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The ultimate city guide to Turin

The birthplace of Italian icons Lavazza and Fiat, Turin has always been an innovator. And with its old factories turned into living art parks and shopping centres, this northern powerhouse is still living up to its trailblazing reputation

The ultimate city guide to Turin
Courtyard, Officine Grandi Riparazioni. Image: Slawek Kozdras

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Turin isn’t what it used to be. Just 20 years ago it was a city of automobiles — its grand baroque architecture caked in exhaust fumes, some of its fanciest squares repurposed as car parks. It was also a city in decline — the Fiat factory, which had driven the city’s growth, closed in 1982.

But, sparked by a cleanup for the 2006 Winter Olympics, Turin started to turn things around — today, it’s one of Italy’s most exciting metropolises. This is a place where tradition meets modernity — where the palatial construction boom kicked off in the 16th century by the House of Savoy entwines with starchitect conversions of industrial buildings, turning the skeletons of the past into the heart of the future.

Despite its inaccessible location — at the foot of the Alps, Mont Blanc looming in the distance — Turin has always been groundbreaking. Fiat was by no means the only car manufacturer to spring from here, and further back, it was here that chocolate was patented in the mid-1600s and vermouth poured for the first time in the 18th century. Lavazza coffee was born in Turin, and Alfonso Bialetti, who popularised the Moka coffeemaker you see on every Italian hob, was from the Piedmont countryside.

Today, the Torinesi still gravitate to centuries-old coffeehouses to sip the city’s signature drink: bicerin, a blend of coffee, chocolate and cream. This is where the Slow Food movement arose; every restaurant trumpets its locally sourced ingredients and focuses on products that take love and graft to make — like Plaisentif cheese, produced for just a couple of months a year and scented with the violets the cows gorge on.

Then there’s the architecture — think Paris meets Milan. Old-fashioned trams rumble alongside porticoes designed to stop the Savoys from getting rained on; the royals’ stately architecture threads one quarter to another with imposing palaces, squares and colonnades. It’s an extraordinary contrast with the reworked industrial heritage: train-repair barns turned into event spaces, a demolished factory reborn as a living art park, that famous Fiat plant emerging from its chrysalis of disrepair into a shopping centre. Past and present deliver the message loud and clear: Turin’s back in business.

See & do

Parco Arte Vivente: Grassing over an old car factory’s footprint, the ‘Living Art Park’ is part gallery, part outdoor space and part thought-provoker: its nearly six acres blur the line between art and environmentalism, with artists curating their own patch of garden.

MAU: The narrow streets around the suburb of Campidoglio have been transformed into an open-air gallery, thanks to the Museo d’Arte Urbana (Museum of Urban Art), which has brightened up shopfronts and house facades with 147 works of art. It’s worth booking one of the regular tours to hear more about the project — unique in Italy — and learn the background to the murals. Claudia Kiki of Street Art Tourino also runs occasional tours in English.

Museo Egizio: Second only to Cairo in its wealth of antiquities, Turin’s Egyptian Museum was started by the Savoys — and after a six-year refurb, it’s a real showstopper. Forget the mummies — the love poetry scrawled on papyrus, elaborate tomb reconstructions and La Galleria dei Re (a cinematically lit avenue of gigantic statues designed by Oscar-winner Dante Ferretti) will never leave you.

Museo Nazionale del Cinema: Go for the movies, stay for the architecture at Turin’s cinema museum, located in the Mole Antonelliana — the soaring, hollow tower on the back of Italy’s two-cent coin. Inside are interactive exhibits about the mechanics of film, but best of all is the glass-walled lift, which whisks you from the basement, through the glorious cupola (it was designed as a synagogue in 1889), and up to the 548ft-high outdoor viewing platform on the tip, where you can see the Alps unfolding around the city.

Lingotto: Built in 1916, the original Fiat plant has been converted into a shopping complex by Renzo Piano. It means you can walk straight in past the branded mosaic, then see the spiral ramp that cars travelled on as they progressed along the production belt, up to the famous rooftop test track — now part of the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli art gallery, and accessible with a ticket.

Coffee culture: Turin’s known for coffee and bicerin — created at Al Bicerin, a teeny, candle-lit cafe and chocolate shop opposite the Consolata church, with scarlet banquettes and wood panelling. Meanwhile, Lavazza opened a new coffee museum in its mirror-fronted new Nuvola (‘Cloud’) building in late summer. Don’t miss The Tea — one of the city’s oldest coffeehouses, repurposed as a teahouse, complete with the host family’s brews.

Savoy sights: Top royal spots include Palazzo Reale — the glittering palace commissioned in 1584 — and the Reggia di Venaria Reale, their country retreat dubbed the ‘Italian Versailles’. museireali.it beniculturali.it lavenaria.it

Officine Grandi Riparazioni shop

Officine Grandi Riparazioni shop. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Eat

M** Bun: Everything is cooked to order from fresh ingredients at this ‘slow fast food’ joint which has three locations across the city. The juicy burgers are made from prized local fassona beef, while healthy sides include grilled veg and salad.

