Basel and Lucerne are among Switzerland’s liveliest, busiest cities, full of restaurants, hotels, and tourists from around the world. While Basel is the third-largest city in Switzerland, Lucerne is only the tenth-largest. If you were to decide which city to visit in Switzerland, which would you choose? Would you choose a small city in the heart of Switzerland or a large city near the French and German borders? Which is better, Basel or Lucerne? Is one a better city than the other?
Each place has its own unique charm and is a worthwhile place to visit for a variety of reasons. Here we look at the differences between Basel and Lucerne, so you can decide which one you’d like to visit during your next visit to Switzerland if you have time for just one.
Overview: Basel vs. Lucerne
The key differences are as follows:
|Population: approx. 170,000||Population: approx. 80,000|
|Switzerland’s third-most populous city||One of the most popular tourist attractions in Switzerland|
|Elevation: 245 m||Elevation: 435 m|
|Area: 23.91 km²||Area: 37.4 km²|
|Highlights: Considered the cultural capital of Switzerland, Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, Basel Zoo, Carnival Festival, Basel Minster||Highlights: Chapel Bridge,|
Lion Monument, Glacier Garden, Transport Museum
|River: Rhine||River: Reuss|
|Lake: None||Lake: Lucerne (or Vierwaldstättersee)|
|Location: Northwest Switzerland, near France and Germany||Location: Central Switzerland|
|Language: German, Swiss-German (dialect)||Language: German, Swiss-German (dialect)|
Cities: Basel vs. Lucerne
The city of Basel, located close to France and Germany and with excellent weather all year round, is known for its vibrant lifestyle and contrasting cultural traditions. Old and new are juxtaposed throughout Basel’s cosmopolitan landscape. It is located on the Rhine River.
Basel is also known as Switzerland’s cultural capital. It has more than 40 museums, including the Kunstmuseum, the Fondation Beyeler, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Additionally, it hosts Art Basel, an international art fair that attracts thousands of artists, art collectors, and art enthusiasts from Europe, the US, and Asia.
Basel is not just a cultural city. The city is also home to some world-renowned institutions, such as the University of Basel, the Bank of International Settlements, and FC Basel. A number of the world’s top pharma companies are based in Basel, including Roche, Novartis, the Lonza Group, and Actelion.
During the months of February and March, Basel hosts its annual Carnival festival. It is the country’s largest carnival, which was inscribed in UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage in 2017. Starting with the Morgestraich, it lasts exactly 72 hours. Locals call it the three most beautiful days (die drey scheenschte Dääg).
Additionally, Basel is ranked as the tenth most livable city in the world, according to Mercer.
Lucerne is a great place to start your trip to Switzerland. It’s also great all year round. With the famous old wooden bridge on the lake, plus the Alps as a backdrop, this city along the Reuss River is picture-perfect. Lucerne’s old town is perfect for shopping or sightseeing with its many shops and boutiques, as well as cafes and restaurants. The picturesque setting, accessibility, and wide range of activities in Lucerne will appeal to people of all ages.
The small size of Lucerne makes it very compact and walkable. It is easy and comfortable to explore Lucerne on foot. The Lion Monument, Chapel Bridge, and Glacier Garden are all within walking distance of each other.
Places to Visit: Basel vs. Lucerne
Places to Visit in Basel
- Art Basel – It may only happen for a few days per year, but Art Basel is still a must-visit for art lovers. The show brings together the international world of art with most of the leading art galleries displaying thousands of artists’ works.
- Fondation Beyeler – Switzerland’s most visited art museum, Fondation Beyeler was founded by Swiss collectors and philanthropists Ernst and Hildy Beyeler. Basel-born art collector Ernst Beyeler created the foundation with his wife to showcase the private collection he accumulated over his career, valued at US$1.85 billion at his death. Located in Reihen, it is a 25-minute tram ride from the city center of Basel, Switzerland.
- Jean Tinguely Museum – The Museum Tinguely is an art museum in Basel, Switzerland that exhibits the works of Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely. Designed by Ticinese architect Mario Botta, the museum was opened in 1996 in Solitude Park by the Rhine. The museum displays sculptures, letter drawings, documents, exhibition posters, catalogs, and photographs. Visitors can view the exhibits to gain a comprehensive view of all phases of Jean Tinguely’s career.
- Basel Zoo – Switzerland’s oldest zoo (or Zolli as locals call it) is located in Basel. It is a nice, somewhat compact, zoo in Basel, Switzerland. Basel Zoo contains 7,554 animals from 543 different species. The Zoo attracts more than a million visitors each year in spite of its relatively modest size. It is the perfect family getaway in Basel.
- Basel Minster – In the heart of Basel’s old town, you can find this beautiful terracotta-colored medieval cathedral. Climb the tower for a spectacular view of the city and the Rhine River.
