If you’ve never been to Basel, it’s time to add it to your travel to-do list. The city is beautiful, entirely underrated, and a less expensive than more popular Swiss tourist destinations (though not by much).
Two decades ago, I spent nearly every weekend in Basel over a number of months. Given half the chance to return more recently, I seized the opportunity – and managed to do it on a budget too.
Here are my suggestions for a one-day visit to Basel on a budget. They’re in no way complete, but each one is cheap to free.
Take the bus to Spalentor
The Basel Hauptbahnhof is always busy – and a great spot to pick up a budget snack or a couple of groceries, though you won’t have any trouble finding a Migros or Co-op grocery store while wandering through the Altstadt. Unless you’ve flown into Basel (an airport that serves three countries at once), this is where you’re likely to start your Basel explorations.
Mercifully, the tram and bus lines are all really well signed. And, you can easily switch to English on the ticket vending machines in the Hauptbahnhof, so getting yourself a ticket shouldn’t pose a problem.
But, there is something you should know before purchasing any public transport tickets in Basel – you can travel about for free if you’ve booked accommodation in Basel Stadt. It applies to nights at hotels and hostels, as long as you pay the required City Tax. You’ll get your BaselCard on check-in, so if you can check in as soon as you arrive, you’ll want to get that out of the way first.
If you need to take a tram or bus to your accommodation, however, be sure to buy a transport ticket at the Hauptbahnhof.
Currently, a short distance ticket in Basel costs CHF 2.30. It’s the same ticket you’ll need to buy if you want to hop on the bus and head straight off to Spalentor to start your Basel tour.
If you’re coming from the Hauptbahnhof, bus 30 will take you directly to Spalentor. (Though you really could walk it if you want to save your Francs.)
Spalentor is one of the remaining city gates. It’ll give you some idea about what the Swiss view as ornate; it’s a lot more utilitarian than you’d find in neighbouring France, but beautiful and symbolic nonetheless.
In no way could this photo ever do it justice. Sadly, it’s one of the few I have. I spent a lot more time taking in the sights of the houses and shop fronts surrounding Spalentor than staring at the gate itself. And, that’s just another reason to head here first; the area is so typically Basel that you just wouldn’t want to miss it. Well that, and it’s a perfect place to begin your ambles through the city.
Walk along the Rhine
There isn’t a direct route from Spalentor to Mittlere Brücke on the Rhine, but that’s sort of the beauty of discovering Basel. The loveliest route takes you past Petersplatz and the university, onto Spiegelgasse and into Blumenrain before ending up near Les Trois Rois. This 5-star hotel (the yellow section in the picture) is anything but budget, but if you’re dressed for it and want to splurge a little, be sure to have a drink downstairs at the bar – it’s lovely inside and its view of the Rhine and the Mittlere Brücke is excellent.
In case you’re wondering Mittlere Brücke is worth the walk across for the pictures, though you’ll want to cross back over if you’re looking to take in history on the cheap.
You can walk along the Rhine, or dart in and out of the streets flanking it, keeping the river on your left as you head to the Münster (cathedral). Either way, there’s plenty for your eyes to take in and enjoy.
Life along the Rhine is quintessentially European. And, it really defines Swiss city life (which is, of course, quite different from Swiss country life). So, I just wouldn’t miss it.
Explore the Basel Münster and Pfalz
As you near the Münster, you’ll come to a viewing platform, known as Pfalz. It’s true this isn’t the most incredible viewpoint in the world, but it’s worth stopping to snap some pictures.
Incidentally, those planetary balloons are unlikely to be there when you go, but who knows.
Basel, like many Swiss cities, is swimming in water fountains. They were indeed where you’d have drawn your drinking water in days past, though I wouldn’t typically recommend that now.
You’ll pass by several on this budget Basel walk, and I do suggest taking a look. As you get to know the city better, the designs fit into each area in their own way – and it’s a lovely puzzle to figure out how.
The Pfalz viewing platform sits next to the Basel Münster, which is likely to be on your list, whether you’re on a budget or not.
You can visit the Münster most days, and you do want to take a look inside if you can. Again, it’s nowhere near as ornate as you’d find in other countries, but there’s plenty to look at, and I’ve always found it tranquil and inspiring.
Entrance, by the way, is free – though donations are always accepted.
If you’re visiting in November or December, you’ll find a Christmas Market in the Münsterplatz. I must assume that a site recce was the only reason these cars needed to mess with my imagery on this particular day. Then again, churches are a centre of life in Europe, which is one of the reasons they fascinate me, so I suppose I really can’t complain.
Tour the Town Hall
By turning around and heading back towards Mittlere Brücke, but veering away from the Rhine river, you’ll hit the Rathaus (town hall) and Basel Marktplatz.
It’s a roundabout walk through the city. You could easily stop here between Spalentor and the Münster, but this way you’ll see so much more – and if you stop at the market, you won’t need to carry your wares as long.
It’s fair to say that Basel’s red town hall is the most recognisable – and prettiest – in the city. I can’t be near the Basel without gravitating towards it. My memories are wrapped in songs and sensations that’ve persisted for decades. I know how it sounds and is supposed to feel. And it always does.
The Marktplatz (which is relatively tiny as far as European markets go) spans the front of the Rathaus, which can make it difficult to get a full view. And that’s okay, because you can easily spend time taking in the individual elements that make this town hall spectacular. (Indeed, I recommend it.)
On weekdays, you can also enter the Rathaus and explore the inner courtyard. Entrance is completely free (though the hours aren’t entirely straightforward), so I’m always suprised that more people don’t take the opportunity to check it out.
Then again, I’m surprised Basel isn’t higher on most people’s list. On market days, you can pick up bread and veggies for supper (if you’re on a hostel budget – and not planning to stay at Les Trois Rois). Omnivores will find cheeses and deli meats. Though I would pass all of it up for roasted chestnuts and glühwein any time they’re in season. And, there’s a confectionary shop just across from the Rathaus which will prompt drooling.
Sip a beer on Barfüsserplatz
Once you’ve had your fill of the Rathaus, the market and drooling, head down Gerbergasse (as if you were returning to the Hauptbahnhof) – and, by all means, explore Basel’s narrow alleyways while you’re at it.
You’ll find plenty of shops along the route to Barfüsserplatz, so if you need to pick anything up (and haven’t stuffed your pack with produce at the market), this is a good chance to do so.
A few fountains break the mounting sensation that you’ll never be able to afford anything in Switzerland. And, you’ll see plenty of Swiss just getting on with their day, which is certainly more pleasant than finding yourself trapped by pockets of tourist groups.
Eventually, you’ll make it to Barfüsserplatz, which is an excellent spot for a beer. You’ll find several options, though my favourite is zum Braunen Mutz Bierhalle.
But, I must issue a warning here – beer isn’t cheap in Basel. You’ll pay about CHF 8 for a single beer. But, it’ll give you an excuse to people watch like the locals if you stop off here. And, if you’ve picked up all the ingredients for an evening meal at your hostel while walking through the city, you can probably figure out a way to justify the cost. I always do. This will still be your cheapest day in Switzerland, whether you have the beer or not.
You can always grab a few beers from the supermarket where they’re much cheaper, if you want another beer. And, once you’ve checked into your hostel or budget hotel, you’ll have that BaselCard so you can take in more of Basel using its discounted entrances – and free city transport.