Holbein, Les Trois Rois and Beyond: A Local’s Guide to Basel

Holbein, Les Trois Rois and Beyond: A Local’s Guide to Basel

Visiting Art Basel this June? Let Sotheby's be your guide, with our unique picks and tips to ensure you get the best art experience on your visit to this historic Swiss city.
Visiting Art Basel this June? Let Sotheby's be your guide, with our unique picks and tips to ensure you get the best art experience on your visit to this historic Swiss city.

F or most of us who jet into town for Art Basel each summer, things tend to follow a tried and tested routine. After all, flying visits tend to keep the visitor entirely within the Fair’s environs at Messeplatz, subsisting entirely for the duration on kalbsbratwurst mit senf, Movenpick ice cream and the ubiquitous pommes mit mayo, all washed down with incautious quantities of champagne.

But for the more adventurous, there is plenty to enjoy outside the fair's massive complex. For instance, the nearby Campari Bar, where everyone gathers after the Messe closes for the night and the various gallery dinners are over, to get down to the serious business of intemperate carousing and gossip. Here, one can spot global art media and PRs shifting industrial quantities of prosecco, eyeing the industry insiders clustering in stylish conclaves, while international collectors and advisors huddle over PDFs on iPads, sipping spritzes and discussing tomorrow’s intended purchases. This is the place to best gauge the overall mood of the fair each evening - exuberant and celebratory some years, subdued and early to bed, others.

Traditional Art Basel sustenance: a precarious stack of kalbsbratwurst mit senf (Gareth Harris)

For other visitors, evenings usually gravitate around that other magnetic pole of Basel art-world glamour, Les Trois Rois hotel, where the brasserie, bar and terraces are the destination for blue-chip gallery VIPs, stylish collectors, feted artists and the occasional Hollywood A-lister.

But an art trip to Basel should be so much more than these familiar watering holes. The smart visitor will build in a day or so to their itinerary, to explore this compact, delightful city. For it is a charming, historical place, uniquely perched on the borders of Switzerland, Germany and France and steeped in art and culture, long before Art Basel launched in 1972. Basel’s public museum collection for instance, dates to 1661 and is the oldest public collection in continuous existence in Europe. This sets the scene for a city which boasts the greatest density of galleries and museums of any city, anywhere in the world.

'Basel is a unique place in Switzerland, being totally nonconformist, yet the most cultured in terms of its character'
- Caroline Lang, Chairman Sotheby's Switzerland

And so, to provide some insider tips and experiences, we’ve asked Sotheby’s Swiss Chairman Caroline Lang, a proud Basel native, to share her recommendations to make the most out of your time in the city. ‘Basel is multifaceted,’ she warns. ‘It's a unique place in Switzerland, totally nonconformist yet the most cultured in terms of its character. I find that Basel allows you to be exactly who you are.’

Kunstmuseum Basel (Kunstmuseum Basel, Julian Salinas)


Basel has some of the most important museums in Europe. From single artist museums and private foundations to rotating contemporary exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel and the Museum für Gegenwartskunst the city and its surroundings are richly-stocked with repositories of all manner of art and artifacts.

‘The one place where everyone in the art world goes to eat while in Basel is the famous Kunsthalle restaurant,’ says Lang. ‘But only few people take the time to enter the Kunsthalle Basel itself, which always has a fantastic programme. It’s in the same building, it has non-commercial shows, such as the most amazing Michael Armitage show last year. Also, inside the last room of the restaurant there is an exceptional unique work by Danish designer Verner Panton, ‘Muscheldecke’ which is on long-term loan to the Kunsthalle. Panton was Danish, but lived and worked for most of his life in Basel - and this is his one and only ceiling of lamps, hanging down like stalactites!’

St George and the Dragon, on the facade of the Munster Cathedral (Photo: Caroline Lang)

Architecture buffs will enjoy the Mario Botta-designed Museum Tinguely, located in the Solitudepark by the Rhine, and of course the city’s imposing Munster Cathedral, with its dramatic façade. ‘Here on the façade of the Münster Cathedral, you’ll see St George and the dragon,’ says Caroline. ‘This is also where the bones of Erasmus, who died in 1536, rest.’