- Rhine River – The Rhine River is also excellent for swimming if the weather allows. In order to make the swim even easier, some swimmers bring along floating bags. Ferryboats cross the Rhine in four different locations. If you would like to travel further, you can take a lock cruise to Rheinfelden, a local town close by.
- Basel Carnival – Basel Carnival (or Basler Fasnacht) is the largest carnival in Switzerland. It takes place annually from February to March. Since 2017, it has been listed as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. A 72-hour period begins with the Morgestraich.
Places to Visit in Lucerne
- Chapel Bridge – The Chapel Bridge in Lucerne is the city’s most famous landmark. This wooden bridge over the Reuss River is one of the oldest in Europe. The bridge was built in 1300 as part of the city walls. Even though it burned down and got badly damaged, it was rebuilt in 1994.
- Old Town – You can wander around restaurants and boutiques in Lucerne’s Old Town. Apart from the Chapel Bridge, you have the Spreuer Bridge crossing the Reuss River. Nearby is a beautiful Jesuit church.
- Verkehrshaus – The Transport Museum in Switzerland is one of the most visited museums in the country. At Verkehrshaus, you’ll see cars, ships, submarines, planes, trains, trams, and cable cars. In addition to transport exhibits, there’s also a Planetarium, a Swiss Chocolate Adventure, a Communications area, and a 2D or 3D Film Theater.
- Lion Monument – The Lion Monument was created by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen in 1821 to honor the Swiss Guards that lost their lives during the revolutionary siege of Paris on August 10th, 1792. It was in vain that the Swiss Guards tried to keep King Louis XVI alive, and they paid the price by dying. In the monument, a dying lion lies across broken pieces of the French monarchy.
- Glacier Garden – The Lucerne Glacier Garden has some impressive glacier potholes from the last ice age 20,000 years ago, proving that Lucerne was covered in glaciers then. Shell fossils and palm leaves show that there was a subtropical sea beach here 20 million years ago.
- Bürgenstock Hammetschwand (1,115 meters) – famous for the exclusive Bürgenstock Resort and the Hammetschwand Lift which is the highest, free-standing outdoor lift in Europe. Overlooks Lake Lucerne and can be accessed with a ferry and funicular.
- Stanserhorn (1,849 meters) – has an open upper deck cable car leading guests up the mountain and amazing views of Lucerne
- Pilatus (2,073 meters) – has the steepest cogwheel railway in the world with a maximum gradient of 48% and a 30-minute ride
- Rigi Scheidegg (1,643 meters) and Rigi Kulm (1,752 meters) – are popular to visit due to their breathtaking views of the surrounding Alps.
Hotels: Basel vs. Lucerne
Both Basel and Lucerne will have numerous hotels to choose from for all budgets. Below, you can find our recommended hotels in Basel and Lucerne.
Recommended Hotels in Basel
- Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (5-star) – Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois is one of Europe’s oldest city hotels. Ideally located within the Old Town of Basel, the hotel offers fantastic views of the Rhine. This elegant hotel has excellent service, an exquisite dining experience, and well-appointed amenities.
- Hotel Märthof Basel (4-star) – Hotel Märthof Basel, located in the heart of Basel near Marktplatz, is one of the best hotels in town. Featuring beautiful rooms, a 24-hour front desk, a business center, a spa center, and a terrace, you won’t regret booking here.
- GAIA Hotel (4-star) – GAIA Hotel is a family-run hotel located right across from Basel Main Train Station, only a 10-minute walk from the historic city center.
- Mövenpick Hotel Basel (4-star) – Located near Basel Train Station, this contemporary hotel offers captivating vistas of Basel. Guests are afforded complimentary city transport passes, a delightful breakfast selection, and immaculate rooms, making for a truly gratifying stay experience.
- Motel One (3-star hotel) – Right at Barfüsser Platz, Motel One Basel is a contemporary hotel with fashionable interiors and unbeatable prices.
Recommended Hotels in Lucerne
- Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern (5-star) – Directly on the lake, this refined hotel is located in the old town of Lucerne. You’ll also find a gym, a spa, and modern furniture amid elegant interiors. A 10-minute walk gets you to the train station.
- Grand Hotel National Luzern (5-star) – A luxurious hotel built in the 1870s. Close to the train station and the historic old town, this hotel has elegant interiors, fantastic lake views, and a swimming pool.
- Hermitage Lake Lucerne (4-star) – Set on the shores of Lake Lucerne, this tranquil hotel is a great place to relax. While it’s a little outside of the city, it has stunning views and refined restaurants. There’s also a beach club with daybeds, lounges, drinks, snacks, and cool music. Party boats are available to rent or you can take public boats that stop right outside the hotel. My family has stayed here and has loved it. I highly recommend it.
- AMERON Luzern Hotel Flora (4-star) – Near the train station and the Chapel Bridge, this hotel has chic rooms and a great breakfast.
- Hotel Rebstock (4-star) – A historic, half-timbered hotel dating from the late Middle Ages, Hotel Rebstock is one of the 16 Unique and Historical Hotels in Switzerland. It is ideally located near the Hof Church, the Lion Monument, and the Glacier Garden.
