The deep thrum of a cargo ship bound for Rotterdam vibrates the air as it charges up the Rhine. Hundreds of swimmers, however, are in the water and happily float along undisturbed by the ruckus. Sitting at the Rheinbad Breite, the sundecks are full of happy bathers and monocle spots one who’s gone for the full naked look, stretched out on a rock on the opposite grassy bank that’s also dotted with old wooden fishing huts. City life, eh?
“Twenty years ago you would have been surprised to see someone crossing the city in a bathing suit,” says Victor Arnold, president of the club that runs (and saved) the Rheinbad Breite. The club is run out of one of two Jugendstil wood-and-metal Badi that have survived in Basel. “Now some people even leave the office to take a swim to the city centre and pick up lunch,” he says, gesturing at the Roche Tower across the river.
Basel is equal parts classic Swiss charm – complete with cobbled streets and wooden-shuttered buildings – and multinational industry concerned with commissioning Pritzker prize-winning architects for their corporate campuses. Novartis, Roche and other business giants nestle into the Rhine where Germany, France and Switzerland meet. Basel is both an industrial powerhouse and a waterside paradise, complete with its own “Rhyviera”. The Rhine is the same, wide and wild, but also controlled and split into channels for leisure, pleasure and transport.
Thousands of people swim through Basel every year, floating past distinguished waterside restaurants, old wooden fishing huts and museums. Families spread out on huge concrete steps and sunbathers relax on gravel islands as people promenade along the banks. Buvettes (kiosks) are popular for a snack or drink. At Buvette Flora, near Johanniterbrücke on the Kleinbasel side, the spritzes go far beyond the usual orange tipple, using woodruff, elderflower and lemon.
“The buvettes came within the past decade, when the embankment on the Kleinbasel side was redone,” says Manuel Herz, architect and urban studies professor at the University of Basel. “This really changed the way we use the river; it is now like Basel’s largest public square.” It would be easy to mistake the swimming, sipping and strolling as inevitable but the Rhine’s popularity is actually a remarkable triumph for any 21st-century city.
Nearly 30 years ago the Rhine turned red, the product of a toxic spill at the Sandoz chemical plant. The river was already polluted but the incident served as a turning point. Things improved dramatically following multination legislation and money pouring into the Rhine clean-up. Basel has used a particularly cosmopolitan approach to bringing people back to the once notoriously dirty water, with cultural events such as the Imfluss music festival, the redesign and rewilding of the river’s edges and, of course, the power of a good spritz.
Near St Alban, the current pulls you gently the minute you put your feet in the water. The water is cool but not cold. Belongings are tucked into colourful waterproof bags that double as floats. The most popular, known as the Wickelfisch, was designed in the 1980s as part of the effort to raise awareness of the river’s potential as an amenity. Local designers often riff on the idea, making sophisticated and sleek versions of their own. The Wickelfisch worked.
See: Architecture: Basel has an extraordinarily high concentration of notable modern and contemporary architecture. Guides from Basel Tourism, monocle’s very own and other resources make treasure-hunting easy. Waterside highlights include the 1951 Kraftwerk Birsfelden by Hans Hofmann, a beautiful power station southeast of the city, and the iconic 2015 Roche Tower, by hometown heroes Herzog & de Meuron.
See: Museum Tinguely: Basel is known for its museums, and the Tinguely is both world class and locally specific. This Mario Botta-designed museum houses a prominent permanent collection of Basel artist Jean Tinguely (1925-91), known for his kinetic sculptures. It also hosts exhibitions of modern and contemporary artists, including Kurt Schwitters, Steiner1Lenzlinger and Rebecca Horn. It’s a handy place to nip in the Rhine too.
Buy: Schwimmsäcke: The right way to swim the Rhine is with a floating bag that holds your belongings. The classic fish-shaped Wickelfisch was designed in the 1980s and is widely available. Keeping with the creative drive of hometown designers, there are others to choose from. The nicest is by Tarzan, founded in 2001 by Manuel Rieder and Caesar von Däniken, available at the Rhinebad Breite or the Tarzan shop at Schneidergasse.
Buy: Bäckerei Kult: Over the years the river has become a lunchtime conduit for some, with a swim to the city centre to pick up something to eat. Since 1726 Backeri Kult has produced superlative baked goods with two locations – one in St Johann and one in Kleinbasel – three minutes from the Rhine. They are favourites of the swim-to-lunch crowd. Friendly staff expertly wrap your choice so it’ll survive the swim back.
Eat: Volkshaus Basel: The Volkshaus Basel is the kind of place where the well-heeled and the wet haired, just out of the water, can eat side by side, essential in Basel’s city of comfortable contrasts. Herzog & de Meuron updated the 1925 building in 2012 with typical understated respect. Menu staples include Café de Paris entrecôte with matchstick fries and hand-cut spicy beef tartare, along with seasonal specialities such as lamb with morels and nettle tagliatelle.
Eat: Buvette Flora: The buvettes were created to encourage lingering along the Rhine. Arguably the best of the bunch is Buvette Flora, a black metal-and-wood kiosk with pink and green outdoor furniture. Generous glasses of cooling spritzes, Swiss wine and beer can slake any post-swim thirst. Tramezzini, salads and small snacks work equally well for a swim-up lunch or sundowner apéro.
Stay: Hotel Krafft: The waterside terrace of Hotel Krafft is top in the town, good for a relaxed breakfast or nightcap. The 60-room hotel’s classic yet modern rooms are furnished in dark neutral colours. The hotel lends out Brompton bikes and a collaboration with the tourism board gives guests free local transport. The smart yet unpretentious restaurant is one of the best on the river.
Stay: Hotel Trois Rois: The Trois Rois occupies a commanding position over the Rhine and is famed for once hosting Napoleon for lunch. With much pomp and circumstance, it is dependably excellent with stunning riverside rooms. Period furniture and grand proportions ensure a leisurely, luxurious stay. Its three restaurants are favourites for the business crowd, while a drink on the bar balcony above the river always hits the spot.
How to swim in Basel:
The Rhine has a strong current but is clean and safe for swimming. Pay special attention to where swimming is allowed – roughly between the Schwarzwaldbrücke and the Dreirosenbrücke.
Buy a waterproof bag for your floating tour.
Plan your point of entry. A favourite is behind the Museum Tinguely.
Simply hop on a ferry to switch sides.
Rinse off at one of the many public outdoor showers at the river’s edge.
Grab some well-earned fish and chips.