Kristina Foster discovers what makes Basel such a magnet for art lovers and cultural connoisseurs.
Basel is Switzerland’s brainy city of culture and design. Densely packed with art and history, there are almost 40 museums scattered across the timeworn town; the highest number of museums per capita in the world. In addition to quantity, Basel picks up its arty reputation by glamorously hosting the mother ship of all art fairs, Art Basel, in June each year.
This contemporary canton is also the home of global design heroes Herzog & de Meuron, the visionary architects responsible for Tate Modern and Beijing’s Olympic stadium. The resulting downtown skyline is an elegant balance of old institute and new school monuments. Like a Swiss army knife of cultivation, Basel flicks out a medley of creative nourishment left, right and center.
Where to stay
Les Trois Rois is the grande dame of Basel hotels, sitting pretty on the picturesque left bank of the Rhine.
The opulent hotel dates back to 1842 and was painstakingly renovated by a team of historians to authentically preserve all the original detailing from its founding year. The deep ruby wallpaper lining many rooms feature are actual frescoes uncovered during the archaeological style restoration. With an illustrious guest book that includes Queen Elizabeth II, Picasso, Thomas Mann, Theodor Herzl, and Napoleon, this is one swank house.
What to Do
The Jean Tinguely Museum houses large scale, interactive metal sculptures by Swiss artist Tinguely, in addition to highlighting contemporary living artists. The freaky fabrications of Czechoslovakia’s most successful young artist, Kristof Kintera are both cheery and eery. Kintera’s show will be exhibited at the Tinguely until the end of September 2014.
Catch the leisurely 6 tram to Fondation Beyeler to view the impressive personal collection of art dealers, Hildy and Ernst Beyeler. The selection includes works of classic modernism such as Cezanne, van Gogh, Monet, Lichtenstein and Bacon. The cutting edge structure, designed by Renzo Piano is set amongst manicured gardens that are sprinkled with graphic contemporary sculptures. Over the summer Fondation Beyeler features an impressive collection of Gerhard Richter works — portraits, still-lifes, landscapes, abstract and over-painted photographs encompassing the major periods in Richter’s career.
The Kunst Museum houses the largest public art collection in Switzerland and contains a striking assemblage of paintings and drawings by local artists in addition to a focus on Cubism (Leger, Picasso) and German Expressionism (Kandinsky, Heckel).
After an intellectually heavy day at the galleries, take in some air and float away with a schwimmsack. Schwimmsacks are inflatable yellow plastic bags that serve the dual purpose of aiding flotation as well as zipping up to keep your belongings dry inside. On a sunny afternoon, scores of swimsuit-clad folk languidly bob up and down, relaxing on the Rhine.
If summer time lounging is not on your itinerary, the Easter holidays bring the Basel Fasnacht, a three-day street party extravaganza where you can truly see the city unbutton and let loose. The annual gala, which takes place the Monday after Ash Wednesday, sets off with a dazzling caravan of colorful illuminated canvas lanterns, followed by a carnival of masked musicians and costumed performers dusting confetti across the many spectators lining the cobbled laneways.
Where to Eat
Snap up a seat by the glamorous terrace at Cheval Blanc, overlooking the river. With only ten tables at this exclusive enclave, reservations at this two-star Michelin restaurant are in haute demand. The décor is old school chichi gleaming with chandeliers, silk drapes and polished mahogany; a tranquil contrast to the gastronomic creations of chef Peter Knogl, whose inventive cuisine seems to animate the room. His delectable signature dish, a smoked eel and pink beetroot igloo, powdered with foie gras snow and surrounded by mini puddles of green apple compote and wasabi, leaps off the plate.
Where to Shop
Riviera is an artfully curated concept store stocking edgy European brands and avant garde Swiss designers including small-town darlings, Laure Paschoud and Velt. Continue to stylishly saunter down Feldbergstrasse in the bohemian Kleinbasel area to discover neighborhood jewelry makers, high-brow book stores and funky thrift shops. Hangout with the hipsters at Tarzan for the locally designed t-shirts and über cool streetwear. For big name designer brands, hit up Bongenie Grieder and invest in an exceptionally tailored uniform from Swiss luxury legend, Akris.
Where to Party
The in-crowd flock to Volkshaus, a former concert hall refashioned by Herzog & De Meuron into a foxy bar and brasserie. Kick back in the biergarten with a tall glass of Basel’s Warteck lager, a plate of Jenzer’s raw ham and the groovy tunes from the live jazz band.
Garage is a cozy club for moody deep house and fresh electro dance beats. Snuggle in for a night with the locals as innovative new generation DJ’s deliver thumping whoomps and devastating drops.
Even when Art Basel isn’t happening, Basel is a charming indie city punching well above its weight in the global style stakes.
For more information, visit www.basel.com.