An art-filled winter weekend in BASELJanuary
Basel is famous for its annual art fair in June, but an off season visit rewards visitors with unparalleled architecture, galleries, and museums without the crowds.
Basel makes for a perfect culture-packed weekend. The airport is close to the center of town (the 50 bus takes you directly from the airport to the city center – do NOT waste money on a taxi), and it packs far above its weight in the art department. Our new favorite museum in Europe may be the stunning Fondation Beyeler, housed in a glass Renzo Piano-designed building with views of bucolic Japanese landscaping on one side, and Swiss hillside on the other. There are galleries to explore, rotating art and theatre exhibitions, and quintessentially Swiss restaurants serving up cheese, sausages, and schnitzel in cosy atmospheres. And plenty of opportunities to get your chocolate fix. One word to note, although Basel is less expensive than many other Swiss cities, Switzerland is extremely expensive relative to other places in Western Europe (as in €7 cappuccinos). Plan for sticker shock for most meals, get a Basel card for 50% off some museum admission charges, and keep an eye out for when museums are free during the month.
- Sight Seeing 90% 90%
- Food 60% 60%
- Ease of Transportation 95% 95%
- Activities 80% 80%
The museum in Basel that came up repeatedly as the favorite was Fondation Beyeler, so we headed straight there. The number 6 tram takes you directly from the center of town to the Fondation in about twenty minutes, allowing you a scenic look at Basel as you go. Tram tickets are free with a Basel card, which any hotel should provide you with. Our Airbnb kindly prepared Basel cards for us as well at no cost, so it’s worth asking about these. The museum is a stunning, light filled glass building ensconsed in nature. It’s manageable and not overstuffed (only part of the collection is on display at a given time). Don’t miss the side of the museum with long benches looking out floor to ceiling glass windows of the landscape beyond, and furnished with art tomes dedicated to artists in the collection. When we visited, the focus was on the blockbuster Edward Hopper exhibition which was surprisingly fantastic. (Surprising, only because we didn’t consider ourselves big Hopper fans before). The detached Beyeler Restaurant im Park is also worth a visit. Housed in the charmingl Swiss cottage facing the main gallery space, it serves refined tea, coffee and desserts in an minimalist, artistic ambience. Just down the street, BEY by Fondation Beyeler serves a full menu in a space decorated with Southwestern colors and cacti, and combining a museum shop, coffee shop, art history reference library, and cafe space. It’s worth a look.
The other major museum we took in was the Kunstmuseum which exceeded our expectations. We were lucky to arrive on the free first Sunday of the month, perhaps the only uncrowded version of this popular free museum day that we’ve ever experienced in Europe. The museum comprises three buildings, two of which are attached. The Neubau is a modern grey block from the outside but stunningly light, minimalist, and suprisingly moving inside. It houses modern art, though the draw for us was the building itself. The original Hauptbau building was filled with one of the biggest and best Northern Renaissance collections we’ve seen, as well as more modern works, including a few Degas and Van Gogh crowd pleasers. It’s a world class collection
We popped into the Gagosian Gallery in Basel and had the most informative, enjoyable, and least snobby gallery visit we have ever experienced in any country. When we visited, the show included unfamiliar early works by famous artists, and the gallerist walked us through the entire show providing anecdotes and insights. We loved this Rachel Feinstein charcoal, and the Georg Baselitz portrait drawings in particular.
Basel Minster is the main landmark in Basel, and it’s worth walking around the side porches and garden, and to the back with views of the river.
Eating and drinking in Basel
If we only had one meal in Basel, we’d have it at Bodega zum Strauss. The food is pretty good, not amazing (we would classify this as Italian-inspired Swiss food. Lots of pasta, but it’s not exactly Italian). The reason we love it, is that it feels like old school art world ground zero in Basel, unchanged over the years. From the eclectic collection of art lining the walls, the sense is that artists have been coming here for decades, trading paintings for pasta. (We have no idea if this is actually true). Downstairs is livelier, with tables packed with patrons engaged in boisterous conversation cheek to jowl. Upstairs is a bit quieter, and without pre-planning, you’ll likely be up here. That’s ok, enjoy a glass of Italian wine, a couple pastas (we had some sort of fettucine in marsala sauce with chunks of steak that was delicious and different), and try to act calm when the bill arrives for more than double your average Italian dinner.
