Switzerland is well known to be a great place to live, but Basel may be the best and most unique place even here, with the best of three countries right at your fingertips. All is revealed by an expat expert who's ferreted out survival techniques in this most civilised of cities.
Location, Location, Location
Situated on the north-western edge of Switzerland, Basel is right on the border with France (Alsace) and Germany (southern Black Forest) so offers fantastic shopping, cultural and lifestyle opportunities. For this reason, living in Basel is like nowhere else in Switzerland.
For example, you can work in Switzerland, live in France and do your food shopping in Germany. Many do. If you choose to live in Basel proper but want a change from the Swiss supermarkets or want cheaper prices, you can pop over the border to one of the many nearby supermarkets in France or Germany - just 10 minutes by car (bearing in mind, of course, any customs restrictions since this is not an EU member state).
In addition to that, you are only a stones throw away from some fantastic places for days out- Colmar in Alsace (France), Zurich and Lucerne are all just one hour's drive away, Interlaken is just 1 hr 20 mins drive away (with gateway to Grindelwalg and Wengen); Neuchatel and Montreux on Lake Geneva can be reached in less than 2 hours. A sizeable number of expat families live in Basel - mainly American, South American, British and German, although there are people from all over the world. Families are scattered all over the two half cantons of the City – Basel Stadt (in town) and Basel Land (the suburbs).
For more about living over the border in Alsace and seamlessly leading your life popping back and forth between Switzerland, Germany and France, click here: Working in Basel, Living in Alsace.
Despite being a “city”, Basel is actually very small compared to most European cities and feels more like a town. Fantastic clean and punctual tram and bus links make getting around very easy.
Basel's largest industry is pharmaceutical/chemical, so this is undoubtedly why medical services here are terrific with clean, efficient hospitals, the brand new Kinderspital (Children's hospital) in town, and a large number of chemists and doctors in both the centre of town and the suburbs.
Another excellent thing is that you can choose which doctor you want go to, you're not limited to the nearest place. However there is a price to pay. In Switzerland all medical care is paid for privately and it is mandatory for everyone to have health insurance, which can be quite costly. Dental costs are not covered and can be extortionately expensive (albeit very high standard). Many people go to neighbouring France and Germany to get their teeth done!
In an emergency, if you are unsure what to do, call your health insurance provider's helpline. This editor knows from experience that they are very knowledgeable and friendly. Otherwise just go straight to the nearest hospital (won't be far away). In extreme emergency you can call 144 (ambulance) or 145 for a poison emergency.
Finding Someplace to Live
Now this is where it gets tricky. A relocation agent is a must to show you a good mix of rental properties in different areas, and they will also try to 'place' you in a suitable community for your needs. You can opt to look around in France (very popular with Brits) or indeed Germany (not so popular) if you so wish, to see how they compare.
Unfortunately - and you will see this refrain begins to sound like a Greek chorus -living in Switzerland comes at a price. Most families live in a rented apartment (at least at first) because there is a huge shortage of houses. You may be able to find a modern 'row house' (terraced house) with a small garden of your own for a relatively reasonable price, but they do tend to be snapped up like hot cakes. The most well known website for searching for houses is www.homegate.ch.
There are many good sized apartments available and they usually come with an extremely high standard of cleanliness, communal green areas and well-kept playgrounds. All communities tend to have a nearby school (Swiss state school) and proximity to a supermarket.
In the suburbs, especially in the wealthier, greener areas, it feels very safe and it is totally normal to see children of all ages walking to and from school on their own and children playing together without adult supervision, almost like going back in time.
Need some help at home?
Babysitters and nannies are HARD to find in Basel. You might be lucky enough to move into an expat community area with a babysitting circle set up but otherwise you are likely to struggle. You might be able to find some help at Basel Children's Trust or you will have to find out through word of mouth.
Sometimes teenagers advertise that they have some free hours to spare to help out. Reliable cleaners are easy to find but as with everything in Basel, not cheap! Same thing with electricians for putting in your light-fittings when you arrive (apartments and houses are rented as standard without light-fittings).
