The Castles of Bellinzona – straight out of the Middle Ages

Montebello Castle in Bellinzona, with Castelgrande in the background

Who doesn’t like to visit a mediaeval castle? The small town of Bellinzona in the Swiss canton of Ticino has not one, but three picture-book mediaeval castles you can visit. In 2000 the three castles of Bellinzona became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Linked by a wall, they could once close off the whole Ticino Valley. In the Middle Ages, the whole of Europe was punctuated by such castles, with fortification walls and strong ramparts. But in the European Alpine region, the castles of Bellinzona with their connecting walls are the only remaining examples of such a defensive military architecture from that time.

We visited Bellinzona and the castles on our way back to Germany after a few weeks of hiking in the Aosta Valley.

Sasso Corbano Castle – high up on the mountain

Sasso Corbaro castle

Together with a group of Swiss school children and a few Asian tourists we take bus No. 4 to Sasso Corbano. The scenic castle is the highest of the three Belinzona castles. From up there we have great views over the town of Bellinzona, over the valley and to the Lago Maggiore in the west. Today all three castles belong to Bellinzona and thus are Swiss. But when the Dukes of Milano built Sasso Corbano in the late 15th century, they wanted to protect the lowlands against the Swiss.

Travellers resting at Sasso Corbaro castle

Apart from the views, there is not much to see at Sasso Corbano Castle. There is a good restaurant, a small museum space for special exhibitions (nothing on show right now), and for 5 € visitors can climb the tower. “Nothing to see there that you cannot see from the terrace,” even the cashier told us.

As bus No. 4 only runs every two hours or so, we make our way by foot to the next castle, to Montebello Castle.

Montebello Castle

Bellinzona's Montebello castle

„Guys! Look, a hole! You can crawl into it! Especially me!!” a small blond boy yells to this family. And that pretty much sums up the charm of Montebello Castle. This castle is situated about 90 meters above the city on the hill of Montebello. The oldest parts of Montebello Castle date back to the 14th century. Like the other castles it was built as part of a defence line against invaders from the mountains in the North. Not without reason: People from the colder parts of Europe always aimed to move south towards the Dolce Vita. In the warmer regions of Italy, crops grew better, and the food was probably more delicious.

Montebello Castle is a sprawling complex with several nested castle walls and courtyards. Visitors can climb some of the walls and enjoy the spectacular views.

The museum of Montebello Castle

We also visited the museum, which houses two exhibitions. A small exhibition explains the restoration works done over the last years.

Iron age fibles in the Montebello castle museum

Another, more detailed exhibition in the main tower gives an overview on the archaeology, excavations, and historical objects found in the area. Animated movies show how burials worked in the stone ages and how the Romans in the area dressed. We learn that important trading routes ran through Bellinzona. Archaeologists found coins and amber from as far as the Baltic countries.

Unfortunately the explanations are in Italian only. There is an English version available for download, but during our visit the Internet was not working. And as Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, roaming costs are high – so we had to cope with the Italian explanations.

Castelgrande – the biggest of the Bellinzona castles

Travel blogger Natascha in Castelgrande, one of the three castles of Bellinzona

Castelgrande, the biggest and most important castle of Bellinzona sits right in the centre of the small town. The high rocky outcrop dominating the valley was probably the main reason for the importance of the town in the first place. After all, from this rock you could practically control the traffic even without so many fortifications. Accordingly, this was the first castle the Italians built in Bellinzona.

A lift brings us through the rocks up to the castle grounds. A movie in the museum explains more about the history of the castles. Originally built as an Italian defence against Switzerland, the city eventually switched sides when the counts of Milano were conquered by France. From 1503 the town minted their own coins for a short time. As they had to buy the raw material or melt other coins this was not profitable, though.

Renaissance paintings from the Bellinzona Castelgrande museum

The most interesting objects in the museum are numerous rare small paintings from the Renaissance period. Some show portraits, animal fables, or illustrations of funny stories. They had decorated the ceiling beams of an aristocratic manor house in Bellinzona. Art historians could barely rescue them in the 1960s when that house was torn down against many protests.

What else to see and do in Bellinzona?

Apart from visiting the castles we found not much to do in Bellinzona. The old town is nice enough, but very small. With a few hours of strolling through the streets and having an Aperol Spritz in one of the bars you will have seen most of it.

Are the castles of Bellinzona worth a visit?

Definitely yes. Especially Montebello Castle is like the archetype of a mediaeval castle. We visited the Sasso Corbano Castle first and walked back into town. However, it might make more sense to start from the town centre and visit the castles in order of their construction dates. In our opinion you can skip the museums (10 CHF per person per visit). They do not offer much historical information on the castles. But they do display some beautiful archaeological finds from the area. Again with only very little explanation, though.

