Picture Switzerland and your mind immediately brings up images of snow capped mountains, skiers jetting down the slopes and oozy fondue, but venture up to the northwest of Switzerland and you’ll find Basel, a cultural hub filled with history, charm and Christmas scenes that look as though they’ve been plucked straight out of a fairytale. 

A small city on the edge of Switzerland, Basel is close to the borders of France and Germany, and elements of the two countries seep into the livelihoods of the space. German speaking, the city is home to so much excitement and change, whilst still being proud of its traditions. 

Come Christmas time, the city is utterly picturesque, home to flurries of twinkling lights, giant trees lining the squares and Christmas markets. Me and my partner were lucky enough to visit just before further Covid restrictions were put into place but if you’re looking for somewhere new to visit next Christmas, read on to find out why you should visit this idyllic Christmas city and bookmark Basel for next year.

The Christmas Markets

As much as we love London’s Christmas markets, nothing can quite beat experiencing a traditional European market in the flesh come November to really soak up the festive season, and Basel is home to some of the best. 

The first of the two main Christmas market areas we explored was Münsterplatz, and we couldn’t help but immediately feel Christmassy. Located in front of the historic cathedral, the square is home to market stalls and wooden shacks, all filled with decorative trinkets and gifts.

The first thing we noticed as we began walking through were the foodie aromas wafting through the air, from clove and cinnamon coming from the mulled wine to the sugar coated churros. Armed with a warming mug of mulled wine – a whole lot stronger than you’ll find anywhere in London – we wandered up and down the market stalls, browsing the gifts, clothes and tree decorations, taking in all of the sights, sounds and smells along the way. Children were racing after one another, adults reconnecting with loved ones over mugs of wine and music filled the air. It felt so nice to be back in a buzzy atmosphere and to people watch the afternoon away. 

The following day we ventured over to Barfüsserplatz, the bigger of the two markets. Similar to its smaller sibling, the square, located in front of the Barfüsserkirche, was bursting with little white roofed market stalls. Each stall, lined with festive foliage, baubles and twinkling lights, was home to independent sellers. 

We fell in love with the stalls selling traditional German-style decorations, featuring little ice skating whizzing mechanically around petite rinks, tiny wooden Christmas trees that would sit perfectly on fireplace mantelpieces and wooden figurines wrapped in warm coats throwing snowballs. 

It’s worth also visiting Adväntsgass, another Christmas market space that’s home to adorable stalls and culinary delights waiting to be tried. I’d recommend grabbing a cup of mulled wine and wandering up and down the picturesque space.

Johann Wanner Christmas House 

Whether you’re visiting Basel in the run up to Christmas or you’re spending a few days here in the summer, make sure you stop off at Johann Wanner Christmas House. 

Home to hundreds upon hundreds of handmade decorations and tree hangings, it’s a sight to behold. We felt like we’d walked into the set of Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. And in a sense, we had, only this is Johann Wanner’s Christmas parlour.

The story of the boutique store is over fifty years old, and his little traditional house has become so popular that he’s even one of the suppliers of Christmas decorations of the Vatican, the White House and the Queen of England – now that’s certainly something to boast about. 

Every decoration is lovingly crafted and naturally we had to buy a couple of little colourful characters to take home for our Christmas tree. Every time I look at the tree now, I smile and think about the story of the Christmas House and my time in Basel. 

And the best part is that the shop is open year round so there really is no excuse not to visit this little Christmas paradise.

Rich in tradition and old architecture, Basel is a field day for self-confessed historians.

The Old Town

Rich in tradition and old architecture, Basel is a field day for self-confessed historians. We’d recommend exploring The Old Town and getting lost down the narrow alleyways, peeking in at the hidden gardens and learning more about the hidden squares and buildings. 

We were lucky enough to have a wonderful private guided tour by Elsa Martin, where we were shown around, delving deeper into the history of the city and its Old Town. Specialising in architecture, Elsa immediately had our attention when we pondered upon the old buildings with delicate wooden shutters lining the windows and we learnt so much about the various secluded squares, townspeople and the city as a whole.

Our tour was on our second day so we’d already seen a few of the areas we explored but it was so interesting uncovering more and finding out about the endless water fountains that are dotted around the city. There are over 300 and the majority of them filter out fresh drinking water. 

Seeing the Old Town at Christmas time made it even more magical. All of the slightly bigger streets were lined with Christmas trees in between each shop, while in the smaller streets and alleyways you could peek into windows and see lights twinkling. 

If you’re thinking of doing a tour, I’d recommend heading to the Basel tourism website to find out more.

The Food Scene 

Dining abroad when you’re vegan can often be a little more challenging, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was blown away by the foodie scene in Basel. 

