Bellinzona, Switzerland, isn’t on the radar of many travelers, but its three medieval castles are definitely worth a stop.
We found Bellinzona by accident.
We were driving north and had left Italy less than an hour earlier. As the sun was getting low in the sky, threatening to drop below the snowcapped peaks of the Alps, we saw a castle high up on the hillside. “Impressive,” I said to Laura as the trees whizzed by and we continued driving.
Then I looked again and, higher on the mountain saw a second castle. “Should we stop?” Laura wondered. By the time we pulled off the highway, we had spotted a third castle.
We made our way toward the center of the city, then wandered into a small but elegant town square. From there, plaques and signs directed us to a series of switchbacking stairs that led up the mountainside and to the largest of the three castles.
The Bellinzona region has been part of an important trade route for millennia. During the 4th century, the Romans built forts there. After the Romans, the area fell under the control of successive regional powers including the Ostrogoths, the Byzantine Empire, the Longobards, the Franks, the Holy Roman Empire, and others. Throughout all of these periods, fortifications in the area were expanded, modified, and allowed to fall into disrepair according to the needs of the time.
Today, Bellinzona’s three castles are known as Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro. They are remarkably well preserved (and/or restored), and are open for visitors to explore. During my visit, Laura and I nearly had the entire place to ourselves. We had sweeping views of the sunset and the mountains from Castelgrande’s towers, and it was so empty that my biggest concern was accidentally getting locked inside when it closed.
Castelgrande, the largest and oldest of the three, and Montebello are connected to massive city walls, which in some areas visitors are free to wander. And according to Switzerland’s official tourism agency, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro are “among the best preserved medieval castles in Switzerland.”
In 2000, all three castles became UNESCO world heritage sites.
(My visit was free, though the website for the castles seems to indicate there is an admission price. However, there was no one around to charge for tickets when I showed up.)
Given how remarkable these castles were, I was surprised at how under-the-radar everything felt. Of course I’m sure it’s busier during the summer months, but neither of the guidebooks we were using even mentioned Bellinzona. I’d never heard of it from any other travelers. And the city itself seemed to have a comparatively modest tourist infrastructure.
All of which made Bellinzona feel more magical, and worth stopping at.
If you go:
Bellinzona’s tourism site has basic info such as hours and entrance fees. The town can be accessed via car or train. It could be a rewarding day trip from a neighboring destination such as Como, Italy, or Lucerne, Switzerland, though I wouldn’t plan for more than a few hours in town to see the castles.
— Jim Dalrymple II