Trip Report - A Great Week in Basel

Old May 9th, 2023, 07:18 AM
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Trip Report - A Great Week in Basel

I spent the week of April 24-May 2 in Basel and had a great time. I like to explore a place in-depth and go to off-the-beaten places as well as the main tourist sites. Since Fodorites are always helpful with pre-trip questions, I like to provide a trip report in case it sparks someone else’s interest! I’ll cover logistics first and then summarize what I did and sights I saw.

Getting to Basel: I flew in/out of Zurich since there were more flight options and planned to take the train to Basel upon arrival which ended up being very easy. I had asked Fodorites for opinions on how long it would take from arrival at the airport, luggage retrieval and getting to the airport train station so that I could figure out which train to take. (There is one train each hour that goes from the airport to Basel, without having to change trains in Zurich’s main train station; and many others that require a platform change.). Since I had just finished a 2 week trans-atlantic cruise, I had a fairly large suitcase and although I can lift it on/off trains, I was concerned about having enough time to maneuver the suitcase and find/get to the correct platform. Well, it was super quick and easy! I took me 30 minutes from getting off the plane to getting onto the direct train to Basel. Luggage came quickly, there was plenty of directional signage about getting to the train station as well as signs about the platforms. I confirmed with another passenger and got my suitcase up the 2 or 3 steps into the train. Although there was a bicycle storage area, there was no luggage area near me but the train was practically empty so I sat in a single seat and put my suitcase in front of me. I did the same process for the return trip.

Accommodation: I rented an AirbnB apt that was one of the best I’ve ever stayed in. It was located steps from the Klingental Museum, just off Greifengasse. The location was ideal – less than two minutes walk from the Rheingasse tram and bus stop; equally close to a huge (3 floors) Migros supermarket, a Coop supermarket and various restaurants and shops. The apt was in a quiet area with easy access to the river path. The apt was spacious, well equipped, comfortable furnishings and felt like a real home. The cost was about $140 per night. The owner provided a complimentary Basel card (see below) which saved me a lot of money (anyone who stays in a hotel gets a Basel card; I don’t know if it’s automatic for all people renting apts to get the cards or if the owners have to take extra steps to get the card for their guests).

Transportation in Basel: the Basel card provides free transportation on all trams and buses, and since the network operates throughout the city, it was fast and easy to get anywhere (including some museums outside of Basel). My tip: go to the Tourist Info office on Barfusserplatz and ask for a large print version of the tram/bus map. You’ll have to fold it but it’s much easier to read than the normal size. I was there on May 1 which is a national holiday and due to planned demonstrations, the trams/buses to the train station weren’t running; I saw a taxi and flagged it down. I don’t that’s how taxis are normally gotten (people call/order them online) but I was lucky. The fare was reasonable – 16CHF from Rheingasse to Basel SBB station. Of course, walking is a great way to get around and since the city isn’t huge, it’s easy and often quicker than finding your way to the nearest bus/train stop.

Food: I’m not a foodie so I don’t have any helpful info to report! I usually eat in museum cafes because I like to rest for a bit and if I’m there anyway….why not? However, I found that their hours didn’t coincide with when I wanted to go or they were closed for a special reason or something, so I often ended up going to a bakery and getting a hot meat pastry at 2:30/3:00. I bought great bread, butter, cheese and cooked meats and had sandwiches for dinner in my apt; bought some take away items from Migros several times too – the large one near my apt had so many appealing items. I did buy about 12 lbs of Swiss chocolate bars from Migros & Coop; there are so many brands and flavors and that’s my vice.

Shopping: Other than the chocolate bars noted above, the only thing I bought was a Swatch watch and replacement band at their store on the main shopping street Freie Strasse. Very helpful staff and quite pleased with my new watch which isn’t available in the US yet.

Activities: My primary reason for visiting Basel was museums, but I did other activities too. The Basel tourism site was very helpful for researching things to do, including walks, tours, etc. I went to the Tourist Office on Barfusserplatz the first day to get a city map, tram/bus map (large print), brochures for various museums, etc. I asked them about tours in English and the only one offered was a walking of Basel Old Town at 2:30 which I signed up for with them. They suggested taking a Rhine river tour and gave me all the options; also a map for the Rehberger Walk. In addition to free public transportation, the Basel Card provides half price entry to most museums and discounts on tours, walks, etc so they gave me a list of the museums. The staff were very knowledgeable and willing to answer lots of questions.
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Old May 9th, 2023, 11:10 AM
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I hadn’t realized Basel had so many museums and I really enjoyed all of them but two. Over the week, I went to 7 museums; 10 other activities/sites; multiple churches; and lots of wandering.

