Framed by the snow-capped Alps, Turin is a seductive city, with belle époque coffee houses designed for dangerous liaisons, and Baroque squares built for grand gestures.
This former industrial powerhouse, the first capital of a united Italy and ancestral home to the Savoy kings, feels effortlessly stately. Once sedate, Turin has been revitalised since staging the Winter Olympics in 2006. Spruced up again for last year’s 150th anniversary of Italian Unification, the city has never looked more beguiling or more regal. The endless porticoes are proof of its royal heritage — they served to protect the king and his court from downpours while travelling between palaces.
Turin’s royal past is now cherished, with the restoration of the Venaria Reale, Italy’s Versailles, followed by the revival of its palatial grounds, ornamental lakes and medieval kitchen gardens. A new royal circuit takes in the freshly-renovated city palaces and galleries.
In recent years, the city’s personality is also clear in its street life — as the cradle of Italian cafe culture, Turin is packed with opulent coffee houses and time-warp cocktail bars.
The cityscape has been re-envisioned to reflect Turin’s shift away from its industrial past. In particular, the Lingotto district, which took its name from Fiat’s enormous car factory, has been transformed with hotels, galleries, exhibition centres, shopping malls and a Slow Food superstore.
Under the skilful eye of renowned architect Renzo Piano, the Agnelli Art Gallery was built on the rooftop of the old Fiat factory. More recently, Lingotto’s Winter Olympics venues have been remodelled to create new sports and leisure facilities.
The historic city centre has also been rejuvenated by Turin’s new-found pride in its heritage. The sprawling Porta Palazzo Market adjoins the intriguing Quadrilatero Romano, the grid-like Roman Quarter west of Piazza Castello. Clustered around the ruins of a Roman theatre and gate, this arty, pedestrianised area comes alive at night. In the city that invented Vermouth, cocktails remain a popular tipple. The aperitif was first produced here in 1786, when the Carpano distillery introduced its secret blend of white wine infused with herbs.
As the capital of Italian design, Turin casts itself as a vibrant, visionary metropolis, proud of its contemporary arts scene, its cinematic history and its cutting-edge style. The host of revamped museums, galleries and palaces is a testament to this spirit, yet Turin also continues to be faithful to its nostalgic cafe culture, with design junkies content to curl up in jewel-box interiors and drink from bone-china cups. Blessed with gilt-encrusted coffee houses and Baroque facades, sedate Piazza San Carlo remains ‘Turin’s drawing room’. And the most beloved drink is a bicerin, an aromatic and bittersweet chocolate, coffee and cream concoction. Chocolate and coffee were the city’s drugs of choice two centuries ago, and they remain so today.
See & do
City Sightseeing Bus: Starting in grandiose Piazza Castello, this engaging tour surveys the city’s Baroque architecture and sweeps over the River Po for a glimpse of aristocratic Turin. www.city-sightseeing.it
Palazzo Reale: Recently renovated, the Royal Palace was the official residence of the House of Savoy until 1865. A grand staircase leads to the lavish state apartments and throne room. www.piemonte.beniculturali.it
Palazzo Madama: Built over a Roman gate, this medieval castle was later converted into a sumptuous palace in the 17th century. www.palazzomadamatorino.it
Museo Egizio: Home to the greatest assembly of Egyptian treasures outside Cairo, the Egyptian Museum is currently being revamped and its collection will double in size over the next two years. www.museoegizio.it
Museo del Cinema: Housed in the iconic Mole Antonelliana, the Cinema Museum offers sweeping views over the city and the Alps. Its quirky displays focus on Turin’s past as the world’s filmmaking capital, until it was overtaken by Hollywood. www.museocinema.it
Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile: Newly refurbished, the Museum charts the national passion for design and speed. Fiat, founded in 1899, made Turin Italy’s car capital, a tradition upheld by John Elkann, current head of the Agnelli dynasty. www.museoauto.it
Venaria Reale: Often called the Italian Versailles, this regal hunting lodge, six miles north of the city, eventually became a royal palace, complete with frescoed interiors, chapels, stables, parkland and a model town. www.lavenaria.it
Fashion parade: Saunter along arcaded Via Roma, an elegant shopping street culminating in Piazza Castello — but then follow your nose to the speciality food shops.
Chocolate-box Turin: Gianduiotti, hazelnut chocolates shaped like upturned boats, date back to 1806 when a blockade meant cocoa was scarce so hazelnuts were added to the mix. Buy them from Guido Gobino, the prince of Piedmontese chocolatiers, along with ‘drunken’ pralines (with Barolo wine or Vermouth). www.guidogobino.it
Grown-up sweet shop: Selling candied fruit and marrons-glacés to Torinese high society since 1836, Stratta is an old-world confectioners on Piazza San Carlo. www.stratta1836.it
Artisanal ice cream: Grom, a Piedmontese gelateria, make the purest ice cream using organic or Slow Food ingredients. www.grom.it
Like a local
Taste ‘la vita torinese’: Join the throng in Porta Palatina at Piazza della Repubblica, home to the largest open-air market in Europe. Come midday, prices plummet and the traders shout out the bargains – excluding the valuable autumn crop of porcini mushrooms and pungent Alba truffles.
