Although many tourists think of Basel as an expensive riverboat port city, there are many fun things to do in Basel Switzerland that won’t break the bank.
While talking to fellow 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 during our Basel city break, we would find the non-touristy joints with great food and attractions and make Basel our own. We didn’t worry about what to eat in Basel – we would surely find something good to eat with no problem in Basel, one of the best places to visit in Switzerland for its art alone.
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 equivalent of $11 USD – ouch! We then checked out a McDonald’s down the street (for research purposes) and saw the price for a Big Mac at around $12 USD. 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 and are wondering if you should extend your visit and what to do in Basel Switzerland affordably during your stay.
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.
We thought about heading to the Swiss Alps to explore natural beauty and avoid the Basel prices. But, let’s face it, we’re more into city breaks than adventure travel. That’s why we decided to stay in a Basel apartment during our brief Switzerland 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. Plus, we researched what and where to eat in Basel so that we could make smart decisions about how we spent our time and money.
Fun Things To Do in Basel that Won’t Break the Bank
You could easily spend a fortune when you visit Basel, but it’s possible to explore this Swiss city on a budget – even if you’re backpacking Europe. Here are six affordable but fun things to do in Basel:
1. 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, especially during the summer months when the Basel weather is warm and the days seem endless.
The city’s 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.
→ Click here to book a two-hour walking tour.
2. Eat Basel Cheap Eats
As we already mentioned, Basel is an expensive city – including the Basel food scene. Fabulous restaurants, like the 3 star Michelin rated Cheval Blanc, are tempting but not feasible if you’re on a budget. Luckily. there are other good places to eat in Basel. Read on for some more affordable Basel dining options.
When deciding where to eat 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. However, don’t despair if you’re looking for cheap places to eat in Basel.
Doner kebab shops are located all over the city, located practically on every corner. They’re yummy. They’re filling. And at around $8.50, they’re relatively affordable. If you’re in Basel on a budget, doner kebabs are the best bet for cheap eats Basel options.
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.
3. 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. In fact, the art scene in Basel is so awesome that it made Journalist on the Run’s list of 50 unique things to do in Switzerland.
→ Click here to book a an Urban Art City tour.
During our Basel visit, we couldn’t pick just one Basel museum… so 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 pieces by Cezanne, Renoir, Warhol & Lichtenstein along with ancient collections that date back thousands of years.
However, it’s the Fondation Beyeler that won the prize as our favorite museum in Basel. 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 many of the city’s museums and other top Basel attractions. 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. Note, this museum is not part of the Basel Card since it’s not in the city.
4. 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.
While here, you can stomp your feet to activate a number of interactive kinetic pieces that depend on movement for effect. Pushing these levers easily provides hours of enjoyment to kids of all ages, including big kids like us.
Our favorite piece 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.
The Museum Tinguely is located at Paul Sacher-Anlage 2, 4002 Basel, Switzerland.
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 and a great break during a day of Basel sightseeing.
5. Shop at Basel Markets
Like most European cities, Basel has a big public market right in the center of town. Merchants at the Marktplatz send 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 cheese samples. Seriously, you must try alpine cheese, one of the best Switzerland food products.
6. 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 Old Town Basel to the elegantly refined houses along the Rhine.
You can see all this and more when you leave your Basel map in the room and wander around the winding streets. Basel may be expensive, but stroll around the city and ogle at the buildings while you dream about how the other half lives.
Without a doubt, this is one of the best free things to do in Basel.
Plan Your Basel Trip
Some businesses may revise their hours and menus due to COVID-19. Others may close, either temporarily or permanently, without notice. Be sure to check websites for updated information and make advance reservations where possible.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.