Holiday Shopping, Swiss Style

The picturesque city of Basel, Switzerland, offers a welcome escape from the hectic gift-buying frenzy.
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Does sipping hot mulled wine while strolling down cobblestone streets sound like a pleasant retreat from the hustle of the holiday season?

If so, then why not do your holiday shopping in Switzerland, while taking in the country's greatest attributes besides chocolate and cheese: tradition and charm.

In Switzerland's cities, Christmas markets are an essential holiday custom -- the annual one found in Basel is one of the best.

Founded as a Celtic town more than 2,000 years ago, Basel was transformed during the 14th and 15th centuries into one of the most significant intellectual centers in Europe.

Located on the Rhine River and bordering both Germany and France, this city is the birthplace of revered historian Jacob Burckhardt and renowned mathematician Leonhard Euler. The likes of John Calvin and Friedrich Nietzsche have also called it home.

Off to Market

Basel's Christmas market turns back the centuries, as the nearby bells of Munster Cathedral chime and the aromas of traditional pastries baked in outdoor brick ovens waft by.

Although modest in comparison to other Swiss markets and festivals, the Basel Christmas market, which takes place from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23, is still one of Switzerland's most popular, and a perfect spot for finding unique and exclusive gifts.

The

Basler Weihnachtsmarkt

, or Christmas market, is located in Basel's

Barfusserplatz

, meaning "bare feet plaza," which pays tribute to the Franciscan monks who lived there over 800 years ago.

As you meander through the approximately 150 stands of this festive boutique, you'll note that everything is handcrafted with utmost detail and care.

The design extends to merchants' individual stands, as they adorn them for the season with greenery, ornaments and furs.

You'll find a dazzling mix of jewelry, woodcrafts, silks, folk art, leather, clocks, ornaments, baked goods and much more for sale. You can even watch glass being hand-blown and sample local food specialties.

Try warming up with spiced

Gluhwein

(mulled wine) -- a staple of any Swiss market -- ladled hot from ceramic pots, or with some steaming

Maroni

(chestnuts), sold in festive paper cones.

For a sweet snack, buy a tin of Basel's famous

Basler Lackerli

, a soft, flavorful biscuit developed over 700 years ago by the local spice merchants. The

Lackerli Huus (57 Gerbergasse) is the city's Lackerli authority.

Here you can buy the delicious cookies in decorative tins or have them shipped to appreciative friends and relatives.

Basel's Christmas-market tradition derives from the Alsace and Germany, according to Sylvia Marelli of

Basel Tourismus.

The market has grown in popularity over the years, Marelli says, because people are looking for something more traditional and special.

But Basel's Christmas market differs from others in that "it's not just for the tourists," Marelli points out, explaining that one will find much more than the typical souvenirs in this special city.

"I think the Christmas market of Basel has some very high-quality wares made for the citizens themselves," Marelli adds.

If it's good enough for the Swiss, it's probably good enough for you.

Outside Barfusser

Despite its impressive history, Basel is modest in size, making it the perfect walking city.

Otherwise, its rail and bus system will get you to your destination with unparalleled efficiency.

Around the corner from Barfusserplatz, walk down the longest "Christmas Street" in Europe, aglow with lights and decorations.

Start at Aeschenplatz and proceed down Freie Strasse, the prestigious main shopping street of the city.

Continue across the Mittlere Brucke, a bridge which connects

Gross

(big) and

Klei

(little) Basel, and stand beneath the impressive Christmas tree in the Messeplatz, which some dub the Swiss Rockefeller Center.

Back at Aeschenplatz, relax at the Confiserie Frey (9 Centralbahnstrasse), which is known for its coffees, fresh juices, chocolate and pastries.

Sit downstairs in the coffee bar and eat one of their famous

Mandelbombes

("almond bombes") with homemade ice cream.

Throughout the day, the bells of Munster cathedral (Basel's largest church) ring out from two slender, red sandstone towers, which rise up above the city's wooden-shuttered houses and quaint facades.

Constructed in the latter part of the 12th century, this early Gothic cathedral serves as the resting place of the Renaissance humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Every Saturday at around 5 p.m., musicians play trumpets from the tops of the two towers for the onlookers below, and on select Sundays, you can sit inside and listen to traditional music ranging from thundering organ performances to the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse.

To get in from the cold, check out Basel's high-end boutiques, such as the

Fein-Kaller and

Fein-Kaller La Donna in Gerbergasse.

At these shops, you can browse through elegant showrooms of cashmere, silk and velvet and labels such as Armani, CXD and Gabriella Frattini.

Also visit the studio of

Raphael Schicker, a master goldsmith whose shop on St. Alban-Vorstadt showcases sparkling rings and earrings set with precious and semiprecious gems from all over the world.

For something more personalized, you can commission him to make a piece of jewelry of your design.

Basel is even well-known for its music and jazz festivals and its small but excellent music clubs.

Any Basler will recommend the

Bird's Eye Jazz Club (20 Kohlenberg).

It's a quick two-minute walk from the Christmas market, and here you can sit under the vaulted ceilings of this former abbey and enjoy live jazz from Thursday through Sunday.

Fondue and Five Stars

Choosing among Basel's offering of superb restaurants is an arduous task, as even the bratwurst sold by street vendors makes for a delectable meal.

At the popular restaurant

Stucki Bruderholz (42 Bruderholzalee), French cuisine is served in three airy dining rooms.

The restaurant belongs to the exclusive group of "Les Grandes Tables du Monde" and features dishes such as Nantes duck in port sauce.

The wine cellar holds more than 800 different top wines, including Swiss specialties such as Dezaley Renard.

There is also a legendary selection of after-dinner drinks, including traditional local fruit brandies like

Kirsch

(cherry brandy).

For traditional Basler cuisine, head to

Safran Zunft (11 Gerbergasse) and order the house specialty, Fondue Bacchus, for about $40 per person.

Chef Xavier Capel also offers fresh-market cuisine with Swiss and regional specialties.

This restaurant is part of the Safron Guild, or

Zunft

, which draws on a rich and highly codified culinary tradition dating back to the 1400s.

As for lodging, the

Hotel Euler (14 Centralbahnplatz), built in 1865, provides five-star accommodations among antique furnishings and decor modeled after the

belle epoque

.

Past guests have included Josephine Baker and Luciano Pavarotti. Rooms range from about $330-$1,200 a night.

Another option is Switzerland's oldest hotel, the internationally renowned

Les Trois Rois at 8 Blumenrain (rooms $300-$3,800 per night).

This five-star hotel dates from the 11th century and offers a breathtaking view of the Rhine along with a luxurious sauna and three different restaurants.

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