In October, autumn leaves paint the streets of Basel, Switzerland, in hues of bright yellow and burnt orange. The colorful show is a sure sign that Herbstmesse, the city’s beloved autumn fair, is in full swing. For two weeks each fall, the Ferris wheel of Herbstmesse casts a soft glow across the Rhine. At diverse venues across town, nostalgia meets modernity at Europe’s largest and longest-running autumn fair.
A historic legacy
The story of Basel Herbstmesse dates back to 1471 when Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich III of Germany granted Basel the right to host two markets each year—one in spring and one in autumn. Initially met with resistance from local merchants, the spring market eventually faded away, but the autumn fair endured. Herbstmesse has been held annually since its inception, with a few interruptions for times of war and pestilence.
Since 1926, Herbstmesse has consistently opened at noon on the last Saturday in October and closed two weeks later. The the iconic bell tower of St. Martinskirche heralds the start and end of the fair. Any time of year, a visit to the church is a highlight of a stroll on Cathedral Hill.
The bell ringer receives two gloves as compensation for his autumn fair duties- one dispensed at the fair’s opening, the other when Herbstmesse closes. When I watched the brief ceremony, it included glove-waving glove and a bit of tootling on a tiny brass horn. A ten-minute clanging of the St. Martinskirche bells followed. No matter the weather, within a few moments of Herbstmesse’s opening, fair-goers crowd onto Munsterplatz. They are ready to queue for their first rides on the Ferris wheel.
Venues as diverse as the city
Basel Herbstmesse is not confined to a single location but rather spreads its charm across multiple venues throughout the Old Town. Drawing nearly a million visitors annually, each venue has its unique character and attractions, perfectly mirroring Basel’s blend of old-world charm and contemporary flair.
Basler Herbstmesse began here. A popular green sward between the classrooms, botanical garden and hospital premises of Basel University, Petersplatz is heavy on nostalgia. Attractions for little ones include a playland with a castle, costumes and rides without motors. Stands feature the works of artisans from around Switzerland and abroad, and numerous eating and drinking outlets line the alleyways of the tree-covered square.
The gentle giant of a Ferris wheel at Munsterplatz provides breathtaking views of Basel and across Klein Basel to the hills of Germany, as it glides up and over ancient rooftops. Down below, the glitter of the Museum of Culture’s faceted roof slices at angles through the surrounding medieval architecture. The Munster offers a fine backdrop for fairgoers in their flying chairs.
Messeplatz has the most contemporary feel of all the Herbstmesse locations. The exhibition center presents Weinfestival Basel, which overlaps with Herbstmesse. The festival presents thousands of wines from Switzerland and wine regions around the world. At nearby Rosentalanlage, riders enjoy old-fashioned bumper cars and a fun house, and the youngest thrill to trampolines and a car track.
Barfusserplatz, Claraplatz, Kasernenareal
Barfusserplatz is a pint-sized fun fair, with several whirring, plunging rides jammed into the smallish square between Barfuserkirche and the Lohnhof, a former prison. Claraplatz, across the Rhine in Klein Basel, is an even smaller venue, with its carousel and bratwurst and candy stalls. Also in Klein Basel, Kasernenareal, its boardwalk installed over the grassy field, has a youthful vibe with plenty of excitement.
A feast for the senses
The flavors of Basel Herbstmesse are as diverse as its venues. The air is filled with the enticing aromas of grilling sausages, roasting almonds, and sugary confections. From bratwurst and merguez to savory crepes and roasted corn, there’s a treat for every palate. Much of the food is fried or grilled or as sugary as the cotton candy I remember from the Texas fairs of my childhood. Thankfully, these days there are healthier alternatives!
Swiss specialties shine at Petersplatz. Raclette cheese with boiled potatoes and a side of pickled onions and gherkins; risotto, plain or seasoned (thanks to Switzerland’s Ticino region, cousin to northern Italy); and plenty of air-cured meats and sausages, all locally sourced. This is not fine dining, but it is highly satisfying.
Sweets abound, from chocolate-covered fruit to cotton candy, to Belgian waffles and Swiss specialties from different parts of the country. One must-try item unique to this part of the world is Magenbrot (stomach bread). A healthy confection incorporating roasted almonds and spices, Magenbrot aids digestion. Another interesting option is peppers dipped in chocolate and rolled in crisped rice, a slightly spicy alternative to chocolate-dipped bananas and strawberries. To quench your thirst, enjoy steam-brewed coffee, wine, beer, and Gasozza from Ticino.
Herbstmesse is a timeless celebration that captures the essence of autumn in Basel, Switzerland. From its historic roots to its diverse venues and tantalizing flavors, this autumn fair is a must-visit for anyone seeking a taste of Swiss tradition with a modern twist.
Note: Sampling Herbstmesse in Basel, Switzerland originally appeared on Anita’s Feast on 10 November 2015, updated 15 October 2021.