Although Basel-Stadt is the smallest of all Swiss cantons, it is often referred to as a 'pocket-sized metropolis' and was recently ranked as the top city to live in amongst European 'Small Cities' in the Financial Times. Modern-day Basel is a city of exciting contrasts – where historical buildings stand next to modern architecture, where a young and dynamic art scene exists alongside centuries-old traditions. But how did it come to be this way? This article, first printed in Centrepoint's Horizon magazine will let you know how and why our beloved Basel came to be known as 'the cultural capital of Switzerland'.
Located at the heart of Europe where Switzerland, Germany and France meet, Basel's strategic placement on the Rhein has made it a significant location for trade and commerce in Western Europe. Since medieval times, this position at the Dreiländereck (tri-nation point) has shaped the city and made it very prosperous. The tri-regio area also forms a remarkable cultural borderland, combining the cultures of France, Germany and Switzerland, resulting in a multi-national city.
Basel became the largest industrial city in Switzerland in the second half of the 19th century and was a major financial hub, having gained international importance with the founding of the Swiss bank corporation (Schweizerischen Bankvereins, SBV) and the Stock Exchange, which remained active until 1996. Basel is also the location for the world headquarters of the Bank for International Settlements, an elite international financial institution which is made of up of 63 countries. Basel’s economic strength fosters a cosmopolitan atmosphere, attracting a diverse population and contributing to a dynamic cultural scene.
With companies such as Novartis, Roche, Syngenta and Lonza headquartered in Basel, the pharmaceutical and chemical industries play a crucial role in shaping the city’s identity. The presence of these industry leaders not only brings economic prosperity, but also fuels innovation and research, reinforcing Basel’s position as a centre for scientific and technological advancements.
The Renaissance brought an intellectual and artistic presence to Basel, marked by figures such as Erasmus of Rotterdam. The University of Basel, founded in 1460, became a renowned centre for humanism and academic excellence and was a big contributor to Basel’s cultural heritage. During the Reformation, Basel was a key centre for the dissemination of progressive ideas, which made it a prominent hub for theological and scientific discussions. Basel also hosted the famous printing press of Johannes Oporinus, producing works by influential thinkers such as Paracelsus. These diverse cultural influences over the centuries became intertwined and have left a lasting mark on Basel’s identity.
Basel lives and breathes the arts. Art can be seen wherever you go, whether you are out for a stroll in the city or visiting one of the numerous museums and art galleries. Basel has approximately 40 museums, some of which are world-renowned like the Fondation Beyeler and the Kunstmuseum.
The Basel Theater stages plays, operas and ballet and the spectacular Stadtcasino Basel has a diverse range of musical concerts, boasting one of the best concert halls in the world. Smaller theatres and musical stages and various cinema screens add to the exceptional offerings that contribute to the city’s rich cultural life.
Basel is considered a mecca for architecture aficionados. In addition to the traditional style of the Münster and the Rathaus, numerous world-famous architects have left a legacy of breathtaking buildings that punctate Basel’s skyline, standing in stark yet harmonious contrast to the medieval half-timbered houses of the old town. Basel is also home to famous architects, one of the most notable being Herzog and de Meuron who are known world-wide and have even won the Pritzker Prize, the highest honour in architecture.
Held each year in June, Art Basel is the world’s leading contemporary art fair, and an annual rendezvous for art enthusiasts, exhibiting the work of over 4,000 artists and attracting over 93,000 visitors over six days.
The Basel Tattoo, held each summer, has grown to be the world’s second-largest Military Tattoo after the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Basler Fasnacht is both a social tradition and a cultural celebration with roots going back as far as the 14th century. Beginning the Monday after Ash Wednesday and lasting exactly 72 hours, this iconic cultural event features in Fasnacht enthusiasts’ calendars as 'the three best days of the year'.
I think you will agree that Basel has an extremely rich and diverse culture for such a small city. Thanks to its location, history, mix of cultural influences as well as its ability to seamlessly integrate the old with the new, Basel proudly wears its title as 'the cultural capital of Switzerland.' Whether it be exhibitions, festivals, concerts, shows, or major international events and congresses, there is always something going on in Basel’s cultural calendar.