Destinations / Switzerland

Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown

‘Swiss cities remind me of the kid at high school who’s great at sports, has perfect hair, the best girlfriend, and the teachers all love him. He’s just too perfect.’

Rick Steves
Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown

Our day started in Lake Como, Italy, specifically Varenna; our next stop for the night was in a small village in the Swiss Alps. As is our norm, though, there were castles to see along the way, and one small town we entered in the Italian region of Switzerland had three of them. Our visit did not look hopeful, though, as it was pouring rain, and the cloud layer was very low. We considered moving to our next destination, but the weather looked no better there. We are thankful we persevered as we were charmed by all that Bellinzona, Switzerland, has to offer. The reward for our persistence was the weather clearing, which allowed us to enjoy some of the views the city has to offer.

Bellinzona is the only location in Switzerland that has medieval military architecture. It’s also one of the few spots in Europe with stunning natural scenery and a fascinating past. In the 8th century, it was the subject of conflict between several global powers.

What is Bellinzona famous for?

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown

Bellinzona, Switzerland, is best known for its three main castles from the 15th century and the defensive walls and ramparts around the entire valley. The fortifications of Bellinzona are among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in Europe. The three castles are Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello, and Castello di Sasso Corbaro. All of these castles have also been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The three castles provide magnificent views of the city and the surrounding mountains, all the way to Lake Maggiore.

The Castelgrande is located on a rocky peak overlooking the valley, with fortified walls protecting the old town and connecting it to Montebello. The third castle, Sasso Corbaro, is located high above the city on an isolated rocky promontory southeast of the other two.

A Little History of Bellinzona

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown

The city was first mentioned in AD 590 and played a considerable part in the early history of Lombardy because of its strategic location. A possession of the bishops of Como in the 8th century, it was the setting for frequent conflict between the Lombardian cities of Como and Milan in the 14th and 15th centuries. Occupied by the French in 1499 but was taken by Uri Canton in 1500. The French king ceded it to Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden cantons in 1503. It became the capital of the Bellinzona Canton of the Helvetic Republic in 1798 and, in 1803, became the joint capital with Locarno and Lugano of the newly formed Ticino Canton. It has been the permanent political capital of the canton since 1878. A Canton is a subdivision of a country established for political or administrative purposes.

The fortresses’ primary purpose was to defend the city from Italy. Italians attacked it three years after the Swiss confederation declined to cede its territory to them in 1422. The Italians, though, could not annex it formally.

Why should you visit Bellinzona, Switzerland?

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown
Roofs of Bellinzona, Switzerland Image from Adobe Stock

There are, of course, the three castles, but there is so much more. The picturesque corners, squares, courtyards, and this Lombardy town’s beautifully restored old buildings. Its alleyways are lined with historic Patrician houses and beautiful churches. The charm of the medieval city will fascinate, but look more closely as there is bustling modern energy. This is Switzerland, after all. Numerous boutiques, cafés, and specialist shops offering culinary delicacies invite you to linger and window-shop. Every Saturday, the historic city center has a large weekly market.

Let us not forget it is a UNESCO Heritage site. The Declaration of Outstanding Universal Values, according to UNESCO, 2000 read as follows.

“The fortifications of Bellinzona are the only visible example in the Alpine arc of medieval military architecture made up of several castles joined by fortified walls to protect the population. The walls blocked the entire Ticino Valley, and the ramparts surrounded the village. Bellinzona is, therefore, a unique case among the imposing fortifications of the fifteenth century, both for its size, influenced by the site and its topography, and for the excellent state of conservation of the whole”.

Where is Bellinzona, Switzerland?

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown
Castle Courtyard

The tranquil village of Bellinzona has a strategic location where the valley narrows on the way to the Alpine passes of St. Gotthard, San Bernardino, and Lucomagno. Its excellent location made it popular with several rulers as a location for their defensive fortifications. The city’s topography is perfect for constructing strategic fortresses, as the rocky hillside encompasses the entire eastern part of the valley where Bellinzona sits.

The city is the gateway to Italy for those traveling from the north and to the Alps for those coming from the south. The city is the capital of Ticino Canton in Southern Switzerland and is on the Ticino River at the foot of the Alps. To Bellinzona’s south lies the fertile Po River Valley and the city of Milan, while to the north lies the high alpine passes of St. Gotthard Nufenen, Lukmanier, and St. Bernard. The Ticino River flows into Lake Maggiore, allowing further access to present-day Italy.

