Basel had been on my bucket list for a while. After living in Switzerland for almost four years, it was the only Swiss main city I hadn’t visited yet. So this spring I decided to correct that and took a day trip to Basel with my boyfriend.
From Zurich, it took us about 50 minutes to get to Basel on the TGV. Located next to the borders with France and Germany, Switzerland’s third biggest city, after Zurich and Geneva, is best known for its university, art museums and pharmaceutical industry.
But there’s more to Basel than meets the eye. Whether you’re visiting on a day trip or staying for a couple of days, here are my favorite eight unique things to do in Basel for first-timers like us:
#1 Party at Elizabethan Church
Elisabethenkirche was the first building to grab my attention upon arriving to Basel. Not only because of the undeniable beauty of this neo-Gothic church, the most famous building of its style in whole Switzerland, but also due to something I’m not so used to see in churches: a café-bar with sidewalk tables bursting with people enjoying lunch or a coffee in the sun. Once inside, I noticed a couple more tables, where food and drinks were served without disrupting the peaceful and silent atmosphere.
Built between 1857 and 1864, Elisabethenkirche is the first Swiss “Open Church”. Part of the Evangelical-Reformed Church of the canton of Basel, today the church is also a cultural venue, receiving all kind of events, from banquets to fashion shows, art exhibitions, concerts or even disco parties.
In addition to the regular mass services, a diverse program of activities includes Zen-Meditation sessions, spiritual advice for people of all backgrounds, and Eucharist services led by women or the LGBT community.
If you’re visiting Basel, make sure to check out their agenda for truly unique things to do. You can also climb the 72 meter high tower, even higher than the Cathedral’s tower, and admire the amazing views over the city.
#2 Relax by the Tinguely Fountain
After climbing Elizabethan Church tower, have a rest by the Tinguely Fountain, in the nearby Theaterplatz.
I especially liked how present and past come together in this square, both through the architectural contrast created by the old church and the modern theatre building, and the Tinguely Fountain itself.
Created in 1977, by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, this fountain is one of Basel’s most famous landmarks. Inside a big pool of water, nine sculptural machines are in constant movement, pouring water and “talking” to each other, in the exact same place where the stage of the old city theatre once was.
#3 Discover the oldest university in Switzerland
You can’t possibly visit Basel without at least taking a glance at its university.
Founded in 1460, the University of Basel is the oldest university in Switzerland and attracts thousands of students from all over the world, giving Basel a young and culturally vibrant atmosphere.
The picturesque area around the university is full of small shops, restaurants and cafes. A flea market is held every Saturday next to the university, in the Petersplatz. And just a few steps away you’ll find the Spalentor, a magnificent city gate dating back to the 14th century.
#4 Have lunch by the Rhine
This was my favorite part of our day trip to Basel. From the university district, we walked down to Marktplatz and crossed over the Mittlere Brücke to the Rheingasse, on the other side of the Rhine.
We sat on the terrace of the busy East-West Riverside Hotel and slowly enjoyed our surroundings. The service was far from great in this place, but the food was ok and, most importantly, the scene was amazing.
After lunch we strolled along the Rhine, admiring the cute little houses painted in pastel colors, and the spectacle of young and old people soaking up the sun on the river bank.
I really loved this area of the city and its cool feeling.
#5 Cross the Rhine on a cable ferry
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Basel, crossing the Rhine on a cable ferry is definitely one of them.
These traditional small wooden ferries don’t have an engine, using only the power of the natural current to cross the river. There are four of them in Basel, and they even have names: Wilde Maa, Leu, Vogel Gryff and Ueli.
For 1.60 Swiss francs per person, we took the Leu from the Rheingasse to the Cathedral. The trip is actually very short, but it’s still a fun and interesting experience.
#6 Admire the views from the cathedral hill
Arriving from the river, we climbed our way up to the courtyard of Basel’s cathedral. From here, you can admire some of the greatest views over the city and the Rhine, all the way to the Black Forest and the Vosges.
Dominating the Münsterplatz and Basel cityscape, the Münster (cathedral in English) is classified as a heritage site of national significance. It was built between 1019 and 1500 in Romanesque and Gothic styles, and is the final resting place of many well-known personalities, including Erasmus von Rotterdam.
Unfortunately, it was closed already when we tried to visit, but we could still appreciate all the splendor of the Münsterplatz and surrounding buildings.
#7 Take a tour of the city hall building
In Basel all streets lead to Marktplatz. This lively and colorful square is the commercial, political, and social center of the city.
Once in the Marktplatz all eyeballs go to the Rathaus (meaning city hall in English). With its red facade, prominent tower and Art Nouveau decorations, this singular 500 year old building can’t go unnoticed. And it certainly distinguishes itself from all the other city halls I’ve ever seen or visited.
The Rathaus is the seat of the Basel government and parliament, and is definitely worthy of a visit. For a truly unique experience take a guided tour of its rich interior.
#8 Explore the world’s oldest municipal art collection
Your list of unique things to do in Basel is not complete without a visit to the Kunstmuseum.
Dating back to 1661, Basel Fine Arts Museum is the oldest municipal art collection in the world. It’s also the largest and most significant public art collection in Switzerland.
Today, the Kunstmuseum is spread across three venues: the main building, completed in 1936; the Gegenwart, inaugurated in 1980 and one of the first museums in the world dedicated to contemporary art; and the new building, that open to the public in 2016.
You can find more information about the collection and prices here.
Of course there are many other things to see and do in Basel, from museums to churches, parks, and historic sites. But if you’re looking for what sets it apart from other cities in Switzerland, and even in the world, this list of unique things to do in Basel got you covered.
*This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small comission if you make a purchase through them, at no extra cost to you. This helps me keep this site up and running and bring you useful content. Thanks so much for your support!
Have you been to Basel? What would you add to this list?
If you like it, Pin it!