A brief introduction to castles in Switzerland
When walking through the Swiss countryside, you may encounter some imposing fortresses perched atop hills and mountains. Being in the heart of Europe, castles in Switzerland have been built by the Romans, Germans, Austrians and the Swiss themselves, culminating in the stunning buildings you see today.
What is a castle?
A castle is a type of fortified structure typically built during the Middle Ages or medieval period, although there was a fashion for building castle-like mansions in the 19th century. Their purpose was to defend the surrounding land and people from bandits and invaders and provide a base for the collection of taxes.
European castles were typically owned by local kings and nobility, who would give the fortress and the area around them to their children or allies. Castles were considered the centre of medieval life, hosting feasts, markets and religious ceremonies.
The most common feature of a castle is a large wooden or stone structure known as the keep or bailey. The keep and surrounding courtyard would be enclosed by thick walls, turrets and towers to provide protection for the fortress’s defenders. Many castles have other features such as large drawbridges, interlinking castle walls and moats filled with water.
What do castles in Switzerland look like?
Unlike the large castles in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, Swiss castles are typically smaller “fortified houses.” Many of the fortresses that stand today have been converted into private residences at some point in their history, removing the need to maintain large fortifications like walls and towers.
Those that do have walls typically only have one layer of fortifications, relying instead on extra defences like a city wall around the bastion, as was the case in Solothurn, or a large moat or hill around the perimeter like in Thun. The walls themselves tend to have openings where defenders can throw rocks or fire arrows, crossbows and cannons down on the enemy. Some exceptions include Hallwyl castle, which has a double wall and moat surrounding the fortress, and Lenzburg castle, a huge castle complex with towers and gates that sits atop a large hill.
History of castles in Switzerland
Switzerland has around 500 castles and other fortified locations that are now listed as heritage sites. While there is evidence of fortifications built by the Helvetii tribe, most of the largest castles still standing today are either built upon Roman ruins or were upgraded by nobles once the empire fell.
Of course, each castle has its own engaging and unique story to tell, so it is difficult to summarise, but here is a brief overview of the history of castle building in Switzerland.
First Swiss castles
Roman forts in Switzerland tended to be wooden outposts used to guard vital roads and strategic areas. From the 5th to the 10th centuries, castles would replace or upgrade previous Roman fortifications, in order to protect the largest Swiss cities at the time like Zurich, Bern and Thun.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 6th century, the nobility across what would become the Swiss cantons would create large fortified locations in the passes through the mountains between Germany and Italy. These forts were aimed at providing protection to traders crossing the Alps, charging them tolls for passage. The famous castles of Chillon and Spiez started out as fortified toll areas.
Famous Swiss families controlled most castles
Between the 5th and 13th centuries, castle building was dominated by a series of powerful families that controlled the land on behalf of the Burgundians, French, Savoyards or the Holy Roman Empire. This means that many Swiss castles appear to have the same rough story attached to their history.
If the castle is in the northern, central or eastern cantons like Zurich, Schaffhausen and St. Gallen, the fortress was likely built and controlled by the Kyburg family, the Habsburgs or the Abbey of Saint Gall. To the west, in Canton Vaud, castles were controlled and upgraded by the House of Savoy and the Dukes of Burgundy. Other famous families that owned castles during the period included the houses of Zähringen in Bern and Werdenberg, a family from the mountain valleys near Liechtenstein.
The Old Swiss Confederacy and expansion
Familial control of castles in Switzerland continued until the founding of the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1291. As the influence of Swiss noble families declined, and the Habsburgs, Burgundians and Savoyards were ousted, their castles were sold or conquered by Swiss cantons.
In most cases, the largest castles were used to keep control of the surrounding area and defend against invaders. Cantons would appoint a bailiff (Landvogt) to keep the castle running and ready to defend itself well into the late 1700s.
The decline of castles in Switzerland
Much like in the rest of Europe, advances in technology made the concept of a castle obsolete. By the end of the 18th century, many Swiss castles were either decommissioned or used as residences for cantonal governors.
Between the 19th century and today, most castles were either abandoned, sold as houses or turned into museums. As Switzerland has not experienced a foreign conflict since 1815, many of the largest castles remain fully intact to this day, meaning that locals and tourists can visit them.
What are some of the best castles to visit in Switzerland?
Today, castles in Switzerland have taken on a new lease of life thanks to the loving preservation work and care given by cantonal authorities. While many remain museums or private residences, others have been converted into venues for weddings, concerts, events and much much more.
Have we piqued your interest in Swiss castles and you want to know some of the best ones to visit? Check out our guide to the best castles in Switzerland.