Basel Historical Museum – Barfuesserkirche: my favorite museum – it was so good, I went twice! (half price w Basel card). Although the museum’s signage was all in German, they have free tablets that provide translations for each object. On the lower level, they had a special exhibit showing everyday items that are no longer used due to technology & lifestyle changes. There were a lot of items, many that I’ve read about, but never actually seen so this was interesting. They had joke glasses from the 18th and 19th century – never heard of these, but apparently it was quite a chuckle for the host to put these glasses on his dinner table (in high society) and it was entertainment for the whole table to watch the unlucky folks trying to drink from the glasses. One of the last exhibits was an old style, manual typewriter next to an IBM Selectric with the rotating ball head; I remember using those IBMs in one of my first jobs. A huge part of the museum’s regular exhibit is a very fine collection of medieval tapestries; it’s so interesting to look at all the details in a tapestry – the flowers, plants, animals, etc. in addition to the main characters, so to speak. The museum also had items from Swiss cabinets of curiosities - I’ve read about these but haven’t seen such a huge collection of items. Whale teeth, necklaces with animal teeth pendants, intricately carved ivory boxes, carved unicorn miniatures, globes, coins and more. All of that was the basement and that filled up my mind and tired my feet out. The main floor had 50 objects in history of Basel - a bread cart to deliver hot loaves through the streets, a leather fire-fighting water bucket (another one of those things I’ve read about, but never seen) and Carneval items. Then, a bunch of altars and church decorative figures and the Dance of Death. Too much to absorb so I zipped through most of the main floor – very happy I started downstairs with the special exhibit, tapestries and curiosities. I’d recommend this museum 100%.

Museum Tinguely: (half price w Basel card). Not one of the better museums that I visited – at least not to my taste. He makes and is probably best known for kinetic sculptures made of hodgepodge items that move and many of his sculptures are fountains - two in Basel and one in Paris at the Center Pompidou. It turns out that in the museum all of the sculptures are set up to have 15 minutes downtime between each time they are operated/move, so that the parts don’t burn out - therefore, each time someone pushes the button to turn the machine on it starts a 15 minute segment so you can imagine that people were pushing buttons galore and machines didn’t go on that often. When they did go on, I really wasn’t very impressed. The museum had a few videos of him and he’s one of those artists that I just don’t get.

Museum der Kulturen Basel: (half price w Basel card) Located in Minsterplatz - at the opposite end of the square from the Minster, on the left. Their collection was presented in a way that provided an interesting take on topics; detailed foreign language handouts explanations available for each room. I started on the top floor with the Buddhas and worked my way down. Exhibits included What is memory (photos, sticks, souvenirs), Night (scary time) and another floor (tribal masks, Papua New Guinea, African cloth). They have a separate cafe in Minsterplatz that looked very nice.

Vitra Design museum. (half price w Basel card) Took bus 55 from Claraplatz right to the entrance. Bought a ticket for the noon, guided architectural tour and a ticket for the gardens of the future exhibition and what I thought was a ticket to the museum. All in all, with the half-price Basel card, it was Fr.24. Turned out to be worth it due to the walking tour.

The Piet Oudolf garden, which I was looking forward to, was a bust since most of the flowers had already bloomed, and it really wasn’t that big. He was involved with the Highline in NYC and a number of wild gardens that are actually highly curated even though they look natural and wild, but this didn’t look wild or anything. Walked past a huge tower and slide – not tempted to climb up to the top and slide down. But saw a few folks looking up in the sky and it turns out there were two storks flying up high and a man was explaining to an older woman that storks bring babies. Huge wingspan, and long, yellow feet/legs and beaks. That was interesting.

