Strolling down an Old Town side street in Basel, Switzerland, you suddenly encounter a surreal music-themed mural depicting rock icons like David Bowie and Kurt Cobain.
The “Wall of Fame” mural on Gerbergässlein, commissioned by L’Unique, a nearby rock nightclub and art gallery, was created by the Art4000 collective in 2008. What makes it a unique contribution to the cultural scene in this quirky Rhine River city is how it is constantly evolving. If you’d love to see, say, Eddie Van Halen or Céline Dion added, Art4000 is happy to consider your suggestion.
For many art lovers, Basel, in northwest Switzerland where the French and German borders meet, first got on the map in 1970. That year saw the launch of Art Basel, the renowned international art fair, which now has sister events in Hong Kong, Miami Beach, and Paris.
Yet Basel’s reputation for artistic flair runs much deeper. After all, the German-speaking city of 190,000, which feels cozy and spacious at the same time, was founded more than 2,000 years ago.
Happily, you don’t need to be an athlete on par with Basel-born tennis legend Roger Federer to explore area galleries and public art installations by e-bike and on foot.
After renting an e-bike at Basel SBB, the central railway station, embark on a picturesque half-hour ride that cuts northeast over the Rhine and along the Landschaftspark Wiese’s woodland trails. The first destination is the airy, contemporary Fondation Beyeler.
This gallery, inaugurated in 1997, is ringed by serene gardens, including a large pond that features Thomas Schütte’s Hase (2013), a grotesque bronze sculpture of a hare spouting water. The works inside are as eye-catching as they are diverse. Impressionist masterpieces like Claude Monet’s Le bassin aux nymphéas (The Water Lily Pond, ca. 1917-1920) are juxtaposed directly with Alberto Giacometti’s eerily slender L’Homme qui marche II sculpture (Walking Man II, 1960). Pop-culture-inspired paintings such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Beach Scene With Starfish (1995) and, in a temporary exhibition in early 2023, Wayne Thiebaud’s 35 Cent Masterworks (1972) add zest and fun.
It’s a mere 15-minute pedal across the German border (no passport required) to reach the Vitra Campus. Vitra, the furniture company founded in 1950 by the Fehlbaum family, showcases iconic creations by designers from Alvar Aalto to Charles and Ray Eames in the Vitra Design Museum. It occupies a spectacular deconstructivist building by architect Frank Gehry.
In the museum shop, you can purchase miniature replicas of pieces such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Barrel Chair and Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair and Ottoman. At the VitraHaus Café, refuel with an artistically presented quinoa carrot sourdough burger with cucumber salad and potato wedges.
Outside, the Vitra Slide Tower, standing nearly 31 metres tall and topped with a six-metre-wide clock, offers a gently thrilling corkscrew tube slide for children.
Back in Basel’s medieval Old Town, the capacious Kunstmuseum Basel is another must-see, easy to reach on foot after dropping off your e-bike. It was founded in 1661 and features the world’s oldest public art collection. Spanning three venues (the newest opened in 2016), the museum has more than 300,000 works from the 1400s to modern times. Hans Holbein, Vincent van Gogh, and Andy Warhol are among the luminaries represented. From Tuesday to Friday, there is free admission after 5 p.m.
Rare indeed is the building in Basel that possesses neither outer nor inner beauty. The 500-year-old city hall with its red sandstone facade, the four-storey Spielzeug Welten Museum Basel jam-packed with whimsical teddy bears, and the glassy, circular Novartis Pavillon, a pharmaceutical giant’s showcase of innovations that evokes Jurassic Park or Westworld, are all aesthetic winners in their own way.
Zurich, Geneva, and Lausanne may get more attention for their respective ties to international finance, diplomacy, and sports federations, yet when it comes to stylish Swiss sights, Basel rocks.