Situated just behind the national borders, Basel is certainly an important route of communication and exchange with Europe and, in particular, with the neighbouring countries of Germany and France. Every corner of the city exudes a cosmopolitan and international air, which is confirmed by the numerous museums, cultural centres and theatres that are home to the city and make it the Swiss capital of culture. But during the Christmas period Basel is simply home to Switzerland's largest and most atmospheric Christmas market, which attracts thousands of visitors from all over the country and neighbouring countries. We were there on a day trip and here is our travel report.
Situated just behind the national borders, Basel has always been an important route of communication and exchange with Europe and, in particular, with the neighbouring countries of Germany and France. The city’s cosmopolitan and international character is reflected in its high museum density, the highest in Switzerland. Basel has a large number of museums (around 40) and many cultural centres, art galleries and theatres. The city is also characterised by strong contrasts: modern skyscrapers and a well-kept old town, large multinational companies and artisans’ workshops, urban parks and the Rhine River, which in summer offers coolness and fun. But at Christmas time, Basel simply becomes home to one of the largest and most charming Christmas markets in Switzerland, attracting thousands of visitors from all over the country and neighbouring countries. Its popularity over the years has grown so much that it has been voted Europe’s most beautiful Christmas market by readers of the magazine European Best Destinations for 2021! We were there on a day trip and here is our travel report!
Arriving by car
Basel can of course be reached by car via the excellent motorway network connecting it to Lucerne, Bern, Geneva, Zurich and Lugano. From Lucerne and Zurich, the journey by car takes about one hour and twenty minutes; from Bern about an hour and a half; from Geneva and Lausanne about three hours; from Lugano, finally, about three and a half hours. The city offers many paid parking areas, some of which are in the centre or in the immediate vicinity. However, we do not recommend arriving here by car: the city centre is full of trams and public transport and driving here is not easy if you don’t know the city! However, you can find all the information on parking and a handy map at this link.
Arriving by train
As usual, we chose public transport to reach Basel. From Lucerne, an SBB train takes you directly to the city in about an hour, but Basel is also well connected, often by direct trains, with other major Swiss cities such as Zurich and Lugano. From Geneva and south-western Switzerland in general, it is sufficient to change means of transport in Bern. For international connections, the city has three stations: the Swiss SBB, the French SNCF and the German Badischer Bahnhof, all located close to the city centre. While connections from France reach Basel via the French station, those arriving from Germany can choose between getting off at the Swiss SBB station or the Badischer Bahnhof. It is advisable to always check the updated timetables and the different travel options through the SBB website or through the SBB app.
Arriving by plane
Basel has an international airport, the EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, which due to its location and strategic importance is operated by Switzerland, France and Germany. Many traditional and low-cost airlines offer efficient connections to major European cities, both in summer and winter. By car, the airport is only 15 minutes from the city centre. If you prefer public transport, bus no. 50 will take you to the city centre in about 20 minutes. In case you are staying at a hotel or B&B in Basel, you are entitled to receive the BaselCard, which allows you to travel free of charge on the bus from the airport to the city centre. Here you can find all informations about the Basel Card.
It’s Saturday afternoon and in Lucerne it’s a mix of rain and snow falling on and off. Luckily, we are not staying here today. In fact, the plan is to take a train to Basel, where the weather seems to be more merciful. We arrive in the city around three in the afternoon: we wish we had more time to explore the many beauties of the old town, visit the cathedral and the City Hall on a guided tour or enter one of the many museums spread throughout the city. But we’re only here for one reason today: to discover Switzerland’s biggest and most atmospheric Christmas markets! As for the rest, we will certainly come back here in spring, when it will be less cold, and maybe stay a whole weekend. As soon as we leave the central station, we head straight for the historic centre. The streets of the city centre are crowded and invaded by dozens of trams and public transport! We can’t take a photo without a tram in the way! But that’s also the charm of this city made up of contrasts, ancient and modern, so Swiss and yet so different.
