Mendrisio's Historic Centre
Cities & Monuments
Ancient buildings and churches enriched by stuccos and frescos appear in the small alleys of the old town in Mendrisio. The old city centre remains untouched by modernity and becomes especially suggestive during the Holy Week’s processions (Unesco World Heritage) and between September and October, when the local wine festival takes place. Mendrisio is the capital of the region known as “Switzerland’s Tuscany”, indicated as such because of its landscapes, characterized by little hills covered with vineyards, and because of its brick-houses with shingled roofs. At 5 km distance lays the Baptistery of Riva San Vitale, the oldest Christian monument in Switzerland.
Itinerary: Mendrisio's Historic Centre (2h, see map)
Our itinerary to the discovery of this remarkable hamlet starts from Piazza del Ponte, distinguished by the imposing parish church of Saints Cosma and Damiano, a relatively recent building (1863-75) by architect Luigi Fontana inspired by Neoclassic architecture. The medieval tower in the vicinity is from the 13th century, proof of the presence of one of three castles that once fortified the city. It was initially used for military reasons and later erected and transformed into a bell tower. In 1908 the tower was returned to its original state. On the square there is also the elegant Palazzo Torriani (Torriani Palace), built over the course of the centuries around the town's first 13th century city centre.
Walk up the Via Torriani (next to the parish church) and Via Santa Maria to quickly reach the church of Santa Maria (Saint Mary), the centre's oldest one. This is a medieval construction erected from the ruins of a Roman villa and rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries. The bell tower is Romanesque and dates back to the 12th century. Proceed by taking the Via Vecchio Ginnasio and you will reach the church of San Giovanni Battista (Saint John the Baptist) richly decorated and considered one of the greatest impressions of late Baroque in Ticino. Next to it, the Museo d'arte (Art Museum), hosted by the ancient convent of the Serviti, with a beautiful cloister.
When exiting the museum, turn right and you will see the gracious chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie (Madonna of Graces) that houses a fresco of Virgin Mary attributed to Giovanni da Milano. Proceed down the Via Carlo Pasta and after 300 meters you will see, on your right, the charming Via delle Cantine (Cellar Way). Mendrisiotto is a region with a strong calling for wine-production offering excellent and elegant Merlots. For centuries residents of this part of the city have been using the cool air from Monte Generoso for their cellars, guaranteeing a stable temperature year-round. The majority of the cellars are for private use, but there are still some restaurants where you can taste Ticino's culinary specialties and great regional wines.
Go back to the chapel of Madonna delle Grazie and follow Via Stella that leads back to the Piazza del Ponte. Crossing the square, enter the Corso Bello, heart of Mendrisio's historic centre, and walk to the widening where you can admire the magnificent 17th century Palazzo Pollini (Pollini Palace), a typical example of a late Baroque villa from Italy's Lombardy region.
Going ahead on the same road until Piazzetta Borella, taking into Via Gismonda afterwards, you arrive to the architecture faculty founded by renowned Ticino architect Mario Botta. The Academy houses in the imposing Turconi Palace and in the charming Villa Argentina, both dating back to the second half of the 19th century, and inside the more recent Canavee Palace, built in 2000 and which project has been realized by the Soliman & Zurkirchen studio. Covered in black bricks and with its remarkable size, the structure takes inspiration from the neoclassical Turconi Palace, opening through a wide glass-window towards the luxurious park of Villa Argentina, an especially praised green area in the heart of Mendrisio.
Next to Palazzo Turconi, the Architecture Theater was inaugurated in 2018. Also this work, unique in its kind, was designed by the architect Mario Botta, inspired by the ancient anatomical theaters that were constituted by a large central space, where the object of study was placed and around which the students met. The circular building is structured on 5 levels that wind around the central area. During the year it hosts temporary exhibitions and other events open to the public, with the aim of encouraging cultural debate and establishing links between architecture and the visual arts.
At the tourists’ office free audio-guides are available in four languages (Italian, French, German and English) for a similar itinerary, which takes a little longer to complete (3.4 km, approximately 2 hours).
Feasts and processions
There are three important events related to Mendrisio's agricultural and religious roots that take place in the city. In the fascinating narrow streets, on Thursday and Friday before Easter, historic Processions of the Holy Week take place, following a tradition dating from the end of the 17th century. 2019 they have been listed by the Unesco as "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" for the value of a unique event on the world scene, where history becomes spectacle thanks to the living tradition of processions and the "trasparenti”. These are large translucent canvas paintings, produced and restored using techniques dating back to the 18th century, that hang in the streets, marking the itinerary followed in the evening ceremonies of Thursday and Good Friday: breathtaking and extraordinarily moving in equal measure.
The historic centre is also mirrored at the extremely animated "Sagra del Borgo" at the end of September, emphasizing the region's vocation. The most ancient country fair of Ticino's agricultural sector, San Martino, takes place on November 11th around the namesake Romanesque church that stands in a field near the city centre.
If you have more time…
Discovering Mendrisiotto Region through its five art museums
Downloading an audio guide on the smARTravel application, it is possible to take a journey through time and space, through five art museums of the Mendrisiotto; a territory rich in historical, artistic and landscape features, the place of origin of many artists, architects, collectors and patrons, of which the museums are witnesses. The audio guide does not focused on the exhibitions, but proposes new narrative approaches and thematic cards containing stories and anecdotes, linked to the Vincenzo Vela Museum in Ligornetto, the Giovanni Züst Art Gallery in Rancate, the Art Museum of Mendrisio, the m.a.x museum in Chiasso and the Teatro dell'architettura Mendrisio. Thanks to photographs and an interactive map of the area, it is possible to follow the itinerary both physically and virtually. The audio guide is available in four languages: English, Italian, German and French.