The tour started exactly on time and there were only nine of us. The guide was very knowledgeable, French, named Agnes, who spoke impeccable English. Many of the buildings on this factory campus have been designed by major world renowned architects including frank Gehry, SANAA, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando among others. We were allowed into many of the buildings that were closed to the general public and the guide provided lots of information about the structure, cladding, history, etc. It was very interesting. I really enjoyed this. The Gardens of the Future exhibit was pretty much a bust – small, not substantive, and didn’t deliver on its stated mission. So the Garden and Gardens exhibit were not worth a visit, but the guided tour was definitely worth the cost. I had lunch in their café – an open faced ham sandwich, which was extremely salty and smoky ham on a dark dense brown bread (good) with a very tasty salad that I put on top.
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Old May 9th, 2023, 03:39 PM
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Nice to read a report on Basel, glad you enjoyed it.
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Old May 9th, 2023, 10:18 PM
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Kuntsmuseum Basel: has a large collection of 20th-century art that I was interested in (half price w Basel card). Spent about 2 1/2 hours there. Went to a special exhibit of 40 paintings from the Kiev Museum; the museum worlds have banded together to save artworks from Kiev and put them on exhibit in their museums in order to show the world that Ukraine exists and is a separate entity from Russia. There was also a special exhibit by an artist named Bernard Buffet and boy were they a bunch of gloomy, simplistic, depressing paintings; very one dimensional (purposely) with dead animals hanging upside down, pale gaunt people. I was wondering who on earth this guy was and why did he rate an exhibition – well it turns out that he was very good at self promotion in Paris in the 20s and 30s. He was a schmoozer and got himself a contract with a famous art dealer and briefly became the toast to Paris. He loved the high life and although he portrayed himself as a simple artist, it turns out he had luxury vacation homes, a yacht, loved dining out and living the good life. He positioned himself as part of the existentialist movement but they disowned him quite quickly. They said he was a fraud, and his artwork was not based on any existential concepts, he used the same theme and just copied paintings over and over; the critics also hated him. I gather that now he’s getting a little bit of a rethink but still more as a curiosity of self-promotion who is then tossed to the curb. But interesting yet again. As you would think, the museum had a lot of Swiss painters as well as Germans and other European painters it was interesting to see works by artists who I’ve never heard of before but most of it didn’t appeal.

Foundation Beyeler; Took tram 6 from apt to the museum’s entrance; nice ride (about 20 mins) since it’s a bit out of town so tram goes through residential areas. Museum was created by a very wealthy couple who had collected art for a number of years, and in addition to showing items from their permanent collection, the museum holds world-class exhibits. The current exhibit features art by Wayne Thiebaud - he’s big in the US (the guy who does oil paintings of slices of cake and slices of pie among other things). (half price w Basel card). Since all the crowds were going into the Thiebaud exhibit, I went to the opposite end of the museum to the permanent collection, and a few other smaller exhibits. What an eye-opener! The galleries are very spacious so there’s a lot of room between artworks, and you never feel crowded with other people. The first room I walked into had three Giacometti sculptures, and four Monets. I could look at all them forever. I was lucky because a curator was leading a tour for art students in English so I unashamedly attached myself to the group and followed them until she was done. In addition to works by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon (none of which I liked but was interested to see in real life), there was a small display of 10 paintings from Picasso’s last decade of life. Focus was on works he did with female models and himself showing him painting. Most interesting – at that point, you might think he would’ve lost it, or been phoning it in but no, very vibrant, very opinionated, and some were quite appealing. There was another exhibit by a woman named Doris Salcido that was very thought-provoking, and really intriguing as to the engineering behind it.

Re: Wayne Thiebaud. The museum had gathered artworks from other museums, private collectors, the artist, family, and his gallery in NYC so it was an extremely comprehensive show. They provided a brochure highlighting two or three paintings in each room & explaining their significance. It turns out that he’s a lot more than just paintings of pie slices and cakes. Very interesting guy. Quite prolific – he lived to 100 years old and was painting at least until 90. Again, the galleries were a pleasure to walk through, since there was so much room to move around and study the paintings. Overall, this was a museum that I had high hopes for and it lived up to my expectations.

I decided to have lunch in their restaurant; it was OK, not great, but it was nice to sit down and eat in a civilized setting (versus Takeaway) surrounded by Swiss and German folks.