Map of Bellinzona. Switzerland

How to get to Bellinzona, Switzerland

Travel times by car from Bellinzona are the following:

Lugano, Switzerland, 20 minutes  (renowned for its stunning lakeside settings and Mediterranean climate.)

Lucerne Switzerland  1 hour and 25 minutes

Zurich, Switzerland 1 hour and 40 minutes

Lake Como, Italy 1 hour and 12 minutes

Milan, Italy, 2 hours

During holidays, drive times may increase significantly.

As a result of its ideal location, Bellinzona is relatively easy to reach by train from other Swiss cities. Bellinzona Station is the appropriate train stop. It is on the Swiss Federal Railways’ Gotthard line. The station has been nicknamed Porta del Ticino since the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in 2016

15 Top Things to See in Bellinzona, Switzerland

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown

1 . Of course, seeing the castles should be your first activity. They are well done and provide breathtaking panoramas of the area. There is a path to walk to the castles, but it gets steep at times; on a mild weather day, it would be fun. We saw many people walking it even in the rain.

  • Castelgrande is an ancient structure that dates back to the first century. The castle was fortified in the 13th century. The museum at Castelgrande is one of a kind. The museum has excellent exhibits from the Neolithic village well into the 20th century. We stopped at the restaurant west of the museum and had a lovely light meal. Our cheese came sizzling. The castle can be reached by taking an elevator from the foot of the rock to the castle grounds or by climbing steep, narrow streets from the city center through the city wall onto the castle grounds. We did the latter, and it was an effort.
  • Castello di Montebello is rich in culture and diversity because its heritage dates back to the 14th century. The castle was originally built for the Rusconi family, which occupied it for several generations. The lovely old castle is perched on a hillside with breathtaking views. The castle walls of Montebello house the Archaeological and Civic Museum. 
  • Castello di Sasso Corbaro was constructed within half a year in the year 1479, and it was during this period that the castle gained its name for its unique features and architecture. Unlike the other two castles, Sasso Corbaro is not integrated into the city walls. During peacetime, the tower was used as a prison. The view from here is magnificent, and the castle itself is fantastic.
Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown
View of the city of Bellinzona in Switzerland with Castelgrande castle from Montebello Adobe Stock Image
Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown
Chiesa Collegiate Church
Now, let’s see the town

2. The Bellinzona Art Museum is definitely for you if you have the soul of an artist. You will like the artwork and discover a lot about the history and culture of the area.

3. Visit the magical Chiesa Collegiate dei SS Peitro e Stefano Church. It is the heart of Old Town and is the town’s grandest and most important religious building.

4. Piazza Indipendenza is a lovely piazza where locals gather.

5. Palazzo Civico di Bellinzona is a fabulously renovated town hall with beautiful stained glass windows and frescos. The tourist office is located here.

6. Stroll Bellinzona’s historic town has old buildings, winding streets, lovely cafes, and various interesting restaurants. You can immerse yourself in its breathtaking landmarks and authentic culture while exploring on foot.

Outdoor Activities Anyone?

7. Although this area’s parks and castles are frequently mentioned, the city is within the Swiss Alps, with many stunning lakes to enjoy. Bellinzona’s snow-covered peaks, alpine forests, and crystal-clear lakes transport you to another world.

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown
Ryan walks up to Sasso Corbora

8. While visiting the area for its natural beauty, you can engage in various outdoor activities, making your trip even more memorable. For instance, it offers mountain biking, skiing, and hiking activities. These activities will allow you to discover the breathtaking scenery.

9. Take a boat trip to Lake Maggiore or Lake Lugano.

How about some markets and festivals?

10. Drop by the Saturday market, which stretches from Piazza Nosetto to the Old Town. Under colorful stalls, visitors can sample unique foods for moderate prices.

11. Bellinzona also hosts a unique Grape Harvest Festival called ‘PerBacco! ‘, which generally lasts four days. Locals and tourists can explore the city while sampling fresh wines from the Ticino region. The festival also features entertainment and music.

12. Are you an avid shopper? There are lots of fascinating stores here. You can find a wide range of high-quality, locally produced goods.

How about something different

13. The Soto Code Escape Room is for those who want to try something more modern.

14. Drive San Bernadino Pass, one of Switzerland’s great passes, is known for its stunning views. The twisting roads, though, may require a bit of fortitude.

