, courtesy of community members who loan the museum everything from Eiffel towers to ceramic turtles. There are more hidden stories on every block — for example, English speakers might pass a fascinating alley called Elftausendjungfern Gässlein (11,000 Virgins Lane) without a second glance. The name speaks to a cherished legend about 11,000 virgins, followers of St. Ursula, who arrived in town by boat in medieval times and were eventually martyred in Cologne.

With apologies to Erasmus, Roger Federer is probably Basel’s most famous native son. He grew up in the Basel suburb of Munchenstein in a townhouse in the Wasserhaus housing estate and honed his game first at the long bulldozed Ciba-Geigy club and later at the still-thriving Tennis Club Old Boys, where Court 1 is named after him. Get on the No. 8 tram to the Bernerring stop to visit the club, where you can take a tennis lesson (call in advance) and then enjoy one of the best kept secrets in town: a 20-franc, three-course lunch at La Vongola, the club restaurant. The pastas are all great; if you don’t fancy the daily menu, try the strozzapreti (Italian for priest strangler) with fresh seafood (29.50 francs).

Basel is a museum city par excellence, with 40 to choose from, including two powerhouse art museums: the sprawling Kunstmuseum Basel (25 francs, half price with BaselCard; children free), which is free the first Sunday of each month, and the small, but worthwhile, Fondation Beyeler (25 francs, half price with BaselCard; free for 25 and under) in a light-filled Renzo Piano-designed building in a pretty area of Riehen, north of the city. The Kunstmuseum started as a private art cabinet in the 16th century and is now a world-class museum that’s known for its collection of six works by Pablo Picasso, including one of his “Seated Harlequin” works. In 1967, after the museum was about to lose two Picassos — the private collector who owned them was in debt and needed to sell — local art lovers mobilized, spearheading the passage of a referendum allowing the city to buy them for 8.4 million francs. Picasso was so moved that he gave the museum three more paintings and a drawing. The museum will commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the gift with a special Picasso exhibition that opens March 2 (free).

Just a few minutes south of Fondation Beyeler, you’ll find a lovely, relaxing place to cap your weekend: the underrated Villa Wenkenhof, a stately English-style villa built in 1735 with beautiful gardens that are free and open to the public every day but Saturday. Roger Federer and Mirka Vavrinec were married here; you can roam the grounds and take photos in the same spot they did in front of the grand former horse stable to the left of the main villa.


Vacation rentals are popular in Basel (although if you stay in a hotel, you’ll get a BaselCard, which gives you free public transportation and half price at all museums). Prices on Airbnb start at around $100 a night for a small apartment and go up, depending on size, quality, location and season.

Krafft Basel is a trendy hotel with lots of character, river-view rooms, and a great location in Kleinbasel, close to the Middle Bridge. Herman Hesse wrote part of his novel “Steppenwolf” while living here, and there’s an excellent restaurant with a patio that’s a people-watching paradise on a sunny day. Rooms from 144 francs.

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