Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino, welcomes you with a friendly spirit and the warm colors of the buildings in the historic center. But the city is not only famous for its picturesque old town or for the nearby valleys, but also for the presence of three imposing fortified castles and an ancient city wall that, in 2000, were declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. We chose Bellinzona to spend a sunny Sunday in February and this is the report of our visit.
Located in the heart of Ticino, in a valley crossed by the homonymous river, Bellinzona as well as being the capital of the Canton Ticino is also one of the Swiss cities richest in history and evidence of the past. The city welcomes visitors with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, the warm colors of its historic center and the grandeur and austerity of its castles and fortifications. Three medieval castles are located really close to the city center and wherever you’ll look you will surely find traces of the ancient fortifications and the mighty defensive walls. We had already been visiting the city in 2017 but, thanks to a small unforeseen train delay, we decided to return to visit the three castles, UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, through an excursion itinerary that starts from the train station and returns there, passing through the historic center and the fortifications. So here for you our route and some useful tips!
Arriving by public transport
Getting to Bellinzona by public transport is extremely easy: the city’s train station is on the route that connects the north and south of Switzerland and therefore you will find a wide range of direct trains from Lucerne, Zurich and Basel. From Zurich and Lucerne the shortest journey takes about an hour and a half, but it can take longer depending on the solution chosen. From Basel, on the other hand, the fastest solution takes two hours and forty minutes. Travelers departing from Bern will need to change trains in Lucerne or Zurich, for a total trip of about 3 hours. Lastly, from Geneva it will be necessary to change trains in Zurich or Olten. The train trip in this case takes over four hours.
It is possible to check the purchase options and buy tickets through the SBB website or the SBB App, which we recommend you use anyway to check timetables and operation of the lines.
Arriving by car
Bellinzona is obviously reachable by car through the excellent freeway network that connects it to the main Swiss cities. From Basel, Zurich and Lucerne it is possible to reach the city in respectively 2 hours and 45 minutes, 2 hours and 15 minutes and 1 hour and 45 minutes driving along the A2/E35 (direction San Gottardo-Chiasso-Italy). From Bern, the journey by car takes a little more than three hours along the A1/E25 freeway towards Zurich and then continue on the A2/E35 towards Lucerne-San Gottardo-Milan. From Geneva, it is advisable to pass through Bern and follow the route indicated above, for a total travel time of about four and a half hours.
Finally, Bellinzona is also easily accessible from Italy: the journey from Milan is about 100 km and takes just one hour and forty minutes via the A9/E35 and A2.
The itinerary we propose is a city ring route that starts from the train station in Bellinzona and, crossing the city center, the three castles and fortifications, returns to the starting point. It is an easy walk of about 7.5 km that can be covered in about two and a half hours. Obviously the visit of the three castles along the way and eventually of the internal exhibition halls requires additional time. In our case, we arrived in the city around 12.30 and left around 16, for a total stay of about three hours and a half and renouncing to the visit of the internal expositive spaces that were closed in many cases. The itinerary includes a slight slope that will take you a little more than 3 km. The path is indicated by touristic signs but – probably because we added two intermediate stops – in some points we’ve completely lost track of it. It is therefore advisable to have with you an app with maps and GPS. Along the route there are some small restaurants and bars, but depending on the season and as happened at the time of our visit, they may be closed or have a very limited offer. If you go during the winter, the advice is to take your lunch with you or buy something in town before starting the climb to the castles. No picnic areas are available, but tables and benches are available along the route and at two of the three castles. In addition, the castles are surrounded by large meadows where you can rest or eat your food.
Arrival in Bellinzona and historical center
The Castle of Montebello
In Piazza della Collegiata, a small side street right next to the church indicates the beginning of the ascent towards the first of the three castles: Montebello. This section of the route follows a well-maintained and easy-to-travel stairway, although it is slightly uphill. But don’t be discouraged! After all, it’s only 500 meters! If you are tired, stop every now and then to admire the view of the city from above and of Castelgrande on the opposite side. The staircase ends at the castle esplanade and from here you can already admire the mighty walls and the entire valley of Bellinzona. However, here you will find tables where you can have your lunch.
The Castle of Montebello is certainly fascinating not only for its historical and archaeological features, but also because it allows you to admire the valley and the city from a very interesting position. The structure, situated on the hill of Montebello (from which it takes its name), about 90 meters above the city, dates back in its oldest part to the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Over the centuries, it has changed name and owner many times, until today, together with the other castles of the valley, it has become part of the Unesco World Heritage. It also hosts, in its inner rooms, some interesting exhibitions.
The Castle of Montebello is normally open to the public from April to November and can be visited, in its internal spaces, with the purchase of a ticket. But don’t worry! Throughout the winter you can still visit the inner and outer courts and the entrance is obviously free. At this link you will find all the information about the exact opening dates and hours.
