x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

My kind of place: Basel, Switzerland

The sunny Swiss town offers the variety of a European cultural capital.

The small Swiss town of Basel straddles the Rhine where Germany, France and Switzerland meet. Berner Dieterich / Getty Images
The small Swiss town of Basel straddles the Rhine where Germany, France and Switzerland meet. Berner Dieterich / Getty Images

Why Basel?

Basel shines in summer. This frontier town straddles the Rhine where the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany meet, combining elements of all three to produce an exhilarating air of internationality and a cultural influence which far outstrips its size. One of Switzerland's sunniest cities, it manages to offer the warm, relaxed charm of a Mediterranean resort alongside the variety of a European capital, all the while serving up world-class hospitality in countless hotels and restaurants.

In six weeks, Basel's cultural hubbub reaches a crescendo with Art Basel (June 14-17), the world's most important art fair and the event that cemented its name in the minds of global tastemakers. But visit when the city is less packed and the centre feels like a creative advent calendar; an exhibition, concert or museum waiting behind every door.

A comfortable bed

Visitors looking for a truly decadent experience can't do better than Les Trois Rois (www.lestroisrois.com; 00 41 61 260 50 50), housed in an imperious 19th-century building overlooking the Rhine and a host to politicians and royalty for over a century. Inside, an extensive refurbishment six years ago has left all of the individually designed rooms oozing Neo-classical charm, despite the presence of every mod-con guests could wish for. A new cigar lounge was recently added to the hotel's two restaurants and wood-panelled bar. Double rooms start from 515 Swiss francs (Dh2,075) per night; book a room overlooking the Rhine for an unbeatable view.

On the other side of the river is Krafft Basel (www.krafftbasel.ch; 00 41 61 690 9130), a compact but comfortable design hotel with great views of Grossbasel and a summer terrace perfect for refreshments in the afternoon and early evening. Double rooms start from 195 francs (Dh786) per night.

Der Teufelhof (www.teufelhof.com; 0041 61 261 1010), nestled among terraced houses high above the Old Town, is a more intimate choice that perfectly reflects Basel's sophisticated cultural scene, with a theatre, gallery and two superb restaurants on site. The airy rooms go from 155 francs (Dh624).

Find your feet

Basel is split by the Rhine into "Grossbasel" and "Kleinbasel", with the majority of the attractions for tourists on the Grossbasel side in the Old Town. The Gothic spires of the Münster are what the locals jokingly refer to as "Basel's skyline", and the short climb (four francs; Dh16) offers a breathtaking panorama across the river into France and Germany, as well as a neat overview of the city below. From here, it's easy to descend the hill and dive into the mayhem of the marketplace, flanked by the striking red town hall, or to take the circuitous route past the pretty houses and tiny shops of the Augustinergasse.

Meet the locals

Basel has an extraordinarily high number of museums and galleries for its size, many of which are privately funded by local patrons and loved by residents as much as visitors.Purists should make a beeline for the internationally-renowned Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland's largest art museum, or the Fondation Beyeler in nearby Riehen. Less conventional cultural experiences are on offer too, at the Anatomical Museum for example, or the Caricature and Cartoon Museum, the Swiss Sport Museum or the Museum of Firefighting - pick up a directory from Tourist Information (www.basel.com; 00 41 61 268 6868) for a full overview.

Book a table

It's difficult to go hungry in Basel. The top dining establishment in the city is undoubtedly Cheval Blanc at Les Trois Rois, where chef Peter Knogl oversees a mediterranean-inspired menu that has won him two Michelin stars. Book ahead -the restaurant is exclusive and has prices to match, with main meals around 70 francs (Dh282) and the set menu for 195 francs (Dh786).

The centuries-old "key guild", Zunft zum Schlüssel (www.gasthofsolbad.ch; 00 41 61 261 20 46), is well worth a visit. Originally a meeting place in the Middle Ages, the traditionally styled restaurant evokes Basel's unique Zunfthaus (guild house) past, offering meat, fish and vegetable main courses for around 40 francs (Dh161).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its geographical position, Basel offers plenty when it comes to international cuisine, with a particularly strong Italian connection evident along the less touristy St Johanns-Vorstadt towards the north of the city. Don't pass up home-made pasta or pizza from Da Gianni (0041 61 322 42 33), an inexpensive but authentic restaurant that gets packed with locals at the weekend. Main courses cost around 25 francs (Dh100).

Shopper's paradise

Wealthy Basel isn't short of luxury shops, the likes of Emporio Armani, Hermés, Cartier and Louis Vuitton clustered with highstreet brands along the Freie Strasse.

Away from the crowds, a more relaxing shopping experience can be had by pottering around Spalenberg to the west, where the hilly streets are packed with smaller boutique stores and galleries. Around here is almost every shop a visitor could want, from local designer outlets to milliners and model train stores, but none matches the quirkiness of Johann Wanner, a seemingly never-ending cave filled with luxury Christmas decorations, which stubbornly refuses to close its doors out of season and offers hand-made ornaments even in the height of summer.

What to avoid

Unless you're heading to the cinema, there really isn't much of a reason to venture along the Steinenvorstadt, normally packed with shoppers and lined with fast-food joints, themed pubs and cheap clothing outlets.

Don't miss

Crossing the river in one of Basel's unique ferries for a stroll along the Kleinbasel bank is well worth the 1.60 francs (Dh6) it costs. The crafts are tethered by rope and ingeniously rely on the power of the fast-flowing Rhine for propulsion across the river without engines, a system that's been in place since Roman times.