For a small city of around 180,000 people, Basel has a remarkably high international profile. Its location, at the junction of the Swiss, French and German borders, certainly makes the city popular for business, and the annual Baselworld – that bling fest of watches, gems and jewellery – attracts global attention. But, as the Hong Kong version of the Art Basel fair (which runs from March 27 to 31, at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, in Wan Chai) reveals, what really makes Basel stand out from Switzerland’s many other pretty cities is its commitment to art. The older part of the town climbs up a hill that sits in a loop of the Rhine, looking as if lifted from an idealised Advent calendar or Brothers Grimm fairy-tale illustration. Basel long prospered from trade along the river as well as from control of one of the few permanent bridges across it. This funded a large cathedral, covered the hilltop with substantial mansions and supported Switzerland’s oldest university, founded in 1460. That income also funded the acquisition of a substantial art collection by the Amerbach family, printers and lawyers, which included 15 works by celebrated German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, who painted the portraits of scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, England’s King Henry VIII and many other Renaissance worthies. When in 1661 the family fell on hard times, professors from the university intervened to prevent the collection from leaving Basel. The city and university shared the cost of purchase, and then used the collection to open the world’s first public art gallery, which quickly became one of Basel’s major attractions. What has grown further into the Kunstmuseum Basel is now a collection of remarkable breadth and size, with not only the world’s largest holding of works by the Holbein family, but something of everything else on through significant post-Impressionists to modern-day Abstract Expressionism. Multilingual guides are available to introduce key canvasses, explain art movements and tell background stories. It’s the perfect introduction to art for the new gallery-goer, yet will delight the experienced enthusiast. It’s a short walk uphill from the Kunstmuseum through narrow, stepped passages between primly painted 15th-century buildings into the warren of the old town, known as Grossbasel. Here, steep-roofed four-storey houses are jumbled together, their ground floors hosting cafes and small shops, mixing the practical (pharmacy, bakery) with the pleasurable (antique glassware, ancient prints) and those in between (milliner, cobbler). There’s more art at Der Teufelhof (“the devil’s house”) – three ancient mansions forming a mini-labyrinth that functions as a small hotel built partly on the remains of the city wall, inside which it’s as easy to get as pleasurably lost as in the lanes outside. This is “practically the inventor of the art room”, according to the Teufelhof website; some rooms are part of an extended gallery while others have been entirely recreated as works of art. One room has a lawn with daisies occupying one wall; another has books suspended from the beams and ceiling, open as if trying to flutter away. Two serious restaurants provide an opportunity to rest the feet, including Bel Etage, whose tasting menus deserve every twinkle of their Michelin star (the celery ravioli with Périgord truffle is worth the trip by itself). Even the bar food is out of the ordinary (pear cubes with mountain cranberry ragout and Prosecco ice cream), and the hotel brews some very drinkable beer in its basement. Back down hill, the Rhine flows broad and strong through the city where the modern Mittlere Brücke (or Middle Bridge), on the site of the original crossing, offers panoramas of the stolid mansions that crowd the water’s edge and leads to the further warren of Kleinbasel. The red frontage of the 16th-century Town Hall, with its murals, coats of arms, gilt trim and turreted tower, overlooks a market square lively with food stalls. Not far from the Town Hall, at the Spielzeug Welten Museum, there’s further evidence that not everything about Basel is sober and serious. Three floors house the world’s largest collection of teddy bears. Of every size, shape and occupation, they throng displays in their hundreds, driving miniature cars, attending school, taking baths and photographs, and, inevitably, enjoying picnics – gingham cloth, thermos flasks and all. Away from the old town, modern Basel has made a feature of urban art. Ordinary graffiti is painted over with Swiss efficiency, but commissioned works wrap gaudily around electricity substations and climb the sides of newer towers. Here, Basel was also ahead of its time, getting into street art before the term had even been invented. The urban art gallery Artstübli conducts a variety of tours, introducing the artists and their works, taking walkers into corners of the city they’d be unlikely to discover for themselves. Hidden in the car park behind the Helvetia Insurance building, for instance, Robert Indermaur (a sort of early Basel Banksy) has painted figures with the faces of the company’s former employees climbing a wall in the courtyard and waving to those inside the office building opposite. The mural is 30 years old. Three hundred years after buying the Amerbach collection, the city faced a similar dilemma when, in 1967, the Staechelin family felt compelled to sell two major works from Pablo Picasso’s Rose Period that had been on permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum since 1947. The canton government obtained a special line of credit for part of the purchase price of the two paintings, but the balance had to be raised by what would now be called crowdfunding. Widespread public support ensured the money was raised, but a few objectors to the borrowing plans forced a referendum. The people voted overwhelmingly in favour, and Picasso himself was so moved by their “All we need is Pablo” campaign that he donated three more paintings. For lovers of the Blue and Rose periods, which include some of Picasso’s most popular and most reproduced works, there’s a rare chance to see still more. Until May 26, the Fondation Beyeler, a perfectly lit, high-ceilinged space designed by Renzo Piano and a short tram ride from the centre, is showing more than 70 masterpieces from the artist’s early years, some from private collections and rarely seen in public. And if you can’t make it in time then there’s the Fondation’s permanent collection of more than 30 later Picassos to view. As visitors to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre this week can confirm, Basel is all about the art. Getting there Basel Mulhouse Fribourg airport is served by direct flights from 17 European countries. Travellers from Asia and North America can change in London, Paris, Amsterdam or Istanbul.