Turin is an overlooked city; not just by the Alps that bookend its boulevards like a movie backdrop on a clear day. This city sits woefully low on must-see lists of Italian destinations. Even Michael Caine barely cast it a glance as he car-chased through its colonnaded squares in The Italian Job (1969). Yet Turin is a place that shouldn’t be raced through.
The Slow Food Movement was born here and restaurants draw prize produce from Piedmont’s venerable farms and vineyards. Not into Michelin- star tourism? You’ll find even more accessible indulgences. Chocolate was patented here in 1798 and exquisite confections continue to be made with treasured local Langhe hazelnuts peddled in ornate 19th-century pasticceria.
One-time seat of the Savoy family, Turin is Italy’s only ‘royal’ city, with Parisian-style boulevards, peripheral parkland and oh-so-elegant interconnecting piazzas home to palaces that are national standouts. Among them, Venaria Reale — Turin’s own Versailles.
Site of Italy’s first parliament, the city led the struggle towards unification and in 1861 became the capital of a newly formed Italy (albeit for a four short years). Yet there’s a surprising arty, anarchic spirit here. Turin was a major haunt of the Futurists and is today a centre for film. Don’t miss the National Cinema Museum, set in towering Mole Antonelliana — the architectural symbol of the city.
But for leftfield fun, there’s nowhere better than San Salvario. The somewhat tattier side of Turin has hipster bars and independent boutiques, but a community-led vibe remains, thanks to the southerners who originally settled here to work in Fiat’s car plants.
Meanwhile, it’s along the Po, whose bars bounce with live music that Turin offers its most stately views. Stand in the riverfront Piazza Vittorio Veneto at night to see the dome of the Gran Mardre church lit up, with houses of the Monte dei Cappuccini hills glittering above and the bars of Murazzi embankment rocking below.
Where to eat
“People in Turin know how to eat well,” says chef Matteo Baronetto, of the city’s palatial Del Cambio restaurant, standing proudly opposite Turin’s eponymous palazzo. “They know traditional cuisine but also appreciate reasoned improvisation.”
Book a table in Del Cambio’s red-carpeted Sala Risorgimento to dine under 19th-century frescos on such classics as vitello tonnato (veal with a tuna and caper dressing), finanziera (veal and cockscombs with marsala) and agnolotti (stuffed ravioli-like pasta).
Innovation abounds at Scannabue, in the hipster hood of San Salvario. This small but permanently packed new place has a cosy, drawing room vibe, and serves seasonal, indulgent takes on Piemontese favourites, such as onion tarte tatin with gorgonzola cream, cod and mash, local lamb, and game roasts.
Drawing produce from the neighbouring Porto Palazzo market, Tre Galline has been serving such hearty northern staples as bagna caoda (a hot anchovy dip with crudites) and bolito misto (boiled meats) since it opened in 1592. The wooden floors might be creaky but the food is certainly still on form.
But save space for dessert at Baratti & Milano. This marble, gilt and mirrored art nouveau confection is as rich and sugary as its creamy cakes, chocolaty sweets and elegant pastries. Order a bicerin, Turin’s native hot chocolate, coffee and whipped cream drink, that makes most desserts look abstemious.
The pick of the posh cocktail spots is Mulassano, an ornate little jewellery box of a place so teeny it could pass for a privy in one of the city’s grand palazzo. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in baroque decoration — and great drinks; it has its very own brand of vermouth.
La Drogheria is an arty take on an old pharmacy overlooking Piazza Vittorio Veneto, while the New York-style Bar Cavour — dark panelled wood and the lowest of low lighting — is the youthful new addition to Del Cambio, set on the floor above the frescoed dining rooms.
Head southeast of the historical centre to San Salvario, to sample drinks based on the vermouth of the same name. New addition Anselmo has a modern, speakeasy atmosphere with polished concrete interiors and high bar stools on which to pose and get stylishly pickled. Nearby, DDR is a minimalist den: all raw plaster interiors, graphic art and a bike hanging from the ceiling. Finally, the new Tomato Backpackers Hotel, a decidedly boutique affair, has a lively, late-running bar, furnished with recycled tomato tins and crates fashioned by local artists.
Lavazza was founded in Turin but my preference for homegrown espresso, is Caffe Vergnano. The flagship store in the boho Vanchiglia district has a steam-train size roasting machine and for those seeking kitsch souvenirs, there’s little better than chocolate gianduia liqueur, presented in a bottle shaped like the Mole Antonelliana. And in the surrounding streets, the ever-changing crop of boutiques is certainly worth a window-shop, notably the colourful-cute VIAVAI clothes/design shop, and Linea 451 bookshop.
Kappa, the sportswear brand beloved of 1980s ‘football casual’ tracksuit wearers (and ironic 1990s Britpop bands) is also a Turin label, with various outlets around town. Local footie team, Juventus, doesn’t wear Kappa anymore but official stores offer a ‘Juve’ strip, complete with your favourite player’s name.
Finally, Turin’s pasticceria look good enough to eat, and pride of place will always be artfully arranged heaps of gianduja, gold-wrapped ingots of chocolate, studded with pieces of Piemonte’s prized IGP Langhe hazelnuts. For bold, nay bonkers, contemporary design, Guido Gobino’s mad-eyed chocolate penguins are characterful enough for any Aardman animation.
Top 10 local tips
02 Luci D’Artista: the city’s piazzas bedecked with glittering lights (November-January). turismotorino.org
03 Don’t miss the Slow Food Fair in October — the locally born global foodie festival. salonedelgusto.it
04 Stay in San Salvario — it’s the neighbourhood to bag a design-conscious Airbnb rental. airbnb.co.uk
05 See the best of Turin’s palazzi with the new hop on and off C-line bus tour. torino.city-sightseeing.it
06 See Palazzo Royale, Palazzo Madame and Villa della Regina with its own vineyard. turismotorino.org
07 Take a day trip to Alpine ski resorts such as Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx, and the glorious western lakes. piemonteitalia.eu
08 Ride the Sassi-Superga tramway climbing 225m to 650m above sea level, with a funfair ride incline of 13.5%. Superb views of the crowing Superga Basilica are to be had. basilicadisuperga.com
09 Don’t miss Notte Bianca, an event of open houses, street gatherings, museum lates and general insomnia. Around April every year. turismotorino.org
10 After a €50m (£35m) five-year renovation, the world’s second largest collection of Egyptian artefacts is on show again at the Egyptian Museum. museoegizio.it
From the Source, Italy. RRP: £19.99 (Lonely Planet). Uncovering Italian food.
Italia: La Guida Michelin 2015. RPP: £17.99. Guide to hotels and restaurants, in Italian. Some English and lots of easy symbols.
Northern Italy: From the Alps to the Adriatic. RPP: £19.45 (Blue Guide).
The Italian Job (1969).
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)