For tasty tapas, we stopped in to Tapas Del Mar for a light meal with wine. We nibbled on jamon, cheese, croquettes, pulpo, tuna carpaccio with olives, and plump shrimp in simmering in oil.
The brunch game in Basel is surprisingly strong. We had a fantastic meal at Avant-Gouz, a charming hipster cafe with people settled in to read books, work on laptops, or catch up with friends. The brunch spans healthy acai bowls, shakshukas, omlettes, various egg dishes with mix and match sides, and a big menu of pancakes and french toast. It’s the kind of place we can imagine keeping in regular rotation if we lived here.
La Manufacture is one of the more popular brunch places in town (they have several locations). It’s a brigh cafe serving more precious breakfast than Avant-Gouz. Think granola and acai bowls and instagram-ready avocado toast that might leave you a little hungry after. They have bagels which appear to be quite popular. It’s cheerful spot, and we enjoyed our yoghurt and granola, though the coffee is not as good as Avant-Gouz or Finkmüller. Which brings us to our next place…
Finkmüller serves the best coffee in Basel. Luckily, they have a few locations, and we went to two of them over the weekend. The Klybeckstrasse location has a large, airy atmosphere with living room furniture, benches, tables, and various cool kids and beautiful people at work or just taking it easy. It felt one part coffee shop, one part creative WeWork.
For a quinessentially Swiss meal, we loved Restauration Zur Harmonie. It feels like a local favorite, and when we visited for Sunday lunch the tables were steadily busy, but we were still able to walk in to enjoy a classic meal of veal sausage with potato rosti, and a glass of crisp white Swiss wine. We particularly liked the individual squeeze tube of Grey Poupon that accompanies the sausage. Here too, the walls are hung top to bottom with an eclectic mix of artworks, the lighting is warm, and the ambience is excellent.
For classic pastries and baked goods, Konditorei-Confiserie Gilgen is the local favorite. We picked up a linzer torte for breakfast, and a few chocolate covered pretzels and nuts here.
Chocolate lovers should make a stop at Xocolatl Basel for their artisanal chocolate bar needs. We spent way too much time, and way too much money stocking up on a variety of luxury chocolate bars (prices are anywhere from 6€ to 12€ per bar). They also have a popular cafe in the back serving daily cakes, and a hot chocolate we didn’t get around to trying.
Markthalle is a popular indoor food market with stalls serving food from around the world. Think food truck, but indoors. We’re pretty over food trucks and food stalls in general, but this one did have more interesting options than we’ve seen in other places. Or you can just visit the Finkmüller location here.
Restaurants we still want to try:
For a splurge Swiss dining experience (even more of a splurge than a regular Swiss dining experience) the restaurant at Der Teufelhof hotel is supposed to be great.
We walked by Spale Bar en route to our tapas dinner, and saw heaping plates of charcuterie and cheese, and wine glasses that made us want to return.
We passed the sleek Italian restaurant Casanova each evening and it always looked interesting.
For a frills-free beer hall with hearty, simple food, Stadtkeller is meant to be the place to go.
Confiserie Beschle is one of the most hyped pastry spots in town. Unfortunately we just didn’t have time (or stomach bandwidth) to make it!
La Fourchette serves light, fresh, plant focuses food with fresh ingredients that won’t leave you hungry. We wanted to try this but just didn’t have time.
Chez Donati is meant to be the OG of fancy Italian dining in Basel. (We’re sure it’s quite a scene here during the festival). Based on the internet research we’ve done and photos we’ve seen, the food looks excellent.
Where we’ve been gallivanting off to recently
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