Turin trip planner

A vacation guide to Torino (Turin), capital of Piemonte and home of the Shroud of Turin and the 2006 Olympics

Turin is one of the prettiest, liveliest, and most intriguing cities in Northern Italy. It’s far more interesting and inviting than neighboring cities like Milan or Genoa, both of which get a lot more press (and tourists).

As hometown to car manufacturer Fiat, Turin is often lumped as "an Italian Detroit," which is entirely unfair.

I'd go so far as to nominate Turin as the most genteel city in Italy, its gracious urban fabric a mix of broad Parisian boulevards, leafy London-style residential squares, and elegant coffee houses to rival those of Vienna.

Sporting Torino
Long before the five-ringed Olympics circus rolled through town, Turin had enjoyed a rich sporting history.

It has been home to a bevy of Italian firsts: its first sporting society, shooting federation, ski club, alpine club, rowing federation, and soccer federation.

It also has two highly ranked soccer teams, Torino and Juventus, a superstar dream team that has won more championships than any other Italian club.
This genteel northern city finally got its moment in the sun (er, snow) in 2006 when it hosted the Winter Olympic Games, but it was a worthy place to visit even before the fame, an underrated city of baroque palazzi, frescoed cafes, and brilliant museums—not to mention the winningest soccer team in Italy, Juventus.

The Most Genteel City in Italy
"Torino is the city with the most beautiful natural location," Le Corbusier once said. As a devotee of straight lines, the architect must have loved Turin's stately grid of a street plan, a heritage of its ancient Roman roots. This grid, lined by arcaded baroque palazzi, is fitted into a languid curve of the mighty Po River, hemmed in by green hills and framed by a backdrop of glacier-capped Alps.

Each evening, during the city-wide passeggiata, Torinese stroll under the city's arcades from café to café, trading gossip as they sip bicerin (a delicious blend of espresso, hot cocoa, and whipped cream) at bar counters crowded with a dizzying array of elaborate canapés and creamy gianduotti (hazelnut-infused chocolates) free for the nibbling.

As the evening wears on, they switch over to aperitifs—a type of drink which Turin, with good reason, lays claim to having invented. Back in 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano started fiddling in his Piazza Castello workshop with white wine, herbs, and spices until he came up with something he called "vermouth"—later made even more famous by a local outfit called Martini e Rossi.

Turin is a distinctly cosmopolitan city. The windows of real estate agents are as likely to be hawking properties in Provence as in Piemonte, and there is a striking number of book shops and Asian and African art galleries. The closest you can get to "ethnic cuisine" in most Italian cities are McDonald's and a few low-key Chinese restaurants marked by red paper lanterns. But in downtown Turin, you'll find everything from Japanese, Brazilian, and Mongolian to Jordanian, Kurdish, and Siberian restaurants (actually, I tried the sibir DIY stir-fry in a Siberian joint—Sibiriaki, as Via Belezia 8g—and it was quite good).

Not that the local cooking isn't stupendous: spiced tomino cheese, agnolotti (meat-filled pasta pillows often served in a ragù), tajarin egg noodles toped by porcini or the white truffles of Alba, and bagna cauda (raw veggies to dip in a "hot bath" of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies). Those air-puffed grissini (bread sticks) that you now find in bread baskets across Italy were invented in Turin to aid the delicate digestion of Prince Vittorio Amadeo II.

And don’t forget, Turin is also the capital of the Piemonte region, whose vineyards produce some of Italy's heartiest and greatest red wines: Barolo, Barbera, and Barbaresco. In fact, this year, along with the usual "Official Olympic" soft drinks, airlines, and clothing outfitters, there is a series of Olympic-label wines already on sale—well, what would you expect when the Games are held in Italy? And this year you can toast your country's victories with spumante, the famous sparkling white wines from nearby Asti.

One of the main aspects which sets Turin apart from most Italian cities is that its creative patrimony isn't limited to the standard mix of Roman remains, medieval palaces, Renaissance paintings, and baroque churches. Oh, sure, Turin has plenty of those, but its top attractions are rather a more eclectic group, including one of the world's top Egyptian museums, a fascinating cinema museum housed in perhaps the oddest building in Italy, and one of the holiest relics in the Christian faith.

