Switzerland Part 1: Basel

Hello, friends! It’s been awhile and I apologize for not being more present on this platform. We have experienced MANY life changes over the last month or so. We moved from Kansas City, MO to Seattle (technically Bellevue, WA)  about a month ago. We opted to drive across the country with some of our stuff and our two little fur balls. It was an incredible experience! We saw some of the most beautiful parts of the country and, unfortunately, some absolutely horrible places we will never return (I’m looking at you western Kansas and southern Idaho). We stopped along the way in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Boise. All in all, the trip took us about five full days. If you ever have to move, long or short distance, I highly recommend driving. It gives you a chance to see our massive country and REALLY get to know your spouse. For the record, Zach drove the entire way but he refused my help. I offered many times! So there’s that. Sorry, honey! Had to plug my innocence here.

Once we got to Seattle (I’m just going to keep saying Seattle, ok? I feel like everyone knows Seattle. Bellevue, not so much), we had a few days to unwind before leaving for a wedding in Wisconsin. Our stuff arrived from the moving company literally the day before we left. It was just lovely; We only got to sleep in our own bed for one measly night! Ugh! The day after the wedding in Wisconsin, we left for our European vacation!

Those of you who know me personally know that my younger brother and his wonderful wife just welcomed their first baby into the world…in ROME! We had decided that we would only be taking small trips this year after our honeymoon last year. But once we heard the exciting news, we knew we had to book a trip to visit them. Since we would be traveling a significant distance to do so, we opted to plan a visit to another country as well. I had the opportunity to visit Switzerland when I was 12 and I have high school friends that live there. I had always wanted to travel back to Switzerland, and with its proximity to Italy, it was an easy decision. I am so excited to share a part of our Switzerland trip with you today! I’m breaking down my Switzerland posts into Basel and Murren. There are too many good nuggets to share with you and I don’t want my posts to become novels. If you are ever considering a trip to Europe, I can’t recommend Switzerland enough. The people are incredibly friendly, the public transportation system is clean and efficient, and the country itself  is just drop dead gorgeous. Let me explain!

Flying to Switzerland is very easy. Many major airlines have direct flights from big US cities into Zurich. We flew from Chicago, through Atlanta, to Zurich. Sometimes direct flights cost more, but they allow you more freedom in your travels. If anything, opt for a direct flight for your journey home. More on the reasoning behind that in future posts! Once touching down in Zurich, you don’t have to go far to access public transportation. Just going down a couple levels brings you to the train station. If you know your final destination, use the kiosks provided to buy your tickets. Swiss trains are notorious for upholding “legal” riding. Don’t get on a train, bus, tram, etc without having a ticket! We purchased our tickets at the kiosk for Basel, where our good friends live. It is important to note that when traveling following a flight, it’s best to buy the ticket at the time of travel. If you buy your ticket ahead of time (make a reservation) and your plane is early or late, you can’t take another train without buying another ticket. Avoid this hassle by purchasing when you land. Also important to note, once you buy your ticket at the station, it is good for the rest of the day. You can get off at any of the intermediary stops and explore, if you so choose. Trains leaving Zurich are often completely full. It is best to expect that you will have someone sitting next to you so store your bags at your feet or above your head.

Basel is a quaint city of about 200,00 on the Rhine River in northwest Switzerland. It is in close proximity to both France and Germany. You can, as  I will show you later, visit each country within 20 minutes! Talk about being a world traveler! It has medieval origins, dating back over a thousand years. Once surrounded by walls, you can still see the remnants of them at different points in the city. You can follow the cobblestone streets to different plazas highlighting important Basel monuments. From the town hall to the cathedral, everyone can appreciate the magnificent architecture throughout the city.

Basel is a very walkable town. And, if walking isn’t your thing or if the weather doesn’t cooperate, Basel has its own tram system. Nonetheless, staying in a central location will ensure you have easy access to all of the best parts of Basel. We stayed in “old town” Basel in the Spalenberg area in this sweet little Airbnb. This particular area is, as my mom would say, dripping in charm. Imagine any fairytale in your head. Got it? Ok that is old town Basel. Beautiful cobblestoned hills, German and French influenced buildings and homes, and fountains, lots of fountains. Fun fact: you can drink from all the fountains in Basel! The water is clean and fresh. Not only that, you can jump into fountains in Basel if you’re looking for a “Friends” experience! As you walk through the streets of the Spalenberg area, keep your eyes peeled for Konditorei-Confiserie Gilgen. We had the flakiest, buttery, sweet apple fritters here. We came to find out from our friends that this bakery is quite famous among locals, especially during the Christmas season. Another noteworthy food stop in the area is Hejkoh. It’s a cafe and lifestyle concept shop. Everything you see in the store is for sale! And, look for a friendly barista behind the counter named Julia. Tell her Sarah sent you in.

Julia and Sonja are my two Swiss friends from my high school years. Julia studied abroad at my high school and Sonja, her best friend, nannied for a family in my neighborhood following Julia’s year abroad. My whole family become incredibly close with both of them and we remain friends to this day, despite the obvious distance between us. They also served as our two tour guides during our time in Basel, giving us the insider’s view of the city. Our tour started the day we got to Basel! Julia picked us up a the Basel Train Station (Basel SBB) and brought us to her apartment for coffee and pizza. Sonja joined us for lunch. After that, we hit the road running!

