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World Travel Guide > Guides > Europe > Switzerland > Basel

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Basel History

Basel started life as a Celtic settlement, with the Romans following hot on their heels. Their Basel was known as Augusta Raurica, with building commencing in 44BC, just upstream from today’s city centre, near to the Basel Minister.

By 374AD, the city had become known as Basilia, an important trading hub which got its own bishopric in the 7th century. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the young city, with its first outside attack coming in 917 courtesy of the Hungarians. Still licking their wounds, the citizens erected a city wall to keep future invaders away, although it would be badly damaged when a blaze ripped through the city in 1185.

The 1300s weren’t much kinder: an earthquake destroyed much of the city and the Black Death, which swooped across Europe, took thousands of lives. Townsfolk, living in terror and horrified by the seemingly unending deaths, turned on their Jewish neighbours, accusing them of poisoning the wells. In January 1349, 600 Jews were rounded up, tied together and burnt alive in an island hut in the middle of the River Rhine.

Despite being decimated by the Black Death, the city bounced back in its wake, establishing itself as a centre for the fledgling print industry. In 1488, the Schwabe publishing house opened and is still printing books today, while the success of the printer Johann Froben helped make the city the epicentre of the country’s book trade.

The opening of Basel University in 1460 attracted some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Theologian Desiderius Erasmus and philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung are all among its alumni. Following the Swabian War of 1499, Basel was asked to become the eleventh canton of the Swiss Confederation, joining in 1501.

Not long after, the city joined the rest of Switzerland in becoming Protestant, swiftly establishing itself as a haven for co-religionists fleeing persecution elsewhere. Left untouched by the Napoleonic Wars, Basel also benefited from Swiss neutrality during both World Wars. Today, it remains a hub for literature – and possesses some of the most well-preserved mediaeval buildings in Europe.

Did you know?
• De humani corporis fabrica, the first book ever written on human anatomy, was published in Basel in 1543.
• In 1471 the city of Basel found a chicken, passing for a rooster, guilty of laying a egg ‘in defiance of natural law.’ It was burnt at the stake.
• Psychedelic drug LSD was invented in Basel by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938.

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Featured Hotels

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Hotel Rheinfelderhof

A few minutes' walk from the city centre (and even closer to the Messe Basel trade fair venue), this is a well-priced hotel with almost 50 rooms. It's nothing fancy but has all the basics covered, from free wifi to satellite TV. There's a traditional restaurant on site.

Swissotel Le Plaza

The Swissotel Le Plaza, graded as four-star superior, is a stylish option a few minutes' walk from the Rhine and the Old Town. The hotel has 238 rooms and offers 24-hour room service, as well as a gym with a sauna and steam room. Its Grill25 restaurant serves up the classics in smart surroundings.

Les Trois Rois

One of the oldest city hotels in Europe, Les Trois Rois is Basel's grandest residence. Over the years, its luxurious rooms and suites on the banks of the Rhine in the Old Town have accommodated such luminaries as Napoleon, Charles Dickens, Pablo Picasso, Thomas Mann and Queen Elizabeth II. It also has a fitness centre and various top-notch restaurants and bars.

Courtyard Basel

Part of the Marriott Group – and consequently a reliable if rather vanilla option for an overnight stay – the Courtyard Basel Hotel is set on the southern outskirts of the city and has 175 rooms and suites with the usual amenities and plenty of meeting space.

Hotel Basel

Situated in the heart of the old city for the past four decades, this 4-star hotel has 70 rooms and three suites, all comfortably furnished and equipped with the standard mod cons. There are three restaurants, including a brasserie, and a couple of small meeting rooms.

Teufelhof (Devil's Court)

This enjoyably quirky establishment comprises two hotels: the Kunsthotel (Art Hotel), with nine rooms each designed by a local artist, and the larger Galeriehotel (Gallery Hotel), in which both the rooms and public spaces function as exhibition spaces for artists. Prices can vary greatly according to demand.