Tucked into the northwest corner of Switzerland, just a handful of kilometres from the French and German borders, Basel is a vibrant, fascinating city. It is home to one of the world’s greatest art fairs as well as the country’s largest and most flamboyant carnival.
Art Basel (www.artbasel.com/basel), which runs for a week in June (14-17 this year), is the world's premier fair of modern and contemporary art. Yet, despite the flair of this huge event and the city's breathtaking museums, the heart and soul of Basel remains its beautifully preserved medieval Old Town (Altstadt). Perched above the banks of the Rhine, its twisting streets and alleys lead you past buildings dating back to the 15th century, and eye-catching oddities like the Tinguely Brunnen, a pool with strange mechanical fountains created by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely.
A comfortable bed
Swissôtel Le Plaza (https://www.swissotel.com/hotels/basel) is an excellent hotel located on Messeplatz, right opposite the Exhibition and Trade Centre – smart and stylish, with impeccable service. Double rooms cost from 313 Swiss francs (Dh1,229, including breakfast).
Der Teufelhof (www.teufelhof.com) is a small art-themed hotel in the old town. Created from two 18th century town houses, it includes a theatre, and a cellar housed among remnants of the city's medieval walls. Double rooms cost from 228 francs (Dh894, including breakfast).
The Krafft (www.krafftbasel.ch) is a good value historic riverside hotel, with complimentary self-service water and tea stations on every floor, as well as free use of the hotel's Brompton bikes. Double rooms cost from 157.50 francs (Dh618, including breakfast).
Find your feet
Wander up through the Old Town from the market square opposite the Town Hall (Rathaus), to the imposing red sandstone cathedral with its twin towers and colourful tiled roof. Behind the cathedral, the Pfalz terrace offers wonderful views across the Rhine to the houses on the other side, as ferry boats cross the river driven only by its current.
Basel is home to several world-class museums, foremost among them the Kunstmuseum (www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch), which spans three buildings, housing an astonishingly rich collection of artworks. There are paintings dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries by Hans Holbein the Younger, Cranach the Elder and other Old Masters; while the 19th- and early 20th- century collection includes iconic works by the likes of Picasso, Mondrian, Calder, Klee, Cezanne and Van Gogh.
The contemporary collection, housed in the Gegenwart building – one of the world’s first museum buildings dedicated to contemporary art when it opened in 1908 – includes work by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman and others. Finally, there’s a phenomenal collection of prints and drawings which runs the gamut from the Renaissance to the present day.
As well as immersing yourself in its larger museums, spare some time for the city's smaller museums and galleries, such as the Cartoonmuseum (http://cartoonmuseum.ch) and Tinguely Museum (www.tinguely.ch).
Meet the locals
For a taste of everyday life visit one of its large markets, where locals go to stock up on fresh produce. The Stadtmarkt (Tuesday to Saturday) and the trendier Schlemmermarkt (Mondays) are both held in front of the Town Hall. The Indoor Market (www.altemarkthalle.ch), located opposite the main railway station (Basel SBB), is a good place to seek out for reasonably priced street food.
Book a table
The top-notch Schlüsselzunft (www.schluesselzunft.ch) is housed in one of the city's oldest Guild houses, dating back to the 15th century. Choose from entrees along the lines of ravioli stuffed with courgette and saffron with lemon grass foam (24 francs; Dh94), and mains like sautéed pike-perch fillet with sage foam, potatoes and beans (46 francs; Dh180), or plump for the seven-course degustation menu for 125 francs (Dh490).
Tibits (www.tibits.ch), the excellent vegetarian and vegan chain founded by three Swiss brothers, has a branch in Basel, housed in the old Kino Hollywood. Simply load up from the buffet-style cornucopia of dishes, and take your plate to be weighed (4.20 francs; Dh16.5 per 100g).
Ufer7 (www.ufer7.ch) has a short menu with the likes of fish strips (19.70 francs; Dh77) or a more substantial fish platter (38 francs; Dh149), and a nice terrace by the Rhine.
Lackerli Huus (www.laeckerli-huus.ch) is the place to stock up on Basler Lackerli, the delicious spiced soft gingerbread biscuits for which Basel is famous – using a recipe that has remained unchanged for more than 100 years. There are shops on Gerbergasse, Greifengasse and at Basel SBB. For boutiques, jewellery and luxury watches, the old town is hard to beat – Bucherer (www.bucherer.com) and Metzger (www.mezger.ch) are long-established shops on Freie Strasse. Head for Tim Delfs' Sonnenuhren if you like sundials.
What to avoid
Don’t expect to arrive during Art Basel and find accommodation – it’s a must to book well in advance.
Don’t miss the Basler Fasnacht (www.baslerfasnacht.info), Switzerland’s largest carnival. It kicks off at 4am on the dot on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday in February, with Morgestraich – when all the city’s lights are switched off, and people march through the old town carrying exquisitely painted lanterns, to the sound of thousands of pipes and drums. Inscribed on the Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Zurich from Dh3,295 return; Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Zürich from Dh3,225 return including taxes. Swiss Rail (https://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html) runs direct services between Zurich Airport (Zurich Flughafen) and Basel SBB, journey time 90 minutes; or via Zurich Hauptbahnhof with a journey time of 70 minutes.