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Why go now?
Because the second-biggest Swiss city (after Zurich) is a cultural powerhouse that accrues a festive air as Christmas approaches. Basel's origins go back 2,000 years – it grew because of its strategic position astride the Rhine – yet the city's rich history is complemented by avant-garde art and design.
By rail, you can get from London St Pancras via Paris to Basel's handsome main railway station (1) (Basel SBB) in around eight hours, with reasonable connections in the French capital; you will have to get from Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est, about 10-15 minutes' walk apart. Fares on Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) start at £99 return.
By air, the main links are on easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Liverpool, Luton and Stansted; on Swiss (0845 601 0956, swiss.com) from Birmingham, Heathrow, London City and Manchester; and on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow.
Basel airport, also known as Euroairport, lies 9km north-west of the city, within French territory; it is connected to Switzerland by a land corridor. There are exits from the airport baggage hall to both Switzerland and France; make sure you take the Swiss one.
Bus 50 runs between the airport and Basel's main station (1) every eight minutes during the day, less frequently in the evening, for a fare of Sfr3.80 (£2.00); this also covers connecting bus or tram services elsewhere in the city for two hours after you buy the ticket.
In the city, the flat fare is Sfr3 (£1.65), but many visitors do not need to pay; most journeys (including the one back to the airport) is covered by the Mobility Card, a free public transport pass given to guests in every hotel for the duration of their stay.
Get your bearings
Basel stands astride the Rhine at the point it leaves Switzerland and flows north to form the border between France and Germany. The original settlement occupied a patch of high ground on the left bank of the river and it expanded over the centuries to form Grossbasel; the St Alban quarter is a short way upstream. Across the river lies Kleinbasel, now the commercial centre.
The two halves of the city have been connected by the Mittlere Brücke ("Middle Bridge") since 1226 – at the time, the lowest bridging point on the Rhine.
A small but helpful city information office is located in the station (1); this opens 8.30am-6.30pm from Monday to Friday and from 9am-2pm at weekends. The main tourist office (2), meanwhile, has helpful staff but is unhelpfully located inside the municipal casino building on Barfüsserplatz (00 41 61 268 68 68; baseltourismus.ch). Its opening hours are 8.30am-6.30pm from Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm on Saturdays and from 10am-4pm on Sundays.
The most unusual place to stay is Der Teufelhof "Culture and Guest House" (3) at Leonhardsgraben 47-49 . The hotel (00 41 61 261 10 10; teufelhof.com) has two wings: rooms on the "art hotel" side have whimsical names and individual designs and start at Sfr330 (£180) including breakfast. Rooms in the "gallery hotel" are simpler and cheaper (Sfr265/£145).
The world's second easyHotel (4) (after London) has been established in Basel for three years; the unremarkable property at Riehenring 109 offers comfortable rooms for as little as Sfr50 (£27.30) without breakfast, if you book in advance at easyHotel.com.
The budget traveller in Basel is spoiled; the best of the excellent hostels is Basel Back Pack (5) not far from the station at Dornacherstrasse 192 (00 41 61 333 00 37; baselbackpack.ch). It occupies part of an office and factory complex, and is tricky to find after dark, but offers sumptuously comfortable rooms for Sfr49 (£27) double, with breakfast an extra Sfr8 (£4) per person.
Take a view
The natural location is breathtaking: from the Pfalz – the viewing platform behind the cloisters of Basel's grand cathedral, the Münster (6) – is a panorama of the Rhine flowing north, the pines of the Black Forest straight ahead, and the Vosges mountains to your left.
No sign of a squeeze in Switzerland; Grossbasel has more than its fair share of antique shops and goldsmiths. The main retail drag is Freie Strasse, packed with designer stores selling labels like Louis Vuitton and Dior; the closer you are to the south-east end of the street the smarter the labels. Normal shopping hours are 8am-6.30pm (9pm on Thursdays, 5pm on Saturday); most shops close on Sundays.
On Saturdays, a colourful fruit, flower and vegetable market takes place on Marktplatz (7). If the courtyard of the 16th-century Rathaus (town hall) here is open – as it is most days – you can wander in to see the frescoes and the statue of Lucius Munatius Plancus, who founded a settlement in 44BC.
