Welcome to Basel! Our expat guide has loads of information regarding the history of the city, as well as what to do, how to get around, as well as jobs and housing.
Basel city guide
Basel is Switzerland’s third most populous city, only behind Zurich and Geneva. The city continues to attract expats, students and tourists today due to its beauty and status as Switzerland’s cultural capital. It is also home to the University of Basel, the oldest Swiss university.
Basel is well known for its humanist outlook throughout its history and has provided refuge for some of the world’s greatest academics. The city has also been the site for numerous international treaties and, in more recent times, has become a centre for banking as well as the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
A short history of Basel
The town of Basel grew around an old Roman castle in the 6th and 7th century. The area was first settled by Alemannic peoples, who eventually came under Frankish rule. During this time, the settlement quickly expanded, with evidence being found of the town minting its own coins in the 7th century.
Basel was part of the Frankish Carolingian Empire and ruled directly by a bishop, with the bishopric of Basel being established in the 8th century, supposedly by Charlemagne. The town was part of West Francia when the Carolingian Empire split but was then passed to East Francia. It was then destroyed by Magyar raiders in 917; the city was rebuilt as part of the new Kingdom of Upper Burgundy, eventually being incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire.
Bishops, riots and freedom
King Rudolf III of Germany donated the Moutier-Grandval Abbey and all its possessions and lands to the bishopric of Basel, starting the rule of Basel’s Prince-Bishops. Construction of Basel’s Münster began in 1019 and from then on the city started to take shape. A market was built, a city council oversaw the city and, just like many other Swiss cities, guilds were established. The city continued to pledge allegiance to the bishops, however, towards the end of the 14th century the city was practically independent of imperial and bishopric rule.
In 1376, a riot broke out in the city. The event came to be known as Böse Fasnacht and saw the killing of a number of men serving under Leopold III, the Duke of Austria. The city tried to save face by blaming foreigners for the insurrection and executed the perpetrators. However, the city was given a fine and placed under the control of the House of Habsburg.
Basel joined the Swabian League of Cities in 1385. The league was a military alliance between several free cities aimed at protecting their rights and privileges. The following year, the Battle of Sempach was fought between the Old Swiss Confederacy, which at that point included the cantons of Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, and the Duchy of Austria. The battle ended in a decisive victory for the Swiss confederation and Prince Leopold was killed. A treaty was struck up in 1393, and by 1400, the city was essentially free from both the Habsburgs and the bishops.
Member of the Swiss Confederacy
Basel remained neutral during the Swabian War between the old Swiss confederacy and the House of Habsburg. In 1499, The Treaty of Basel was signed, ending the war and granted the Swiss confederates independence from the Holy Roman Empire. Despite the Bishop of Basel rising through the Imperial Ranks, the city council (Gemeinde), under the control of the guilds, refused to swear allegiance to the bishop, explaining they would only ally with the confederation.
As expected, Basel joined the old Swiss confederation in 1501. The city was the only canton to be asked to join. The city stipulated that it would only join the confederation if it was allowed to remain neutral during future conflicts. In 1503, construction began on a new city hall, after the Bishop of Basel refused to give the city a new constitution. In 1529 the city became Protestant under its new bishop, Oecolampadius.
Basel remained a unified canton throughout the French invasion in 1798 and the institution of the Helvetic Republic. However, in 1830, political disputes broke out between citizens from the city and citizens from the countryside, which culminated in the people from the countryside beseeching those from the city for equal rights and representation. After the conflict between the two factions, Switzerland’s highest authority, the Tagsatzung, separated the city from the countryside: forming the new half canton of Basel-Landschaft in 1833.
In 1897 the first World Zionist Congress was held in Basel. The city also made history when its citizens voted to buy three Picasso pieces, which were due to be sold from a local museum. The city subsequently became the first in the world where art was acquired at the behest of a democratic decision.
What to do in Basel: Sightseeing and activities
There are so many things to do in the city of Basel, but, if you’re struggling for ideas, check out our list below.
Take in the city
Basel is one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland, and you would be doing yourself a disservice if you did not see its most famous and impressive sights. Probably the best place to start is Basel’s charming old town, from here you are just a short walk from a whole host of cultural heritage sites. The most prominent landmark in the city is the Basel Münster, with its red sandstone structure, huge towers and impressive stonework, it’s not hard to see why the building continues to captivate visitors.
The city hall is another red sandstone building that should not be missed, especially since there is a market outside in the square every day. However, perhaps the most fascinating of Basel’s sights is the Spalentor, one of the gates that was built into Basel’s old, historic walls.
While in Basel you simply must take the time to visit some of its unique museums. Some exceptional highlights include the Museum Tinguely; a fun, interactive art museum, featuring machines and sculptures, and the Antikenmuseum Basel: the only museum in the country devoted to ancient history. On the subject of history, why not check out the Pharmaziemuseum Basel? Here, you can find all sorts of artefacts related to the subject of historical medicine. Similarly, the Caricature and Cartoon Museum is the only museum in Switzerland dedicated to illustrating.
The Basel Historical Museum, based in four different locations, is also worth a visit. Another must-see is the Spielzeug Welten Museum, which houses a huge collection of dolls, dollhouses and teddy bears.
Check out the zoo
You just know that the Zoo Basel is good when it’s the most visited attraction in the city, and the second-most popular attraction in the country. The zoo is the oldest in the whole of Switzerland, having been established in 1847, and the largest. The zoo is home to more than 640 species of animals, and its aquarium houses over 500 species of fish, amphibians and penguins.
The zoo has gained international recognition for a number of successful breeding programmes, including cheetahs, Indian rhinos, Okapi and Pygmy hippos.
Indulge your senses
By senses, we mean taste. Basel is well known for its chocolates and you would do well to visit some of the city’s famous chocolatiers, like Läckerli Huus and Confiserie Bachmann. Another of the city’s specialities is Basler Läckerli, hard, spiced biscuits with nuts, honey and fruit.
Travelling around Basel
Annual events in Basel
Whatever you do, do not miss these events that take place in Basel every year!
The Basel Carnival
Basel’s famous carnival is an explosion of colour, music and positivity. Featuring grand parades, concerts and lanterns, the festival is not to be missed.
Basel Tattoo is an annual military tattoo show. The event boasts large live performances by military bands, choirs and dancers. A grand parade is also held, as well as military displays and performances.
Perhaps one of the most well-known Swiss festivals, Basel’s Jazz Festival sees a plethora of international jazz musicians descend on the city and perform at a number of different locations.
One for the art lovers among us, Art Basel is an international art show that features works from more than 250 galleries and 4.000 artists from around the world.