This page on Basel, rewritten in March 2006, goes beyond a travelogue and includes the personal experience of an experienced European traveler harkening to the days when he was a novice. When I took this trip, I had no idea what I was doing and in some ways it showed, particularly as I compared my later travelogues with the rather pathetic offering this page originally contained. So, rather than merely update it with some more flushed-out facts about Basel, I thought I'd include bits of story about what it was like for me taking my first out-and-about adventure and describe some of the mistakes I made along the way, and how I learned to avoid them in future.
Basel was one of the "original eight" travelogues on this website when I originally launched it back in May of 2001. Back then I had finished (re)doing my apartment, the weather was getting nice, and I was itching to get out and see things. Basel was one of the first "long-distance" trips I elected to take from Heidelberg, Germany -- roughly a 150-mile straight drive, leaving very early on a Sunday morning and getting back that night. I did this without doing much prior research, so I didn't know where to park, where the sights were, what to do or where to eat. Why did I choose Basel? Because I decided I had to get out of Germany and visit Switzerland, and this was a prominent border city on the Rhein River, so I figured it had to be ok. It did turn out to be an interesting place, so first I'll describe my experiences going around the city, then relay all the things I did wrong on this trip and how I avoided repeating those mistakes.
Basel bordered both France and Germany. The old city of Basel contained the commercial sector and resided on the southern bank of the Rhein as it curved northward. The first photograph showed the southern bank, taken from one of the bridges. The northern bank contained the border region with Germany and was more residential, while the west contained more of the industry.
It was from the northern bank where I entered Basel, following the strand to the stone bridge in the background of the first photograph. This was the Mittelsbrucke, one end of which is shown in the second photo. Common to Swiss stone bridges, it was lined with flags representing the city, canton, and other cantons. The Mittelsbruecke brought me to the main commercial district of downtown Basel. The Rathaus, or town hall, was the most distinctive building on this square. It is shown in the third photograph, a tall and bright red structure with loud yellow and blue trim. Entering through the front arches, I came upon a foyer painted on all sides with a beautiful series of murals depicting famous events in Basel's history. The foyer also contained a red sandstone column topped with a gilded figurine dressed like a gladiator, probably of a former king or ruler of Basel. The remainder of the square contained a lot of very large and elaborately-decorated stone buildings.
My next goal was to located the large church at left in the first photograph. Following the market street, I found a series of staircases leading up to high ground directly over the southern bank. I climbed one of those stairways and found myself in a large plaza with a huge parking lot for tour buses and a park nearby. The plaza contained a number of outdoor cafes, museums, restaurants, and hotels, plus a terrific view of the river. The church, called the Muenster and shown in the fourth photograph, was at the east end is pictured below. I toured the Muenster's interior and through the Muenster grounds. It had a long, winding open air entrance hall to the side filled with statues and paintings, and it led out to a terrace overlooking the river.
I went back down to the bank and headed toward the bridge where I began the tour. Along the way, I came upon the Kunstmuseum, shown in the fifth photograph. I did a quick tour inside the museum since it was close to closing time, and found it very nice. From there, I headed back to the car and home.
Since I did this trip, I had a couple of occasions to pass through the Basel main train station, which was only a short distance from the market square. The station had Swiss and French terminals, and I had to pass immigration to get from one to the other. The train station emptied out to another huge market square that had plenty enough activity to keep me occupied on long layovers.
Now that I've hopefully convinced you that this is a pretty decent place, what was the rest of the story? My first lesson was to never, never visit Switzerland only on a Sunday -- at least the German and French parts. Although Switzerland was a fully neutral and secular country, its cultural roots were still very strongly influenced by religious (Christian) conservatism. In other words, Sundays were days of rest. Nothing was open, and very few people were out on the street. The center of the city was therefore a ghost town. The lesson I learned was that weekend trips had to be structured around this phenomenon. Visiting city centers was for Saturdays, when the shops were open and people were out. On Sundays, it was better to hit the outdoorsy places such as parks, amusement centers, mountaintop resorts, hiking trails, and palace gardens.
The second lesson was not to drive into Switzerland once. Switzerland charges an annual road toll that one paid the first time entering the country. My 2001 sticker was 60 Swiss francs, about $40 and toll sticker was then good for that calendar year. But I didn't drive to Switzerland again that year. $40 to enter three miles into Switzerland. Not smart. If one decides to drive into Switzerland, it should be done cost effectively.
The third lesson was obvious: scope the place in advance. In the middle of the decade, I found that nearly all European cities began heavily investing in their Internet presence specifically for attracting visitors (both tourists and business folk). Thus, before I visited someplace new, I usually scoped their website and listed out the key attractions. I also made it a point to seek the tourist information bureau office first and get a city map or guide -- many of them had walking tour maps available for free.
Trip Taken 20 May 2001 -- Last Updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin