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7 to Know: Where to Eat, Where to Stay and What to See and Do in Basel, Switzerland

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Since 1970, the charming city of Basel, Switzerland has been drawing the elite of the art world every June for Art Basel, Europe’s largest and most impressive art fair, with close to 300 international galleries and many assorted satellite exhibits and fairs. However, thanks to its resident collections and enviable location on the Rhine, Basel can be a lovely place for an overnight outside of the Art Basel madness too. Here are seven things to know for a quick but memorable trip to Basel at fair time or another time.

Related: Just Back From Switzerland

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a trip to Basel. Our dedicated trip designers will match you with the hotels, restaurants and activities that are best for you.

Our two favorite places to stay.
Les Trois Rois, or The Three Kings, commands a central spot overlooking the Rhine River and has been the place to stay for more than 150 years. During Basel, rooms are held for prominent players in the art world and the lobby serves as a gilded club room for dealmakers. During the rest of the year it is quite easy to reserve a room, even one with a river view. For a lower-key and less expensive option, across the river is Krafft, a small historic hotel with a great restaurant and riverside bistro.

Courtesy Les Trois Rois

Courtesy Les Trois Rois

Getting here is easy, and once here it’s free.
Every traveler who checks into a hotel in Basel is given a BaselCard. This serves as a free pass for the tram, which is easy to navigate and runs to all of the major points of interest (it also secures 50 percent off admission at most museums). Basel is also just one hour from Zurich (taking the train between the two is faster than driving), which is why many top collectors and dealers stay at the Baur au Lach or other luxury hotels in Zurich during the fair and commute by train.

The old meets new mash-up is part of the city’s charm.
The city is home to many Swiss artists and architects, including Heurzog & De Meuron, and yet wandering in its old quarter, which is anchored by its beautifully preserved red sandstone Town Hall from 1504, or along streets lined with medieval houses, feels like traveling back in time.

Fair-goers should wear sneakers or other comfortable shoes.
Art Basel, located in exhibition halls at Messeplatz, whose centerpiece is the stunning oculus Messe by Herzog & de Meuron, is a massive fair, with close to 300 dealers and more than 4,000 artists on display, in categories ranging from “Galleries” to “Unlimited.” In addition, many satellite fairs have sprung up to occur at the same time, including Design Miami, which focuses on modern design, and Volta and Liste, for emerging artists, so you can end up walking miles in the course of a day. The local museums also offer interesting special exhibits during the fair, so you’ll need four or five days to see all of the highlights. Cutting-edge fashion, too, is always on display among the fair-goers, so expect great costumes. If you want to look the part, Issey Miyake, Azzedine Alaia and Prada are safe bets.

Related: Basel Cheat Sheet

Timing matters.
If you are going for the fairs, each one (Design Miami, Unlimited and Art Basel) has a special preview or collectors-only hours in the days leading up to the opening to give serious buyers an advantage before the halls open to the general public. For access to everything, including the first previews, you need a VIP Basel card, which Indagare can assist with. These days are always the toughest for hotel and restaurant reservations, so some prefer to come later in the week, and if you are a looker and not a buyer, you may prefer to come when the city is calmer altogether.

Those plastic bags floating in the river next to swimmers contain their clothes.
Yes, this seems to be a uniquely Basel tradition, but many locals begin or end their work days with a float in the Rhine. They strip down to their bathing suit, pop their clothes in an inflatable bag, called a wickelfisch, and let the strong current carry them to a point where they clamber out and redress. Visitors who want to try it can rent or purchase the inflatable bags.

There are three must-visit museums.
All visitors to Basel should make time to see The Kunstmuseum, Fondation Beyeler and Vitra, which is actually across the border in Germany. The Kunstmuseum—whose bragging rights include having the world’s most extensive Holbein family collection—is Switzerland’s largest art gallery. One of the country’s great art-collecting families (20th-century masterpieces), the Beyelers commissioned Renzo Piano to construct the Fondation Beyeler in an idyllic countryside museum to house their treasures. It is worth planning a visit around lunch time to eat in the café facing sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly and Alexander Calder and a field of grazing cows. Just a 30-minute trip across the border into Germany is the Vitra Design Museum, located in a former factory complex, and focused on furniture design with works by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Alvar Aalto. The campus features a collection of architectural wonders including Zaha Hadid’s first work (the fire station) plus buildings by Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and Herzog & de Meuron.

Getting There

Basel has a small airport with flights from some European cities, but Zurich, which is only a 53-minute train ride away, has many more.

Related: Switzerland: 5 to Know

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a trip to Basel. Our dedicated trip designers will match you with the hotels, restaurants and activities that are best for you.

– Melissa Biggs Bradley on July 13, 2018

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