For a spot of lunch, I’d recommend hitting up Vegitat, a vegan doner kebab shop. Before you skip over this recommendation, give it a chance because it’s far from your typical kebab down the road. They specialize in healthy, vegan options, offering great alternatives to your late night favourite. The staff were super friendly and helpful, and basically ordered for us as there were so many options. We went for the Cigköfte wrap, which is a bulgur wheat paste that’s made with a range of spices and served with fresh salad and sauces, and the vegan doner, made with seitan mixed with a blend of spices. If I lived in Basel, I’d honestly go here every day for lunch. It felt super light, fresh and healthy. 

Another great lunch spot is Za Zaa, a Lebanese restaurant that serves up delicious mezze options. They have a few spots across the city and the interiors in each are truly stunning. We went for the sharing vegan mezze, which was filled with a rainbow of dishes, from falafel to hummus, stuffed vine leaves to cous cous.

Lauch

For a snack on the go, try Mystify, Switzerland’s first vegan donut shop. Again, I couldn’t recommend this place enough. Although on the slightly pricer side for a doughnut (I think it came in at around 5.50CHF, which is around £4.50), their flavours are fresh, original and totally unique. We opted for sharing the sugar and rosemary coated one. 

For night time options, we adored LAUCH. Translating to leek, the restaurant is a brand new vegan and vegetarian restaurant located in the heart of Kleinbasel. Their focus is on sustainability, serving up exclusively local, sustainable ingredients and making vegetables the main focus. We started with a kombucha Prosecco cocktail before we devoured the marinated herb tofu, beetroot ‘jerky’ and fresh focaccia; and the tempura tofu and laurel sauce with smoked blue potatoes, sauerkraut and roasted onion puree.

Another great restaurant is Cantina Don Camillo. Located inside the old Warteck brewery, the restaurant specialises in vegetarian and vegan cuisine, but also has some delicious sounding meat and fish options too. In the summertime, it’s perfect for late night dining on their rooftop terrace.

The Hotels

For those looking to bed in for a cosy night away from the crowds, look to Gaia Hotel. The four-star hotel might not have the most modern interiors and decoration – although it was fun spotting all of the quirky antiques dotted around – this family-run hotel prides itself on offering traditional hospitality. 

It’s also aiming to become a zero waste hotel, and you all of their sustainability efforts just by looking around the room and their plastic free toiletries.

It’s also one of the only hotels in Basel to have a spa type space. The Sauna, which we definitely didn’t utilise enough, provides the perfect place to relax after a long day of sightseeing and exploring the city. As Switzerland is notoriously known for its cold weather, it’s also a great place to warm up too. 

The Culture

We visited a couple of the bigger art galleries, including Kunstmuseum Basel. It’s a giant fine arts museum that specialises in Upper Rhenish and Flemish paintings and drawings from 1400 to 1600 and in 19th – 21st century art. 

While we were here, we headed to the exhibit dedicated to Camille Pissarro, an impressionist and neo-impressionist painter, and is greatly known today for spearheading these two art movements. In the collection, there were works also by Vincent Van Gogh which was super fun to see in person. You could honestly spend a day exploring Kunstmuseum Basel as it’s so big, expansive and home to so many interesting works, artists and collections.

Take a tram out of the city a little and to Fondation Beyeler to explore around 200 works of classic modernism and explore works from some of the biggest names in the game, including Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso. 

While we were visiting, there were two main exhibitions. ‘Close Up’, running until January 2022, spans works by female artists, each one prominent figures within the history of modern art from 1870 to present day. Amongst the artists was work by Frida Kahlo, whose work we felt incredibly lucky to be seeing in person.

The other exhibition ‘Goya’ spanned the artistic career of Francisco de Goya, one of the great court artists. The collection features a range of his work, from portraits through to scrawls of criminals, witches and demons. It was all mixed amongst each other and really fun to see the contrast between the two. 

The city is also home to Theater Basel, which has been named ‘Opera house of the year’ twice, and showcases a range of modern and classic opera shows. The building in itself is well worth a visit.  

Top Tip: It’s worth noting that at all of attractions in the culture section mentioned, you can receive 50% off admission with a BaselCard. When you stay overnight in the city, you’ll receive one and it offers numerous discounts on cultural and recreational activities. And the best part is that all of the bus and tram transportation is entirely free with one of the cards too. Find out more about the BaselCard here. 

Getting About: The Basel tourism website is super helpful, bursting with everything you need to know about the city, where to stay, what to do and how to get there. www.basel.com

Getting Here: Obviously the new variant and Covid has put a spanner in the works right now. It’s best to keep up to date with all of the latest on the Gov website. www.gov.uk


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