The historic city of Bellinzona is famous for its three castles: Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello, and Castello di Sasso Corbaro. It’s in canton Ticino, a sunny part of Switzerland with a warm, mild climate and an Italian language that’s quite different from the rest of the country. Although we’re still far away from the Mediterranean, staying here feels like a holiday all year long.
The castles in this area are among the best preserved in all of Switzerland. The three castles located in Bellinzona are UNESCO World Heritage sites and so should not be missed.
In Ticino, Bellinzona is the second-largest city after Lugano. A number of rulers used it for their defensive fortifications because of its great location. Bellinzona sits at the confluence of three main north-south routes. St. Gotthard, San Bernardino, and Lucomagno can eventually be controlled via Bellinzona.
Bellinzona is ideally located and easily accessible from most other Swiss cities. Lugano and Locarno are just 20 minutes away. Lucerne and Zurich can be reached in less than two hours from Bellinzona.
Bellinzona, with its picturesque castle and battlement walls that once stretched almost the length of the valley, is an impressive and picturesque town.
The three castles of Bellinzona dominate the city. Bellinzona’s castles are nestled higher on top than the rest of the town, so they have an excellent view of the surrounding area. They were used as defensive castles and are great examples of medieval defensive architecture.
Three Castles of Bellinzona
The three castless – Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello, and Castello di Sasso Corbaro – are historical attractions that reflect the rich history of Bellinzona. These fortifications benefitted the entire region due to their strategic location at the crossroads of several important Alpine routes.
The Bellinzona castles are the only medieval military complex in the Alpine region. From the high towers, there are amazing views. All three castles – Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello, and Castello di Sasso Corbaro – have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2000.
Together with the double circuit of walls, these castles were built by the Milanese back in the 15th century.
- Castelgrande was constructed over the city center on a Roman castle.
- Castello di Montebello on the eastern side of Bellinzona was built in the 13th to 15 centuries.
- Castello di Sasso Corbaro is set on a high rocky outcrop with panoramic views of the mountains and valleys. It was built in under six months in 1479.
Castelgrande is the most impressive and well-known of the three, while Sasso Corbaro is the highest. The castles today house several museums, including ones for history, art, archeology, and local costumes.
Castelgrande is the largest and most impressive of the three Bellinzona Castles, with its spectacularly stylish towers and ancient ramparts. Castlegrande sits on basalt rock, with walls that reach into the city. Protecting the ancient town are several walls from Castelgrande.
Castelgrande is on a 275-meter-high rock in the middle of the city. Its summit offers a spectacular view of the valley below.
To reach Castelgrande, you can use either an elevator from Piazza del Sole or walk to it following a path that you can access from Bellinzona’s Old Town.
Castello di Montebello
Castello di Montebello, meaning beautiful mountain, is the second of the three castles. It was erected on a protruding hill on the mountain slope at approximately 310 meters. You can find it above Bellinzona to the east. The Rusca family, a rich merchant family from Como, built it in the 13th to 14th century after the Visconti dukes of Milan took over the valley. The family took refuge there during the Milanese occupation.
Castello di Montebello is a medieval castle that couldn’t be more beautiful, with an original noble seat in the center and an inner courtyard secured by walls. External courtyards with their towers and triangular fortresses were built between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Its current appearance is a result of the Sforza construction work during the second half of the fifteenth century. Also part of the main castle is a small chapel dedicated to Saint Martin.
Nowadays, Castello di Montebello also houses the Museo Civico, the city museum, and an archaeological and historical museum. You can find archeological finds from Bellinzona and its surroundings inside this museum.
Castello di Sasso Corbaro
Set on a promontory overlooking the Bellinzona area, Castello di Sasso Corbaro is flanked by a grove of chestnut trees. It’s the smallest of the three castles of Bellinzona, but at 495 meters, the highest of them all. The castle was built in the 15th century by the Sforza family to strengthen the two existing strongholds.
The main building is a square with a length of 25 meters on each side. It is a spur castle designed to defend from all sides. It is not connected to the other two castles of Castelgrande and Castello di Montebello.
Nowadays, Castello di Sasso Corbaro is home to the cantonal art and folk culture museum. It is also used for temporary exhibitions. Using the steep path from Piazza Collegiata and Piazza Nosetto, you can walk there in 40 minutes.
Final Thoughts: Three Castles of Bellinzona
As a strategic location at the crossroads of north and south routes, Bellinzona had to have strong defenses. So these fortifications were built to fight off the Confederates moving south. In 1500, Bellinzona fell under the rule of the Confederates and the estates of Uri, Schwyz, and Nidwalden occupied the three castles among themselves. Eventually, the castles became the property of the newly founded canton of Ticino.
Check out one or more of the three castles in Bellinzona if you happen to be there. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
- Das Tor zum sonnigen Süden. Burgen von Bellinzona. Fascination Schweiz. 150 bekannte und unbekannte Ausflugsziele. Das Beste Reader’s Digest, 1997. AT Verlag.
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Darla Uhl is the owner of TouringSwitzerland.com. Her home is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Having lived almost 20 years in Switzerland, she's traveled extensively all over the country.
Darla's favorite regions to visit in Switzerland include Engadin, Lake Geneva, Bernese Oberland, Ticino, and Valais. She loves spending time with her family, hiking, visiting museums, and reading books.