Switzerland was once a land of castles but today there’s little over 500 peppered across the country. But when it comes to fairytale castles, what it lacks in density and concentration, it more than makes up for in quality. From medieval moated palaces to clifftop perches, here are seven of the best castles in Switzerland.
The Best Castles in Switzerland
Located on the picturesque shores of Lake Thun, Oberhofen is brimming with waterside charm. It’s one of Switzerland’s most popular castles, unsurprising given its old-world architecture and idyllic lakeside location. Construction began as early as the 13th century when it was owned by the Habsburgs, but each of its inhabitants has left their mark on the building, so little of the original architecture remains today.
The original keep dates to the early 13th century, the lakeside chapel to 1473 and the tower in the 1680s. Its residents converted the fortress into a castle in the late 18th century and in 1801 it became private property when the Counts of Pourtalès purchased it.
In 1952 the castle became part of the Historical Museum of Bern and in 2009 it became an independent foundation.
Set in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, Bellinzona is actually three castles in one – Castlegrande, Montello and Sasso Corbaro. Castlegrande sits in a typical fairytale location high on a rocky peak overlooking the Alpine foothills. Sasso Crobaro sits even further up, while Castlegrande connects to Montebello via a network of ancient walls. Together, they make up some of the best-preserved medieval castles in the country and were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Its strategic advantage has long been recognised too. The Romans first built a castle here in the first century A.D but the castle walls were only erected in the Middle Ages. Castelgrande is Bellinzona’s oldest castle, with sweeping views over the old town and a small, informative museum inside. If you’re considering making the trip, combine it with an excursion to Locarno and Ascona.
Another waterside charmer, this moated castle dates back to the 14th century but you wouldn’t guess that from looking at it. Johaness Deucher remodelled the castle soon after purchasing it in 1720 in the more fashionable baroque French style. The Kammerer family owned the castle for three centuries before that and likely built it.
Today it’s a popular wedding location, famous for its picturesque terrace, gilded halls and excellent restaurant, offering fish favourites and fine wines.
This island castle sits on a rocky stretch floating on the shores of Lake Geneva. The first mention of a castle on the site dates back to 1150, though it was likely built even earlier than that.
The Counts of Savoy owned the castle in the 12th century and controlled the route that passed in front of the castle and led to the town of Villeneuve, well-trodden by merchants and pilgrims heading to Rome along the Via Francigena. Peter II of Savoy transformed it into a summer residence in the 13th century and later added the notorious prison.
The Swiss, or the Bernese, conquered the Pays de Vaud in 1536 and transformed it into the administrative hub for the bailiwick of Vevey. Then, in 1798, the patriots of Vevey and Montreux conquered the castle. It became particularly popular with the Romantics – Lord Byron even wrote a poem about it. Later, authors and artists including Victor Hugo, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Léon Tolstoï, Gustave Courbet, Salvador Dali and Joseph Hornung came to visit.
Gruyères might be most famous for its cheese, but that’s really just a reflection of how delicious it is, rather than the quality of its castle. Built between 1270 and 1282, Gruyères Castle is one of Switzerland’s blockbuster castles. It sits at the highest point in the town and boasts an impressive art collection with Medieval stained-glass windows. It was famously the home of three capes of the Order of the Golden Fleece, part of the booty captured by the Swiss Confederates against Charles the Bold of Burgandy in 1486. The Counts of Gruyères owned until the bankruptcy of Count Michel in 1554. After a long spell as the main residence for the bailiffs, the Bovy and Balland families purchased and restored it in 1849. It became a museum and opened to the public in 1938.
6. Thun Castle
Built in the late twelfth century by Duke Berthold V of Zahringen, Thunn Castle boasts cone-topped turrets, snow-white walls and a handful of turrets in true fairytale style. The Hosue of Kyburg inherited the house in the mid 13th century, keeping hold of it for nearly two centuries. In 1384 Bern bought Thun and Burgdorf and the castle ended up in Bernese control.
The castle opened as a museum in 1888. Curiously, for a long time, the jailer acted as a ticket seller and guard for the museum.
7. Tarasp Castle
Dating back to the 11th century, Tarasp boasts an idyllic location perched on a hill overlooking eastern Switzerland. Austria actually owned the castle until 1803, despite numerous attempts from many different parties to win it back. Karl August Lingner, aka the inventor of mouthwash, purchased the decaying castle in 1900. He spruced it up and opened the site up to visitors in 1919. Today, visitors can wander around the knights’ halls and ballrooms, bedrooms and chapel. The venue regularly hosts free organ concerts, complete with a 2,500 pipe organ. You can also take ‘active vacations’ – free or discounted board in exchange for helping maintenance works.