Ballatoio: Don’t be fooled by the reasonable prices — this is a fantastic, funky restaurant that does inventive updates of traditional Piemontese dishes. The atmosphere’s homely and the food, from flans to millefeuille of courgette and aubergine, is wonderful.

Circolo dei Lettori: There’s no better introduction to Turin than Stefano Fante’s extraordinary Piemontese cooking in surroundings that ooze history. In a 16th-century building — a former artists’ club turned publicly owned temple to reading — he serves things like delicate plin (mini ravioli), fassona tartare and salted biscuits with Plaisentif cheese. The setting’s old school but the service warm.

Buy

Balon: You don’t go to Turin’s best-known flea market for the trinkets; you go to be part of the crowd. This is where the city congregates every Saturday, with more than 250 stalls of antiques, clothes and knickknacks crammed into the twist of streets behind Porta Palazzo. The second Sunday of every month sees the Gran Balon — an even bigger version.

Social shops: Two of Turin’s most intriguing shops are based around social enterprise. At Laboratorio Zanzara’s printshop, T-shirts, posters and papier maché models are made by young people with mental disabilities. Meanwhile, Freedhome stocks items such as biscuits and handbags, all made by inmates from Italian prisons.

Bottega Fagnola: Open since 1955, this friendly bookbinder sells handcrafted notebooks and diaries with a modern touch, as well as running bookbinding courses.

Like a local

OGR: A spectacular reinvention of the Officine Grandi Riparazioni. Hangar-like train-repair workshops are now exhibition and event spaces that host everything from art installations to concerts.

Food culture: Cooperative Panacea makes slow-risen bread with stoneground flour and sourdough yeast. Try their low-gluten loaves — including hemp and walnut bread — and vegan biscuits. Then there’s Latteria Bera, a 60-year-old, family-owned cheese shop. Current owner Chiara goes out of her way to stock ‘endangered’ cheeses, driving into the mountains to buy them. Most are from Piedmont — ask the charming and helpful staff for a free tasting.

Gianduiotti: Turin’s famous triangular chocolates — made of cocoa and hazelnuts — are everywhere (19th-century cafe Stratta has some of the best). Also try cremini — layers of gianduia encasing a strip of pure hazelnut paste.

Fiats, Piazza Vittorio Veneto

Fiats, Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Image: Slawek Kozdras

After hours

Floris House: Is this a perfumery, a bar, or someone’s house? In fact, it’s all three: a sumptuous art nouveau palazzo filled with palms and potted greenery, with a posh perfume corner at one end, a bar at the other and a restaurant in between. It’s perfect at aperitivo time, when you’re delivered tiered stands piled with snacks to accompany your drink.

Caffe Mulassano: This tiny, marble-crusted jewelbox of a bar reckons it was the place that invented the tramezzino, or sandwich — in 1926. Less controversial are the origins of its Mulassano vermouth, devised in 1879 — try it in a spritz, served with dainty snacks and giant olives.

Beerba: In the San Salvario neighbourhood, where bar terraces are cantilevered over the street itself, Beerba’s known for its huge, themed apericena buffets at weekends. Like everywhere here, it’s geared to a younger crowd, with beanbags sitting beneath murals.

Sleep

Piazza Vittorio Suites: On Piazza Vittorio Veneto, two floors of a historical apartment block have been transformed into stylish ‘suites’ with reception manned during office hours. They face an internal courtyard so there’s no noise, and they’re comfy and clean. Owned by the same family as the Hotel Piemontese in nightlife hub San Salvario, it’s a brilliant choice for Airbnb aficionados.

Cascina San Vito: You’ll need to factor in taxis to stay at this B&B in the hills above the city (£10-15 each way), but it’s worth it. Wedged into the countryside about 10 minutes up a steep road, it’s an idyllic retreat. The six rooms are spacious and comfortable, and the breakfast spread includes an array of homemade cakes.

Hotel Victoria: Upgrade to a deluxe at this traditional four-star, and you’ll get details like feature wallpapers and sassy four-poster beds. Don’t miss the Egyptian-themed pool.

Essentials

Getting there & around

Ryanair and British Airways fly direct from Stansted and Gatwick respectively. Otherwise, fly to Genoa, two hours away by train, or Milan, an hour away by fast train.
Average flight time: 1h55m.
The city centre is eminently walkable — in fact the best way to navigate the city is on foot. Otherwise, the bus system is excellent, with a huge network across the city and old-style trams running through the centre. The one-line metro can be useful if you’re going to Lingotto — as can regular trains. Or try WeTaxi, an app devised by local drivers — you’re quoted a fixed price, and they’ll pick you up.

When to go
You’re in an Alpine basin here, so it’s cold in winter, with temperatures dropping to 3C, but warmer in high summer where the average is 21C. Autumn and early winter, or spring and early summer, can be glorious, with crisp sunny days.

More info
turismotorino.org
Wallpaper* City Guide. RRP: £5.95

How to do it
Inghams Italy has seven nights in Turin, including flights, transfers and B&B accommodation at the four-star Grand Hotel Sitea, from £499 per person.

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)