Lunch on the run
This is one city where you might consider lunching at McDonald's: the branch opposite the railway station (1) is worth visiting for its well-preserved Jugendstil interior – inexplicably decked out with palm trees. If you prefer something more sophisticated, you will find a fine, atmospheric brasserie within the station itself.
Take a hike
An excellent two-hour guided tour – in English, German and French, as required – costs Sfr15 (£8.20) and leaves from the main tourist office (2) on Barfüsserplatz at 2.30pm every Saturday in winter. "Get there at least 10 minutes early," you will be instructed. Don't be late.
Over in Kleinbasel, the long tables at the Fischerstube microbrewery (8) at Rheingasse 45 (00 41 61 692 6635) promise a convivial start to the evening, and you can also find excellent food here – including a three-course Bier Menu in which the brew features in every course, from beer soup onwards (SFr42/£23).
Dining with the locals
An ideal venue is the relaxed and affordable, yet elegant Restaurant zur Harmonie (9) at Petersgraben 71 (00 41 61 261 0718; harmonie-basel.ch). Set away from most of the action, it offers a wide range of Swiss specialities – including delicious Rösti – as well as Italian dishes and wines. Expect to pay around Sfr50 (£27.30) per person for an excellent feed, with wine.
Sunday morning: go to church
The magnificent red sandstone Romanesque-Gothic Münster (6) has been under repair for years, but the interior and the cloisters are still impressive. It opens 10am-5pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm on Saturdays and noon-7pm on Sundays. Also worth visiting, though not for worship, is the Barfusserkirche (10), the church of the barefoot friars – now is the opulent home to the Basel History Museum (00 41 61 205 8600; historischesmuseumbasel.ch). It tells the story of the city and the upper Rhine in exquisite surroundings and opens 10am-5pm daily except Tuesday, admission SFr7 (£3.80).
Out to brunch
What claims to be Europe's oldest hotel is the five-star Les Trois Rois (11) at Blumenrain 8 (00 41 61 260 50 50; lestroisrois.com), recently restored and an excellent place to eat while the rest of the city gradually stirs itself. Either sip coffee and nibble pastries, or go for the full brunch experience, price Sfr74 (£40).
Take a ride
Basel has the greenest form of public transport in Europe. An ingenious system, dating back to Roman times, allows small boats to cross the Rhine powered by the river current using cables suspended between the banks and a crafty arrangement of ropes and rudders. One ferry departs from directly below the Münster (6), another from St Alban. The craft run 11am-5pm during winter weekends, and from Monday to Friday in good weather. The one-way fare is Sfr1.60 (£0.90); according to the published regulations, seagulls travel free.
A walk in the park
The St Alban ferry drops you close to a bronze model of the city, designed for the benefit of both sighted and sight-impaired visitors. Walk upstream along the leafy riverbank and into Solitude Park, where you will find the fascinating Tinguely museum (12) (00 41 61 681 93 20; tinguely.ch). Jean Tinguely was the 20th-century genius who turned scrap metal into kinetic art, which can be found elsewhere in the city; look at the Tinguely Fountain in Theaterplatz. The museum opens 11am-7pm daily except Monday, admission SFr10 (£5.45).
The most traditional sculpture in the courtyard of the Kunstmuseum (13) at St Alban-Graben 16 (00 41 61 205 6262; www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch) is Rodin's Burghers of Calais; the museum itself is packed with an impressive collection of works by Holbein, Picasso and Chagall. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission Sfr10 (£5.45).
Icing on the cake
The ideal finale to the feast of art is outside the city in the village of Riehen. Tram 6 from Barfüsserplatz (2) (direction Riehen Grenze) takes you through the suburbs for about 20 minutes to the Fondation Beyeler (00 41 61 641 63 68; beyeler.com); the tram stops right outside the museum. This astonishing private collection of Impressionist and 20th-century masterpieces is housed in a Renzo Piano building, whose glass roof and tall windows allows natural light to enhance the paintings. The setting itself is magical, in gardens that give way to open countryside.
In addition to its permanent collections, the Beyeler is hosting a special exhibition on Venice, continuing until 25 January, which is covered by the normal admission fee. "The myth of Venice was largely established by artists," is the claim.
It opens 10am-6pm daily, Wednesdays until 8pm. Admission is Sfr23 (£12.55), except on Wednesdays from 5pm, and all day on Mondays, when visitors pay a reduced fee of Sfr16 (£8.70).