15. Looking for the thrill? Go Bungee is jumping on the Verzasco Dam. It was made famous by being featured in the opening scene of James Bond’s Golden Eye.

Interesting Facts About Bellinzona

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown
Interior courtyard of the Neo-Romanesque Palazzo Civico Image from Adobe Stock

Bellinzona is a largely Italian-speaking region despite being in Switzerland. Italian is the official language, but some people also speak French and German.

Due to its location in the southern region of Switzerland, it has a warm climate. Its summers are warm and dry, and the temperature can increase to 80 degrees.

Roughly 20,000 people live there, the second-largest city in Ticino.

The name derives from zona bellica, referring to “war zone.”

Castelgrande was built on top of a Roman castle in the middle of the city.

The Bellinzona film festival, which is quite well known, takes place every September. It draws numerous famous people from throughout the world.

Bellinzona’s culture is primarily influenced by Italian culture, but you can also see traces of German and French culture in the city’s cuisine and way of life.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Bellinzona was a significant hub for trade, playing an essential part in the development of the entire region. However, this city’s economy no longer solely depends on trade. It now houses numerous industries and businesses, making it a well-liked destination for businessmen.

It is home to a unique festival called Rabadan, which occurs in February each year. The festival takes over the whole town and lasts for 5 days.

Planning a visit to Switzerland? Check out our Switzerland Country Guide

What makes Bellinzona so special?

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown

Bellinzona’s natural beauty alone is a reason to visit, in our opinion… but as you might guess, it is the castles we came for. Bellinzona is a fantastic choice, especially if you love art, architecture, nature, and excellent food. 

When to Visit Bellinzona?

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown
Ancient fortifications in Bellinzona, Switzerland Adobe Stock

Bellinzona is best in May, June, September, and October. The consistently fantastic weather makes these months great, and the city isn’t too busy with tourists. It receives an average of 102.8 days of rain or snow per year, so there are many sunny days. The area is known for the wind, which helps cool you down on hot summer days. You will be able to bike and enjoy a lot of outdoor sports. With gorgeous lakes nearby, a day on the water may be perfect.

Winters here can bring snow, but the views of the snow-covered Alps will captivate you. Then, of course, there is skiing, snowboarding, and snow-shoeing in the area too. The temps in the winter rarely get above freezing. The annual snowfall is around 12 inches.

If you wish to participate in various festivals and activities, the summer and fall are the best times to visit. You will enjoy the local culture and traditions, but remember that summer is also the busiest time to travel. If you only stay for a few days, enjoying all the outdoor activities may be challenging.

Are you traveling overseas soon? Check out our blog post on the Top 25 Tips for Successful Travel Abroad.

Where to Stay In Bellinzona?

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown
Bellinzona, Switzerland, view through the castle walls Adobe Stock Images

Our visit to Bellinzona was after a two-night stay in Lake Como. Our travels took us north to a small village in the Alps called Engelberg.

The region Bellinzona is in has lots of activities and sites that are well worth a few days’ visit. Many great accommodations are available in Bellinzona, from upscale hotels to bed and breakfasts. We suggest staying central so all the sights are easy to walk.

It is important to price out accommodations on various sites. Expedia is a US-based company, whereas Booking.com is Europe-based. Not all properties appear on both, so it is ideal to check both out. Our personal first choice is Booking.com. If the establishment has a website, check the price there as well. Click the link below to check out hotels and vacation homes in the area. It may be just the motivation you need to start planning that next grand adventure.

Final Thoughts

Bellinzona Switzerland, Bellinzona Switzerland – A Jewel in the Swiss Crown

When we explore Bellinzona, we find so much to love. Everything speaks of ancient magnificence, from birds chirping to the old walls and castles that narrate tales of the past. 

However, from the perspective of a nature lover, this city appears to be a jewel in the Swiss crown. Mountains, forests, and blue lakes take your breath away with their beauty and leave you feeling as though you are in a little piece of heaven.

Bellinzona is a slice of Italy in Switzerland. It offers an excellent combination of a beautiful ancient city, rich culture, great food, and Swiss excellence in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe. It is well worth a stop and maybe even a few days of your time.

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Check out the official website for Bellinzona for more information.

Bellinzona, Switzerland Photo Gallery

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Bellinzona Switzerland

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