An industrial city straddling the Rhine, Basel (Bâle) is often bypassed by travellers, which is a pity, since they miss out on its historic medieval centre. The University of Basel was a famed centre of learning in the late Middle Ages, and the presence here of Renaissance man of letters Erasmus was a great inspiration to the Reformation throughout the rest of Switzerland. Basel remains an enlightened place: the city authorities have a reputation for arts sponsorship which dates back to their first forays into the art market in the mid-seventeenth century, and the city's museums offer the best assemblage of art treasures in the country.
One of the best of Basel's galleries is the Kunstmuseum, St Alban-Graben 16 (Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; Sfr6, free on first Sun of month), with a dazzling array of twentieth-century work, including paintings by Léger, Chagall, Munch, Braque and others; the Impressionists are amply represented, as are earlier works acquired for the municipality when the city council bought up the collection of sixteenth-century connoisseur Basilius Amerbach. The studio of Konrad Witz is well represented, and there are roomfuls of works by the prolific Holbein family, documenting the lives of local burghers and scholars and including a portrait of Erasmus. The nearby Antikenmuseum, St Alban-Graben 5 (Tues-Sun 11am-5pm; Sfr12, free on first Sun of month), is also worth a look, with a comprehensive collection of ancient Greek objects including some particularly fine vases. Down to the river by some steps, then right along St Alban-Rheinweg, is the almost continually rejuvenated Museum of Contemporary Art at no. 60 (Tues-Sun 11am-5pm; Sfr8, free on first Sun of month, often more during special exhibitions) - equally rich in modern works, with installations by Frank Stella and Joseph Beuys sharing space with a good selection of German painting from the 1980s. Combined entry to the Kunstmuseum and the Museum of Contemporary Art costs Sfr12, but you must remember to keep all your tickets. A three-day museum pass allows unlimited access and is available at the tourist office for Sfr23.
Back at the Kunstmuseum, Rittergasse leads you past concentrated clumps of sixteenth-century buildings down towards the Münster (Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-noon & 2-5pm, Sun 1-5pm). An impressive lump of red sandstone, its exterior features some impressive examples of medieval stone carving, most notably a series of figures sited just above the main portal that includes a depiction of the cathedral's eleventh-century founder, the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich II, holding a model of the church. Inside the building, behind one of the pillars in the north aisle, is the marble tomb of Erasmus, whose Greek New Testament, with Latin translation, published in 1516, rubbished the version of the Bible which everyone had been using up until then, and was the inspiration for future reformers like Luther and Zwingli. The ninth-century remains of the Cathedral's predecessor can still be seen tucked away in the crypt below the apse. Around the south side of the cathedral, cloisters lead through to the Pfalz, a square high above the river from which you can look down on the terraced banks of the Rhine to the suburb of Kleinbasel on the other side.
Close by are two more worthwhile museums that have been integrated into the same building at Augustinergasse 2 (May-Oct Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; Nov-April Tues-Sat 10am-noon & 2-5pm, Sun 10am-5pm; Sfr6, free on first Sun of month). The Museum für Völkerkunde displays a wide range of folk art from India, Indonesia, Africa and America, as well as concentrating on aspects of Swiss and central European ethnography including a fascinating collection of masks; next door the Naturhistorisches Museum features the customary assembly of dinosaur skeletons and minerals. Rheinsprung continues northwards past the old university at no. 11, founded by Pope Pius II in 1460 and remaining stubbornly pro-Catholic for years despite the torrent of reformist scholars who were drawn here by its humanist reputation. From the bottom of Rheinsprung the curiously named Elftausend Jungfern-Gässlein ("Little Alley of the 11,000 Virgins") leads up to the fifteenth-century St Martinskirche, and then continues through to Marktplatz and the extravagantly decorated facade of the sixteenth-century Rathaus, from where it's just a short stroll along the shop-lined Gerbergasse to the lively market stalls of Barfüsserplatz. Basel's Historical Museum, housed in the splendid Gothic Barfüsserkirche (10am-5pm; closed Tues; Sfr5, free on first Sun of month), offers more evidence of Basel's cultural pre-eminence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, not least the sumptuous tapestries of the city's weavers. Behind both Marktplatz and Barfüsserplatz a hive of alleyways and quiet old streets climb steeply towards Graben, built on the trench which originally surrounded the fortifications, and the Gothic Peterskirche (Tues-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 10am-5pm) on Petersgraben, whose deceptively plain exterior harbours colourful late-medieval frescoes inside. In one chapel the 1527 tomb of Johann Froben recalls the printer who was central to Basel's intellectual life in the early sixteenth century. It was Froben who published Erasmus' Bible in 1516, and went on to print works by Luther and other reformers. The tomb bears an inscription in Latin, Hebrew and Greek, prepared by Erasmus himself.
Basel's train station is fifteen minutes south of the city centre; walk diagonally across Elisabethenanlage, then down Elisabethenstrasse towards the old centre - trams #1 and #8 will take you there, though not by the same route. There's a tourist office at the station (Mon-Fri 8.30am-7pm, Sat 8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-6pm, June-Sept also Sun 10am-2pm), and another in the centre at Schifflande 5 (Mon-Fri 8.30am-6pm, Sat 8.30am-1pm). Both handle room bookings for Sfr10, although there's a scarcity of affordable hotels - ask if there are any special offers. Basel hosts numerous trade fairs and so it's advisable to book ahead through the Tourist Board (061/261 50 50). The cheapest is Badischer Hof, Riehenring 109 (061/692 41 44; $40-48), a good fifteen-minute walk into Kleinbasel. The two-star Rochat, Petersgraben 23 (061/261 81 40; $48-56), by Peterskirche, is closer and only marginally more expensive, as is the Stadthof, Gerbergasse 84 (061/261 87 11; $40-48), which is simple but in the centre of town with a good traditional restaurant downstairs. The city also has a lively youth hostel at St Alban-Kirchrain 10 (061/272 05 72; $8-16), in the pleasant riverside neighbourhood of St Alban-Tal.
There are plenty of small Bierstuben offering cheap lunchtime food in the streets behind Marktplatz; more salubrious is the Restauration zur Harmonie, catering to a young and stylish crowd on Petersgraben, opposite the university. The Stadtkeller, Marktgasse 11, has solid evening menus and a beery clientele; Café Florian, Totentanz 1, boasts a terrace overlooking the Rhine, a pleasant place for lunch or a daytime drink, while Café zum Roten Engel, in a square off Scheidergasse, is a pleasant alternative vegetarian café. For night-time drinking there are a host of Bierstuben in the backstreets of Kleinbasel, on the right bank over the river, especially Rheingasse, though some are a bit rough. The Sommercasino, Münchenstrasse 1, has a popular café featuring live jazz and sporadic discos. Kulturwerkstatt Kaserne, Klybechsteinstrasse 1b, is an occasional venue for gigs. North of the river in Kleinbasel, Hirscheneck on Richentorstrasse has a pleasant café-bar atmosphere with live music and discos at the weekends. Atlantis, Klosterberg Strasse 13, is a bar as well as a regular rock venue with a cover charge for gigs depending on the band.