Historisches Museum Basel: (half price w Basel card). Another great museum chock-full of things and they also offered a tablet which provided copious detailed information in English. It was the home of a wealthy businessman and his wife in the 18th and 19th century. They have a huge collection of antique clocks and pocket watches and a special exhibit which was faience china. In addition to china in various floral patterns, the main feature of the exhibit was tureens made to look like real objects - like a wild boar complete with his teeth and a red tongue; a huge head of cabbage; small apples that were mini terrines; ducks; melons; and more. Rich folks bought these because they were very expensive so it showed their wealth and made quite a statement on the dinner table.

The upper two floors were the residence rooms – the first floor was the fancy-schmancy rooms where visitors were entertained. The second floor was the family living quarters including kitchen. All decorated with appropriate furniture and wall coverings, curtains; each room had a tile stove – generally very tall which are called towers stoves. The kitchen was interesting because they had a wall of copper cookware including molds for fish terrines, lobster terrines, cakes and more, not to mention pots & pans - shades of Downton Abbey. The ground floor was designed for visitors to drive their carriage right through very tall doors into the house and then proceed up a very, very grand stone staircase to the upper floor which was where they would be received, entertained and dined.

There's a lot to see here and it's one of the 3 Basel Historical Museums - they all seem to have huge collections and be very well organized. Love the iPad tablets with English descriptions.

Walking tour “Basel Old Town”: As we were waiting at the meeting point (Tinguely Fountain), it started to rain and rain, but the walk went on and the rain stopped. This was the English tour and there were 12 of us, 11 from Germany and me. The guide explained everything in German and then gave me the English version; very skilled of her I thought. The 2-hour tour covered the main spots with interesting background provided by the guide. She also took us to Spalenberg to walk through this historic area of artisan shops. Definitely worth doing.

River path: Really enjoyed walking along the river (north on the east side – just behind my apt) There’s a very wide bike path, then a narrow planted area and then a wide paved path for pedestrians right next to the river. Lots of amazing houses facing the river in this stretch between my apartment and the Novartis campus. Generally 4 floors tall; some very narrow and some wide; lots of wrought iron balcony railings; many with little cupolas or turrets which are brightly painted and often the roof tiles are a pattern of bright colors. They all have front gardens – saw a lot of wisteria and lilacs. There were people were walking along but since it was mid morning it was more older folks (and those walking kids) plus city employees emptying trash and cleaning up; interestingly, there were a lot of free public toilets along the way – the auto cleaning kind. I pressed the open button on one to see what it was like and it looked clean and spartan but certainly functional. I also walked the path heading South on the east side; different but equally interesting. Many cafes along the way (north and south) and lots of places to sit and people watch.

Offene Kirche Elisabethen: stumbled across a listing in the “what’s on” section of the official tourist website for a free concert in this church at 12:15 on Wednesday, so decided to go. They have a small café with inside & outside seating. Menu is desserts and two soups plus various beverages. I got a slice of apple tart with streusel and when I asked for Coke Zero the guy said yes but it turned out the Coke Zero is an all natural, all Swiss version of Coke Zero which cost more than the slice of apple tart… Oh well. The atmosphere was great and the tart was OK. BUT the concert was amazing and was a highlight of my week in Basel.

I didn’t know what kind of concert it was when I decided to go and assumed it was a musician or two but it turns out to be two women professional singers who specialize in medieval French songs. And you might think that sounds deadly dull but it was amazing. As soon as they started to sing, I was flabbergasted; their sound was ethereal; somehow their two voices blended and managed to sound like an entire choir singing. With the candles lit, the stained glass windows behind them and up lights highlighting the carved wooden choir stalls, I felt like I was in the 15th. Their voices soared up and up and up and through the entire church. They sang for half an hour – what a great experience for something that I had just stumbled across.

Rehberger Way: Another item I stumbled across – an 5KM walking art trail that links Switzerland and Germany and two cultural institutions, the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen and the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein. The walk is paved and goes through countryside, vineyards, & garden allotments. Along the way, there are 24 decorative sculptures; I don’t think they added anything to the walk, but they did serve as guideposts that we were on the right path. It wasn’t the most clearly marked or sign posted, so I was pretty focused on not getting lost; luckily, there were three Swiss folks a little bit ahead of me, and they seem to be navigating well, so I followed them. A couple sections were up hills, since the walk went between vineyards. I was huffing & puffing at times but I put all that to the side and enjoyed the spectacular weather, the birds chirping, wildflowers in the field, tractors in the vineyards, and just the fact that here I was in Switzerland doing a 5 km walk. It took me an hour and 20 minutes & I finished across from the Vitra Campus entrance; bus #55 goes from Vitra entrance to Claraplatz in Basel which was quite convenient.

