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The weathered cobblestone paths were wide and steep. My children counted each step as their sandaled feet clomped over the stones: one, two three, four and so on.
Eventually, the windy, uphill journey plateaued. We stopped to catch our breath, look up and pause in silent amazement at the towering bastions, battlements and turrets suddenly before us. The sight of the castle gave us a zap of energy, and my family of four bolted forward to explore the first of the three Castles of Bellinzona in Switzerland.
All three citadels — Castelgrande, castle Montebello and castle Sasso Corbaro — offer families a thrilling, historical and physically active day trip. It’s an ideal family vacation stop if you find yourselves, as we did recently, traveling between Switzerland and Italy.
The castles are lined up along the hillside above the town, a commanding presence with views of the sunny cliffs and shimmering lakes of Italy to the south and the lush forests and farm villages of the Swiss Alps to the north. Built in the late first century BC and expanded mainly by the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century, the trio of fortifications became a designated UNESCO World Heritage site in the year 2000.
The Castles of Bellinzona offer plenty of green space for kids to run off energy. My own children especially loved exploring the tunnels, climbing up and down the towers and, thanks to some of the history they gleaned from the castle museums, talking about what life might have been like during battles as they looked out through the loopholes. There are also on-site restaurants to satiate the tummies of travelers, regardless of age.
Castelgrande The largest of the three castles, Castelgrande stands approximately 165 feet above the main town center. If you only have time to visit one of the three castles, I suggest making Castelgrande your single stop. You can see the other two castles clearly from Castelgrande, and there is more to hold the attention of antsy young travelers. The restaurant offers a wonderful selection of kid-friendly Swiss and Italian-style dishes, along with panoramic views of the town.
Don’t Miss This: On the southwestern side of the castle, just beyond one of the expansive lawn areas, is the entrance to an underground tunnel. This was my childrens’ favorite part of our visit. The tunnel is dark, with some light coming through from the small windows on the sides and intermittent overhead lights. It’s full of cobwebs and has an unpaved dirt floor. It might be too spooky for some children, but my kids loved it! When you emerge on the other side, you can walk back over the top of the tunnel, which is covered in lush grass and also makes for a nice scenic spot for resting or a picnic.
Bellinzona, Switzerland, is home to a trio of castles; from Castelgrande, the largest of the three, guests can see castle Montebello (bottom) and castle Sasso Corbaro (top). // © 2014 Marlynn Schotland
The fortification wall around Castelgrande, believed to have been built over hundreds of years beginning in the 13th century // © 2014 Thinkstock
The castles offer many towers and battlements to explore. // © 2014 Marlynn Schotland
While wandering the grounds of Castelgrande, visitors might walk along pathways with valley views or through an underground tunnel. // © 2014 Marlynn Schotland
MontebelloApproximately 295 feet above Castelgrande is castle Montebello, named after the hill on which it stands. In addition to the standard castle features found in Castelgrande, castle Montebello also has a picnic area and playground, making it another excellent stop for traveling families.
Don’t Miss This: The moat surrounding Montebello castle is a feature the whole family will enjoy. Children in particular are fascinated by a real moat, just like the ones they read about in fairytales. Be sure to capture a family photo on the drawbridge to add to your own, real-life fairytale family photo album.
Sasso CorbaroThe third and smallest castle, castle Sasso Corbaro, was built in 1479 and rises up about 755 feet over the town of Bellinzona. After serving to protect the valley, it was abandoned and then spent decades as a private residence for three Bellinzona families. The state regained possession in 1919 and did extensive reconstruction before opening the castle up to the public again.
Don’t Miss This: The grand views are what make castle Sasso Corbaro stand out. You can look out over the Riviera Valley, the Piazza di Claro and Lake Maggiore in Italy to the south.
Exploring the Castles of Bellinzona is a stop worthy of at least half a day, if not one full day, amidst your travels. At the end of our day in Bellinzona, my children walked back down those cobblestone steps — in silence this time — their bodies tired from activity, heads full of castle history and hearts happy with incredible new memories.
The BasicsBellinzona, Switzerland is located approximately 30 miles north of Lugano, Switzerland, along the Switzerland/Italy border. The best way to get here is by train or car.
Once in Bellinzona, you can travel by foot, car or bus to each of the castles. We reached Castelgrande on foot from the main piazza in town, but there is also an elevator for those who might find the steep walk challenging. Because castle Sasso Corbaro is the farthest from the town center, I recommend taking the bus from the main piazza.
The castles are open year-round and are free to visit. However, the hours vary depending on the season, and there are fees to visit the museums. Check the main Bellinzona website for more details.