Art Basel in Switzerland is a great opportunity to see a lot of modern and contemporary art in a short amount of time. But bring comfortable walking shoes - you'll have lots of ground to cover.
Arriving by air. Basel has an airport with easy bus and train connections to town. Automated ticket machines for both bus and train are outside the airport. Both bus and train will take you to Basel SBB, the main train station, which is also a hub for local transportation.
There's also direct train service to Basel SBB from the Zurich airport.
Checking in. There's a welcome booth just outside the Basel SBB station where you can buy tickets for Art Basel. The staff will be able to give you a map showing where to find Art Basel, your hotel, and a couple satellite fairs - enough to get you started. The staff speak fluent English (and German and French).
I like to get a two-day ticket for Art Basel while I'm at the welcome booth. Two days allows time for more breaks and a chance to see things twice if I want. But most people will be able to see the entire Art Basel show in a day if they arrive by noon and stick with it.
Local transportation. Your hotel will give you a transportation pass good for buses and trams, and travel around Basel will be easy with the pass. You’ll probably need two maps, one showing the tram system and one with more detail showing the streets. But there’s no need to buy a city map; maps are freely available almost everywhere.
Hotels. Most years it is still possible to find a room right before the event, but your choices will be limited. The earlier you book, the better your choices will be. If you want something as inexpensive as a hostel, you'll need to book at least a month ahead.
Using English. In multiple trips I have met only one shopkeeper who didn’t speak English. Everyone else, both on the street and in businesses, young and old, were courteous and eager to help me find my way around town. In English. You should have no trouble getting around, even if English is your only language.
When to go. If you’re able, go on Thursday and Friday. The crowds are much bigger on Saturday and Sunday and make seeing the art more difficult. But if those are your only possible days, by all means go on the weekend.
Food. Food is available at the event. At peak times you might spend 15 minutes in line. A small bottle of water can cost six Euros or more, but it's worth staying at the site to maximize your time.
Media. The first floor has a section of art magazines. Be sure to pick up the free daily newspaper. You can get interesting market news about the art you've seen that day. It will also have a map and list of other art events in the city that you might want to see.
If you only have a day. You’re going to miss great art, no doubt about it. But to make the best use of your time, stick to the ground floor of Art Basel. You’ll see hundreds of millions of dollars of art, even if you only have an hour. There's a good chance you'll see art by Pablo Picasso, Frank Stella, Christo, Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquait, Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, or some other name you'll recognize.
My next recommendation may not be for everyone. But if my time was short, I'd make sure I got to see Hall 1. The massive space gives room for huge installations and art you're not likely to see at other art fairs.
If you have two days. Plan on spending the better part of your time at Art Basel. Check out the first and second floor as well as Hall 1. If you’ve seen everything there, check out Liste, Scope, or Volta (three satellite fairs), and get a local guide to see if you should visit any of the exhibitions at the local museums.
Satellite fairs. There are far fewer satellite fairs at Art Basel than at Art Basel Miami Beach. If you have two days or more and are good at walking, you'll have time to visit one or more in addition to Art Basel. If you want to see all of them and several museums, you'll probably need three or four days. After Art Basel I'd visit Scope, Volta and Liste before trying any other venue.
Scope. You'll be able to see Scope in an hour or two. There will be a shuttle from Art Basel hidden on a road at the back of the building.
Liste. Liste is advertised as the “young person’s” art fair. It’s kind of shocking how apt the description is.
At Art Basel, you’ll find an occasional teen or person in their 20s, almost always with a parent. But at Liste, you’ll discover where the younger set goes instead of Art Basel. The average age of attenders at Art Basel usually looks to be well above 50. At Liste in the evening the average age might be 25 or 30.
If you arrive at 8 p.m., the price for Liste drops, and they’re open until 9, so you can maximize your time by saving Liste for the end of the day. You'll be able to see it all in the hour before closing.
The art is great, but even if it weren‘t, it’s worth going just to poke around the magnificent building. Liste is at Werkraum Warteck, a fabulous site. To see all the art, you'll have to poke your head into every corner you can think of. The layout isn't straightforward.
Volta. Take a shuttle bus from Art Basel or Liste. You'll be able to see all of Volta in about an hour. Don't turn around at the cafeteria; the third section of the art fair is hidden behind it.
Other venues. Occasionally other fairs are at St. Jakobshalle. Catch the shuttle; don't try to find this location on public transportation.
The Beyeler Foundation usually has a show worth going to, and it can be reached on public transportation. The Schaulager and Tingley Museums are also worth stopping at. If you go to them, I'd catch a cab or tram after you're done rather than wait for the shuttle.
There are quite a few local museums; pick up a schedule of their current exhibits and choose what to see based on your time.
The cows above are near the Beyeler Foundation. Other views of Basel: