History of Basel, Switzerland

A bit of history

Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city, is an authentic and picturesque city. It’s in Switzerland; however, it’s located so close to the German and French borders that if no one told you where you were, you’d have a heck of a time answering correctly. Basel Proper lies within Swiss borders; however, some of Basel’s suburbs lie in either France or Germany.

See it up there right on the border of France and Germany?


The official language in Basel is German. This being said, both French and German are commonly spoken languages in the city, and the most commonly spoken language in Basel is actually a local variant of German known as the “Alemannic Swiss German” dialect.


OK, let’s talk history. So, Basel is old. Like, quite old. Not the oldest of the old, but old enough that it was a part of the Roman Empire. The settlement of Augusta Raurica (the oldest Roman settlement along the Rhine river) was founded way back when in 44 BC, and those involved in the settlement built a castle that had great views. This is where Basel Munster (once a Catholic church, now a reformed Protestant church) now stands. It was in 374 AD that Basel (i.e., Basilia at the time) was first mentioned by a Roman historian.

Check out this beauty of a church (Munster):

IMG_2727 (1)

The whole (then village) of Basel was destroyed by The Magyars (i.e., Hungarians) way back when in 917 AD. Ruining the main village wasn’t good enough for them, so they decided to also burn down two important monasteries in the area. It wasn’t until 955 when this king, King Otto I, ordered the Magyars move elsewhere that Basel was left to be at peace once again.

In 1019, Basel was in pretty good shape under this German Emperor, Heinrich II. They started to build the still-standing Basel Munster. In 1225, they decided to build a bridge that crossed the Rhine, and this was funded by Basel’s then-predominant Jewish community. FYI: The Jewish people had settled in Basel a century earlier, in fact.


Jumping ahead to some more important stuff, in 1349, Basel got hit pretty hard by the Plague. Most of Europe was affected by the Plague in 1347, but the people of Basel had somehow avoided it until two years later. They blamed the Jewish people for the plague, and tortured them until some confessed (even though they were not guilty, of course). After this, the people of Basel decided to execute all Jews, and many were murdered with the exception of those that escaped to Alsace (what’s now considered a German-speaking region in France), and young children, who were forced to convert to Catholicism. Nasty stuff. They called this the “Basel massacre”, and more than 600 Jewish people were murdered during this time. After this, Jews were not forbidden to be present in Basel for almost 200 years.


On a more positive, and completely unrelated note, in the 15th century, Basel became a major focal point of western Christendom. There was also a very prestigious university, the University of Basel, established in 1460, where Erasmus and Paracelsus later taught (that’s a big deal!). This was around the same time that the new art of printing was introduced. Actually, the Schwabe publishing house that was founded in 1488 is the oldest publishing house still in business today!

Okay, 1500s. Big deal for Basel and the Swiss Confederacy. There was this big war called the Swabian War (technically this was in 1499). The outcome was that well-trained and experienced Swiss soldiers defeated their counterparts, and the Treaty of Basel was created, ending the war and essentially separating Basel from the Roman Empire. Basel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501.


A lot more happened between the 1600s and present day. To name a few, the Mayor of Basel, Johann Rudolf, participated in the Peace Congress of Munster and Osnabruck in Westphalia and succeeded at getting absolute sovereignty for the Swiss Confederation (1648). In 1661, Basel introduced the very first public art collection in the world. In 1844, the first railway train reached Basel. In 1980, Basel opened a new theatre. And that brings us pretty close to today where Basel thrives! Read about our trip HERE.

Also, learn more about our favorite local spots and recommendations.



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