Why go now?
Ever since the city fathers bought 20 Holbeins in 1661, Basel has been proud of being a great centre for art. Art Basel (artbasel.com), founded in 1970, has become one of the world's most prestigious art fairs, with offshoots in Miami and Hong Kong.
This year, it's being held at the Exhibition Center (1) from 13 to 16 June, with 300 leading galleries from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa showing work from masters, both modern and contemporary.
The nearest airport is Basel-Mulhouse, which lies within France but is connected to Switzerland by a land corridor. The main airline is easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), with flights from Edinburgh, Gatwick and Manchester. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow, and Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com/uk) from London City. Bus 50 departs every 20 minutes to the railway station (2), for a fare of €3.80.
Get your bearings
Basel is unusual in straddling the borders of three countries, though there is little to indicate when you are moving between France, Germany or Switzerland, which has the largest portion.
The city spreads over a bend in the Rhine with industrial and more modern Kleinbasel to the north and most of the old city on the west bank. It is Switzerland's only port and also hosts many conferences and international exhibitions.
The historic heart is the Marktplatz (3), dominated by the red sandstone town hall which dates from 1504. Tourist information can be found at the Stadtcasino (4) in Barfüsserplatz (00 41 61 268 68 68; basel.com) and at the railway station (2); both are open daily.
Close to the railway station and named after the Basel mathematician who gave the world Sudoku, the Hotel Euler (5) at Centralbahnplatz 14, dates from the 1870s. Its 66 rooms and restaurant were recently renovated. The restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine and there's also a terrace (00 41 61 275 80 00; hoteleuler.ch). Doubles start at Sfr210 (£143), with breakfast.
From the outside, Der Teufelhof (6) (00 41 61 261 10 10; teufelhof.com) at Leonhardsgraben 49 is a large classical townhouse, but its minimalist bedrooms are decorated with modern art while the converted convent rooms have designer furniture. Some public spaces serve as showcases for artists' work. It also has a gourmet restaurant, café and a Weinstube (wine bar). Double rooms start at Sfr174 (£118), including breakfast.
In a quiet location near the university is the Neoclassical Hotel Rochat (7) at Petersgraben 23 (00 41 61 261 81 40; www.hotelrochat.ch), which has simple doubles from Sfr174 (£118), with breakfast. Its alcohol-free restaurant serves traditional dishes such as rolled veal in herbs with roast potatoes.
All hotel guests in Basel receive a Mobility Ticket upon check-in, conferring free use of public transport for the duration of their stay.
Take a view
The tree-shaded terrace beside the Münster (8) (cathedral), known as the Pfalz, offers a magnificent view over the Rhine bend, towards Germany.
Take a hike
From the Pfalz terrace, take Rittergasse, lined with beautiful patrician houses, to St Alban Graben. On the opposite corner is the Kunstmuseum (9) (00 41 61 206 62 62; kunstmuseumbasel.ch; 10am to 6pm daily except Monday; Sfr15/£10). Its collection of Holbeins has almost been eclipsed by its modern art – in particular Cubist and American paintings – but it still includes works by Rembrandt, Goya, Gauguin, Renoir, Chagall and Van Gogh.
Continue along St Alban-Vorstadt past rows of medieval houses. At the end is the 13th-century town gate of St Alban Tor (10), surrounded by a lovely garden. Head towards the river along St Alban-Tal to the Basler Papiermühle (11) (00 41 61 225 90 90; papiermuseum.ch), a working museum for the paper and printing industries. Open 11am-5pm Tuesday to Friday and 1-5pm on Saturday, Sfr15 (£10).
At the end of Letziplatz is Mühlegraben (12), a restored section of medieval wall-walk which survived the demolition of most of the city's fortifications in the 19th century. Walk along St Alban-Rheinweg to cross the Schwarzwaldbrücke (13) and turn left along the north bank of the river, with fine views of the Münster (8) and the old town.
Continue beyond Wettsteinbrücke to the Mittlere Brücke and cross the river. In the centre of the bridge is a 15th-century chapel. Take Eisengasse to reach Marktplatz (3) and visit the courtyards of the town hall to see the huge historical murals, painted in 1504 to 1514 and 1903, about moments in the city's past.