The Tinguely Fountain and the Town Hall (Rathaus)
From the station, we walk towards the centre along Elisabethenstrasse, then turn left onto Steinenberg. Along the way, our curiosity is piqued by a strange fountain surrounded by trees and pergolas. It is the Tinguely Fountain, named after the artist who created it in 1977. On the exact spot where the fountain stands today, the stage of the old municipal theatre once stood. To commemorate and honour the actors, mimes and artists who used to perform here, the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely decided to place mechanical metal sculptures in a basin, which, in constant movement, spray water towards each other, creating curious stage effects. We take a few photos and videos and continue on our way. A few steps further on, at Barfüsserplatz, we find the famous “Spielzeug Welten Museum”, the toy museum. Its windows, decorated for the holidays, are a feast for the eyes and we, who are children at heart, will certainly visit it on our next visit to the city. But Barfüsserplatz is also home to one of the city’s two Christmas markets and the sight of the lights, together with the smell of Bratwurst and mulled wine, remind us why we are here! However, it is still early in the day and the daylight would not allow us to fully enjoy the charm of the markets, so we decide to continue our exploration of the city centre for a while longer. We continue along Gerbergasse, a quiet shopping street full of shops and bars, to Marktplatz, where the colourful building of the Town Hall (Rathaus in German) dominates the scene and fills an otherwise grey day with colour. The square is also home to a food, fruit, vegetable, meat and cheese market, open every weekday.
The City Hall building (in german Rathaus) is certainly impressive and has an unusual style for Switzerland. We visited the atrium and the open-air areas, but it is also possible to take guided tours of the inner areas, which are apparently particularly interesting. You can book a guided tour in German or English at this link. Due to the current pandemic situation, participants aged 16 and over are required to present a valid Covid certificate and official ID for indoor tours. In addition, a mask must be worn throughout the tour.
During the Christmas period, the Rathaus also features a beautiful, bright Christmas tree, giving the atrium an even more elegant appearance.
The old town
Leaving the courtyard of the City Hall, we continue a little further along the Eisengasse to the Mittlere Brücke, an old bridge over the Rhine. From here you can admire the river and the part of the city on the opposite bank, with small, low houses and tall skyscrapers in the background. The current bridge is actually not so old, but in 1905 it replaced an old bridge dating back to 1226 which was one of the oldest passages over the Rhine between Lake Constance and the North Sea. We look at the view for a few more minutes and take a few steps back. Here we turn onto a narrow uphill road, the Rheinsprung. We finally leave the hustle and bustle of the shopping streets and begin to immerse ourselves in the historic heart of Basel, where old half-timbered houses, elegant buildings and colourful fountains adorned with statues reign supreme. We like to lose ourselves for a while in its alleyways, wandering here and there and climbing up and down steep steps. And so, without even realising it, in a few steps we reach Münsterplatz, where the splendid city cathedral welcomes us with its sunlit façade. It really is a marvel! Behind the great cathedral, the Pfalz panoramic terrace gives us another fantastic view of the river and the city. From the terrace, a staircase leads up to the ferry dock, which crosses the river without a engine and with only the force of the flow. We keep this experience warm for next time. It’s time to visit the Christmas markets!
The Christmas Market in Barfüsserplatz
The Basel Christmas market is one of the largest and most charming in Switzerland. For 2021, the market takes place from 25th November to 23rd December on Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. More than 130 stands in colourful, traditional wooden chalets offer handicrafts such as jewellery, toys and much more, as well as authentic culinary delights such as white and red mulled wine, waffles, crepes, sausages, raclette and traditional Basel Läckerli. The market can be visited daily from 11 a.m. to 8.30 p.m. (except on 23 December, when the market closes at 6 p.m.).