How to organize a visit to the castles of Bellinzona?

Bellinzona is a small town, and most sights are reachable on foot. The Castelgrande is in the city centre and you can easily walk to the castle Montebello. Visiting all three castles of Bellinzona in one day is not difficult at all. We started our sightseeing day at the highest castle, at Sasso Corbano Castle. To reach Sasso Corbano, we took Bus No. 4 from the station. From Sasso Corbano we walked back to the city centre and Castelgrande via Montebello Castle. The whole walk (with a small detour to the San Sebastiano church) was less than 3 km and always downhill.

If you are interested in visiting UNESCO sites in Switzerland, also read out post about the Aletsch glacier, the largest glacier in the European alps. In the Vallais region you can visit the UNESCO listed vineyards of Lavaux and the modern architecture by Le Corbusier (although UNESCO sites).

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NB: We were not sponsored for this blog article about the castles of Bellinzona. We visited Bellinzona on our own and paid all expenses ourselves.

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19 Comments

  1. We were so near to Ticino this spring, so it’s a shame we didn’t make it to Bellinzona. I love the sound of Montebello Castle. It definitely looks like an archetypal Medieval castle, and the views look wonderful. Shame about it being only in Italian. It would be ok for me, but English is needed too!

  2. What an amazing place, you are lucky enough to visit Bellinzona, and were able to see Montebello Castle. The view is spectacular, and I love the fact that the museum is there. I would love to check out the painting from the Renaissance period.

    1. Dear Osama, I guess you are right – we have to be greatful that there is a museum. It would have been even nicer and better with more English explanations. The castles are a UNESCO site after all.

  3. I love the old world intrigue of castles. My son actually spent the night in one in Bavaria while traveling in Europe. I would love to explore some of these one day.

    1. The castles of Bellinzona are spectacular medieval archito explore and are masterpieces of military ambush. And it’s great that you can explore all three on single day.The museums in the castles also display wonderful archeological artefacts from the medieval times and burial from stone ages and important trade routes in the past.

      1. Dear Puloma, the defence line of the castles of Bellinzona is quite impressive, indeed. And Bellinzon itself is nice to wander around for a few hours.

  4. We definitely love to explore medieval castles so would plan to explore the three ones in Bellinzona. It would be fun to climb the walls and take in the panoramic view. Good tip to download the information in English before a visit and to visit the castles in the order of their construction dates. The museum would definitely be a stop on our visit.

    1. Dear Linda, I think it was bad luck that the app was not working properly during our visit. They assured us that it works just fine. And after all this is Switzerland – so I believe them.

  5. One location that would fill my heart to the brim is seeing a medieval castle. The history of the castles in Bellinzona is something I’m curious about learning more about. The Castelgrande and Montebello Castle structures are both breathtakingly lovely! I’m excited to explore the museum in the near future as well.

  6. I just adore medieval regions like these! I’ve been to more than a few in Italy, but would love to explore the ancient towns in Switzerland, too. The views from Sasso Corbano Castle are incredible and a worthwhile reason to visit on its own. And, Montebello Castle is right out of a fairy tale! As a lover of art and art history, I would love to see the rare small paintings made in during the Rennaissance at Castlegrande. I’m so glad the art historians rescued them!

    1. Dear Jackie, the paintings were very beautiful and delicate indeed. Bellinzona makes for a nice stop from Italy to Westwern Europe (Austria, Germany or the Nordic countries).

  7. This ‘monte’ is definitely ‘bello’ – and the castles look amazing – just like in a fairytale. In some regions, they would rent out replicas of those old dresses….you know what I’m talking about, right?!?Also, the structures seem so well-preserved, that’s quite amazing.
    I’d love to visit but I’m always a bit hesitant to travel to Switzerland because of the costs which can be crazy. But I assume that one could visit Ticino on a day trip from northern Italy?!

    1. Dear Renata, yes you could easily visit Bellinzona on a day trip from Northern Italy. We stayed on the campsite (in walking distance to the city) and cooked our own food. So it was quite affordable.

  8. Bellinzona seems to be a charming town with spectacular architecture listed on a UNESCO World Heritage site. Great to know that most sights are reachable on foot or via public transport. Montebello Castle looks beautiful, as a medieval castle. Castelgrande is huge and impressive as well. Also, Sasso Corbano Castle on the top of the mountain seems worth getting there.

  9. Wow! This is amazing. I am a fan of Renaissance art and would love to see the paintings from castle. Happy to know that they are worth a visit. Will consider this during our future trips.

  10. The Castles of Bellinzona surely seem like the castle to visit. Beautifully clicked photos. I love visiting small towns. Would definitely visit Bellinzona if/when I visit Switzerland.

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