Day 1 in Basel

Though we didn’t have beautiful weather, we were still able to appreciate the city from all angles. Our first stop of the day would be the Basel Town Hall. The town hall building is around 500 years old. It functions not only as a legislative building for government, but it also serves as a voting hall for Basel residents. It is hard to miss in Marktplatz (the plaza area in front it) as it is beautiful burnt red! The architecture itself is exquisite. Murals cover the walls of the inner courtyard accented with gold. We were unable to enter the building as government was in session, but would recommend it if you have the time.

We continued on our way towards the river at the center of town, the Rhine. During the summer months, the Rhine is the place to be for a cool dip, a bite to eat, or to share a few beers with friends. We did not get to experience this “pop up bar” culture since it rained nearly every day we were in Basel. But don’t be alarmed if you find the banks of the Rhine packed on a beautiful day!

Basel is home to many bridges that cross the Rhine at different points in the city. We crossed the Middle Bridge, or Mittlere Brucke, many times during our stay. This elegant old bridge is lined with flags and is adorned with a small bell tower in the middle. After crossing, we made our way down the walkway along the Rhine, stopping to take in the view and refreshing drinks from the fountains. To get back to the other side, instead of opting for bridge, we took a river ferry! This motor-less boat relies completely on the tides of the Rhine to carry passengers from one side to another. It is tethered to a line stretching from either side so it doesn’t drift away. To alert the captain you wish to ride, simply ring the bell.

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After riding across, we found ourselves at the base of the Munster, Basel’s cathedral. Built in 1091, this church is a testament to Basel’s longevity throughout the years. We walked through the courtyards and admired the view off the back of the church. We couldn’t enter the church at that time since there was a service occurring. But we would be back to explore that the following day. The Munster is home to “whisper columns”. You know that game you would play at the park as kids? One of you would stand at one end of the park and your friend would stand at the other end. You would whisper or speak into a funnel that would pipe your vocals to your friend. Similarly, these arched columns allow you to secretly whisper to your friend standing on the other end.

Our last stop of the day was the Tinguely Fountain. Famous for his “working” art, Jean Tinguely was a prominent Swiss sculptor. He gave life to many well known works throughout the world including the elaborate and colorful fountain in Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. This fountain is a true work of movement! The pieces all move and spray water in different directions. The fountain is left on during the winter months creating a unique ice display. We would be visiting the museum dedicated to Tinguely later in the trip.

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After a long day of travel and exploring (really, we had been up since the previous day in the US), Julia and Sonja prepared a traditional Swiss meal for us. No, it wasn’t fondue or rosti. We had mac n’ cheese with applesauce! Yes, you read that right. WITH APPLESAUCE. Now, I was pretty skeptical (hello, I’m from Wisconsin, you don’t mess with my cheese). With that being said, I was pleasantly surprised! The key to success with this dish is the rich and decadent homemade mac n’ cheese. You absolutely cannot use Kraft boxed mac n’ cheese for this recipe, folks. The part that ties it all together is the crisp bacon. This dish has it all! You get rich and creamy from the sauce, a sharp bite from the cheese, salty and crispy from the bacon, and sweet from the applesauce. You even get a temperature difference between the mac n’ cheese and the applesauce. This is what I like to call a food party in my mouth! Ok Julia and Sonja, you guys were right. This stuff is scrumptious. Don’t knock it until you try it, preferably in Switzerland (we saw it on some menus at restaurants!).

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Day 2 in Basel

After a glorious night of sleep, we were rested and ready to explore more of Basel. We meandered down the street to a local coffee shop and enjoyed a croissant and cappuccino. **Travel tip: many local stores, cafes, and restaurants may have a card minimums. It is not a bad idea to withdraw Swiss francs when you arrive in the country**. It’s not a bad idea to carry cash with you in any foreign country! After breakfast we realized our credit card didn’t work on the cafe’s machine. One of us had to venture to find cash to pay for our meal. Not the end of the world, but it can throw a wrench in your day!

Following breakfast, we wandered the streets of Basel with our friends. It was so fun to walk through these old, quiet neighborhoods. We made our way back to the Munster, the cathedral in Basel. After admiring the stunning simplicity of the interior, we paid the attendant and began making our way up to the top of one of the spires. The access to the spires is behind a door at the back of the sanctuary, to your left when you enter the church. The attendant must buzz you in. After a dizzying climb, we made it to the top. You can walk around the entire spire, getting a panoramic view of Basel. I have such a precarious relationship with heights. If the lookout point is enclosed, sign me up! If the space is open, it’s a different (terrifying) story. I have absolutely no idea why I react like this! Anyone else out there? Tell me I’m not alone! Anyways, while everyone else leaned over the edges of the spire (it’s making me nauseous just writing about it!) I stayed safely in the center. The view, however, is quite marvelous. Don’t forget to take in the intricate tiling on the roof! You can really appreciate the design from above.

