A long weekend in Basel – Switzerland on a budget!

Switzerland had long been on my list of countries I was desperate. I had however come across a fellow bloggers article on Basel and it really got under my skin. The bright red Rathaus and the emerald green river running though the heart of the city, those images made me realise that Switzerland was somewhere I wanted to visit sooner rather than later. This medieval city’s winding streets ooze both history and culture and every turn really is a treat for the eyes, what a perfect way to spend a long weekend on my first solo trip!

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A little history of this beautiful city:

Basel…or is it Bale? I heard it being pronounced both ways actually and given the cosmopolitan nature of the city and how it sits on the border with both Germany and France it’s no wonder there is confusion! In fact both pronunciations are correct, Basel is the German way and “Bale” is the French! But most people in Basel speak German!

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The city is well known for its abundance of museums and as being a centre for culture in Switzerland. The river Rhine splits this beautiful and compact metropolis is half and consists of the engaging old town in Grossbasel, which is where most of the attractions lie and the more gritty and working class Kleinbasel across the river.

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Basel also has a seaport feel to it due to the river and its accessibility for large ships travelling to and from the North Sea which makes it quite unique in landlocked Switzerland.

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The city itself dates back to Pre-Roman times and even has evidence of early Celtic settlements. In 1356 the majority of the city was destroyed in a catastrophic earthquake and much of the city as we see it today is a result of the 14th century rebuilding process.

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Cost:

One of the big concerns I had with visiting Switzerland was the cost, being a budget traveller is great when we are swanning through Eastern Europe, staying in apartments and eating 3 course meals!

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Well back in the western part of the continent and it’s not such a cheap deal! Having said that I found Basel to be both cheap and expensive at the same time: Flights were a steal at only £49.98 for a return with EasyJet, you get a free travel pass when staying in the city which even covers your transport from the airport to the hostel and getting up the cathedral tower sets you back a measly 5CHF (About £ 3.40).

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Then on the other hand a bed in an 8 person dorm set me back more for a night than a whole apartment in Budapest for a week! I paid almost £8.00 for a sandwich and shelled out the large part of £10 for our customary souvenir magnet! But one of the main ways in which I saved money was to nip to the local “coop” and make my own food back at the hostel kitchen.

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My Impressions of Basel

This trip to Basel was not only my first time in Switzerland but due to the fact that Shorty is heading over to Switzerland in July it ended up being my first solo trip. You can read a whole post about that here where I reflect upon the mixed emotions I felt being alone whilst travelling for the first time: Reflections on my first solo trip.

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In many ways the circumstances around your visit do effect the impression which the city leaves upon you. For me being in Basel despite being alone never really felt too lonely, the city is compact, warm and it’s narrow medieval streets are always busy with friendly and approachable locals. It feels like a safe and well organised city which has a wealth of culture to absorb.

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There is plenty here to keep you entertained for a long weekend and yet its walkable size means you can also have most of that covered in a short break as too. I felt that although I would have loved longer in the country, a long weekend in Basel was the perfect amount of time to both keep me busy (especially being on my own) and also give me enough time to wander alongside the river and explore the cobbled streets at my own pace.

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The city itself is quite unique and combines well its old timber framed buildings and cobbled streets with a youthful and cutting edge vibe. Wandering down the alleys and across the squares it really does feel like stepping back in time and inside that gingerbread house style world in which those popular Christmas markets exist.

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The quintessentially traditional Swiss and Southern German detailing, even down to the fonts used on the historic murals, quirky hand painted signs and historic coats of arms make it an enchanting city to explore.

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There is also a distinctly local feel too. Sure there are tourists, and of course the odd America, but there are no open top tours or even too many souvenir shops. You get the sense, much like Manchester, that you just see real life here. Not something pumped up for the sake of tourists but instead an honesty which is refreshing and enjoyable.

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Transport:

Public travel in Basel is FREE! Yeah that’s right! When you stay in the city you are automatically eligible for a FREE travel pass, this even includes the bus to and from the airport (just use your hotel reservation on the way to your accommodation) which is pretty awesome! However if you are just passing through a daily ticket will set you back around 8 CHF (£5) This is because of a “Mobility Ticket” which you get when you check in to your accommodation!

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Given the fact the city is on the small side the tram and bus network extensively covers all corners of the city. I did however elect to walk quite often even though I stayed out near the train station. The walk into the city only took around about 10 minutes and I managed to see so much more this way. (Read all about how much I love to walk here: The Art of Walking: Get Lost on Purpose)

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Then you have two main train stations, Basel SBB railway station is the largest and serves destinations all over Switzerland, France and Germany. It even has an international border crossing into the French half of the station. Out the front of the station is Centralbahnplatz which is a major tram hub and is also the drop off point for the Airport bus.

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The airport at Basel is a truly international affair and is quite unique. The “Euro-Airport” is known as Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg and uses the triple code of MLH, BSL, EAP. The flight from Manchester takes around 1.30hrs and so is ideal for a weekend break. Take the number 50 bus from outside of the Swiss section of the airport for a 15 min trip into the city (remember it’s FREE too!)

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Budget Accommodation:

One of the reasons I initially hesitated over this trip was the lack of budget accommodation, Basel is by no means a backpackers city and unlike many major european cities there isn’t a large network of hostels to choose from. My options were pretty limited but I came across the YMCA hostel over near the main train station and opted for a bed in an 8 person dorm.  For 3 nights (enough for a long weekend) it set me back 125 CHF or £85 which is quite reasonable.

