It may be the world’s hottest destination for art collectors, who swarm the city during the annual Art Basel fair in June, and high-caliber shoppers, who make springtime pilgrimages to Baselworld, the most important watch and jewelry convention around the globe. But during the other 50 weeks of the year, Basel is perhaps best described as Switzerland’s alternative city because of its intellectual, slightly quirky character (nowhere is this more apparent than in Kleinbasel, a bohemian paradise in the style of Paris’s Left Bank, which lies across the town from the city center of Grossbasel). Whether you are traveling to one of Basel’s monumental fairs or just vacationing, here is a guide to your downtime.
The place to stay is the Hotel Les Trois Rois, which dates from 1844. It reopened in March after a multimillion-dollar renovation and its riverside terrace has become a hot spot for cocktails. From $470. At 8 Blumenrain; 41-61/260-5050; lestroisrois.com.
Although the tram system is perfection, the best way to explore Basel’s countless tiny streets is by bicycle. Head to Cenci Bikes to rent a top-of-the-line lime-green 8- or 24-speed Cresta. At 51 Clarastrasse; 41-61/681-8808.
The city’s glitterati pack into Acqua (dinner, $110; 14 Binningerstrasse; 41-61/271-6300) for its outstanding Italian menu, lively bar scene, and high-ceilinged dining room. For a sinfully opulent meal by candlelight, let restaurateur Maja Schneiter ply you with venison in red-currant sauce and chocolate mousse with toffee walnuts at Restaurant zur Schuhmachernzunft (dinner, $140; 6 Hutgasse; 41-61/ 261-2091). Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city in the remains of a former bathhouse is one of Basel’s best-kept secrets: the serene MS Veronica (195 St. Alban-Rheinwig; 41-61/311-2575). It’s only open May through September, but there’s no finer place to watch the sun set and dine on fresh local ingredients. Jay’s Indian Restaurant (dinner, $85; 13 St. Johanns-Vorstadt; 41-61/681-3681) is very popular, especially in winter, when Rhineside dining ceases to be an option. Be sure to ask for a side of the mango-ginger-chile chutney. Across town, Das Schiff (dinner, $110; 19 Westquaistrasse; 41-61/631-4240) serves some of the most intelligently creative food in the city before transforming into a hopping nightclub after the dinner hour.
The clever products at Prognose (42 Feldberg-strasse; 41-61/271-3703), such as the zipperless toiletry bag, are made in-store. You’ll also find local designer Anita Moser’s high heels of soft cotton rope in bright yellow or purple as well as the work of talented students from the city’s well-regarded fashion school. Off Clarastrasse, one of Kleinbasel’s main drags, Wohn Etc. (23 Rheingasse; 41-61/681-0691) stocks sleek Vitraesque furniture by up-and-coming designers. Ask manager Hans-Peter Schori to show you his ingenious wall-mounted keyholder, called keysticksplash, which is crafted from dozens of tiny rubber-coated magnets. Tall, slim, and gorgeous, Claudia Güdel designs menswear of a similar description at her eponymous shop (34 Markgräflerstrasse; 41-61/631-1102), including her hot seller, a hooded jacket with an asymmetrical zipper, made from a water-and-stain-repellent, UV-protective fabric that’s still a very breathable 97 percent cotton.
Handmade and Sevensisters (38 Spalenberg; 41-61/262-0980), two small shops on two floors of the same storefront, are a kind of micro-Colette, carrying just the basics for ultrachic living. Upstairs is a selection of European designers and organic-cotton baby clothes; street level features a range of accessories and hip children’s toys from Switzerland and Japan. Manager Rosmarie Gloor’s curated racks at Schütz (6 Schnabelgasse; 41-61/261-4540) contain a mix of Yohji Yamamoto and Ann Demeulemeester and rising design- ers such as the London-based, Iranian-born Shirin Guild, who creates luxurious updated haremwear in the form of loose-cut linen pants and crinkly silk shirts. If you’re craving a treat post-shopping spree, head over to Sweet Basel (4 Schnabelgasse; 41-61/261-1759), where every piece of hard candy is a miniature work of art, concocted with layers of colored sugar that form the different motifs at the center of each hand-cut, jewellike nugget. And while tourists frequent Confiserie Schiesser (19 Marktplatz; 41-61/261-6077) for its prime location, Baslers get their sweet fix at Beschle (49 Holbeinstrasse; 41-61/295-4040). It would be a shame to leave Switzerland without a box—or three—of its unctuous Champagne truffles.