If any problems arise in your rental apartment or house, you will have a number to call or a 'Hauswart' (Caretaker) living close by who will sort everything out for you. And in line with most things Swiss, problems will be sorted efficiently.
Some people are apprehensive that moving to Basel will cause them problems from a linguistic perspective. After all, the main language here is Swiss German - or Schweizerdeutsch (think German with a Dutch accent), and the official languages of the country do not include English - they are German, French, Italian and Romansh. However, Baslers are an amazing breed of polyglots and most people working in the city in shops, restaurants, chemists, doctors etc can switch from German to English, to French effortlessly.
Nonetheless, you may feel more comfortable if you arrange some lessons at one of the many language schools; in fact, most international companies will include some language lessons for you as part of your relocation package. Certainly if you intend to stay in Basel for any length of time, it is worthwhile to get to grips with some German (at least High German).
As regards English-speaking TV, BBC World and BBC Prime are available for free along with plenty of channels in German, Swiss German and French. However, it's easy to get access to the full range of English TV channels by signing up for a Bluewin package at Swisscom (less than 20CHF per month).
Outdoors & Cultural Life
Basel is really great for families. There's a wide choice of parks, green spaces and playgrounds, all maintained to a high level of cleanliness. Park im Grunen, located near Reinach, is probably the largest, known locally as "the dinosaur park" due to the giant and very realistic dinosaur next to the lake. The park has a restaurant, large activity play centre with climbing frames, slides, swings, rockers etc and also tennis courts, outdoor swimming pools (summer), botanical gardens, up market cafe/wine bar 'Cafe Merian', loads of green space, and parking on site.
Another hangout for many expats with young children is Schutzenmatt Park, which is small with lots of swings, baby swings, slides, large climbing frame and little wooden huts to play in and in summer, an alfresco pizza place (albeit a tad on the expensive side), sometimes with jazzy music and paddling pool for children. We're also reliably informed they do brunch on Sunday mornings from spring to autumn.
Kannenfeld Park in the City near Allschwil is also excellent with fantastic futuristic climbing areas, slides, seesaws and swings, and three outdoor table tennis tables available. All parks are accessible by tram and bus. Amongst the huge number of pretty fountains in the city is the famous Carnival fountain ('Fasnachtsbrunnen') outside the Basel Theatre.
One of the best outdoor places to go with children is the immensely popular Basel Zoo (most families buy an annual family pass). The Zoo is easily accessible by tram or bus and almost feels like a park rather than a zoo due to lack of cages and lots of greenery. Brilliant large family cafeteria for lunch, with tables inside and out and hotdogs also available to buy outside during summer.
Basel is a very arty city and hosts the world-renowned 'Art Basel' fair. You are spoilt for choice with a wide range of excellent museums and theatres. The Museum of Fine Arts (Kunstmuseum) in the centre of town and the Fondation Beyeler Museum in Riehen are two of the most popular. The Vitra Design Museum in nearby Weil-am-Rhein is also well worth a visit.
If theatre and film are more your cup of tea, the English language theatre regularly stages London and Broadway productions and in Basel cinemas, unlike in many foreign cities, English films are NOT dubbed; they have German or German and French subtitles on screen but use the original sound recording. Great for us Brits!
Basel plays host to loads of interesting family events all year round. Basler Fasnacht (end Feb- beginning March) is a huge big deal here and takes place over 3 days. "Morgenstreich' starts off at precisely 4am on a Monday morning. All lights in the City are switched off and the 'Cliques' march around Basel with lanterns. It's very popular to go and see this bizarre spectacle at least once!
After this has kicked off proceedings, it is well worth a visit to see the magnificent (but deafeningly noisy) afternoon parades (Monday and Wednesday), with ridiculous costumes, papier mache masks, drums, piccolos and floats throwing flowers to the ladies and sweets and toys to the children. Tuesday is a special children's carnival. Make sure you stock up on supplies, though, a few days before it all starts as the whole of the city shuts down including all the shops for several days (Note: you can still get your basics in an emergency at the little mini shops at petrol stations). Many people deliberately book short breaks away during the festivities and come back when things are back to normal.
