Bellinzona, capital of Ticino canton, southern Switzerland, on the Ticino River, at the junction of roads to the St. Gotthard, Lukmanier, and San Bernardino passes, east of Locarno. Possibly of Roman origin, it 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 object of continuous conflict between the Lombardian cities of Como and Milan in the 14th and 15th centuries. Occupied by the French (with the other Milanese lands) in 1499, it was taken by Uri canton in 1500, and 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.
The town is dominated by three 15th-century castles of the dukes of Milan. There are also remains of the great wall (murata) that barred the Ticino Valley c. 1500, and it is the location of several 16th-century churches. In 2004 Bellinzona became the seat of the Federal Criminal Court. Tourism, which increased rapidly after the opening of the St. Gotthard railway line (1882), is the most important economic factor, but there are small industries. The population is Italian-speaking and Roman Catholic.
Bellinzona is probably Switzerland’s most Italianate town. The skyline of the capital of Ticino is defined by the powerful fortifications, comprising three of the best-preserved medieval castles in Switzerland, which are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bellinzona (German: Bellenz) is strategically positioned where the valley narrows on the way to the Alpine passes of St. Gotthard, San Bernardino and Lucomagno (Lukmanier). The town acts as a gateway to Italy for those travelling from the North, and the keyhole to the Alps for those coming from the South.
The picturesque corners and squares, the courtyards and the neo-Classical, Italian-style theatre, and the sympathetically restored old houses tell visitors the history of what is culturally a Lombardy town. In its alleyways are richly decorated patrician houses and beautiful churches. Yet behind the austere charm of the medieval town is all the dynamic life of a modern meeting-place. Numerous boutiques, cafés and specialist shops offering culinary delicacies invite you to linger and window-shop. Each Saturday there is a big weekly market on the Piazza Nosetto.
The fortifications of Bellinzona are among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in the Alps, and have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the year 2000. From the Castelgrande, Bellinzona’s oldest and mightiest castle, there is a beautiful view over the Old Town and the surrounding area. A little museum in the Castelgrande documents the history of Bellinzona’s castles and town centre. There are also museums in the other two castles.
It was the Romans who realised the strategic importance of the site, and first built a castle here, in the first century A.D. In the Middle Ages this was extended to form a long, impregnable fortress. Because of its location, Bellinzona was always a bone of contention between the Dukes of Milan and the Swiss. It was only in 1516 that the town first became part of the Swiss Federation.
Bellinzona is ideally located for excursions to the nearby holiday resorts of Locarno and Ascona, over Monte Ceneri to the southern Tessin with its main town, Lugano, up the romantic side valleys of the Tessin or northwards into the Leventina, with the Bedretto valley, or into the sunny Blenio valley.
- Three castles – the medieval fortifications, with the castles of Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Villa dei Cedri – municipal art gallery with Swiss and Italian paintings from late 19th and early 20th century, as well as contemporary art. There is a particular focus on artists from the local area.
- Old Town – in the area around the Piazza Nosetto, Via del Teatro and Piazza del Governo, the Old Town boasts a wealth of beautiful merchants’ houses, stone gateways, balconies with wrought iron railings and inn signs from a bygone era.
- Teatro Sociale – inspired by La Scala in Milan, the building is in the typically Italian Classical style, and is the only theatre in Switzerland to have been preserved from the 19th century.
- Modern architecture in Bellinzona – in the Castelgrande , the architect Aurelio Galfetti has cleverly integrated a boldly designed restaurant, while the Convento delle Agostiniane on the Monte Carasso has been converted into a modern training centre by the architect Luigi Snozzi.
- Carnevale Rabadan Bellinzona – highly traditional carnival, with a big masked procession, street performers and masked balls (February).
- Open-air cinema in the Castelgrande – at the castle, in a romantic setting under the stars (May).
- Piazza Blues Festival – for a few days, Bellinzona becomes the blues Mecca of Switzerland, with international stars (June).
- Bacchica Bellinzonese – traditional wine-growers’ festival with a procession in national dress, wine-tasting, theatre and lots of music (September).
- Cheese market – autumn festival with fresh produce, cheese and wine produced by Ticino farmers (October).
- Castellinaria Youth Film Festival – the spotlight is on children and young people in the films shown here (November).
- Christmas market – in the Old Town of Bellinzona (December).