Catch up on cafe culture: Turin has the most lavish cafe culture in Italy, with the best-preserved period cafes. On Piazza Castello, slip into decadent Caffe Mulassano, an art nouveau gem. Graze on tramezzini (tiny sandwiches) and try the herb-infused house aperitif. Around the corner is Baratti e Milano, a chocolate-box cafe for coffee, pastries and pralines. On Piazza della Consolata, in the Quadrilatero Romano, wallow in the wood-lined intimacy of Al Bicerin, which has been serving its sublime coffee-and-cream concoction since 1736.
Follow Juventus: As newly-crowned Italian League champions, Juventus, the city’s top team, are riding high in the public’s esteem. Tours allow you to visit the club museum and the team’s new stadium. www.juventus.com
Weekend hotel deals in Turin remain good value, but book ahead for October’s Slow Food Fair.
£ Hotel Piemontese: Set in the bohemian San Salvario district, this friendly, well-run art nouveau townhouse is handy for the buzzing bar scene or for peaceful Parco San Valentino. Be tempted by plummeting weekend rates, the whirlpool bathroom under the eaves and a ready supply of Juventus tickets. www.hotelpiemontese.it
££ NH Santo Stefano: Convenient for both the sights and the cool Quadrilatero Romano dining district, this boutique hotel and designer bar is contemporary yet timeless. Hunker down in the loft-like bedrooms, hang out on the rooftop terrace or in the sultry, Moroccan-style spa. www.nh-hotels.com
£££ NH Lingotto Tech: Set in the revitalised Lingotto district, a Fiat factory has been reborn as an understated art deco hotel with a rooftop racing track — an emblem of Turin’s design heritage. Now used by joggers, this was the setting for a Mini car chase in The Italian Job. www.nh-hotels.com
Graze on generous buffets and down velvety red wines, or appreciate Italy’s most aristocratic, French-influenced cuisine – served in the capital of Slow Food.
£ Eataly: Based on Via Nizza (Lingotto) with a smaller outlet on Via Lagrange, this Slow Food superstore serves authentic artisanal treats. Sample locally-roasted coffee or tuck into pasta in a ‘tasting’ cafe. www.eataly.it
££ Porta di Po: Set on the porticoed Piazza Vittorio Veneto near the river, this inn serves creative twists on Piedmontese classics, such as tajarin pasta with truffles. portadipo.it
£££ Ristorante del Cambio: Gilded, mirrored and chandeliered, this venerable restaurant remains much as it was, even if the dishes are a touch lighter. The great Italian statesman Cavour once had a table here overlooking Palazzo Carignano, then the Parliament, where a government flunky stood ready to summon him from his meal. www.ristorantedelcambio.it
Nightlife centres on bars in the chic Quadrilatero Romano or the up-and-coming San Salvario district, with a young crowd also opting for the riverside clubs along the Murazzi. The new trend is apericena, Turin’s take on tapas, with nibbles included in the drinks bill (around £7.80 a head); from 6-9pm.
Area Cafe: This friendly bar in the funky San Salvario district, near the Great Synagogue, is a popular apericena spot. A buffet, including cheese, charcuterie and savoury flans goes down well with a decent Barbera (from £5.50). Next-door, Zelli Wine Bar attracts a cooler crowd with its Piedmontese vintages and tapas. www.areacafe.it
Mood: This posey bar-meets-bookshop is perfect for people-watching over a classic Negroni cocktail after a shopping spree on Via Lagrange, which is home to the top Italian designers. www.moodlibri.it
Caffe San Carlo: Schmooze in style on Piazza San Carlo, among the crystal chandeliers and gilded boiseries of this classic cocktail spot that dates back to 1822. www.caffesancarlo.it
Did you know? Visiting Turin in 2010, the Pope virtually endorsed the ghostly image that purports to be Christ’s burial shroud. Pope Benedict pronounced the Turin Shroud “an icon written in blood”, no medieval forgery but a relic testifying to the “darkest mystery of faith” — that of Christ’s resurrection.
Torino Caselle Airport is 16km north-west of the city centre and is linked by a 45-minute shuttle bus service (£5.10) to Porta Nuova station. www.sadem.it
British Airways flies from Gatwick and Ryanair from Stansted. Thomas Cook Airlines flies from Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester. www.ba.com ww.ryanair.com www.flythomascook.com
Travel by rail from London’s St Pancras to Turin via Paris with International Rail. www.internationalrail.com
Average flight time: 1h40m.
Orient yourself on the Sightseeing Bus (Piazza Castello, £11.75). Then rely on your feet, unless visiting the Venaria Reale (shuttle bus from Porta Nuova) or Lingotto (metro from the same station). The Torino + Piemonte Card covers 180 museums, the Panoramic Lift, airport bus, Venaria Reale shuttle and the new Po river ferries (£22.70 for three days, book at tourist offices, as below). www.city-sightseeing.it
When to go
Autumn and late spring are beguiling seasons in Turin, with October’s Slow Food Fair, the Salone del Gusto, deservedly popular (www.salonedelgusto.it). Christmas is romantic, with the Luci d’Artista illuminations lasting from the beginning of November until January, a prelude to hitting the ski slopes.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€) £1 = €1.27.
International dialling code: 00 39 011.
Time difference: GMT+1.
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offer three nights’ bed and breakfast at the NH Santo Stefano from £598 per person (two sharing) including flights, private transfers, a Torino Card and dedicated concierge services. www.kirkerholidays.com
English-speaking guide Laura De Nardo email@example.com
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)