The annual Autumn Fair ('Herbstmesse') has something for everyone and has been a major event here for hundreds of years. For two weeks, various activities take place. Big wheels and other fairground rides suddenly appear around the city, particularly in front of the Cathedral ('Munster') and in Messeplatz; hundreds of pretty wooden huts transform Petersplatz into days gone by, selling all sorts of regional delicacies from food to wooden toys. Try the raclette (melted slabs of cheese with boiled potatoes)...it is divine on a chilly autumn day. Also the traditional fried sugary pastries.
Finally as the end of the year approaches and the temperature dips, usually with accompanying snow showers, the old town transforms itself into a magical setting for the Christmas markets. The fruity smell of warm Gluhwein (mulled wine) lingers in the air enticing you to buy locally produced fayre and traditional trinkets from beautifully decorated traditional stalls.
Basel has good mix of small boutique shops located around the beautiful cobbled streets of the old town and modern high street stores in the main shopping street (Freiestrasse). The most upmarket department store is Globus in MArktplatz which sells everything from posh food and designer clothes to fancy household accessories.
Pfauen (part of Coop group), Coop City and Manor are the other department stores and they all offer a good range of decent typical department store items. Alternatively, head over to Stucki, the recently opened multi-level shopping complex close to the German border. If you want more choice, you can easily head to much larger Zurich for the day or explore the nearby shopping centres in Lorrach (Germany) or Mulhouse (France).
As regards food shopping, the city has an excellent food market in Marktplatz, open most days including Saturday mornings, selling fresh fruit and veg, regional specialities, plants and organic produce. The two main national supermarket chains are COOP and MIGROS which are found throughout the city centre and also in all the villages of Basel Landt.
There are also several branches of Aldi, Denner and Lidl dotted around. Otherwise, you can nip over to France or Germany where all the glories of Geant Casino, LeClerc, Carrefour or Hieber are a short car journey away.
All shops are closed on a Sunday, including garden centers and supermarkets which can take some getting used to when you first arrive. However if you are really stuck, you can find essential supplies in the little shops at petrol stations, and mini supermarket at the main SBB railway station. English newspapers can be bought here from 11am each day (although for an astronomical amount). Otherwise you can buy English newspapers and magazines from various kiosks around the city (newspapers are usually a day old).
Basel is a very honest place -where else would you be able to put your umbrella in a stand at the doorway of a department store on your way in and collect it on the way out? Generally one feels that the traders here- and residents in general- can be trusted and quality of goods is high. If you have a problem with something you have bought they are usually very decent about sorting it out.
The Swiss tend to keep themselves to themselves and are very family-orientated, usually spending their spare time in evenings and weekends doing things with their children (think bike rides, backpacking on long hikes with barbecue in forest, sporting activities etc etc) . Therefore unless you are at least initially holed up in an expat community (where you won't be able to get away from the convivial English-speaking barbecues, pot-lucks, children's birthday parties etc etc) you may find yourself a bit isolated.
However if you are prepared to make the effort, there are English-speaking clubs and groups that you can join to make new friends. Centrepoint represents the international community in Basel and has lots of information and contacts.
Obviously it is easier to make friends if you have children as there are numerous playgroups and coffee mornings and even Mum's and Dad's Nights Out offered by groups such as the excellent Basel Children's Trust .
If you have school age children, of course you are bound to make some friends at the school gates or getting involved with school activities (especially if your children attend one of the international schools).
All in all, Basel is a very pleasant place to bring up your family- clean, 'safe', plenty of green spaces, close to the mountains and lakes, peace and quiet and a slower pace of life. A world away really from the hustle and bustle of the UK yet only 1 hour and 20 mins flight for visits back home (or 7 hour drive) to stock up on your UK high street essentials!