Another museum that is often overlooked is the Antikenmuseum in Basel. ‘We always tend to go to the same obvious places,’ says Lang. ‘But this, which is just steps away from the Kunstmuseum, is the only museum in Switzerland exclusively dedicated to antiquities from the Mediterranean area.'

The Kunstmuseum itself has been a favourite spot for Caroline since childhood. ‘It’s where, aged 14 or 15, I fell in love with art for the first time,’ she says. ‘In the Holbein room at the back, you’ll find two paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger that I would like to point out, in particular'

Hans Holbein the Younger The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) Kunstmuseum, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Hans Holbein the Younger had arrived in Basel from Augsburg in 1515, and soon became one of the era's most important artists, obtaining significant commissions, before being exiled to London (where he was court painter to Henry VIII in 1535), after the Bildersturm (the destruction of religious images in Europe during the 16th century) in 1529. He had, however, during his time in Basel, befriended one of the leading Humanists living in the city, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who would, some years later, facilitate his return to city from exile. There is an, 'an amazingly important painting' of Erasmus in the same room, painted by his friend Holbein.

Hans Holbein the Younger The Artist's Family (1528) at the Kunstmuseums, Basel

The room at the Kuntsmuseum also contains ‘Christus Im Grab (Christ In The Tomb) which was painted by Hans Holbein in 1520-22, a life-size oil and tempera limewood painting, showing Christ lying in his tomb just after he was taken from the cross. Rumoured to be based on a corpse fished from the Rhein, it is a work that resonates powerfully with Lang, decades since she first saw it. 'Regardless of your religion, this painting depicts the entire human condition, showing you faith and empathy for humanity. It is the most touching artwork I have ever seen, and to which I pay pilgrimage every time I am in Basel. When you stand in front of this painting, you are mesmerised.’

Sotheby's Highlight: Kunsthalle Basel - Form als Experiment by Shirley Jaffe

Shirley Jaffe in her studio, Paris, 13 October 2008 (Artwork in background: Shirley Jaffe, "Bande Dessinée en Noir et Blanc" 2009) © 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich, © Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI / Jean-Christophe Mazur

The late Shirley Jaffe, was one of the most dynamic painters of the 20th century. Born in New Jersey, she died in 2016 at the age of 92 in France, where she had spent most of her adult life, leaving behind a body of powerful works that moved in a singular fashion from abstract expressionism to bold ,hard geometric compositions. This retrospective is entitled 'Form Als Experiment' and is on view at the Kunstmuseum Basel until 30 July 2023, (with Sotheby's Preferred clients able to enjoy a guided tour with Caroline Lang on 12 June). Drawn from the museum's collection, the exhibition has been developed in close collaboration with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Musée Matisse in Nice. As an overview of a profoundly accomplished individual - and a major influence especially on emerging abstract artists of the 1960s and beyond - this show is an absolute must-see.

Food and Drink

Interior of Roter Bären, Basel (roterbaeren.ch)

Touring the city’s museums is hungry work. Spending a day prowling the miles of aisles at Art Basel, even more so. Fortunately Basel, with its unique geographic location represents cuisines from across its Swiss, German and French borders and beyond, with a plenitude of fine and casual dining options. Regional specialties include the usual raclette, local riffs on fondue, Buttergipfel (Buttery Swiss croissants, that are baked fresh daily and sell out early) weisswurst from Alsace and the famous veal sausage (kalbsbratwurst), that sleek, plump star of so many Instagram posts from Art Basel, served with a tongue-puckering dollop of mustard. Around town, between the traditional Swiss restaurants and bars, fine dining venues and hotels, there is the usual mix of fast-food, snack and kebab outlets, should the urge for something quick and dirty grab you in the small hours.

In the evenings, art world bigwigs traditionally tend to dine at the exquisite Les Trois Rois brasserie, convenient to the hotel's bar for post-fair cocktails and socialising. Gagosian Gallery, for instance, holds its exclusive Art Basel dinner there, each year. Securing a table during Art Basel is near-impossible, as this requires some very long-term advance planning.

‘Although everyone goes to Les Trois Rois during Art Basel,' says Caroline Lang 'I also would suggest visiting Roter Bären, where you have sharing plates of fresh, simple, seasonal food. I would also recommend a relatively new place that opened a couple of years ago, a Japanese kitchen called Miake Izakaya, on Sempacherstrasse’.

