A few years ago I decided to learn German. I wanted something that got me out of my work-home-work-home routine. Plus I find language interesting and have always had an interest in Germany. I signed up for an after work program and ended up hitting it off with a classmate in German 1 and we signed up for 2 and 3 together. At the time she was dating a guy (they are now married) who lived in Basel, Switzerland, so after German 3 she left New York to move to Basel but didn’t leave without telling me I would definitely have to visit. Well, never invite me to your new international home if you don’t mean it, because it was mere months before I was boarding a plane to go visit her.
Basel is situated right on the border of France, Germany and Switzerland. The airport is actually in Mulhouse, France and you exit through a different door to go to Switzerland than to Germany or France. WILD
DAY 1 – BASEL
The easiest way to get to Basel city centre is by the #50 bus, which picks you up right in front of the airport terminal. It’s about a 20 minute ride and it drops you off right in front of the Basel SSB train station, which also happens to be the main meeting place for most of the city’s trams. I’ve got to say, I LOVED riding the tram in Basel. It’s easy to navigate with screens inside telling you upcoming stops, it’s clean and actually runs on time. Basically all the things that the NYC Subway is not.
My friend, unfortunately, had messed up her knee while skiing, so after I met up with her and dropped off my stuff at her apartment, I set out to explore Basel on my own. I had already mapped out everything I wanted to see thinking it would take at least two days, but everything is fairly close together and very walkable (or tram-able), so I saw most of the main sights in one day and still had time to wander the quaint side streets and get lost a bit.
The Basel Rathaus, or town hall, is a 500 year old building in the Marktplatz in the center of town. It’s impossible to miss with it’s red facade. They do organized tours, but you are free to walk into the courtyard to take in the beautiful details on your own, which is what I did.
The cathedral, sits in a large but very quiet courtyard, took me some intense Google Mapping to navigate all the tiny winding streets, but I made it! Make sure to go around the back of the church to get a beautiful view of the Rhine River. I then creeped a bit on the choir practice happening inside before continuing on my self-guided walking tour.
The Spaelntor, which dates from the 1400s, is one of three remaining city gates in Basel. Being from Texas ruins you for reading maps, because you assume everything is an eight hour drive away. On a map the gate looks like an epic cross-town journey from the other sights…it took me 10 minutes to walk. It’s also down the cutest little Swiss street ever.
I returned to my friends apartment in Kleinbasel, which is across the river on the more residential (read: formerly “undesirable”) side of town, for a delicious traditional dinner of Raclette. If life had no consequences, I would eat Raclette every day of my life. Cheese, bread, deli meats. Cute little wedge broil kit thing. Yes, please.
After a long day of transatlantic travel and exploring, we ended the evening down by the bustling river with some Swiss IPAs and a sunset.
DAY 2 – LUZERN
Since I saw most of what I wanted to in Basel on day 1, my friend suggested I go on a day trip to Luzern (Lucerne) on day 2. Luzern is know for it’s spot on the beautiful Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättersee in German, meaning the lake of 5 towns) as well as its proximity to Mt. Pilatus. My plan was to take the train from Basel to Mt. Pilatus and take the cable car to the top and then make my way back to Luzern city centre, but I accidentally slept 12 hours (for the record, I didn’t sleep at all on my overnight flight from NYC to Frankfurt the day before) so Pilatus had to go. Instead, I took the train straight to Luzern, about 1.5 hours, and spent the day exploring the town. I didn’t really have much of an agenda for once, so it was nice to just aimlessly walk around the old part of town.
My first stop was the Chapel Bridge as it was almost immediately outside the train station. The bridge was built in the 1300s, making it the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. There are also many paintings as you walk along that date back to the 1700s…mostly. There was a fire in the 1990s which destroyed part of the bridge (it was rebuilt) but that doesn’t seem to count somehow.
Next stop was the Luzern Rathaus! My friend, whom I was visiting, actually got married here! It’s not near as impressive as the Basel Rathaus, but it’s a quaint walk through the old town to find it.
During my wander around old town I caught a glimpse a city wall. It was clear that there was some way to go uphill and see over the wall so I started to work my way in that direction and I’m so glad I did because you are rewarded by a ridiculously steep climb and a beautiful view overlooking the city! I looked up that you can go into the clock for a tour, but unfortunately they had yet to start up for the season.
It was beginning to warm up a bit so I decided to go sit by the lake before my final destination, the Rathaus brewery. The lake water is so clear and beautiful. There is a nice ledge (well, the sidewalk just kind of stops) in which you can sit and dangle your feet over the edge. This allows for both lake watching and people watching, which I always find ideal. Also, you can do a lake cruise if you don’t waste the first half of your day sleeping.
Full Disclosure, I’m a beer & brewery nerd. So when my friend’s husband, a fellow beer nerd, told me there was a bridge-side brewery in Luzern I knew I must go. After standing to the side for what felt like half an hour to observe if this was a seat yourself situation and losing my nerve to ask in German what the deal was, I bluttered out my question in what was probably terrible English to the waitress and sat myself down. I tried their Hausbier and one of their seasonal beers and sat and enjoyed the patio before running (literally) to catch my train back to Basel.
I got back to Basel in time to meet my friend and her husband for dinner. We went across the street from their apartment to a typical Swiss restaurant, and got cordon bleu (a Swiss, not French dish, who knew?), which involved a lot of cheese (thank goodness, it had been almost a whole 3 hours since my last serving of cheese!)
DAY 3 – BLACK FOREST REGION, GERMANY
The next two days we rented a car to see a few more of the region’s sights. The first day we drove into Germany to drive around the Black Forest. Our first stop was St. Blasien to see the beautiful Abbey there. This small town is tucked deep in the Black Forest region, so you don’t expect to find this massive cathedral there.
Our last stop in Germany was the colorful town of Staufen. I’m sure there is stuff to do there but we just walked around as it’s extremely picturesque.
Day 4 – Switzerland
My last day we went back to drive on the other side of Lake Lucerne, but not without stopping at the Dreiländereck in Basel, which is where Germany, France and Switzerland’s borders all meet. It’s completely out of the way and in a very industrial part of town. My friends tried to talk me out of going, but it was just one of those touristy things I had to do!
We then went to Brennan and took in the amazing view of the Swiss Alps and had a late lunch before driving around the rest of the lake. Then it was back to Basel so I could fly back to the US the next day.
Basel is a great place to go for a long weekend in Europe. It sounds ridiculous to say you are only going for 4 days but there is so much to do and it’s so easy to explore the whole region from Basel, it feels like way more than 4 days. In a good way. The only thing I would maybe have done differently was go to Zurich instead of the second day of driving around. But I guess I’ll just have to do that next time.