The Swiss city of Basel is a cultural behemoth, home to 50 museums, the resting place of the scholar and humanist Erasmus, plus some seriously delightful architecture. My dentist visited the city the week before me and came back singing the city’s praises, so based on all the great things I’d heard, I was really looking forward to my mini-trip to Switzerland.
I arrived in Basel Saturday morning and having pre-checked into my hotel by 9.45am, caught the tram into the city centre. The public transport in Basel is fantastic and I spent my time (unusually for me as I usually walk everywhere) hopping on and off the trams, which are frequent, easy-to-use and, best of all, free for anyone with a hotel booking in the city.
My first stop, after a quick hot chocolate, was the Kunstmuseum art gallery. After being told by a stern guard at the entrance to put my handbag in a locker (it seems only teeny handbags are allowed in Swiss museums and galleries), I set about touring the masterpieces within. The gallery is home to an extensive and varied collection of art, including paintings by masters such as Hans Holbein Jr, Broegel and Rembrandt; impressionists such as Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh; 20th century icons such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Salvador Dali; as well as sculptures by Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti, among others. Along with a temporary exhibition on Christianity and art, there was a lot to see in the gallery and some exceptional pieces on display, and I spent a good couple of hours working my way around everything. My favourite pieces were Max Ernst’s The Large Forest and Wassily Kandinsky’s Schweres Rot.
On leaving the museum, I headed to the Museum of Ethnology. The museum is filled with artefacts from all over the world, including Australia, Switzerland and Colombia, but an overwhelming number come from Papua New Guinea, as according to one of the guards, the country was frequented by Swiss collectors and anthropologists. The museum is fascinating and they’ve done a brilliant job of innovatively displaying the objects to show them at their best and give visitors a 360° view where possible. The staff were friendly and helpful, and it’s one of the best curated museums I’ve seen for a long time. The museum also handily has guides available in different languages for each exhibition.
Next on my whistle-stop tour was Basel Munster. The red sandstone cathedral was built between 1019 and 1500, and with its pretty tiled roof, is an impressive building. Inside the cathedral, I was struck by the high-vaulted ceilings and elegant grey stone pillars. Up near the altar, there was an exhibition about Erasmus of Rotterdam’s bible, which looked really interesting. And after a quick look around, I walked down to the crypt at the back of the cathedral and on coming up the other side, followed the signs to Erasmus’s tomb. On leaving the cathedral, I stopped by the cloisters where I marvelled at the cathedral’s architecture from different angles, and then left via a back door, which led out onto a small paved area with magnificent views over the Rhine.
By now it was early afternoon, so I headed back to my hotel to finish checking in and to grab a late lunch, before catching the tram back into town for some more sightseeing. I got off just before the Mittlere Brücke, a charming bridge built in 1905 on the site of one of the oldest bridges (originally built in 1226) across the Rhine. Midway across the bridge, I was intrigued by a small, pretty tower with lots of padlocks attached to its metal door frame. The Käppelijoch is a reconstruction of the old bridge’s chapel where they used to sentence criminals to death, its colourful tiled roof and pretty features belying its grim history.
Having admired the bridge and the views over the Rhine, I walked up a narrow, winding street to the left of the bridge that’s home to some quirky and interesting shops. After a quick spot of window shopping, I headed inside the Natural History Museum, further up the hill. The guard at the Museum of Ethnography suggested I pay a visit as until 10 years ago, the two museums were joined together. The museum is home to exhibitions on various aspects of the natural world including wildlife, minerals, evolution and geology, and looked relatively interesting – but all the displays were in German so I spent much of my time guessing at what I was looking at. There were some nice interactive displays though, including one where you could run your hands across different animal skins so you could feel the difference between that of a hedgehog, for example, and a fox.
Feeling all museumed out after three museums, I finished my day with a walk around Basel’s old town, following one of the city’s walking trails. The architecture was beautiful, but the most impressive building by far was the Rathaus (city hall) – an unusual angular, dark red building featuring striking medieval-looking frescoes. It’s a really unique building and I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else. Unfortunately, as the building is closed on the weekend, I could only look around the courtyard. But that brief glimpse inside was worth the visit.
After a long day’s sightseeing, I caught the tram back to my hotel where I had dinner in a restaurant/wine bar opposite. The Brasserie Monsieur Verseau was really relaxed and I settled down with my book and a welcome glass of wine to enjoy a superb wiener schnitzel served with a side-salad and some incredibly moreish pommes soufflées, followed by a crème brûlée. A wonderful end to a great day.