IN ASSOCIATION WITH SWITZERLAND TOURISM

Basel: Haute cuisine, high culture and high-rise bars

Straddling the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany, Basel has long been a cosmopolitan city; it even had the world's first international railway station. For centuries Basel has been a centre of art and learning, with a university dating back to 1460 and one of the oldest public art galleries in the world. Basel cathedral is the resting place of the great humanist Erasmus, who spent nine years of his life in the city. Its position on the Rhine, its vibrant cultural and night life, and excellent restaurants and hotels make it a perfect city for a long weekend.

Accommodation

"Was this a palace?" is a question one might understandably ask of Les Trois Rois (00 41 61 260 50 50; www.lestroisrois.com), which recently reopened after a no-expense-spared refurbishment. Though the building dates from 1844, the hotel is one of Europe's oldest, having been set up in 1026. It stands on the west bank of the Rhine. The restoration has preserved the opulent interiors while sensitively providing the amenities expected of a five-star hotel. Rooms from SFr350 (£156).

From the outside, Hotel Der Teufelhof (00 41 61 261 10 10; www.teufelhof.com) at Leonhardsgraben 47-49 looks like large classical town house, but inside, its minimalist bedrooms are decorated by contemporary artists, while the former convent rooms have designer furniture. Doubles from SFr255 (£113). The Teufelhof has an excellent restaurant, as does the Krafft Hotel (00 41 61 690 91 30; www.hotelkrafft.ch) in a lovely riverside position at Rheingasse 12 opposite the cathedral. The sweeping 19th-century staircase leads to three floors of imaginatively designed modern rooms. Doubles from SFr230 (£102).

Culture

Basel's 40 museums give credence to its claim to be the art capital of Switzerland. A notable collection can be found at the Fondation Beyeler at Baselstrasse 101 (00 41 61 645 97 00; www.beyeler.com) with its works by Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh and Warhol; and the Museum of Contemporary Art at St. Alban-Graben 16 (00 41 61 206 62 62; www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch), to which Picasso gave several canvases because he was so touched by the city voting by referendum to buy two of his paintings.

The importance attached to art extends to architecture, and Basel has many exceptional modern buildings to match its inheritance. Even something as prosaic as a station signal box is an award-winning copper-clad design by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron that resembles, appropriately enough, a Faraday cage.

An entire museum is devoted to the master of outlandish working mechanical contraptions, Jean Tinguely (Paul Sacher-Anlage 1; 00 41 61 681 93 20; www.tinguely.ch). It is an exciting red sandstone building by Mario Botta with an extraordinary glass-sheathed, inclined passageway overlooking the Rhine. Another eye-stopping building by Botta is the part-circular BIS building passed by most trams from the railway station into the centre.

Eating and drinking

There are over 500 restaurants in Basel, many based on the culinary traditions of the three surrounding countries. One of the most popular new arrivals on the restaurant scene is Acqua (00 41 61 271 63 00; www.acquabasilea.ch), cleverly incorporated into the unpromising surroundings of a waterworks garage at Binningerstrasse 14 (tram lines 10/17, stop Zoo). The food has a Florentine bent with admirably cooked simple dishes such as bruschetta al formaggio, prosciutto arrosto and green beans, and panacotta alla café.

Overlooking the Rhine at Blumenrain 20 is Restaurant Der vierte Konig (00 41 61 261 54 42; www.weinwirtschaft.ch). It has an exceptional wine list and serves dishes such as pumpkin cream soup and fillet of perch with shrimps and mushrooms. For a traditional rösti or fondue, cooked simply or with mushrooms or champagne, one of the best restaurants is Walliserkanne mit KanneBar at Gerbergasse 50 (00 41 61 261 70 17; www.walliserkanne-basel.ch). White wine should always be drunk with fondue.

For a drink outside, the elegant Kunsthalle-Bar (00 41 61 272 42 33) at Steinenberg 7 overlooks a pond filled with whirring sculptures by Tinguely. Or you could sit under the chestnut trees at the adjacent Campari Bar under the same management (00 41 61 272 83 83).

For panoramic views, Switzerland's tallest building, the Messeturm on Messeplatz, combines a cocktail lounge and club in Bar Rouge (00 41 61 361 30 31; www.barrouge.ch) on the top floor at 105 metres. For more than background tinkling of the ivories, try the 7ty-One Piano Bar at Riehenring 71 (00 41 61 683 38 22) or for traditional to experimental jazz the Bird's Eye jazz club at Kohlenberg 20 (00 41 61 263 33 41; www.birdseye.ch).

Shopping

The old town is full of small shops with an emphasis on quality. You can't leave Basel without some locally made Läckerli, a gingerbread biscuit flavoured with nougat, honey and almonds. For a contender in the record of "highest number of teas on sale", visit Danny's Teekiste at Münsterberg 70, a pretty street winding down the hill from the cathedral. In front of the imposing red edifice of the 16th-century town hall is Marktplatz where there's a colourful market every day except Sunday.

Events

The Al Capone Blues Festival pounds out 12-bar riffs from 3-8 April. The International Tango Festival run from 13-17 April and there's 10 days of jazz during the International Jazz Festival from 24 April. Les Muséiques is an international classical music festival from 1-11 June.

Book a hotel soon if you want to attend Art 37 (14-18 June), as it is the largest international art fair.

For more information, contact Basel Tourism (00 41 61 268 68 68; www.baseltourismus.ch).

Holbein: a past master

The first major exhibition on Hans Holbein the Younger for over 40 years opens on 1 April at the Kunstmuseum. It promises to be one of Europe's leading artistic attractions this year and will complement the show at Tate Britain in September, as each will focus on the artist's time in the country hosting the exhibition. Taught by his father, Holbein became one of the leading European painters in the first half of the 16th century, on a par with Albrecht Dürer. It was while in Basel that Holbein met Erasmus, who gave him a letter of introduction to Sir Thomas More when Holbein came to London. Basel already has the world's largest collection of Holbein's work and will borrow many significant paintings from the Basel years: the Solothurn Madonna, the newly restored wings of the Oberreid Altar from the cathedral at Freiburg in Germany, the Darmstadt Madonna and portraits of Lady Guilford and of Norfolk-born Thomas Godsalve and his son.

The extraordinary organ doors Holbein decorated for Basel Cathedral have been restored and will be shown at the level they were designed to be seen - the perspective of the subjects takes into account the angle of view. What makes the exhibition so special is that the Kunstmuseum has many of the preparatory drawings that Holbein brought back from England during his years as court painter to Henry VIII, so visitors will be able to see them together - many for the first time.

The exhibition is open 10am-5pm daily from 1 April to 2 July, Kunstmuseum, St Alban-Graben 16 (00 41 61 206 62 62; www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch)

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