One of Switzerland's largest cities, Basel is overlooked by visitors, though increasingly popular as a starting point for river cruises on the Rhine. Yet Basel has a long history as a cultural centre, fine museums, and an extensive and attractive old town that forms the lived-in, shopped-in heart of the city. Unpretentious, energetic, wealthy and straddling the meeting of the Swiss, German and French borders, Basel is a destination of low-key but sophisticated charms.
Basel's delightful old town sits on two modest hills divided by its central shopping district. The ornate town hall and plain cathedral are landmarks, and it's hard to resist a tearoom pause at chocolatier Confiserie Schiesser (confiserie-schiesser.ch). For a change of pace, Basel Zoological Gardens (zoobasel.ch) is one of Europe's top zoos and very child friendly. It's noted for its endangered species such as rhinos, pygmy hippos and gorillas and has mostly moated, rather than caged, enclosures.
The perennially popular Restaurant Kunsthalle (restaurant-kunsthalle.ch), with its frescoed ceilings and pretty courtyard shaded by chestnut trees, dishes up stylish modern Mediterranean- and French-inspired food, as well as some Swiss classics. Atmospheric Brasserie Lowenzorn (loewenzorn.ch) is a 14th-century tavern popular with students, and one of the few places in the old town with a summer courtyard. Don't forget to try a wienerli, the tasty local hotdog slathered in mustard, bought at street stalls.
Architectural innovation provides Basel with some of Europe's best contemporary architecture, though you'll have to go beyond the city centre to see it. Among its best buildings are the Children's Hospital on Spitalstrasse, Frank Gehry's cloud-like office block on the Novartis campus, and St Jakob-Park stadium, designed by Basel company Herzog & de Meuron of Beijing's Bird's Nest fame. Just across the German border, Vitra Design Museum has startling buildings by several leading architects.
Basel has some of Switzerland's best museums, including the Beyeler Foundation (fondationbeyeler.ch), whose avant-garde, Renzo Piano-designed building houses top-notch contemporary art from the likes of Klee, Rothko and Warhol. Head to the Kunstmuseum (kunstmuseumbasel.ch) for Swiss and German art; it has a great collection of Holbeins. Museum Tinguely (tinguely.ch) is devoted to the quirky, outsized, mechanised sculptures of Switzerland's leading 20th-century sculptor, Jean Tinguely, and appeals to children.
Hotel Der Teufelhof (teufelhof.com) inhabits two knocked-through, 18th-century townhouses close to the action; head to the basement to see its Roman and medieval foundations. An in-house theatre and popular restaurants and bars make this a sociable stay; funky, artist-designed rooms are all different. Alternatively, those looking for the sleek and simple could check into relatively new (though not quite as well located) The Passage (thepassage.ch), where staff are exceedingly helpful and guestrooms are chic and light-filled.
Native son Johann Wanner (johannwanner.ch) is the couturier of Christmas trees, lending his expertise to movie sets and the homes of celebrities and royals around the world. His year-round shop sells hand-blown tree ornaments and is a sight to behold.