Rathaus (town hall) in Marketplatz: had stopped here on the walking tour but I wanted to spend a bit more time. Very elaborately painted and fresco’d. Lots of details to see. Picked up an informative leaflet near the interior staircase (in English).

Minster (cathedral) in Munsterplatz: had stopped here briefly on the walking tour but I knew I wanted to go back. Interesting to see churches in the Germanic/Swiss style - white stucco interior, red sandstone highlights around arches, windows, etc; vaulted ceiling; and not much statuary. Wooden chairs are all carved with different patterns on the backs - fun to try to spot duplicates! Wandered around looking at the effigies, tombs and architecture, plus stained glass. Glad the walking tour guide had showed us the door which leads to the very nice cloister with a wild garden in the middle and views over the Rhine river.

Bürgerliches Waisenhaus Basel: this is a Carthusian monastery that still operates as a monastery. I had read about this online somewhere – visitors are welcome & ask in the office to get a key which will allow you to see the church and some of the other rooms and frescoes in the cloister (just off Wettsteinstrasse, on Theodorskirchpl.) The church was simple but had wooden shields or coats of arms on the walls and looked like it is well used by the locals. The cloister is now enclosed but one wall is full of frescoes which seem to depict the Bishop having a dream and then building the monastery. There had been water damage at some point because practically every panel had a 3 foot by 2 foot patched area; the patch was not flat to the surface and the painting did not blend very well – each area was raised and really stood out. The frescoes appear to of been painted in the mid 19th century so it’s not like they were medieval anyway… The church has a café which was closed. I wouldn’t make a special trip to see this, but it was near my apt.

City & Port Rhine boat cruise: Sunday morning, nice weather so did the boat trip. Half price with the Basel card and the ticket is good for two trips so I could do one cruise in the port direction and one in the city direction. First one left at 10 AM and there weren’t many people around the ticket booth (closed) on the street but a fair amount boarding the ship. They were offering a brunch in the enclosed lower level which looked nice but I had no interest in that so I went up to the top deck. Used the provided sheepskins and blankets because there was a little bit of a breeze. The first portion went north on the Rhine, passed the Novartis campus and up further to the port section. I didn’t know there was an actual port in Basel, complete with cranes and shipping containers. Very interesting area; lots of graffiti and street art. Going the other direction, we passed residential areas on both sides of the river, and most of them have a net which is strung up on a pulley system & must be used in the summer to lower people into the river so they are submerged within the bounds of the net and then the net pulls them up out of the river. Dozens of these, set up in little wooden sheds. Really enjoyed the river cruise so I’m glad I did it.

University of Basel Botanical Garden: At first, I thought the gardens were small, but all items were labeled and there were more sections than I realized initially; an alpine section, a cactus house, a Victorian lily pond house, and regular gardens. I was very surprised at how many people were sitting on benches in the gardens, and how many others came to walk-through and admire the plantings – very heavily used on a grey, cool day.

So, that's how I spent my week in Basel. I could have jammed more into each day, but my travel style is to leave room for ad hoc exploring and I've learned that doing 2 sights or activities per day is the right amount for me. Basel was an easy city to get around and I enjoyed the blend of eras. The weather was good overall although it rained for a bit most days, so the rain jacket was essential. I would definitely recommend Basel as a destination!
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Old May 9th, 2023, 10:39 PM
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Fantastic detail, thanks.
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Old May 10th, 2023, 04:32 AM
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Adelaidean - thanks for reading! For me, trip reports with details and personal perspective are more useful than "just the facts" ones. It seems that people often visit Basel for a few days but there's so much to see and experience - I hope this inspires someone to go or lets them know about sights beyond the basic ones.
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Old May 10th, 2023, 07:15 PM
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Thanks so much for this very detailed report on your week in Basel, vickiebypass. Over numerous visits during the four years my daughter and family lived there, I discovered many of the places you describe but you found many more that will go on the someday list. We’ll have a two night stopover in Switzerland on the way home from our trip this summer and I suspect we’ll head to the Beyeler then spend time enjoying becoming reacquainted with the charming older parts of the city.
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