Why go now? Ever since the city fathers bought 20 Holbeins in 1661, Basel has been proud of being a great centre for art. Art Basel (artbasel.com), founded in 1970, has become one of the world's most prestigious art fairs, with offshoots in Miami and Hong Kong. This year, it's being held at the Exhibition Centre from 13 to 16 June, with 300 leading galleries from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa showing work from masters, both modern and contemporary.
Get your bearings
Basel is unusual in straddling the borders of three countries, though there is little to indicate when you are moving between France, Germany or Switzerland, which has the largest portion. The city spreads over a bend in the Rhine with industrial and more modern Kleinbasel to the north and most of the old city on the west bank. It is Switzerland's only port and also hosts many conferences and international exhibitions. The historic heart is the Marktplatz, dominated by the red sandstone town hall which dates from 1504.
Take a view
The tree-shaded terrace beside the Münster (cathedral), known as the Pfalz, offers a magnificent view over the Rhine bend, towards Germany.
Take a hike
From the Pfalz terrace, take Rittergasse, lined with beautiful patrician houses, to St Alban Graben. On the opposite corner is the Kunstmuseum. Its collection of Holbeins has almost been eclipsed by its modern art – in particular Cubist and American paintings – but it still includes works by Rembrandt, Goya, Gauguin, Renoir, Chagall and Van Gogh.
Continue along St Alban-Vorstadt past rows of medieval houses. At the end is the 13th-century town gate of St Alban Tor, surrounded by a lovely garden. Head towards the river along St Alban-Tal to the Basler Papiermühle (papiermuseum.ch), a working museum for the paper and printing industries. Open 11am-5pm Tuesday to Friday and 1-5pm on Saturday, Sfr15 (£10). At the end of Letziplatz is Mühlegraben, a restored section of medieval wall-walk which survived the demolition of most of the city's fortifications in the 19th century. Walk along St Alban-Rheinweg to cross the Schwarzwaldbrücke and turn left along the north bank of the river, with fine views of the Münster and the old town.
Most of the narrower streets of the old town are full of boutiques, with bland chains being confined to the broader streets around Marktplatz.
Läckerli-Huus (laeckerli-huus.ch) at Gerbergasse 57 sells a variety of Läckerli, the traditional biscuit made from gingerbread with nougat, honey and almonds. For Swiss-made clothes, textiles and toys, try Heimatwerk at Schneidergasse 2 (heimatwerk.ch).
Dining with the locals
The Fischerstube (restaurant-fischerstube.ch) serves hearty German food in an informal pub-like setting with brewers sometimes at work in the background. Meanwhile, Restaurant Linde (ueli-bier.ch) is quieter with a garden terrace and serves regional cuisine, including a fondue.
Go to church
Standing on the site of a Roman settlement, today's Münster was consecrated in 1019. It was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1356 and rebuilt to a larger plan. The Reformation deprived the building of many of its artworks, but the pulpit is ornately carved and the Fröwler chapel has a 12th-century relief of six Apostles. Sunday services are at 10am and 7.30pm.
Take a ride
Boat trips along the Rhine are popular (bpg.ch). Leaving from Schifflände, boats stop at the Roman site Augusta Raurica and the attractive town of Rheinfelden; departures Tuesday-Sunday at 11.30am; Sfr35/£23.
The Vitra Design Museum at Charles-Eames-Strasse 1 across the German border in Weil am Rhein (design-museum.de; 10am to 6pm daily; €9) is an outstanding site. The main museum was designed by Frank Gehry, the next door Vitra Factory by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and both are adjacent to Zaha Hadid's Vitra Fire Station. The museum's focus is on industrial furniture design, complemented by temporary exhibitions. It can be reached by tram 2 to Badischer Bahnhof followed by Bus 55 to Vitra.
A walk in the park
The largest park in Switzerland inspired by the English landscape garden is on tram route 10 in Arlesheim (direction Dornach Bahnhof); follow the footpath signs to Ermitage and Castle Birseck.
The wooded valley incorporates
caves and grottos, ponds, a stream and watermills. Paths form a delightful circular walk, returning via the 17th-century cathedral in Arlesheim, with the prospect of tea and cakes at Confiserie Brändli (braendli-basel.ch) on the square at Dorfplatz 9, before catching the tram back.
Icing on the cake
The Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely grew up in Basel. In 1977, he placed some of his metal sculptures in a shallow pool near the theatre, but the greatest collection is at the Tinguely Museum (tinguely.ch; 11am to 6pm Tuesday-Sunday, Sfr15/£10).