In Basel, the pursuit of pleasure is taken seriously. Visit the Swiss city in the summer months and you'll spot the post-work crowd flocking to the banks of the Rhine, stuffing their laptops and suits into colourful waterproof-nylon Wickelfisch bags, leaping into the water clutching these floating balloons, and gliding downstream to their preferred buvette (open-air eatery) for a cold Ueli beer and a bite. It's hard to imagine a more pleasant commute from uni or the office, and the sight of students, pharma and tech workers and creatives bobbing along happily perfectly sums up the work-hard, play-hard nature of Basel.
Even on a Tuesday lunchtime, visiting Basel's 1929-built Markthalle, a vast, brutalist covered food market, feels like a party. Inside, 40 international food stalls surround a communal seating area, where local workers noisily gather to fill up on dishes from countries including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Israel, Vietnam, Argentina and Nepal. All the vendors are on board with the Markthalle's pioneering food-waste programme, operated in partnership with United Against Waste and Foodways, which evaluates the amount of food waste generated by each stall and provides metrics to help combat overproduction and oversized portions, contributing to Switzerland's ambitious aim to reduce food waste by 35 per cent by 2030.
Markthalle, home to stalls serving over 40 international cuisines.
Basel has always been associated with innovation. In the Middle Ages, the town became a centre for the dyeing of ecclesiastical ribbons; later, this evolved into a pioneering chemical and pharmaceutical industry. It was here in Basel, too, in 1943, that Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann invented and ingested LSD, becoming one of the first European advocates for psychedelic therapy. Today, the city is perhaps best known for its billionaire-luring Art Basel art fair, and a lively modern architecture scene boasting constructions by Richard Meier, Frank Gehry and Mario Botta alongside works by local big-hitter firms such as Christ & Gantenbein, Diener & Diener and Herzog & de Meuron. For lovers of architecture, and food, it pays to sleep centrally: we opt for the Hotel Märthof, a stylish 68-room boutique hotel in the heart of the Old Town with a roof terrace overlooking the Marktplatz, an area steeped in history. And a little bit of history helps travellers unlock this enigmatic city, because it's Basel's combination of efficiency, enterprise and exuberant love for life that flavours the city's gastronomic scene, too.
Take the surreal, expansive harbour district of Holzpark Klybeck, where artists' studios, bars and cultural collectives are housed in former industrial shipping containers, old boats and wooden shacks. One of the city's best-loved venues is home to restaurant Gannet, a former lightship repurposed to house an unfussy Italian-inspired eatery, with an upper-deck bar for grapefruit spritzes overlooking the Rhine, and a basement music venue where an electro gig was soundchecking as we dined on homemade penne. This side of the city, across the Rhine from the old town and commercial district, is Kleinbasel, aka "Little Basel" or "Lesser Basel" - not that there's anything remotely inferior about it. Instead, the area has a bohemian, lived-in vibe.
The team behind Squadra Violi, a pop-up culinary cooperative in the city.
Chatting to young vendors at the Markthalle, we're told about an intriguing pop-up "no beach bar" near the Novartis Campus, so we cross the Rhine and ride north on our e-bikes until we find ourselves at a repurposed industrial quarter that has been cannily converted into a lido without a pool or a beach by a band of brothers - culinary cooperative Squadra Violi. This pop-up is part of a series of experiments by the three Salerno siblings, including a zero-waste ravioli business and a new Italian restaurant, Mezzo Mezzo. It's already become one of the coolest eateries in town.
Sipping a botanically-infused spritz at the bar, we tell Fabio Salerno about our culinary exploration of his city, and how struck we've been by the quiet confidence exuded by all the chefs, entrepreneurs and artisans that we've spoken to. But what makes him and his crew so open to experimentation? "I think it's not being afraid of failure," says Salerno. "If failing doesn't scare you, there's no limit to what you can dream up and create." His words sum up the spirit we've tasted all around the city - a distinctly Swiss sense of security that underpins creativity; a conviction that good ideas will naturally succeed. Basel is a city where good ideas - be they a medical breakthrough, a pioneering architectural movement or a zero-waste culinary initiative - go rewarded, and for food-loving travellers who want to taste the future, this makes Basel a dream destination.
How to Get There
Fly direct from London Gatwick to EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg with EasyJet, or journey via London Heathrow to Zurich Airport with SWISS. From Zurich airport, Basel city centre is just under an hour by train with Swiss Federal Railways.
The Swiss Travel System covers more than 29,000km with its extensive public transport network of trains, buses, cable cars and boats. Book your tailored Swiss city package and get unlimited travel on public transport with a Swiss Travel Pass at switzerlandtravelcentre.com.
Want to explore Basel's forward-thinking food scene? Visit myswitzerland.com to plan your trip.