Zurich vs. Basel: Which One Is Better to Visit?

* This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please read our affiliate page for more info.

In Switzerland, tourists are inevitably interested in the largest and most popular cities. Zurich and Basel are two of the most popular choices. 

You’ll find historical landmarks, as well as shops, hotels, museums, and restaurants in both Zurich and Basel. You’ll also find green spaces and recreation options in both cities. One is considered the country’s financial capital, while the other is its cultural capital. When comparing Zurich and Basel, there are many questions. Which is better, Zurich or Basel? Is one a better city than the other? 

Here we look at the differences between Zurich and Basel, 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: Zurich vs. Basel

The key differences are as follows:

ZurichBasel
Population: approx. 415,000Population: approx. 170,000
Switzerland’s most populous citySwitzerland’s third-most populous city
Elevation: 408 mElevation: 245 m
Area: 87.88 km²Area: 23.91 km²
Highlights: Switzerland’s Financial Capital,
Switzerland’s Transport Hub
Highlights: Cultural capital of Switzerland,
Basel Zoo, Carnival Festival, Art Basel, Baselworld
River: LimmatRiver: Rhine
Lake: ZurichNo Lake
Location: North-Central SwitzerlandLocation: Northwest Switzerland, near France and Germany

Cities: Zurich vs. Basel

Zurich

Image of Grossmünster Church in Zurich by anncapictures from Pixabay
  • Zürich is the biggest city in Switzerland, so it’s naturally bigger and busier than Basel. Compared to Basel, Zurich has more restaurants, nightclubs, and bars.
  • Zurich has a beautiful old town with lots of restaurants and shops. It’s also nice to walk by the Limmat River and Lake Zurich.
  • There are also some beautiful churches in Zurich – Grossmünster, Fraumünster, St. Peter, and Predigerkirche.
  • Shopping is much better in Zurich. Swiss souvenirs abound in Basel, but Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich has more shops.
  • Zurich is not the main tourist attraction in Switzerland. It is normally a starting point for most visitors who want to go to the Jungfrau or Engadine regions.
  • Zurich is logistically easier to get to from abroad by plane as it is closer to the Zurich Airport and by train due to the Zurich Train Station. To get to Basel, you would normally need to fly in via Zurich first. There is a small airport in Basel though.
  • You can visit lots of cool towns nearby Zurich for a day trip – ArbonStein am RheinAarburgLenzburg, Rheinfelden, and Laufenburg.

For more comprehensive posts regarding Zurich and attractions near it, read more here:

Basel

Image of Basel and Rhine River by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • Basel is the third-largest city in Switzerland after Zurich and Geneva. It is located in Northwest Switzerland quite near France and Germany.
  • Basel is a smaller and more laidback city compared to Zurich. Basel has fewer restaurants, nightclubs, and bars compared to Zurich.
  • Basel is known as Switzerland’s cultural capital. It has more than 40 museums. The most well-known ones are in art – Fondation Beyeler, Kunstmuseum, and Jean Tinguely are just some examples.
  • Basel has an old town and a Cathedral (Basel Minster).
  • Basel is surrounded by the River Rhine where you can ride boats and swim in during summer.
  • It takes 1 hour to reach Basel from Zurich Airport.

Places to Visit: Zurich vs. Basel

Places to Visit in Zurich

Image by Jörg Vieli from Pixabay
  • Grossmünster Church – The Grossmünster Church (Great Minister) is a beautiful church in a central location.  The Church was built between 1100 and 1250. The end of the 15th century saw the towers added. Located along the Limmat River, the Grossmünster Church is only 950 meters or 12 minutes by foot from the train station. Zurich’s most famous landmark is a Romanesque-style church with slender and striking towers. The Grossmünster Church is known as the cradle of the Zwingli Reformation; Zwingli himself took over the house in 1519. 
  • Polybahn funicular – The Polybahn funicular has been running since January 1889. It brings visitors from Zurich Central to the Polyterasse. It is still a cool thing to do to go up from the city center to the vantage point 41 meters higher. To avoid crowds, come in early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It gets busy during lunchtime.
  • Uetliberg – Üetliberg is one of the four popular viewpoints near Zurich. You can also hike 400 meters up from Triemli or Albisgüetli instead of taking the train. But if you want the more comfortable option, it is accessible in 27 minutes with the S10 Train from Zurich Train Station. It is a steep standard adhesion railway, traveling with a 7.9% gradient. It is an easy walk to the peak from the train station. Üetliberg offers great views of Zurich city, the Glarus Alps, and Central Switzerland. If you want to eat, there’s a restaurant on the mountain called Uto Kulm. 
  • Landesmuseum Zurich (Swiss National Museum) is the most-visited museum in all of Switzerland. It is located next to the Zurich Train Station (Zürich Hauptbahnhof in German). Opened in 1898, the museum has had exhibitions from prehistoric times until the present. Landesmuseum contains over 820,000 objects. It has the largest collection of all cultural history and handicrafts in the country. The permanent exhibitions cover prehistory and early history. The museum has weapons, art, jewelry, clothing, and everyday objects from various eras. It also has temporary exhibitions, sometimes with subjects appealing to children as well. 
  • Fraumünster is the smallest of the 34 Evangelical Reformed churches in the city. Even so, it is very beautiful. There used to be an abbey on its grounds. The abbey was dissolved in the face of reformation. In 1898, the abbey was eradicated to give way (eventually) to what we now know as the Fraumünster Church. Fraumünster also contains the works of world-famous Marc Chagall and Augusto Giacometti. The installation of the windows done by Giacometti was done in September 1945. The delay was due to the Second World War. It is the last of Giacometti’s over 20 glass paintings. This masterpiece is 9 meters high and twice as large as Chagall’s Christ Window. In 1970, Marc Chagall added the five-part choir windows of the church, as well as the rose window in the south transept.
  • Kunsthaus Zurich is the fine-art museum in Zurich. There are works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Andy Warhol in the museum. Other renowned artists from various times and styles also contributed to it. In October 2021, a new section designed by David Chipperfield opened, effectively doubling the public space previously available. 