- Hotel Central Luzern (3-star) – In a central location near the train station, the chapel bridge, the old town, and the Rosengart Collection, Hotel Central Luzern offers bright, clean, recently renovated rooms, as well as a delicious breakfast. The rooms are reasonably priced. As a result of the hotel’s central location, you might hear some noise at night.
- Backpackers Luzern (Hostel) – The Backpackers Luzern is on the shores of Lake Lucerne, in a quiet area. Besides free kitchen facilities and WiFi, this charming hostel has a common lounge area with table tennis and table soccer. Each room has comfortable beds and a balcony. Walking to Lucerne’s train station takes less than 15 minutes.
Basel or Lucerne: Which City is Better to Visit?
Even though I recommend Switzerland for its mountains and the Alps rather than cities, there are some people who want to visit major cities. If you’re wondering whether Basel or Lucerne is a better city to visit, I think either one will be ok for you, no matter what your preferences are.
Both cities are lively and international, with plenty of restaurants and museums to explore. Both cities have waterfront areas, with Basel on the Rhine River and Lucerne on Lake Lucerne.
There are many international and pharmaceutical companies located in Basel, along with a university, so it will be a mix of young and old residents as well as tourists arriving from the Rhine River cruise. In contrast, the city of Lucerne is flooded with tourists throughout the year, especially between spring and fall.
For couples and visitors looking to be in a city and yet be close to relaxing places, Lucerne will be a better choice than Basel. It boasts a lovely, relaxing setting on Lake Lucerne, close to the spa region of Weggis Vitznau. Moreover, if you plan to visit the Swiss Alps afterward, Lucerne will be a better choice.
For visitors to Switzerland who are interested in art and culture, Basel will be a better choice than Lucerne.
Advantages of Basel
- Basel has a nice juxtaposition of old and new, medieval buildings and modern exhibitions, making it attractive to many travelers.
- Basel is more convenient to visit if you are coming from Basel EuroAirport or embarking or disembarking from a Rhine River Cruise.
- Basel is ideal for those who want to visit nearby Alsace in France or Southern Germany. It is a convenient hub if you want to visit these other two countries and go further northwest to Luxembourg, Belgium, and Netherlands.
- Art lovers will enjoy Basel more than Lucerne. It has a thriving arts and culture scene. Fondation Beyeler and Art Basel are both fantastic destinations for those who love art.
Advantages of Lucerne
- Lucerne appeals to all age groups and is a wonderful destination any time of year.
- When coming from Zurich Airport, Lucerne is about 10 to 20 minutes faster than Basel.
- Lucerne is closer to the mountains in Central Switzerland. Choose it if you want to visit mountains such as Rigi, Pilatus, or Titlis. Basel is relatively far away from the Swiss Alps compared to the rest of the country.
- Lucerne is a better destination for classical music lovers than Basel. Every year, the KKL Luzern hosts around 500 events, many of which are classical orchestra concerts.
- Lucerne is slightly more scenic in terms of panorama because you have a combination of lake and higher Swiss Alps. Basel is a bit further away from the Swiss Alps compared to Lucerne.
- Lucerne is also ideal for couples looking to relax. Weggis Vitznau is a well-known spa resort.
Summary: Basel vs. Geneva
Basel and Lucerne are both great places to visit, but which one you choose is up to you. They both have plenty to do, places to see, and restaurants to dine at. You can also ride boats, explore historic old towns, visit churches, and discover museums and parks. So what would my recommendation be?
To whom would I recommend Basel? Art enthusiasts and those who want to hit up Germany and France, or maybe even Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, might find Basel to be a convenient choice. Basel is also a great city for families with young children since Zoo Basel makes a great family getaway. Also, check out Basel Carnival if you are interested in traditional festivals.
I hope we were able to assist you in making your decision. No matter what you decide, we hope you enjoy your stay in Switzerland.
Related Posts: Train Travel
- Zurich to Basel Train: All You Need To Know
- Geneva to Basel Train: All You Need To Know
- Zurich to Lucerne Train: All You Need To Know
- Geneva to Lucerne Train: All You Need To Know
Related Posts: Basel
- How to Spend 1 Day in Basel, Switzerland
- 10 Best Day Trips from Basel
- 8 Beautiful Towns Near Basel, Switzerland
- Zoo Basel – An Honest Review
- Art Basel – The Most Influential Art Fair in the World
- Fondation Beyeler – Among Switzerland’s Most Visited Museums
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Darla Uhl is the owner of TouringSwitzerland.com. Her home is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Having lived almost 20 years in Switzerland, she's traveled extensively all over the country.
Darla's favorite regions to visit in Switzerland include Engadin, Lake Geneva, Bernese Oberland, Ticino, and Valais. She loves spending time with her family, hiking, visiting museums, and reading books.