No trip to southern Switzerland would be complete without a stop in Bellinzona. Bellinzona is a quaint town with less than 20,000 permanent residents that sits at the foot of the alps. It has THREE castles, is the capital of the canton of Ticino, offers beautiful views of the surrounding valley, and is a short drive from Como or Lugano.
It’s an easy day trip by car or train. (This post was originally published on July 28th, 2018. I was hosted by Ticino Tourism, and was traveling with Christina’s Cucina. As always, my opinions are my own. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn commission on qualifying purchases.)
Why visit Bellinzona?
Located in Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, Bellinzona has a mild climate, beautiful architecture, cobbled streets churches and lots of outdoor activities.
- It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Easily reached from Milan, Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, or Lugano.
- Outdoor activities: hiking, biking and climbing.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
If you’re a history and preservation buff, you’re already familiar with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Switzerland boasts 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in total, which is pretty amazing for such a small country! The three castles of Bellinzona became one of the 13 World Heritage sites in Switzerland in 2000. You can also visit the Jungfrau-Aletsch region, near Brig, and Monte San Giorgio in Lugano which are all close to Bellinzona. Click here for a UNESCO World Heritage list of all the sites in Switzerland.
Castles of Bellinzona
Because of its strategic location at the foot of the Alps, Bellinzona has not one, but three medieval castles, or castelli, They are linked by high walls, that one time enclosed the Ticino valley. The castelli served as protection for the citizens of the valley from the Milanese to the south. The main castle, Castelegrande, visible from the Piazza del Indipendenza, is just a few steps from the town center.
It dates back to Roman times, and is a spectacular example of a medieval castle. A short walk up the steps will give you lovely views of the region. Castelegrande is the oldest of the three castelli. A fortified wall connects Castelegrande with Castello di Montebello.
Montebello castle houses the the Archaeological and Civic Museum and is the second oldest, built before 1300. The third castle is Sasso Corbaro castle. Castello di Sasso Corbaro was known as Unterwalden Castle after 1506, and Saint Barbara’s Castle after 1818. Click here for more information about the castles of Bellinzona.
How to get to Bellinzona
Bellinzona is about 35 miles directly north of the city of Como. Whether you take a bus or train, it’ll be less than an hour. The cost of the bus is under $10, while the train averages around $30.
If you’re flying, the nearest airport is located in Lugano. If you’re staying in Lugano, Bellinzona is an easy day trip. The train takes about 20 minutes and costs about $20, while a bus trip is just a couple of dollars and takes about 30 minutes the town center is just a few paces from the train station. This is what we did. You can read about my stay in Lugano here and Christina’s post here.
Bellinzona is also very close to Milan, making it an easy day trip. Driving, it’s about 65 miles north of Milan. The train from Milan takes about 1 1/2 hours and averages around $60.
If you’re going to or from Zermatt, Bellinzona is about 4 1/2 hours by train. The train is a beautiful trip through the alpine region and the Gotthard Pass. Read about my stay in Zermatt and why it’s worth a visit!
Where to stay
Because of the close location of the castles to the Piazza del Sole, there are a variety of good quality, medium-priced hotels, and quaint inns within walking distance of the castles and Piazza Collegiata.
What to do in Bellinzona
- Visit the fabulous outdoor market. It’s only open on Saturdays, so plan accordingly. We enjoyed strolling through the Bellinzona market, sampling the local products, and looking at the beautiful handicrafts in the market.
- The Swiss, not surprisingly, take great pride in the quality of their products, from the cheeses and sausages to the honey and fresh vegetables, everything we tasted or saw was lovely prepared or presented. Our only regret was that we couldn’t bring some of the wonderful food products back to the states with us!
- Bellinzona Film Festival: If you visit during the Bellinzona Film Festival (usually held in September), you can a variety of international films.
- There are also several churches and a monastery in Bellinzona worth visiting including, the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, chiesa di San Biagio and chiesa Collegiata dei SS Pietro e Stefano.
- Museums. There are two museums besides the historical museum located in Castello di Montebello, which houses the archaeological findings, and traces the history of the medieval fortress, and its restoration.
- The second is Museo Villa dei Cedri, and is a residence turned museum. Both will take between and 1 to 2 hours to see the collections. The third is a modern art gallery called, MACT CACT or Centro d’Arte Contemporanea Ticino, houses temporary exhibitions, and will take about an hour to view.
- Sitting at one of the outdoor cafes in old town, or Piazza della Collegiata sipping an aperitivo is a great place to people watch.
So if you find yourself in northern Italy or Switzerland, think about putting Bellinzona and its beautiful UNESCO trio of castles on your bucket list! You’ll find more information and tips on planning your Switzerland travel here.