For something a little less formal, the city's current favourite lunch spot is an unassuming Italian takeaway joint, Sapori Del Sud, on Spalenvorstadt 34. Famed, justly, for its home-cooked Italian delicacies, from pasta, pizza and open-topped sandwiches to home-baked cheesecake and fresh gelato, it's the mouthwatering pastrami sandwich, served with a sweet pickle, that keeps us coming back for more.
Meanwhile old school art world hangout Volkshaus in the heart of the old town is not only a must-visit bar, it's a superb dining option, should you be in the mood for satisfying, traditional European cooking. Located a across the bridge from Les Trois Rois, the Volkshaus is the venue for Sotheby’s ‘Drinks Before Dinner’ on 13 June.

Sotheby's Highlight: Fondation Beyeler

Installation View: ‘Doris Salcedo’ in The Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, 2023 © Doris Salcedo .Photo: Mark Niedermann

If you make only one expedition out of Basel during your stay, make the trip to that stalwart of the Art Basel experience, Fondation Beyeler in nearby Riehen. This delightful museum houses a magnificent collection of Modern and contemporary art, which forms the basis of a kaleidoscopic programme of events all year round. And it’s not just the exceptional collection that draws visitors from Basel - the museum building itself was designed by Renzo Piano and sits within an idyllic park, surrounded by trees and water lily ponds, fields, pastures and vineyards, nestling near the foothills of the Black Forest. It is absolutely gorgeous.

This summer, we’re especially excited by the prospect of two exhibitions in particular, at the Fondation Beyeler. Running until 17 September is Switzerland’s first-ever retrospective of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, curated in close collaboration with the artist herself. Salcedo typically works with a wide range of materials: stone and cement, wooden furniture, needles, items of clothing, silk, grass, water, flower petals - even hair - and this retrospective is the perfect opportunity to re-acquaint yourself with, or indeed discover why Salcedo's is a unique and original voice in contemporary art. Sotheby’s Caroline Lang will be hosting a guided tour for Preferred clients on Tuesday 13th June at 8.30am, which will also take in another, very special exhibition taking place at the Fondation, ‘Basquiat: The Modena Paintings’ (until 27 August).

Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘The Guilt of Gold Teeth’ (1982) [Acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 240 x 421.3cm. Nahmad Collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York]

Now, this is a thrilling prospect for Basquiat fans; a series of paintings executed by the legendary Pop artist Jean-Michel Basquiat during a 1982 retreat to Modena at the invitation of gallery owner Emilio Mazzoli. During his stay, Basquiat, fuelled by a burst of creative energy, painted eight large-scale canvases, some of which are now considered to be amongst his greatest and most powerful. The idea had been for Basquiat to exhibit the works in Italy, as a group. However, for one reason or another, this never happened and the individual paintings were sold into collections scattered worldwide. This exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler, is the first time ever the Modena paintings have been reunited and exhibited as originally intended, making this exhibition an unmissable occasion.

And Finally...

Johann Wanner's Swiss Christmas Parlour (Photo Caroline Lang)

In an increasingly homogenised world, there is always something compelling about discovering a shop or business, unique to your destination. For those who seek out a Basel souvenir, or who wish to begin their Christmas preparations with incredible foresight, a visit to the shop of Johann Wanner is highly recommended. Here, over fifty years ago in the heart of Basel’s Old Town, local glass-blower Wanner first created his signature Christmas bauble, a glass orb which has led to the Johann Wanner Christmas House, now famed around the world. Renowned for Wanner's ability to come up with blown-glass decorations in all manner of shapes and sizes - custom-designed to your festive specifications if required - this charming store has over 900 - 900! - different types of bauble alone, as well as enough festive decorations and trinkets to satisfy the most ardent Yulephile.

And should none of the above appeal, and you feel sore, achy and exhausted after a few days of intense art fair activity - Caroline Lang has one, final, fail-safe recommendation, Grab a Wickelfisch swim bag (a fish-shaped tote bag, made in Basel), and head to one of the designated spots along the river bank, and as Caroline says, 'If the weather is fine, leave your Les Trois Rois and go jump in the Rhein!'

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