We started our tour from the market on Barfüsserplatz, around the Barfüsserkirche. Here we had the opportunity to visit the craft stands, some of them remarkable, and to try some typical gastronomic specialties. We recommend a Bratwurst at the “Lang” stand. The sausages are grilled on the spot and served in the traditional way, accompanied by a piece of homemade bread and mustard. Here we also had our first (of a long series: it was really cold! ☺) glass of “glühwein” and, with hindsight, we can certainly say that it was the best of the evening. For those new to Christmas markets, glühwein or mulled wine is traditionally served in ceramic cups decorated with a Christmas theme, often featuring the branding of the Christmas market or town. When you order a glühwein, a small amount (here CHF 3.00) is usually added to the cost of the drink as a deposit for the mug. When you have finished your mulled wine, you can either go back to the stand, order another one (in which case, of course, you don’t have to pay the deposit again and your mugs will be exchanged and refilled for the cost of the drink alone) or you can return the empty mug and the deposit will be refunded. If you’re a hopeless romantic like us, you can take the cup home as a souvenir, waiving the deposit. The choice is yours!
Here at Barfüsserplatz, we also indulged our sweet tooth with a delicious berliner at the Buchser stand. I, Alessandro, chose the Berliner filled with Toblerone cream. Michele, on the other hand, opted for one filled with vanilla and Baileys cream. Both were excellent! If you want to try them, remember that some stands, including this one, only accept cash payment, so before entering the market remember to stop by an ATM!
Covid rules: access for visitors aged 16 and over is allowed with a valid Swiss or EU Covid certificate (QR code) and identity card. Masks are recommended for all visitors. Furthermore, wear a mask is mandatory for all visitors aged 12 and over in indoor spaces and catering establishments. Food must be consumed at the table (of course masks may be removed while eating). It is always advisable to check in advance requirements and rules of participation on the official website of the event. The main entrance to the market is on Barfüsserplatz, but in case the queue is too long, you can also use the entrances on Konzertgasse or Theaterpassage, both of which are less crowded.
The Christmas Market in Münsterplatz
The Christmas market on Münsterplatz will also take place this year from 25th November to 23rd December 2021 and here too you will find many stalls with handicrafts, jewellery, toys and authentic culinary delights. The market can be visited every day from 11 a.m. to 8.30 p.m. (except on 23 December, when the market closes at 6 p.m.).
Compared to the market on Barfüsserplatz, this one on Münsterplatz is probably the most fascinating, both because of its larger size and because of the magnificent illuminated cathedral as a backdrop to the stands. But the main attraction is undoubtedly the large tree that welcomes visitors, created by renowned decorator Johann Wanner. Wandering around the handicraft stands is a real treat, but it’s the culinary offerings that take centre stage! This market offers food of all kinds and for all tastes! Unfortunately, we couldn’t try everything we wanted to (we had already overdone it at the market on Barfüsserplatz!) but we didn’t miss the opportunity to warm ourselves up with (yet another!) Glühwein, accompanied this time by a plate of raclette and boiled potatoes from the Spiessli-Hütte. The raclette was excellent and so was the Glühwein (just a notch below the one at Barfüsserplatz), home-made according to grandma’s old recipe.
Covid rules: access for visitors aged 16 and over is allowed with a valid Swiss or EU Covid certificate (QR code) and identity card. Masks are recommended for all visitors. Furthermore, wear a mask is mandatory for all visitors aged 12 and over in indoor spaces and catering establishments. Food must be consumed at the table (of course masks may be removed while eating). It is always advisable to check in advance requirements and rules of participation on the official website of the event. In application of the entry rules, the entire market is protected by barriers around the perimeter, so entry is possible from the two well-marked gates on the right and left sides of the square.
In Basel, don’t miss the chance to try the famous läckerli, a traditional biscuit made with honey, hazelnuts, almonds, candied fruit and Kirsch. The dough is baked, covered with a sugar glaze while still warm and cut into rectangular pieces.
The Martinsturm, the tower to the right of the cathedral, is also open in the afternoon during Advent (last admission at 5.30 p.m.), offering a very special view of the old town lit up by the Christmas markets and lights. Admission costs CHF 6 per person. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it this time. However, if you are in Basel during Advent, don’t miss this opportunity and, if you do, please let us know by leaving a comment below or, if you want it, by writing an article to publish on our blog!