In association with Switzerland Tourism
Established in 1681 as an ‘inn for gentlemen’ and rebuilt in 1844 as one of Switzerland’s first and finest grand hotels, Les Trois Rois is an unforgettable place to stay. Built on the spot where the salt ships used to dock at the start of their long voyage down the Rhine, it feels like the centrepoint of Europe, the place where France and Germany converge.
This five-star hotel is as sumptuous as you’d suppose, furnished with antique artworks — but if you venture out into the city you’ll encounter an entirely different cultural scene. Basel boasts some of the best urban art in Europe, and urban art expert Philipp Brogli knows exactly where to find it. ‘Basel is the number one city for urban art,’ he tells me. He’ll show you all the highlights on one of his urban art walking tours. If you’re staying at Les Trois Rois and you’re feeling lazy, you can tour these sites in a graffiti-splattered Bentley, stopping off at Brogli’s Artstübli gallery along the way.
Some of Brogli’s guests are visitors to Basel, but a lot are locals who come along to discover an unfamiliar aspect of their hometown. ‘They come with us on a tour and they suddenly see new things.’
Basel isn’t renowned just for graffiti, though. It’s also a mecca for architecture, and fine art. Local architects Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein have just built an extension to Basel’s Kunstmuseum, transforming one of Switzerland’s best museums into one of the best museums in Europe. Christ & Gantenbein have their head office here, around the corner from the offices of Herzog & de Meuron, Switzerland’s most illustrious architects.
My favourite museum in Basel is the Fondation Beyeler, a tram ride out of town, in a quiet suburb near the German border. Hidden behind a high wall, surrounded by leafy gardens, this modernist gallery was built by Italian architect Renzo Piano to house the modern art collection of Ernst Beyeler, one of Europe’s greatest art dealers.
Beyeler started his career in the 1940s, in a small shop in Basel’s old town, and over the next 50 years he built up an incredible art collection — everything from Impressionism to pop art, from Monet to Warhol. In 1997 he hired Renzo Piano to build this sunlit pavilion to house his favourite paintings, the ones he couldn’t bear to sell. Despite its secluded suburban location, it’s become the most visited art gallery in Switzerland, an oasis in the city. Beyeler died in 2010 but his museum lives on.
Why is Basel such a creative city? Because it’s always been a crossroads, the confluence of France and Germany. Its inhabitants speak German, its airport is in France, and there’s a station for the French state-owned railway company SNCF on one side of town and a Deutsche Bahn station on the other. The adopted hometown of Erasmus, it’s always been an outward-looking place.
Although it’s hundreds of miles from the open sea, Basel has always been an important port, Switzerland’s gateway to the Rhine. Huge barges chug past, bound for Strasbourg and Cologne. You get a great view of this passing traffic from the terrace of Les Trois Rois. If your pockets aren’t deep enough for five-star service, cross the river and make tracks for Hotel Krafft, on the left bank of the Rhine. Simply and smartly furnished, with a lovely riverside restaurant, this elegant four-star hotel is a fashionable rendezvous.
Hotel Krafft is in Kleinbasel, which used to be the red light district. Today it’s Basel’s Rive Gauche, full of quirky bars and cafes. One of the best (apart from Hotel Krafft) is the Volkshaus, a robust bierkeller, discreetly renovated by Herzog & de Meuron a few years ago. Sample their scrumptious wiener schnitzel, washed down with a stein of the local lager.
Basel has a big city buzz, but it’s really not that big at all, and that’s one of the many things I like about it. Brogli calls it a ‘pocket city’. It’s an expression I’ve never heard before, but it seems to suit Basel very well.