Places to Visit in Basel

Image of the Basel Minster by TouringSwitzerland.com
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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 Solitudepark 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 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. 

Hotels: Zurich vs. Basel

Image from Thermalbad & Spa Zurich

In terms of hotels, Zurich has more options than Basel. However, I don’t think this should be the deciding factor. Although Zurich has more options, Basel doesn’t lack hotel options for any budget.

Hotels in Zurich

  • Baur au Lac (5-star) – This gorgeous hotel in the heart of Zurich has fantastic views of Lake Zurich and the Alps. It has two renowned restaurants, a fitness center, luxurious rooms, and excellent service.
  • Dolder Grand Hotel (5-star) – This fantastic hotel is located on the Zürichberg hill overlooking Zurich. Located next to a Cog Railway Station, Dolder Grand has 2 outstanding restaurants, an exclusive spa, fitness facilities, and superior service.
  • B2 Boutique Hotel (4-star) – One of the cool things about this hotel is its public thermal bath and spa, which features different swimming pools, a wellness area, and a steam bath, right in the heart of Zurich. In addition to that, it’s located in an old brewery.
  • Hotel Schweizerhof Zurich (4-star) – A short walk from Zurich’s main train station, this hotel is a great choice for people who want something stylish and convenient. Schweizerhof Zurich has noise-proof rooms, a great location, and free access to Holmes Place Fitness & Spa next door.
  • Motel One Zurich (3-star) – I’d highly recommend Motel One to anyone looking for something more inexpensive. Having stayed at Motel One Basel, I am 100% sure that the Motel One hotel in Zurich is just as nice, clean, and affordable. Plus, it’s incredibly close to the train station, Grossmünster, and the heart of the city.

Hotels in Basel

  • Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (5-star hotel) – 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) – 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 hotel) – 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.
  • Motel One (3-star hotel) – Right at Barfüsser Platz, Motel One Basel is a contemporary hotel with fashionable interiors and unbeatable prices.

Summary: Zurich vs. Basel

Basel as taken from the Basel Cathedral’s Tower by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

To help you decide which city you want to visit next time you are in Switzerland, I’ve provided a brief overview of the differences between Zurich and Basel. Zurich and Basel are both great places to visit, but which one you choose is up to you.

Visiting Zurich and Basel are both great, but it’s up to you which one you like better. In both places, there’s a lot to do, places to see, and restaurants to dine at. Both Zurich and Basel have rivers, old towns, churches, and parks. So what’s my recommendation?

Unless you’re an artist or art enthusiast, I’d recommend you go to Zurich first.

Here are some of the reasons why I would pick Zurich over Basel:

  • Zurich just has a lot more activities, restaurants, hotels, and picturesque towns nearby.
  • Zurich is closer to the mountains than Basel. For example, Zurich is closer to Graubünden (like the Engadine region) if you want to explore that area too.
  • With more international flights and trains, Zurich is also easier to get to from abroad.
  • Zurich is better if you like shopping and nightlife
  • Zurich has a bigger zoo (Zoo Zürich) compared to Basel (Zoo Basel).

What kind of people should I recommend Basel to? With so many art museums in Basel, it’s great for art lovers. Once they’ve seen one or both of those attractions, they can visit the city. Additionally, those coming from a Rhine River cruise or going to or from France will love Basel’s accessibility.

If you move around fast, you might be able to do both in one day. It takes approximately an hour to get from Zurich to Basel. Spend the morning in one city, then the afternoon in the other. Although it isn’t ideal, it is possible. This will allow you to see both Zurich and Basel at the same time. When you’ve done that, you can decide which city you’d like to explore further on another day.

Whatever you choose, enjoy two of Switzerland’s biggest and most important cities.

Related Posts: Zurich