If you’re going to spend a weekend in Basel, Winter is the time to do it. Not because it snows (the city sits in a valley, so is largely sheltered from the elements), but because it’s one of those cities that really does come into its own in the darker months.
The food here is hearty and warming, so visiting Basel in the colder months is probably the best time to experience it; you’re not going to want to eat heavy meals in the summer. And with festive markets, cosy pubs, pretty lights, and a chill in the air that makes wandering the streets of the Old Town even more magical, spending a winter weekend in Basel is even more appealing.
A Winter Weekend in Basel
Basel Christmas market
The Christmas markets are one of the main reasons people visit Basel in winter and to be honest I don’t blame them; Basel has a special charm during winter and the markets only help to bring people in the city together. There are two locations for the markets: Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz, right in the centre of the city and at the heart of the festively decorated Old Town.
The markets are a hive of activity during December and seem to bring locals out of their houses and into the bright lights of the stalls. There are over 180 traders and artisans with goods on sale in rustic wooden chalets which are lovely to wander around, especially at night when they’re lit up with fairy lights.
You can’t visit the market without trying the culinary delights, though: there are waffles, Basel Läckerli (a type of gingerbread), and Swiss raclette, to name a few. And, of course, a cup of warming glühwein is a must at any Christmas market.
Basel Christmas market begins on 24th November every year and stays open until 23rd December.
Basel Dollhouse Museum
I know what you’re thinking; a dollhouse museum, really? Yeah, I know it sounds weird, and I know that when you walk in you’ll be totally creeped out like I was because who wouldn’t be with hundreds of teddy bears and dolls watching over you? But, as I explored the museum more, which is the largest of its kind in Europe, it was actually kind of fascinating. The care that’s gone into making sure every detail is correct is amazing, and some of the dollhouses will make the plastic Barbie one you had as a child look a lot less fun than it was at the time.
Take a free walking tour
When I travel on my own (which is, errr, basically always) I like taking free walking tours. Not only do they help you get your bearings in an unfamiliar city, but you also tend to get loads of insider tips from your local tour guide and learn loads about the place you’re visiting. There are various tours available, including Downtown Basel, Klein Basel, historical, and modern art, all organised by Free Walk Basel.
Jean Tinguely Museum
I was a little pessimistic about the Jean Tinguely museum. It’s basically a showcase of his ironworks, and it felt kind of out of the way when I visited. Reader, I am OK with admitting I was wrong. This museum is pretty awesome, even if ironworks aren’t your thing.
Located in the Solitudepark by the river Rhine, the museum contains a permanent exhibition of the works of Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely, who’s best known for his kinetic art, and is worth a visit just to play around with the interactive pieces. The walk back in the centre of Basel along the river is lovely too, so skip the bus and stretch your legs after your visit.
Basel Winter Carnival
If you’re in Basel in February or March, make sure you take to the streets to see Basel Winter Carnival, held between the Monday and Thursday following Ash Wednesday. The Fasnacht (carnival) is the largest festival of its kind in Switzerland and sees some 15,000 – 20,000 participants in costumes and masks parading through the dark streets of Basel holding lanterns up to 9ft tall, which have cut-outs representing an event that’s taken place in the past year.
The three best days, according to the locals, kick off at 4am on the Monday after Ash Wednesday, with people walking the streets of Basel playing pipes and drums, with visitors dancing along with them.
Take in the views across the Rhine
In Summer, the Rhine is a popular place for swimming. Locals use special bags that keep their clothes dry *and* act as a float to hold onto and spend hours in the water. In winter? Not so much. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy being by the Rhine though.
There are numerous bridges connecting Basel Old Town (the main part) with Klein Basel (the smaller, newer, but no less lovely part) which make the perfect place to admire the beautiful buildings on each side of the river. Or take a walk along the waterside, there are plenty of cafes to stop at along the way.
Basel’s Kunstmuseum has a huge range of fine art dating from the 1400s right through to the 21st Century and includes pieces by an equally huge range of artists, from van Gogh and Bocklin, to Picasso and Leger.
When I visited Basel there was a Jackson Pollock exhibition on in the newer part of the museum, which was super interesting. Opt for a tour of either a temporary exhibition or the main collection and hear the stories behind the art and more about the artists’ lives as you go around.
Winter eating in Basel
Volkshaus is all white tablecloths and suited waitstaff. It’s light and airy and the perfect place for lunch on a crisp winter day – especially if you can get a table with a view of the lovely courtyard and Christmas tree outside.
This cosy pub in KleinBasel brews its own Ueli beer (you can even see the brewing room from the restaurant) and is just metres away from the banks of the river Rhine. Food-wise you’re looking at hearty, home-cooked meals. Perfect for warming you up after a cold day outside.
Nothing says winter in Switzerland like enjoying a cheese fondue with your friends and family and Fondue Stübli is the best place for it. Situated in the garden of the Kunsthalle restaurant, a stone’s throw from the Christmas market, Fondue Stübli is so warm and welcoming that you’ll want to prolong the traditional fondue experience for as long as possible.
Where to stay in Basel
I stayed at Hotel Wettstein which was in a really good location: a 5 minute walk from the Rhine, a 10 minute walk into Central Basel over a bridge with a beautiful view across the river, and the number 2 tram (which takes you directly to the SBB train station where many of the airport transfer buses stop) is literally around the corner.
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Disclaimer: during my time in Basel I was a guest of Basel Tourism. However, all images and opinions are my own.