The Basel Travel Guide
The Swiss city exists in a bubble of enigmatic diplomacy, but what’s it hiding?
The Swiss city of Basel exists in a bubble of enigmatic diplomacy, but what’s it hiding? Luxury travel writer Mark Southern investigates what’s behind the everyman of Europe’s discreet exterior.
Switzerland; it’s a hard country to pin down.
If it were to turn up at a party, you’d find it standing in a self-assured but humble manner somewhere near the boisterous kitchen, but not quite inside, where the brash US is holding court and patronisingly patting the overly-attentive UK on the head.
Not, for Switzerland, though. Instead, it’d be having a perfectly nice time, drinking a nice mid-price but quality Bollinger (nice, but not too flash), and would most likely be completely oblivious to the fact that a sexually predatory South American state was chatting it up.
Meanwhile, absolutely no-one would be saying mean things about it behind its back, but then most would have forgotten it had even turned up as well.
Because, whilst many countries elicit a strong emotion, good or bad, it’s nigh-on impossible to find anyone with anything other than pleasant apathy for good ol’ Switzerland. After all, everyone loves a nice guy, but they never get the girl, right?
But is there more to the quiet man of Europe than the polite, forgettable party guest? Is there no flame behind its uncontroversial eyes, or does there lurk hidden fires within?
Basel, located at the Northern most point of Switzerland, is a perfect example of this polite neutrality, and is famous for almost nothing of note. However, speak to those in the know, and they’ll tell you that, much to its presumable chagrin, it’s picking up something of a reputation. As a weekend getaway hotspot, that is.
And when you scratch beneath the surface it’s obvious why. Beautiful storybook architecture mixes with rich culture, friendly and hospitable locals, and a calming aura that warms the cockles; what’s not to like?
Sure, some may find it all a little bit, well, too nice to decamp here for more than a charming weekend. But it’s very hard, if not impossible, to experience 48 hours in Basel without feeling all your stresses and strains melt away, and that’s the point of a great weekend break.
The food’s good, the wine’s better, the air feels like it’s been put through a purifier, and it simply makes you feel chirpier about life. It’s a lovely place, and shouldn’t life be lovely?
For, it turns out that whilst sexy Italy swans around the party trying to seduce the rich, bad- boy nation de jour, it would do a lot better to cosy up to familiar Switzerland, and be bowled over by its depth of character underneath that enigmatic Basel facade. Cheers!
As Channel Four television presenters never tire of telling us, the most important thing in homes and hotels is location, location, location, and this couldn’t be more true than in Basel. It’s a small city, but to experience the very best of it you should be right in its epicentre for maximum exposure to its charms.
Fortunately, there is an outstanding hotel that allows you to do just that in the Swissotel Le Plaza. It’s comfortably the largest hotel in town, but don’t lead you into thinking it’s lacking in quality. Instead, it combines modern minimalist style with splendour in keeping with the local culture.
Even the most basic of rooms is first class, but for a real treat try one of the hotel’s Plaza or Presidential suites. Both are dazzling in size and opulence, and channel a bygone era of moviestar glamour from studio-era Hollywood. Stunning.
It’s a great business hotel too so, with the strong link between the London City and Swiss banking, it’s an ideal place to hole up for the weekend whilst entertaining clients in the ô Bar.
If rich food is your religion, then Basel will be your culinary heaven.
On every corner harks another aromatic delight serving deeply satisfying Swiss fare, which leaves you wondering why the chic, stylish locals aren’t the size of cathedrals?
The best place in town is the two Michelin- starred Cheval Blanc, which is almost universally regarded as the undisputed king of cuisine in Basel.
Here, award-winning chef Peter Knogl promises to take diners on a “journey of sun-kissed shapes and shade” with his Mediterranean haute cuisine, and delivers every time. All is good, but the pigeon breast and artichokes remain a highlight.
Don’t miss out on a truly unique dining experience, but book early or you’ll miss out.
By day, Basel’s a chic place to be, and the nightlife follows a similar theme. This isn’t somewhere you’ll be bumping into the scourge of every weekend break, the stag party, but instead you’ll be rubbing shoulders with Swiss high society elegantly oozing class.
The best place to do this in style is The Old City Bar, located in the Hilton. Styled like a British private members’ club, the wood panelling and rich leather décor is the setting for the nightly pilgrimage to prosperous partying.
Enjoy the cocktails and then head down into the Hilton’s Allegra Club for the salsa nights, with tuition for those that need it.
Make no mistake, Basel, like much of Switzerland, has plenty of cash, and isn’t afraid to spend it. Conveniently for tourists who enjoy a flutter, this means there are plenty of casinos to test your nerve.
The best of these is the Grand Casino Basel that, not only houses everything an international high roller like you would look for in a prestigious gambling den, but also features performances from all kinds of incongruous music artists, meaning you’re just as likely to win the jackpot as bump into Cyndi Lauper in the lift.
Get yourself along to here if you just wanna have fun.
The architecture of Basel is best observed at street level but, whilst Basel’s not a particularly big place, who wants to walk around to see the sights when you could be out experiencing the future of transport instead?
Segwaying is that transport, and it’s remarkable.
Looking like a futuristic broom on magic wheels, the segway uses space shuttle technology to stay upright, meaning you simply lean forward to go and back to stop. The sights speed past at a leisurely pace, whilst downhill speeds ensure a rare thrill of sight seeing exhilaration.
Quaint European cities often have reputations for being culturally-rich hotspots, and Basel is no different.
The city is awash with galleries, museums and artisans, and those wishing to add a layer of enrichment to their trip will have no problems here.
If you’re only going to see one place though, make it the Natural History Museum. Hours can be lost inside these four walls but whatever you do don’t miss out on the Deep Sea exhibition before it closes in September.
Basel isn’t noted for its plentiful animal activity, but it does possess a rather excellent zoo.
Featuring hundreds of star turns, from African big cats to South American primates, there’s plenty here to keep you occupied if you’re looking to revisit your inner-child.
It seems a shame to be so close to the Alps’ world-class skiing resorts without popping over to indulge.
Don’t follow the crowd by jumping on the three hour train though; instead hire a chauffer helicopter to get there direct in just 30 minutes; a much more pleasant way of doing things.
BMI now fly from Heathrow to Basel daily. Check out their outstanding business class, complete with stunning Heathrow lounge; it’s as good as you’ll find. Also, keep an eye on their website as they often have monthly sales on flights.
Main image above copyright: FreeImages.com/Tackmann Aksel Sven