Although many tourists think of Basel Switzerland as an expensive river boat port city, there are many fun things to do in Basel that won’t break the bank.
Recently, while talking to follow passengers during our Viking River Cruise up the Rhine, we couldn’t help but hear about how expensive Basel is. We brushed this talk away thinking that much of the hearsay was generated by passengers who don’t travel much. These are the same people who don’t travel independently like we do, who follow tour guides and who see much of the world through the windows of a bus. This talk couldn’t be true, we thought. Using our amazing travel instincts to find the good spots, we would find the non-touristy joints with great food and attractions and make Basel our own.
Well, our opinions changed after ordering currywurst from one of the pop up Buvette take out cafés along the Rhine. What amounted to a cut up hot dog in curry ketchup with fries cost us the around $11 American – ouch! We then checked out a McDonald’s down the street (for research purposes) and saw that a Big Mac costs around $12. Double ouch!!
Basel is a bustling city with amazing art and the lilting sounds of ringing bells on the hour, but it’s also an expensive city to visit. It even makes France, not a cheap country by any means, seem highly affordable. We mention this because you may have just booked a river cruise that begins or ends in Basel and are wondering if you should extend your visit.
Not only is the city in Switzerland, whose currency is the strong Swiss Franc, but it’s also a city gilded with pharmaceutical profits. In Basel, prices are easily double compared to cities in nearby France and Germany. This is why we decided to stay at an Airbnb apartment during our brief stay and why we didn’t make any reservations for restaurant meals.
Don’t feel too sorry for us though. We had an awesome time during our short visit. We spent a couple days in Basel exploring and relaxing, and we made smart decisions about how we spent our time.
Fun Things To To in Basel that Won’t Break the Bank
Walk Along the Rhine
Let’s face it, you’ve probably arrived in Basel on a river cruise like we did. But don’t give up on the Rhine, at least not yet. The majestic river runs right through Basel, with six bridges providing easy access from one side of the city to the other. People-watch along Basel’s Rhine River promenade, grab a snack at a buvette or eat an ice cream cone. (More about ice cream cones later.) Like many European cities, Basel embraces outdoor culture. The Basel walking/hiking trail or Rheinpfad runs along the Rhine for 12 km and is highlighted by a number of outdoor snack stands and recreational activities like biking and bocce ball. You can also grab a snack, walk down to the edge of the Rhine, sit down and soak up the sun.
Eat Local Food
As we already mentioned, Basel is expensive. Fabulous restaurants, like the 3 star Michelin rated Cheval Blanc, are tempting but not feasible if you’re on a budget.
When deciding where to dine in Basel, one option is to eat at an outdoor cafe. Though cheaper than a Michelin restaurant, Swiss cafés are still fairly expensive compared to other European cities. Don’t despair. Doner kebab shops are located all over the city, practically on every corner. They’re yummy. They’re filling. And at around $8.50, they’re relatively affordable.
Tasting Tip: When you order a doner kebab, be sure to get all the fixings from the spicy sauce to the lettuce and tomatoes. The flavors combine to make a mighty tasty sandwich.
Get Your Art On
Basel literally swims with art from world-class museums to street art on building walls. This shouldn’t be a surprise since the city is the home of Art Basel, the preeminent art festival that has become truly international with annual shows in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong.
During our Basel visit, we visited two world-class art museums in just two days.
We spent hours roaming through centuries of art at Kunstmuseum Basel. Recently re-opened in two buildings right in the center of town, this museum has the largest collection of public art in Switzerland and features notable art by Cezanne, Renoir, Warhol & Lichtenstein along with ancient collections that date back thousands of years.
However, it’s the Fondation Beyeler that we will long remember. Between Renzo Piano’s unique, open architecture and the extensive Picasso collection, it is a full art immersion experience. Though the museum is located in a bucolic neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, it’s well worth a short bus ride to see Ernst Beyeler’s stunning art collection of paintings and sculptures. Between this museum and his role as a founder of Art Basel in 1970, Beyeler has made a huge mark on the Basel art scene.
The Vitra Design Museum offers a different kind of art experience. Although it’s technically located in Germany, the museum is just a short ride from Basel. Situated in a striking Frank Gehry building, this museum draws international visitors interested in learning about cutting edge furniture and interior design.
These museums may not be cheap, but don’t skip them. Basel Cards are a great solution as they include transportation and special discounts as well as reduced admission to the city’s many museums. Depending on your schedule, you can purchase cards for 24, 48 or 72 hours.
Kunstmuseum Basel is located at St. Alban-Graben 16, 4051 Basel, Switzerland.
Fondation Beyeler is located at 101, 4125 Basel, Switzerland.
Vitra Design Museum is located at Charles-Eames-Straße 2, 79576 Weil am Rhein, Germany. This museum is not part of the Basel Card since it’s not in the city.
Check out the Museum Tinguely
Located in the Solitudepark just off of the Rhine, the fun, interactive Museum Tinguely exhibits kinetic sculpture works by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. The museum, funded by Basel’s pharmaceutical mega-company Roche, provides a fascinating biography of Tinguely’s life from his humble start as a department store window dresser to his ascension as an internationally recognized genius.
Tinguely’s work is part art and part science, making the museum an interesting contrast to the more traditional art displayed at Kunstmuseum Basel and Fondation Beyeler.
Stomp your feet to activate a number of interactive kinetic pieces that depend on movement for effect. Our favorite was the Méta-Harmonie II, which Tinguely constructed in 1979 as a noise field. Press your foot on the lever and sounds clang from every direction in a Rube-Goldberg like frenzy, while at the same time, creating a unique minimalistic, modern, haunting music experience. Pushing these levers easily provides hours of enjoyment to kids of all ages, including big kids like us.
The Museum Tinguely is located at Paul Sacher-Anlage 2, 4002 Basel, Switzerland.
Tasting Tip: Stop at one of the many outdoor glacé carts and splurge on an ice cream cone while you’re walking along the Rhine to the Museum Tinguely. We shared an amarena cherry cone, a perfectly satisfying sweet treat on a warm summer day.
Shop at an Outdoor Market
Like most European cities, Basel has a big public market right in the center of town. Merchants at the Marktplatz vend a colorful selection of fruits, vegetables, flowers and more. Are the prices high? Yes – this is Switzerland after all. However, the options are great, especially the cheeses. Even if you aren’t shopping for food, it’s worth a visit to take some photos and taste some samples.
Appreciate the buildings
Switzerland’s architecture is unique, with many buildings topped by distinctively slanting Swiss roofs. Basel has more than its fair share of interesting buildings from the vividly red Basel Rathaus in the Old Town to the elegantly refined houses along the Rhine. The city may be expensive, but it’s free to stroll around the city and ogle at the buildings while you dream about how the other half lives.
We thank Basel Tourismus for providing us with Basel Cards to facilitate this article.