Bellinzona : eating and drinking
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Like administrative capitals everywhere, Bellinzona suffers from a stunted entertainment scene – it has plenty of places to eat and drink, but none really stands out. Cheap self-service nosh is at Inova, Ticino’s version of Manora, in the Innovazione department store on Viale Stazione. Castelgrande houses two eateries (both closed Mon): the Grotto San Michele spreads itself over the panoramic terrace, where you can eat well for Fr.14–20, whereas the interior Castelgrande restaurant, full of postmodern black leather and tubular steel furniture, is a much snootier affair (091/826 23 53, www.castelgrande.ch) – you’ll get little change from Fr.60 for its modern, Ticino-inspired cuisine. The atmospheric Osteria Sasso Corbaro, in Bellinzona’s topmost castle (091/825 55 32; closed Mon & Nov–March), serves up authentic Ticinese fare – accompanied by plenty of wine – at stone tables in the shady castle courtyard, or in a great hall within; menus are Fr.25 or so. Portici, a pleasant osteria/pizzeria in the Old Town on Vicolo Muggiasca (closed Sun lunch & Mon), serves palatable food in its shady courtyard to a young, easy crowd of regulars for Fr.20 or less. Birreria Corona, Via Camminata 5 (closed Sun), is an atmospheric café-bar fronting quite a good restaurant in the back, with menus also around Fr.20. Pavement café-bars abound, including Café Commercianti, Via Teatro 5, a popular place that doubles as a gelateria, and especially around Via Codeborgo, where you’ll see (or hear) the jumping Amadeus Pub on Vicolo Torre (closed Sun) and the equally lively Peverelli at Codeborgo 12 (closed Mon).

Atmospheric steps wind down from Castelgrande to the elegant Renaissance buildings of Piazza Collegiata in the centre of the Old Town, dominated by the lavish Collegiata church, built by the same architect who worked on Como’s cathedral and decorated with Baroque frescoes and stucco. Narrow, shaded lanes branch out all around: arcaded Piazza Nosetto is just south, with the Cà Rossa house on the way featuring a striking red terracotta facade – a style fashionable in early nineteenth-century Milan. From Nosetto, a gateway leads into the courtyard of the Palazzo Civico, a magnificent Renaissance building rebuilt in the 1920s but still retaining its loggias which wind attractively around both upper floors.

Behind the Collegiata, on the eastern side of the piazza, a path rises to the picturesque Castello di Montebello (Tues–Sun 8am–6pm; free), some ninety metres higher in elevation than Castelgrande, with suitably impressive views of the town. From a vantage point on the lofty ramparts, it’s easy to trace the line of defensive fortifications which link the two castles across the width of the Ticino valley. The castle itself is impressive, with a fifteenth-century courtyard and residential palace surrounding an older central portion dating from the thirteenth century, the latter now housing a modern museum of Gothic and Renaissance architecture (Tues–Sun 10am–12.30pm & 1.30–5.30pm; Fr.4, or combination ticket for museums in all three castles Fr.8). A stiff 45-minute climb further up will bring you to Castello di Sasso Corbaro (April–Oct Tues–Sun 8am–6pm; free), some 230m above Bellinzona, designed and built in six months in 1479 by a military engineer brought in from Florence after the Swiss defeat of Milanese troops at the Battle of Giornico. It shelters a particularly welcome vine-shaded courtyard osteria and has a spectacular rampart panorama. A museum of local crafts and traditions is currently under renovation, and the castle keep has a gallery showing changing exhibits by contemporary Ticinese artists and sculptors (combination ticket valid). To save your legs, catch bus #4 from the centre to Artore near Castello di Sasso Corbaro, and wend your own path back down the hillside.

South of Piazza Indipendenza
Peaceful Piazza Indipendenza is 100m south of the tourist office and sports a 1903 obelisk commemorating the first century of Ticinese independence. Half hidden behind a tree on the east side of the square is the Chiesa di San Rocco, a small but atmospheric church built in 1330 and renovated in 1478. Following Via Lugano south from Indipendenza for 600m brings you to Piazza San Biagio, and the gates of the Villa dei Cedri, home of Bellinzona’s art collection. It’s worth having a wander in the lush and beautiful grounds (daily: April–Sept 8am–8pm, Oct–March 9am–5pm; free) before heading in to the museum (Tues–Sat 10am–noon & 2–6pm, Sun 10am–6pm; Fr.8; SMP), which focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Swiss and Lombard art. The frescoed Chiesa di San Biagio beside the villa dates from the twelfth century, and has a huge mural of St Christopher beside the door, but was undergoing extensive renovation at the time of writing, as was the beautiful Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie attached to a disused convent 100m west across the tracks – this was severely damaged by fire after a nativity scene caught alight on New Year’s Eve 1997, but although some frescoes were entirely lost and the altars have now been removed for safekeeping, attempts are being made to restore its enormous late-fifteenth-century interior fresco of the crucifixion.

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