Switzerland's third-largest city has often been overshadowed by its flashier neighbors, Geneva and Zürich. But Basel—located right where France and Germany intersect—has a cosmopolitan flair all its own. Young designers are transforming neglected neighborhoods into edgy enclaves full of top-notch restaurants and bars that double as galleries. The city is also home to some of the most important art collections in Europe, and each year it becomes the center of the international art world during Art Basel (the contemporary art fair that has convened here since 1969). This year's show runs from June 12 through 17, offering collectors and trend-seekers alike a chance to see why Basel shouldn't be overlooked.
Once the town prison, Au Violon (4 Im Lohnhof; 41-61/269-8711; doubles from $84) is now a cheerful boutique hotel. The 14 cells have been transformed into small rooms facing a quiet courtyard; six larger rooms—once policemen's quarters—take in the activity of the square below. •ÊWhen the 24-room Hotel Balade (8 Klingental; 41-61/699-1900; doubles from $89) opened in January near the up-and-coming Kaserne district, it was an instant hit, thanks to its sleek design and built-in nightlife scene: it has an excellent restaurant, a bistro, a bar, and even an enoteca specializing in Italian wines. • During Art Basel, Der Teufelhof (47—49 Leonhardsgraben; 41-61/261-1010; doubles from $153) becomes a microcosm of the New York art scene. Stay in the two-level suite that is an homage to German multimedia artist Anna Oppermann. • The opulent Hotel Drei Könige am Rhein (8 Blumenrain; 41-61/261-5050; doubles from $263) is still Basel's grandest—and Europe's oldest (built in 1026). • Zen meets 21st-century at the Royal Hotel (179 Schwarzwaldallee; 41-61/686-5555; doubles from $126). All 15 rooms are aligned according to proper feng shui, and have multilingual fax machines and high-speed Internet access.
The seventies are alive and well at the retro Baragraph.4 (4 Petersgasse; 41-61/261-8864): check out those pleather barstools and funky orange lamps. • Owned by Swiss video artist Claude Garcon, Cargo Bar (46 St. Johanns-Rheinweg; 41-61/321-0072) is as much an avant-garde art space as it is a late-night music spot. • Long a neighborhood dive, Grenzwert (3 Rheingasse; 41-61/681-0282) was recently refurbished with a green-and-red color scheme. • Soul and funk echo into the night at NT/Areal (21—23 Erlenstrasse; 41-61/683-3322), a music collective in the industrial area surrounding the German train station.
In the sophisticated, all-white dining room of Schürmann's (159 Äussere Baslerstrasse, Riehen; 41-61/643-1210; dinner for two $60), chef Andreas Schürmann prepares seasonal dishes like lamb back with olive-and-artichoke ragoût while his wife, Sandra, helps diners select a crisp Swiss white. • The year-old Restaurant Kaserne (1B Klybeckstrasse; 41-61/681-4715; dinner for two $72) has quickly become one of the most talked-about places in town, for the scene at the long communal tables and for the famous Wiener schnitzel . • Dinner at Restaurant Bruderholz (42 Bruderholzallee; 41-61/361-8222; dinner for two $83) is a major production, so plan to spend four hours between the amuse-bouche and the multilevel cheese cart. • Ever since Warhol frequented it, Chez Donati (48 St. Johanns-Vorstadt; 41-61/322-0919; dinner for two $60) has been a favorite of the art-world set for its rich Italian and French fare, served in a Belle Époque dining room with views of the Rhine.
Basel has more than 30 museums, including one for dollhouses and one dedicated to the history of pharmacy. Gain entrance to all of them with a BaselCard ($15 at the tourism office at 5 Schifflände; 41-61/268-6868). Here, six of the best. • Hildy and Ernst Beyeler's outstanding collection of Modernists has found an ideal home in Renzo Piano's minimalist Fondation Beyeler (101 Baselstrasse, Riehen; 41-61/645-9700), just north of Basel. New to the permanent collection is a trio of Rothko rooms showing the artist's Multiforms as well as 18 of his signature color-field paintings. • Works by Bruce Nauman, sculptor Donald Judd, and postwar German artist Joseph Beuys are displayed at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst (60 St. Alban-Rheinweg; 41-61/206-6262). • Before Picasso and Klee were household names, they had solo shows at Basel's Kunsthalle (7 Steinenberg; 41-61/206-9900). Recent exhibitions—Maurizio Cattelan, Rachel Khedoori, Terry Winters—continue to break new ground. • The Kunstmuseum (16 St. Alban-Graben; 41-61/206-6262), known for the world's largest collection of paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger, also devotes a wing to Swiss-born Alberto Giacometti. • Museum Jean Tinguely (1 Paul Sacher-Anlage; 41-61/681-9320) has dozens of the Basel-bred sculptor's quirky scrap-metal assemblages. The Marcel Duchamp show, with his notorious Fountain, runs through June 30. • The 40-acre campus of Vitra (1 Charles-Eames-Strasse, Weil am Rhein; 49-7621/702-3200) comprises a Frank Gehry—designed museum, a Zen-like conference center by Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid's angular fire station, and factories that turn out chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Jean Prouvé. Vitra is a 15-minute drive over the border into Germany (Art Basel runs a shuttle bus). • Coming next May: the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation's renowned collection (more than 400 works by Hans Arp, Richard Tuttle, Cindy Sherman, and others) will have its own home when Basel architects Herzog & de Meuron, the team behind London's Tate Modern, finishes Schaulager, a 15,000-square-foot building on the outskirts of town.
Baslers take their 4 p.m. coffee hour seriously. For the best people-watching, plant yourself at Grand Café Huguenin (6 Barfüsserplatz; 41-61/272-0550) with a cappuccino and a slice of Zwetchgen Waia (plum tart). • Zum Roten Engel (15 Andreasplatz; 41-61/261-2008) is the quintessential smoky, student-filled café. • Smokers are segregated from non-smokers by a flimsy wall at Fumare Non Fumare (30 Gerbergasse; 41-61/262-2711), a sidewalk café that spills out onto a main pedestrian thoroughfare. • Since 1870, Schiesser (19 Marktplatz; 41-61/261-6077) has been Basel's premier chocolatier. From the Viennese tearoom upstairs, where you can sample sandwiches and delicate pastries, you'll have views of the busy marketplace and its Gothic town hall.