Jenny Southan encounters bizarre sculptures, nude sunbathers and hairy ferrymen in Switzerland’s third city
1. Basel Rathaus
Basel city centre is easy to navigate on foot, being only 5 sqkm, but trams and buses are plentiful if you need to get from A to B a little quicker. If you have a Mobility card, which is automatically provided to guests checking into any hotel in the city, public transport is free.
Start your tour on Marktplatz in the old town, on the south side of the River Rhine. From Monday to Saturday there are various stalls selling flowers, fruit, vegetables and pungent cheeses. But the Rathaus (City Hall) is the focal point – the striking red sandstone building is decorated with art nouveau murals and features a green, white and orange beaver-tail tiled roof. Walk into the inner courtyard and admire the statue of Lucius Munatius Plancus, who founded the city in 44BC, before entering the main building and taking the lift up to the top floor. From here you can wander around the battlements on the far side to get a good view of the roof and courtyard below.
2. Kunstmuseum basel
Cut on to Freie Strasse and walk for five minutes before turning left down St Alban-Graben, where one of Basel’s 40-odd galleries, the Kunstmuseum, resides. The permanent exhibitions display works from the 15th to 21st centuries, so it is a lot to cover if you are pushed for time. Aim for sections that appeal to you most, be it the cubist pieces by Picasso, Braque and Gris, the Old Masters, or one of the world’s largest collections of paintings by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin – Adolf Hitler was said to be one of his greatest admirers, owning 11 of his works. There are also some impressive bronze figurative sculptures by Rodin, and a pleasant smattering of lesser-known paintings by Monet, Cézanne, Gaugin and Renoir. Open Tue-Sun 10am-7pm, closed Mon. 16 St Alban-Graben; tel +41 61 206 6262; kunstmuseumbasel.ch
3. Tinguely fountain/ Kunsthalle restaurant
A short walk from the gallery is the Tinguely fountain, off Steinenberg. It was created in 1977 by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, a pioneer of nonsensical Dadaist sculptural machines made from scrap metal and other “found objects”, and comprises various bobbing, spitting and spurting contraptions.
Next to the fountain, under a canopy of horse chestnut trees strung with lights, is Kunsthalle restaurant and garden. If the weather is fine, sit outdoors and take your pick from the Swiss-Italian menu, which has a plat du jour for about SFr 20 (£11), as well as dishes ranging from juicy tomato and buffalo mozzarella salad (SFr 18.50/ £10.50) to T-bone steak with baked potato and sour cream (SFr 48/£27). The venue is popular with local business people, families and couples, and has a Bavarian beer-hall section inside. Open daily 11.30am-12.30am. 7 Steinenberg; tel +41 61 272 4233; restaurant-kunsthalle.ch
4. Cathedral ferry
After a nourishing lunch washed down with a glass or two of local Ueli beer, make your way to Munsterplatz. Here you will find the gothic-style Basel Munster – originally a Catholic cathedral and now a reformed Protestant church – and beyond, the Pfalz, an attractive viewing spot facing the river, the Black Forest and the industrial towers far in the distance.
Descend the steep steps on the left-hand side to the jetty, where for SFr 1.60 (90p) you can take a flat-bottomed boat across the fast-flowing water. Unlike most ferries, it’s attached to a long cable that’s connected to a wire stretching between the two river banks – with the help of a rudder and the current, the boat glides swiftly across, almost side-on. Look out for the local ferryman who reportedly knits his own jumpers (he has a penchant for yellow, red and orange wool) and has “long hairs in his ears that blow in the wind”.
5. Museum Tinguely
If you have time, walk the 20-minute route along the river and keep an eye out for dare-devil swimmers drifting with the strong current, clutching inflatable orange plastic bags with their clothes in (a common pastime in Basel). Solitude Promenade, leading to Museum Tinguely, is a picturesque pathway but be prepared to stumble across nude sunbathers by the water’s edge. The gallery is a feast of mechanical delights made by Tinguely, who grew up in the city. Walk around and press the buttons to experience his soldered iron monstrosities come to life.
Most of the works were produced in the fifties and sixties, when Tinguely was breaking away from traditional “static” art into “kinetic” art – highlights of his later career include Pit Stop (1984), made with parts of a Formula One racing car. Open Tue-Sun 11am-7pm, closed Mon. Entry SFr 15 (£8.50). 2 Paul Sacher-Anlage; tel +41 61 681 9320; tinguely.ch
6. City Beach/Bar Rouge
Complete your tour at one of two bars on Messeplatz, a ten- to 15-minute walk from the museum. City Beach is open from June to September (weather permitting – check the website if you are not sure), and is found on the roof of the multi-storey car park to the right-hand side of the Ramada hotel. Take the lift to the top floor and walk across to where the bamboo-enclosed oasis has been built. There is sand and palm trees, loungers and cabanas, volleyball courts and bars, and a swimming pool surrounded by preening bronzed beauties – it’s like walking on to the set of an MTV music video. Make sure you try one of the mojito cocktails.
In the cooler months, head to Bar Rouge on the 31st floor of the adjacent tower block. The views are great, but dress up if you’re going later in the evening. City Beach, 9th floor, Messeplatz multi-storey car park; city-beach.ch. Open daily 11.30am-midnight. Bar Rouge, Messeturm, 10 Messeplatz; tel +41 61 361 3031; barrouge.ch. Open Mon-Sat from 5pm, Sun from 8pm.