After a suspenseful morning (for me, primarily), we enjoyed a yummy lunch at 1777 Kaffee. Tucked away in a quiet courtyard, this busy lunchtime restaurant serves build-your-own sandwiches and salads. They have English menus, which came in handy for Zach and I. They have pre-set sandwiches and salads on the menu as well, if you don’t want to make your own creation. If you get a sandwich, get butter on it. Sounds weird, but it’s a common practice in many European countries and takes the place of the mayo we would use in the states. It is soooo good. It adds a creamy and fatty component that pulls the sandwich together. Get an iced tea (served upside down) or a gasoza (a fruit soda-the raspberry is super tasty) for a refreshing addition to your meal.

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Following lunch, we walked over to Marktplatz where we indulged in some post-lunch sweets. Julia and Sonja claim that Laderach is the best Swiss chocolatier. After trying their chocolate, it was hard to disagree! Upon walking into the store, you are greeted by a sprawling display of chocolate. There are two counters serving two types of chocolate, truffles and bark. Get a truffle (or like three) for a small bite of decadence. And, because you’re in Switzerland, just get the bark too. There are so many flavors of chocolate (think milk, dark, white, etc) with different mix-ins. From dried fruit to nuts or nougat, there is a bark flavor for everyone!  If you don’t make it to Laderach, go into any grocery store (typically a Migros or a Coop) and buy chocolate off the shelf. Even the Lindt tastes better in Switzerland than it does here! There are far fewer fillers, additives, and waxes than we use in the US. It’s pure chocolate. If you go to Switzerland, you must eat Swiss chocolate. It’s a non-negotiable, people!

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Once the sweet tooth was satisfied, we made our way to the Tinguely Museum. As mentioned above, Jean Tinguely was an influential Swiss artist and sculptor. He and his partner, Niki de Saint Phalle, established an entirely new way of viewing and creating art. He specialized in creating loud, interdependent, moving pieces that utilized power (from a motor of some sort) or momentum to take some sort of action. Whether it was a wheeled contraption that moved back and forth or a machine that drew pictures, his work is captivating. Niki added visual appeal to his work, particularly in the fountain mentioned above in Centre Pompidou. This museum is the perfect rainy day activity. Basel has many renowned museums. If the Tinguely Museum doesn’t sound interesting to you, there are many more! From art galleries to acclaimed museums, Basel is a city that celebrates the arts.

That night we met Sonja and Julia for tapas at Tapas del Mar, right in the Spalenberg neighborhood. They have a great deal for tapas; order the “tapas for four”, or however many people you have in your group. You are then presented with the chef’s choice of tapas. They are all so delicious. We were given maybe four rounds of delectable tapas! If you’re like me and super indecisive, this is the way to go. Don’t forget to save room for the dessert!

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Day 3 in Basel

On our final day in Basel we were greeted by the sun! We were so happy to have a day of warmth before traveling south to the Alps. We met up with Julia and walked to a fun and quirky brunch spot called Avant Gouz. Come hungry to this place, you guys! The portions are out of this world. Julia and I got the Vegi brunch and Zach got the Speck (bacon) brunch. Each plate comes with a green salad, quinoa, mushrooms or bacon (per specification), a fried egg, yogurt and granola, quiche, a smoothie, pancakes, and bread with butter and marmalade. So much food! Now this is a breakfast that will keep you full throughout the day. Although I couldn’t finish my entire plate, I enjoyed all the different components.

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Following brunch, we took a leisurely walk down to the port area. If you follow the road to the point of the port, you come upon a cute little beach bar and restaurant. If you go just past it, you come to a rocket ship shaped monument displaying the Swiss, German, and French flags. Remember a while back when I said that while in Basel you could also visit Germany and France? This is the tripoint between all three countries!  Though you can’t truly cross into the different countries at this point since there is water in between, you can see the bridge that links Germany to France. So close! At this point, Sonja met up with us for a refreshing drink at the bar. If you really want to enjoy refreshments like a true Swiss, order a Rivella. This cream soda like drink was especially welcome on a hot sunny day! We made our way further down the Rhine into Germany. Be forewarned, you cannot take the tram into Germany unless you have a specific ticket, which is more expensive. It’s best to get off the tram at the stop before Germany and simply walk across the border. Though you don’t need your passport to cross into Germany, you should always have it with you. If you walk around the shopping center to your left, you will be able to see the Three Countries Bridge. Take this bridge to venture into France!

This concluded our time in Basel! If you have a couple of days in Europe without plans, I encourage you to visit this Swiss city. We had so much fun learning all about this beautiful river city. Definitely bring shoes comfortable for walking! We are so lucky to have such wonderful friends and tour guides willing to show us around their city. Julia and Sonja- thank you! If you want to experience Basel like we did, look into a self guided walking tour. You can find information in the Basel tourism store in Marktplatz (I believe?) on self guided tours in the city. There are placards throughout different parts of the city to guide you. Or just use this link: https://www.basel.com/en/oldtownwalks.

Planning a trip to Switzerland? Have questions about travel in general? Let me know!

Be on the lookout for my next installment of the Switzerland blog: The Swiss Alps!  

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Until next time,

 

XOXO, Sarah