It is easy to see why the magnificent Castelgrande was an important military stronghold: it sits high above the city of Bellinzona on a natural island of granite in the heart of a major pass at the southern end of the Alps.
Archaeological finds have revealed that people lived there at least as far back as the Neolithic period (5500-5000 BC). The castle as we know it today was started circa 1242, and extensive building, expansion, and renovations continued on the site for 250 years.
There are a few different ways to reach the castle: you can walk up the Salita Al Castelgrande or climb the steps from near the Piazza Collegianta. The most popular method is to take the elevator from Piazza del Sole, which was installed as part of the castle renovations conducted under the guidance of local artist Aurelio Galfetti between 1982 and 1992. (I have to admit that I felt that the dramatic hewed-stone entrance to the elevator made me feel as if I were passing into Moira in Lord of the Rings!). Galfetti was hired to take Castelgrande and take it from a state of semi-disrepair and turn it into a functional, multi-use facility that also maintained the historical integrity of the structure.
As you exit the elevator, a cobblestone ramp leads up into the inner bailey of the castle. At one time, this area was filled with many smaller buildings, but most were torn down when the castle was in the possession of the Dukes of Milan in the late 15th century. This is a wonderful vantage point to view the inner castle structures as well as take in the outstanding views to the east, where you can see the castle walls extending towards Montebello; the petite Sasso Carbaro on the hillside above; and the oldest part of town, including the Collegiata Church of SS. Pietro e Stefano.
There is a small museum in the structures that line the southern end of this bailey. Admission is only a few Swiss francs. Attractions include archaeological finds, a selection of coins from when the castle served as a mint (16th century), and the decorated ceilings from Casa Ghiringhelli (1470-1480) that were painted in celebration of a wedding and tell the stories of the two families.
The castle is host for a variety of cultural events, ranging from open-air cinema to opera, concerts, dance, art exhibitions, and fashion shows. It is also a popular location for meetings and is home to two restaurants: The Grotto offers open-air dining on the southern terraces in summer months, while the Restaurant Castlegrande operates a fine-dining establishment as well as providing catering for events in the castle.
Once you have explored the castle, ramble down the city wall, which will give you outstanding views of Castelgrande, its sister castles, and the old city. This walk will take you about 20 minutes but is totally worth it. From there it is an easy walk back to the old town.