PRODUCED IN ASSOCIATION WITH SWITZERLAND TOURISM

A brush with Basel

There's never been a better time to visit this city of culture, say Cathy Packe and Simon Calder


WHERE?

WHERE?

Basel stands astride the Rhine at the point it leaves Switzerland and flows north, forming the border between France and Germany, an area that's come to be called the Three Countries Corner. The original settlement occupied the left bank of the Rhine and it expanded over the centuries to form Grossbasel, while the St Alban quarter developed 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.

The city has recently become much more accessible, thanks to additional flights from the UK to the EuroAirport, which is located seven kilometres north-west of the city and is actually in France - it is connected to Switzerland by a land corridor. Make sure you take the right exit from the baggage reclaim so that you end up on the Swiss side.

Bus 50 runs between the airport and Basel's main railway station every 15 minutes, for a fare of Sfr3.80 (£1.70); this also covers connecting bus or tram services to elsewhere in the city. You should not have to pay on the way back: the journey is covered by the Mobility Ticket, a free public transport pass given to guests in every Basel hotel for the duration of their stay. If you book your hotel reservation through Basel Tourism, the transportation from the airport to the city is also included.

A small but helpful city information office is located in the railway station; open 8.30am-6.30pm, Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm at weekends. The main tourist office in the Stadtcasino building on Barfüsserplatz (00 41 61 268 68 68; www.baseltourismus.ch) is more difficult to find, but opens 8.30am-6.30pm, Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm on Saturdays and 10am-4pm on Sundays.

Until next year, when the refurbishment of Europe's oldest hotel, the five-star Drei Könige, is completed, the best river views are from the four-star Merian Hotel at Rheingasse 2 (00 41 61 685 11 11; www.hotel-merian.ch), on the Rhine's east bank. Double rooms with a view start at Sfr 305 (£130) including breakfast. There are also simpler and cheaper rooms, with doubles from Sfr255 (£113).

For a cheaper option, the location of the Stadthof, at Gerbergasse 84 ( www.stadthof.ch; 00 41 61 261 87 11), cannot be faulted, with a double at Sfr125 (£55), not including an en-suite or breakfast.

Basel's main retail drag is Freie Strasse, packed with designer stores. For something slightly more offbeat, try the shops along Schneidergasse and Spalenberg. If you prefer a more relaxed form of shopping, there is a colourful fruit, veg and flower market on Marktplatz (Monday to Saturday), and the fleamarket at Petersplatz (Saturdays).

WHY?

Visitors will discover a cultural powerhouse whose origins go back 2,000 years. The natural location is breathtaking: from the Pfalz - the viewing platform behind Basel's grand cathedral, the Münster - is a panorama of the Rhine, the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains. But set against this scenic beauty are some striking modern buildings, such as the Jean Tinguely museum by Swiss architect Mario Botta. The city also has the greenest form of public transport in Europe, dating back to Roman times. Small wooden boats glide silently across the Rhine, powered by the current and ropes and rudders attached to cables suspended across the river. The most useful routes are those that depart below the Münster (from 9am-7pm in summer) and from St Alban (7am-7pm). The one-way fare for the five-minute trip is Sfr1.20 (55p); according to the published regulations, seagulls travel free.

WHAT?

As a way of getting your bearings, take one of the excellent two-hour guided tours, which cost Sfr15 (£6.66) and leave from the tourist office on Barfusserplatz at 2.30pm daily except Sundays from May to mid-October, and Saturdays in winter.

Basel's many museums can easily be reached on foot, mostly by strolling through the romantic lanes of the Old Town. One of the best among them is the Fondation Beyeler (00 41 61 645 97 00; www.beyeler.com). To get there, take tram number six from Barf£9.30).

Much closer to the centre are two other worthwhile museums. The most traditional sculpture in the courtyard of the Kunstmuseum at St Alban-Graben 16 (00 41 61 206 62 62; 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, and admission costs Sfr10 (£4.45).

On the north bank of the Rhine, but easily accessible if you take the St Alban ferry and a short walk, is the Tinguely museum (Paul Sacher-Anlage 1; 00 41 61 681 93 20; www.tinguely.ch). It opens 11am-7pm daily except Monday, admission Sfr7 (£3.10). Jean Tinguely was the 20th-century genius who turned scrap metal into extraordinary kinetic art, which can be found elsewhere in the city; look at the Tinguely Fountain in Theaterplatz.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

Gifthüttli, Schneidergasse 11 (00 41 61 261 16 56; www.gifthuettli.ch), is cosy and popular with the locals despite its folksy atmosphere. Enjoy a selection of hearty veal and pork dishes served with combos of melted cheese, rösti or noodles.

Café Spitz, Rheingasse 2 (00 41 61 685 11 00; www.merian-hotel.ch) is known as the best fish restaurant in the region. It offers lighter fare, with plenty of locally caught fish.

Fischerstube Microbrewery, Rheingasse 45 (00 41 61 692 66 35; www.uelibier.ch) has long tables which promise a convivial start to the evening, and you can also find excellent food including a three-course Bier Menu for Sfr42 (£18.65) in which the brew features in every course, from beer soup to a beer-soaked dessert.

Cantina Don Camillo, Burgweg 7 (00 41 61 693 05 07; www.cantina-doncamillo.ch). This tall red-brick building was once a well-known city brewery and access to the dining area is in an old goods lift. The restaurant now serves a mixture of European and Asiatic cuisine.

Rollerhof, Munsterplatz 20 (00 41 61 263 04 84). A former silk merchant's mansion, now part of the Culture Museum. Book for an elaborate dinner amid fine Baroque surroundings, or have a more casual meal in the ground-floor café. Closed on Sundays.

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