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The hostel itself was actually in a great location, only a 2 minute walk from the train station it was ideal for transport links. It was only a 10 minute walk from Munsterplatz too which on a nice day makes for a lovely stroll.

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Things to do in Basel:

Basel Munster Cathedral and Münsterplatz

One of the absolute highlights of the trip for me, the red sandstone brick cathedral is one of the major landmarks of the city. The striking coloured tiled roof can be seen from all over the city and the towers offer some amazing panoramic views down the Rhine and rewards your efforts up the 250 dark and narrow steps to the gothic spires above.

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The cost of heading up the 14th century church’s towers is a steal at only 5 CHF but unfortunately you can’t go up on your own, I had to hang around for a few minutes until another lone traveller came along! The cobbled medieval square in which the cathedral sits is also wonderful to explore and is often the centre of events and social gatherings.

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Münsterfähre Rhine Ferry

As Basel sits on the Rhine the residents have come up with some unique ways of getting across the river. Of course you could walk over one of the many old and ornate bridges but who wants to do that when you can take a ferry on a rope!?

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There are several of these crossings but the easiest and most central is the Munsterfahre which sits just around the back of the cathedral on the river bank. This 150 year old method of crossing the river is in fact powered by the currents of the river and cost only 1.60 CHF for an adult and 80c for a child!

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The River Rhine

Not only can you enjoy the glistening emerald waters of the Rhine from the ferries, boats or bridges but many choose to swim in the river. Far from being frowned upon it is actively encouraged, there are designated swim zones, changing rooms and shops selling the regulation bright orange flotation bags.

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There is even a Rheinschwimmen festival in August when masses of people take to the river. I elected not to go for a swim in the fast river (being on my own) but did dip my feet in whilst having lunch, not many other city centre rivers you could do that in without needing a tetanus after!

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Altstadt/ Old town

The cobbled streets of the altstadt feature stately buildings, medieval churches and a maze of narrow alley ways to explore. The frescoed exteriors and detailed walkways which surround the Rathaus are the bustling heart of this quaint town and a joy to wander.

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From the Tinguely-Brunnen mechanical water fountain in Barfusserplatz to Rheinsprung which is lined with 15th and 16th century homes there is so much to explore. There are also over 170 fountains spread around the city containing fresh spring water, the notable dark red “Augustiner Brunnen” sits on the scenic street of Augustinergasse.

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Rathaus and Marktplatz

For me this was one of the main reasons why I wanted to visit Basel, I was taken by the bright red and highly detailed town hall immediately and when I walked around the corner for the first time I wouldn’t help but let out a “Wow!” In fact I passed through Marktplatz over and over again just to get another glance as it I loved it so much! This amazing 500 year old sandstone building still houses the local council and features frescos by Hans Bock dating back to 1610.

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Marktplaz in which the dominant town hall stands hosts stalls of fruit, vegetables, cooked food, flowers and crafts everyday apart from Sundays. This is a great place to get a quick and fresh bite to eat whilst sitting back and taking in the sheer beauty of the Rathaus once again as well as the atmosphere of the busy market.

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Mittlere Rheinbrücke/  Schifflände

The city’s oldest bridge dates back to the early 13th century and includes a tiny chapel at its centre in which medieval criminals would be sentenced to death.

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The bridge offers a pleasant trip over the river with amazing views down its banks. This area is perhaps one of the city’s busier regions, especially on a warm summers day, as many locals flock to the river banks to cool down.

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Pfalz

This viewing terrace is located just behind Munster Cathedral and offers amazing panoramic views down the river Rhein, on a clear day you can even see as far as the border triangle with Germany and France. Not only does it offer unrivalled free views but it a great place to sit and ponder over the beauty which lies before you on the stone benches which surround it. There are also some free public toilets just to right right on the Pflaz!

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Spalentor (City gate)

Like many medieval cities Basel was once a walled town with a series of magnificent and detailed gates providing access to its interior. Today only three of these survive and the Spalentor is by far the most impressive. Like many of the architectural features of Basel it dates back to 1400. The fortress like decorative tower was made to be seen well before travellers entered the city and really stands out!

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Skt. Alban-Berg

This district dates back to the middle ages and is one of the greenest areas of the city. The site of the past industries of Basel the region is noted for its series of canals and waterwheels.

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This peaceful area of town has several remnants of the city’s 14th century fortifications such as the “Mühlegraben’ and the 13th century St. Alban-Tor, another beautiful city gateway.

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Museums and galleries

Basel is well known for its sheer amount of museums and galleries which cater to everyones interests and tastes. Some of the best are:

Museum of Contemporary Art
The kunstmuseum (Art Museum)
Paper making Museum
Museum Tinguely
Kunsthalle Basel

Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History)

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For more information on Basel head to the official visitor website here: BaselTourismus

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Other trips to take from Basel

Basel is well placed and connected to visit or move on to many other European and Swiss cities.

I elected to spend a day in the mountain town of Lucerne as the train journey is only 1.15hr from Basel and so idea for a day trip. I also managed to get a great deal on train tickets when I booked early. You can check that post out here and keep an eye out for a guide to Lucerne and the Golden Round Trip up Mt. Pilatus I took.

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I also spent the last couple of hours in Basel before heading hope playing a bit of a geography game and ended up visiting 4 countries in 1 day!

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Have you ever been to or considered visiting Basel?

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Check out these places on this handy map:

Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.