Call it a little girls’ lifelong love of fairytales (where you make your own dreams come true), but my love for historic castles is fierce and unwavering still to this day. Each trip abroad, I try to find one new castle for my family to visit. In researching this summer’s trip, I discovered three castles in one city: Bellinzona, Switzerland. The location was perfectly aligned with our family road trip from Zurich, Switzerland to Lake Como, Italy.
Located in the Ticino region of southern Switzerland, Bellinzona is seen from the south as “the key to the Alps,” and from the north as “the key to Italy.” In the 15th century, the Dukes of Milan took it upon themselves to build a trio of fortresses, built almost in stair-step fashion guarding the gateway city of Bellinzona.
The three castles of Bellinzona are known as:
- Castlegrande (the largest and closest to city ground)
- Montebello (the middle castle, which stands 90 meters above Castlegrande), and
- Sasso Corbaro (the top castle, towering 230 meters above the town).
Tip #1: be prepared to park and walk
In order to reach the first castle, Castlegrande, you need to park your car near Piazza Collegiata (pictured above) or Piazza Nosetto. Once there, you will see Castlegrande towering about 50 meters above the city. Walk toward it. Seriously: we did this without any maps, and we were able to figure it out. As you head into either Piazza, you will notice signs for Castlegrande with arrows pointing to narrow, steep, cobblestone stairs. Walk up any of those steps. Keep walking. You’ll get there, trust me.
Tip #2: wear comfortable shoes
Because you’ll need to walk up hundreds of steps in order to reach Castlegrande, and because they are old, wobbly, all uphill cobblestone steps, you’ll want to be sure you are wearing comfortable shoes. My kids and I made it in flip flops, and we were fine, but you might want to wear sneakers just in case.
Once up to the main level of Castlegrande, you can see across the valley to the middle and top castles.
The view of the city is phenomenal, and Castlegrande itself has so many sections. The main courtyard is stunning, and offers a seating area and modern sculptures that complement the historic surrounding structure.
Tip #3: Dine at the Castlegrande restaurant
There is a museum at Castlegrande and a restaurant on the main level. The restaurant is a beautiful spot to rest and replenish after checking out the castle grounds, or to rest and replenish after your walk up all of those steep steps. Seating is outdoors but part of the terrace is covered by a pergola covered with grapevines. It’s really quite lovely, and I recommend stopping here for at least a glass of wine (for you) and milk (for the kids) and taking in the breathtaking views.
The menu is written in Italian and German, but they have staff who speak English. You can enjoy a variety of entrees, snacks, desserts, and beverages here. I ordered the risotto, which contained a surprisingly successful combination of mushrooms and blueberries.
Tip #4: Walk up to the top towers… or not
You can walk up (more stairs! But these are modern stairwells, not cobblestone steps) to the very top of one of two towers to get an even better look down at the city.
The connecting walkways are very narrow, so if you are afraid of heights or have active small children who are just learning to embrace their mobility – and their sense of space – you might want to skip this. For us, this was one of my kids’ favorite parts.
Tip #5: seek out the underground tunnel
Make sure you explore all parts of the vast Castlegrande grounds. Off the the southwestern side, just past one of the large sprawling lush green lawns, is an entrance to an underground tunnel. There are no signs to or near the tunnel, but off in the far distance we could see other people at the opposite end so we figured we’d check it out.
This was one of the kids’ favorite parts of the trip. The tunnel is everything an old underground tunnel should be: dark but just light enough to see your way (there are small cut out holes along the top sides of the tunnel), filled with cobwebs along the side, unstable dirt ground under your feet, and it’s just long enough to make you start to wonder if you’ll get out alive.
It was awesome.
Then when you come out of the tunnel, you realize how far you went underground. You turn around and face the towers, then have to walk back over the tunnels on a strip of lush green lawn. It’s absolutely magical. We all loved this part.
Because of time constraints, we only had enough time to visit Castlegrande. We spent a good two hours in Bellinzona before heading back up to Zurich. If you have an entire day, I would highly recommend checking out at least one of the other two castles. I hear each castle is remarkably different from the others; it would be so fun to compare.
The castles of Bellinzona, Switzerland are open year-round. Be sure to check the website for restaurant and museum hours. I would also recommend planning to go on a warm sunny day, since you will be outdoors for the majority of your visit. As far as castles go, this one is definitely our favorite to visit in Switzerland so far!