We went around the courtyards and continued towards the opposite side of the complex. From here, we walked over an ancient drawbridge and left the castle to continue on our way.
From the Castle of Montebello to the Castle of Sasso Corbaro
As we left the castle, we were surprised by a small yellow church perched on a hill on the opposite side from us. We opted for a very short detour to see if it was possible to visit it. It is the small Church of San Sebastiano, in the area of Artore. Its oldest core dates back to the Middle Ages, but the church has been renovated several times over the centuries. However, it retains a special charm, probably because of its warm and bright color or because of its location. Anyway, we’ll tell you right away: at the time of our visit the church was closed, so we couldn’t visit it inside. We stopped for a few minutes to admire the façade and the view and then resumed our journey. From San Sebastiano we went to the exit of the small village and we followed an uphill path and found, a little further on, an asphalted road. From here the path towards Sasso Corbaro is well indicated. After about 500 meters we met a restaurant, the Grotto dei Pacifici. We didn’t try it, but it is still an option for lunch (if you go in low season, however, we suggest you call first to make sure it is open!). Another 500 meters and we arrived at the Sasso Corbaro Castle.
Sasso Corbaro, which takes its name from the black color of the rock on which it stands (in dialect “Corbatt” means “Crow”) is an essential and geometric fortress. It is also the highest of the three castles and the only one of which we know the exact date of construction: it dates back to 1479.
In low season, Sasso Corbaro is probably the least interesting to visit. As Montebello, in fact, also this castle is normally open to the public from April to November and can be visited, in its internal spaces, with the purchase of an entrance ticket. During the winter, therefore, you will only have the opportunity to visit the entrance square and the inner courtyard, where there is the Osteria Sasso Corbaro. We had the opportunity to take a coffee, but given the period even the Osteria has a very limited offer. However, at this link you will find all the information about the exact dates and opening hours.
Before leaving, don’t forget to take a break for a few minutes in the square at the entrance to admire the magnificent view to the south that on a clear day you can see as far as the basin of Lake Maggiore in Italy.
From the Castle of Sasso Corbaro to Castelgrande
From Sasso Corbaro begins the descent towards the town and the third castle. To get back on the path and avoid to redo the route backwards we’ve used the passage under the castle walls, which is accessed by the stairs that you find right in the middle of the entrance courtyard. We walked up a few steps and in a few minutes we were back on the paved road. From here we decided to walk the entire road that, through some hairpin bends, brought us back to the valley. Because of a knee that in recent times has become a bit “capricious”, we decided to follow the paved road. However be aware that the switchbacks are often cut by short hiking shortcuts that are slightly inclined. So if you have good legs, make use of them!
Downstream, we opted for the second of our detours to the trail: the Church of Santa Maria della Neve. The small church has a neglected appearance but retains an ancient grandeur, with its cobbled walkway and votive aedicules along both sides. This church was also closed at the time of our visit and, as we know, a major restoration project is being planned to bring it again to its former glory. We hope so, because it is truly fascinating.
From the church of Santa Maria della Neve, in a little less than 250 meters we were back in the historical center. In Piazza Nosetto, just in front of the Palazzo Civico, we took the “Ascent to the castle” that in about 10 minutes leads us to Castelgrande, the last stop of our visit.
Castelgrande, as its name says, is certainly the most imposing of the three fortresses. It extends for more than two hundred meters diagonally and, in its most ancient core, dates back to the thirteenth century. From this castle, moreover, start two arms of walls that, once, were part of the defensive system of the city. But the thing that will certainly strike you the most are the two imposing towers that, probably because of the material with which they were built, take the name of White Tower and Black Tower.
Differently from the other two castles of this itinerary, Castelgrande is open also during wintertime in its inner halls and exhibition spaces. Here you will also find an elegant restaurant and a typical Ticino “grotto” with an outdoor terrace.
However we, by now a bit tired, gave up the visit of the exhibition spaces and, after having toured the walls and the external spaces, we continued our descent towards the city center where, in Piazza della Collegiata, we had an aperitif while waiting to take the train back.
By now you will have understood: the itinerary is made of continuous ups and downs. Always remember, therefore, to dress in layers before starting an outdoor walk, specially if the routes you’ve planned include alternating climbs and descents. During the most capricious seasons, dressing in layers allow you to cover up or uncover yourself with ease and even very frequently!
If you plan to visit the three castles also in their interiors and exhibitions, we suggest you buy the Bellinzona Pass, a combined ticket that includes entrance to the three castles and the Villa dei Cedri Civic Museum. The ticket costs CHF 28 for an adult and can also be purchased online at this link (in Italian and German only).
Every year Bellinzona hosts in the old town the “Rabadan”, one of the most important carnivals in Switzerland, together with those of Basel and Lucerne. Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic situation the 2022 edition has been cancelled. But don’t forget to save the date for the next year!