When people find out I ‘m a Travel Writer they immediately ask: “Where should we go for a fabulous vacation?” I usually respond with some feeble comment like,”Hmmm… So many places, depends what you’re looking for,” and make a beeline for the bar.
C’mon now. That’s a loaded question. There are lots of variables to consider. For example, is the trip for a solo traveler, a couple or a group? Is it to celebrate a special occasion? Do you want to relax on a beach or shake things up in a new city? Do you want to stay “in-house” (the good old USA) or explore another country? How do you rank shopping, spas, museums, art, weather etc. on your check list?
Still, after four wonderful summer days in Basel, Switzerland I think I can step up to the challenge. Basel is the answer to a whole slew of personalities need for a great get-away. It is Switzerland’s third largest city, with a population hovering around 200,000 and has all the trappings of a much larger city without any of the annoying nuisances.
Divided by the Rhine River into two parts, Grossbasel, the Old Imperial City, sits in Grand Dame style on the Left Bank giving a sly wink to its sassy counterpart, Kleinbasel, on the Right. This sibling split makes for an interesting metropolis offering an abundance of culture, (over 40 museums at last count,) in a fairly small footprint.
A haven for foodies, there are a myriad of dining choices, ranging from traditional to trendy. Venerable old pubs rub shoulders alongside Michelin starred dining rooms. Shoppers can choose between chic specialty stores featuring designs by the Who’s Who in international labels or opt to explore Basel’s trendy boutiques highlighting the work of local designers.
A spirit of reserved, open-mindedness prevails in Basel, imbuing visitors with a lightness of being that results in a willingness to explore the many layers of this special European city. I found myself seamlessly combining outdoor activities with indoor sights spurred on by the convenience that most points of interest were only a pleasant walk or short tram ride away.
Where to Stay:
You will feel like royalty during your stay at the elegant Les Trois Rois (The Three Kings). Offering up great bragging rights, we name dropped with abandon, casually working into any conversation, “We’re staying at the Trois.” A crown jewel in the bevy of top Swiss hotels, this patrician beauty was purchased a few years back by local Swiss entrepreneur Thomas Straumann. It was Basel’s good fortune that Mr. Straumann stepped up to restore the decaying digs that in the past proudly hosted such notables as: Emperor Joseph II, Napoleon Bonaparte, Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe, Hans Christian Anderson, Theodore Herzl, and the Rolling Stones!
Spending over two years time and a gazillion Swiss francs, Straumann’s group meticulously restored this historic building, increasing the room count by incorporating the art deco bank next door, while cleverly updating the “new” structure with the latest in technological improvements.
“We offer guests the pleasure of indulging in the exclusive ambience of a grand hotel from bygone days while enjoying the ultimate in modern luxury.” Yes sir, and that even goes for the toilet with its electronic remote control to wash, dry, and fluff one’s personals!
The public spaces at the Trois made my heart sing. Eye candy, for me, included gorgeous furnishings like the Viennese chairs covered in luxe fabrics, Murano chandeliers, various art deco inspired nooks and a wonderfully eclectic collection of old and new artwork. Adjacent to the lobby sitting area is the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant, Cheval Blanc. Serving haute French cuisine in an imperial, but intimate setting, this is the go-to destination for an important dinner out. The hotel’s other dining choice, The Brasserie, was sophisticated though more low key, and we appreciated the casual chic dress code. The sumptuous champagne breakfast buffet, a welcome start to the day, kept us going until cocktail time.
Short List of Recommendations:
• The Tinguely Museum in the heart of Old Town highlights 70 works of sculpture by the artist Jean Tinguely.
• Tip: Visit the fountain outside the museum for a mesmerizing treat. The artist’s whimsy is displayed in his mechanical pieces- just grooving in the water.
• The Basel History Museum is housed in an at Old Convent Church lending a marvelously atmospheric bend to its art, history and culture collections that rank most importantly in the Upper Rhine region.
• Tip: Ask about their policy of “free entrance for the last hour.”
• Town Hall: The colorful Town Hall, with its red walls, many frescoes and decorative shields from old guilds overlooks the town’s Market Square. The oldest parts of the structure date back 500 years.
• Tip: Best viewing is on the second floor, before noon.
• Walking Tour: Amble up and down the easy walking streets of Old Basel. Soak up the cities glorious architecture or go for a stroll along the paved path along the Rhine.
• Tip: Spend a few hours on a guided walk with George Luder.
This amicable guide knowledgeably shows off Basel’s history with great enthusiasm and affection for his home town. Reserve George through basiltourismus.ch.
• Indulge in an incredible international selection of the fine chocolates at the tiny Choco-loco on Spalenberg.
• For the best selection of Leckerli, traditional Basel honey spice sweet biscuits, stop in at Leckerli-Huus on Gerbergasse St. Choose from many varieties, all beautifully packaged for gift-giving.
• Fantastically original boutiques, selling everything from millinery to jewelry, with a variety of offerings by local clothing designers can be found exploring Nadelberg street.
• The Cheval Blanc at the “Trois”, but of course!
• A complete happening scene can be found at Acqua, an old water plant that morphed into a one-stop event venue. The osteria offers three prix-fixe menus, providing meat, fish, or vegetarian options. Afterwards, join Acqua’s lively club scene, with numerous indoor and outdoor bars, pulsing house music, and a hip crowd that makes for great people-watching.
• Those in the know congregate after work either in the restaurant, bar or large outdoor terrace for cocktails at Restaurant Kunsthalle, conveniently located near many of the museums.
Three for the Road:
• Vitra Design Museum and Architecture Park – See Famous Frank Ghery’s first European offering. This early-edition Ghery joins other distinctive designers at this architectural wonderland.
• Tip: The gift shop has the best collection of artsy postcards, perfect for mailing home or framing.
Schaulager– Stop in at the Schaulager; originally built as an art storage facility by designer dream team, Herzog & de Muron, who also designed my favorite, the De Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
• Tip: Photographing is not allowed (but I just had to sneak a quick one-see “The Giant Rats.”)
• Foundation Beyeler – This Renzo Piano designed museum offers a wonderfully serene, tranquil setting for viewing exceptional masterpieces.
• Tip: Allow extra time to stroll the delightful grounds, filled with reflecting pools and water lilies.
• Transportation Tip: Ask your hotel concierge about Basel’s MOBILITY TICKET, which provides free tram and bus rides for visitors. Smart and hospitable: A typical Basel trademark!