Switzerland is known for its delicious chocolate, cheese, luxury watches, banking system, neutrality, pocketknives and gorgeous natural scenery, including snow-covered mountains and picturesque turquoise and emerald lakes. However, Switzerland is also home to many beautiful castles, fortresses, and palaces that are certainly worth a visit, many within easy reach of public transport.
A brief history of castles in Switzerland
In general, castles were built to control and defend their surrounding areas, making them a symbol of power. They were both offensive and defensive structures. Often, they also served as a centre of administration, which is why they were usually located near travel routes.
Switzerland boasts some 500 castles and other fortified buildings, many of them are listed with the Swiss Heritage Sites of National Significance. A large number of them are situated along Europe’s most important trade routes, next to lakes or along mountain passes, sporting stunning natural vistas. This makes them incredibly popular with tourists and locals alike and are usually full during school holidays.
Most of Switzerland’s castles were constructed during the Middle Ages (5th century - 15th century) and they are some of the best-preserved castles in Central Europe. This might be due to the country’s long history of neutrality; it hasn’t been in any battles or wars for 170 years.
Most popular castles in Switzerland
Here are some of Switzerland’s most popular castles:
Located in the council (Gemeinde) of Spiez in the Canton of Bern, Spiez Castle is one of the oldest castles in Switzerland, and therefore has a rich history. While the nearby church has been referenced in documents dating from 762 AD, the architectural investigations done in 2019 suggest that the oldest part of the castle, the tower, was built around 1245.
Being so old, the castle has naturally changed hands a few times over the years, with the families Strättligen, Bubenberg and von Erlach playing an important part in the castle’s upkeep and extensions. Nowadays, the castle is owned by the Spiez Castle Foundation and can be visited from May 1 until October 31. During wintertime, the castle is closed.
Situated in Vufflens-le-Château in the Canton of Vaud, Vufflens Castle (or Château de Vufflens) is a medieval castle and a Swiss heritage site of national significance.
In 1100, the site of the castle was home to a fortress, but the castle you see today was reconstructed around 1420 by Henri de Colombier, who was an important military figure and therefore chose for the building to be reconstructed in a military-style. In 1641, it was acquired by the Senarclens family.
Nowadays, the castle is privately owned. This means that while the courtyard can be visited, the interior is closed off to the public.
Located in Rapperswil-Jona in the Canton of St. Gallen, medieval Rapperswil Castle is perched atop a rocky hill on the Lindenhof hill peninsula, 38 kilometres from the city of Zurich. It boasts magnificent lake views as its surrounded on three sides by the Lake of Zurich.
The castle was built in the early 13th century by the House of Rapperswil. After the death of the last heir, the castle was passed on to the House of Homberg. Around 1309, it came into possession of the Austrian Count Rudolf von Habsburg-Laufenburg. After the extinction of this line, the castle was given to the citizens of Rapperswil.
In 1870, the castle was leased for 99 years to the Polish National Museum, which is still located in the castle today. Please note that only the Polish National Museum is open to the public, the rest of the castle remains closed, save for special city tours, although it is also used for marriages.
Castles of Bellinzona: Castelgrande, Montebello, Sasso Corbaro
Situated at the foot of the alps, around the town of Bellinzona in the Canton of Ticino, you’ll find the Castles of Bellinzona; Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro. These three castles and their fortified walls have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
The oldest of the 13th century castles is Castelgrande, overlooking the valley from the rocky peak it’s located on. The walls of this castle connect to Montebello castle. It is open for visitors throughout the year and houses the Museum of Art of Bellinzona.
Situated on a rocky hilltop east of Bellinzona, Montebello Castle is surrounded by deep moats. It was built in 1313 for the Rusca family. Nowadays, the castle houses the Archaeological and Civic Museum, which is open from March to November.
Of the three castles of Bellinzona, Sasso Corbaro, also known as Unterwalden or Santa Barbara, is the castle with the highest elevation of the three and it is not integrated into the city walls. It measures 25 by 25 metres and features square towers on the north-east and south-west corners. Today, the castle houses a museum which exhibits the Sala Emma Poglia, the wooden room built for the Emma family during the 17th century.
With magnificent views of Lake Thun, Oberhofen Castle is situated in the municipality of Oberhofen of the Canton of Bern in Switzerland.
It is thought that the central keep dates from around 1200, and over the years, the rest of the castle developed around it. Over the centuries, the castle passed through various Bernese patrician families. Nowadays, the castle is owned by the Oberhofen Castle foundation and it’s open for visitors from May to October. If you plan to visit, don’t forget to check out the Oriental Smoking room, which offers a unique experience and amazing vistas.
One of Switzerland’s (and Europe’s) most visited castles is Chillon Castle. Built strategically on the island of Chillon, south of Veytaux in the Canton of Vaud, the castle offers majestic views of Lake Geneva. No wonder then that the castle has attracted many famous poets and writers from around the world over the years, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert and Lord Byron, whose poem “the prisoner of Chillon” is directly inspired by François Bonivard, a Genevese monk and patriot who was imprisoned in the castle by the Counts of Savoy.
While the oldest parts of the castle have not been dated, the castle was first mentioned in documents in 1005. In 1150, a charter named the castle owner as Gaucher de Blonay. Then from the mid-12th century, the castle belonged to the Counts of Savoy. It was occupied by the Bernese from 1536 until 1798. Today, it belongs to the Canton of Vaud and it’s open to the public year-round.
Now, you may know the town of Gruyères, located in the Canton of Fribourg, because of the famous Swiss Gruyères cheese. However, this medieval town is also home to Gruyères Castle, which was built between 1270 and 1282.
The castle belonged to the Counts of Gruyères until Count Michel declared bankruptcy in 1554. From 1555 to 1798, it was the residence of bailiffs and prefects send by Fribourg. In 1849, the castle was sold to the Bovy and Balland families, who restored the castle to its former glory. In 1938, the Canton of Fribourg bought the castle back and turned it into a museum. The castle is open to the public all year round.
Situated in the municipality of Aigle of the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland, Aigle Castle sits on top of a hill, surrounded by a renowned vineyard.
Aigle had a small fortification in the 12th century, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 13th century that the castle was rebuilt with a fortified donjon and a curtain wall. However, in the Burgundian Wars, armed forces attacked Aigle and destroyed the castle. In 1488, Bern had the castle rebuilt. Then in 1804, the castle was acquired by the city of Aigle. Nowadays, the castle houses the Vine and Wine Museum and is open for visitors.
Other castles in Switzerland
As Switzerland is home to hundreds of castles, we couldn’t possibly do justice to them all. A few others that are certainly worth a visit are: Thun Castle in Bern, Aarburg Castle in Aargau, Lenzburg Castle in Aargau and Neuchatel Castle in Neuchatel.
Going to Switzerland’s neighbour Germany? Here are the most popular castles and palaces in Germany.