Although it lacks the gilt and glitter of Zürich and the Latin grace of Geneva, in many ways Basel (Bâle in French) is more sophisticated than either. The hub of Switzerland's vibrant pharma industry, wedged between France and Germany, this city on the Rhine has more than 30 museums, including the world-class Kunstmuseum, the Museum Tinguely, and the Fondation Beyeler. Baselworld in spring and Art Basel in summer—the world's premier fairs for watches and contemporary art respectively—as well as Switzerland's most famous carnival, or Fasnacht, gives midsized Basel an outsized role as an international destination.
Its imagination has been fed by centuries of intellectual input: Basel is host to Switzerland's oldest university (1460) and patron to some of the country's—and the world's—finest minds. As a northern center of humanist thought and art, it nurtured the painters Konrad Witz and Hans Holbein the Younger, as well as the great Dutch scholar Erasmus. And it was Basel's visionary lord mayor Johann Rudolf Wettstein who, at the end of the Thirty Years' War, negotiated Switzerland's groundbreaking—and lasting—neutrality.
As high culture breeds good taste, Basel has some of the most varied, even quirky, shopping in Switzerland, all within walking distance. But you can still get a beer and a bratwurst here: natives primarily speak German or their own local version of Schwyzerdütsch, called Baseldytsch.
Each day more than 30,000 French and German commuters cross into Basel, working at leading banks and pharmaceutical firms. Yet Basel's population remains modest, hovering just above 190,000; its urban center lies gracefully along the Rhine, though now two skyscrapers, the 32-floor Trade Fair Tower and Switzerland's highest building, pharma giant Roche's new headquarters, dominate views across the Rhine. Two blocks from the heart of the thriving shopping district you can walk along medieval residential streets cloaked in perfect, otherworldly silence to Münsterhügel (cathedral mount), where the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral offers superb views over the wonderfully preserved Altstadt.