Lunch on the run
A selection of fresh open sandwiches from Sfr3.20 (£2) can be found at the café-style Brötli-Bar (14), a Basel institution in the Hotel Stadthof at Gerbergasse 84.
Most of the narrower streets of the old town are full of boutiques, with bland chains being confined to the broader streets around Marktplatz (3).
Läckerli-Huus (15) (00 41 61 264 23 20; laeckerli-huus.ch) at Gerbergasse 57 sells a variety of Läckerli, the traditional biscuit made from gingerbread with nougat, honey and almonds.
For Swiss-made clothes, textiles and toys, try Heimatwerk (16) at Schneidergasse 2 (00 41 61 261 91 78; heimatwerk.ch).
Well-known Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron recently renovated the Volkshaus Bar (17) (00 41 61 690 93 10; volkshaus-basel.ch) at Rebgasse 12 to create a venue for cultural and musical events coupled with innovative gastronomy. Try an Aperol spritz – prosecco, Aperol, soda water and a slice of orange – for Sfr12 (£8) in the chic black and chrome interior.
Dining with the locals
Ueli beer has been slaking the thirst of Baslers for more than 30 years, and its two brewery restaurants at Rheingasse 43/45 (18) have several varieties on tap.
The Fischerstube (00 41 61 692 92 00; restaurant-fischerstube.ch) serves hearty German food in an informal pub-like setting with brewers sometimes at work in the background.
Meanwhile, Restaurant Linde (00 61 683 34 00; ueli-bier.ch) is quieter with a garden terrace and serves regional cuisine, including a beer fondue. Expect to pay about Sfr120 (£82) for a three-course meal with wine or beer for two people.
Sunday morning: go to church
Standing on the site of a Roman settlement, today's Münster (8) was consecrated in 1019. It was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1356 and rebuilt to a larger plan. The Reformation deprived the building of many of its artworks, but the pulpit is ornately carved and the Fröwler chapel has a 12th-century relief of six Apostles.
In the Schaler chapel is a floor stone marking the 1928 reburial of Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar who came to Basel to see his books being printed but liked the city so much he stayed. Sunday services are at 10am and 7.30pm.
Take a ride
Boat trips along the Rhine are popular (00 41 61 639 95 00; bpg.ch). Leaving from Schifflände (19) , boats stop at the Roman site Augusta Raurica and the attractive town of Rheinfelden; departures Tuesday-Sunday at 11.30am; Sfr35/£23.
Out to brunch
Gourmet brunch cruises also leave from Schifflände (19) at 10.15am and 1.30pm. Tickets cost Sfr20 (£14) and the brunch Sfr70 (£48).
The Vitra Design Museum (20) at Charles-Eames-Strasse 1 across the German border in Weil am Rhein (00 49 7621 702 3200; design-museum.de; 10am to 6pm daily; €9) is an outstanding site. The main museum was designed by Frank Gehry, the next door Vitra Factory by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and both are adjacent to Zaha Hadid's Vitra Fire Station. The museum's focus is on industrial furniture design, complemented by temporary exhibitions. It can be reached by tram 2 to Badischer Bahnhof followed by Bus 55 to Vitra.
A walk in the park
The largest park in Switzerland inspired by the English landscape garden is on tram route 10 in Arlesheim (direction Dornach Bahnhof); follow the footpath signs to Ermitage (21) and Castle Birseck.
The wooded valley incorporates caves and grottos, ponds, a stream and watermills. Paths form a delightful circular walk, returning via the 17th-century cathedral in Arlesheim, with the prospect of tea and cakes at Confiserie Brändli (00 41 61 703 01 03; braendli-basel.ch) on the square at Dorfplatz 9, before catching the tram back.
Icing on the cake
The Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely grew up in Basel. In 1977, he placed some of his metal sculptures in a shallow pool near the theatre (22), but the greatest collection is at the Tinguely Museum (23) (00 41 61 681 93 20; tinguely.ch; 11am to 6pm Tuesday-Sunday, Sfr15/£10).