Ramses II, Jesus, and Federico Fellini
If you thought London's British Museum was the place to go for the single greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Cairo, you thought wrong. The Savoy family's penchant for Egyptiana dates back to 1630, and the royal collection formed the basis of Turin's Museo Egizio (www.museoegizio.org), since 1824 the repository for a staggering 30,000 artifacts dating back 6,000 years and covering some 4,500 years of Egyptian history. Among the treasures are a granite statue of Ramses II, the reconstructed Temple of Ellesija, and a library of papyri worthy of Alexandria, including the Book of the Dead, the Papiro delle Miniere (the world's oldest map), and the Papiro dei Re (the only known ancient document to list all pharaohs in order).

Upstairs in the same palazzo is the Galleria Sabauda (www.museitorino.it/galleriasabauda.it), an Old Masters Gallery which, again, showcases Turin's cosmopolitan tastes. In addition to the expect Italian canvases and altarpieces by the likes of Duccio, Fra Angelico and Bronzino, the gallery contains Italy's largest collection of northern European works, including masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rubens, and Rembrandt.

If modern art is more your speed, check out the marvelous GAM, or Galleria d'Arte Moderna (www.gamtorino.it), a treasure trove of 15,000 works from the late 18th through the 20th centuries, the walls peppered with such names as Modigliani, Chagall, Picasso, Warhol, Paul Klee, and Giorgio de Chirico.

Just off the north end of the main Piazza Castello, home to the Royal Palace (we'll get to that in the next section), sits the unimposing Renaissance façade of Turin's Cathedral. Inside, however, is the Cappella della Santa Sindone, a fanciful baroque domed chapel designed by Guarino Guarini to house the revered Shroud of Turin (www.sindone.it—the only holy relic I'm aware of with its own Website). The faithful believe this ancient linen to be the sheet in which Christ's body was wrapped after He was taken down off the Cross. It does have a weird, almost X-ray-like image of a man on it, with stains in the appropriate places for Christ's wounds, and it has, since the Middle Ages, miraculously survived a series of robbers, perilous journeys, and fires—most recently in 1997, one which melted the shroud's silver casing but left only a tiny burn mark on the cloth itself. The subject of much debate and speculation (and, one might imagine, an upcoming Dan Brown novel), the shroud even has an entire museum devoted to its lore and mystery, located nine blocks down Via San Domenico from the Cathedral. The relic itself is kept out of sight under firm lock and key and guard. It appears in public only sporadically; its last official showing was in 2010, but it has a habit of popping up more frequently.

There's no way to adequately describe the Mole Antonelliana using mere words. Perhaps that's why Italy put it on the back of its 2 eurocent pieces. This way, Italians can just show it to people without having to try and explain what it looks like: a pile of Neoclassical temples (with Gothic elements) stacked atop on another, topped by a vast, four-sided curving pyramid, then another double-stack of temples from which sprouts a rounded spire reaching to an improbable 550 feet. The overall effect is, surprisingly, not ugly, though a bit hard to get used to. It even briefly reigned as the tallest building in Europe—it's still the continent's tallest brickwork structure—and was built, of all things, as a synagogue back in the 1860s.

As if all that was weird enough, in 2000 the thing was turned into the National Museum of Cinema (www.museonazionaledelcinema.it), a truly engaging showcase of the history of film around the world and in Italy spread across five levels, with tons of interactive displays on the science, art, and industry of movie-making, a great collection of silver screen artifacts (from original scripts to Lawrence of Arabia's robe to Fellini's scarf and hat), and a phantasmagoria of flickering scenes played out on the walls of the vast, soaring interior as ten movies are screened simultaneously side-by-side (earphones and easy chairs are available). Make sure you climb into one the glass elevators suspended in the middle of the atrium for a vertiginous ride up to the spire's observation deck and a view that, on clear days, reaches as far as France and Switzerland.

Turin's most famous clan these days is Agnelli, founding family of Fiat (the name is actually an acronym that, in Italian, stands for Italian Car Factory in Turin). But for centuries this city was defined by one name: Savoy. Turin was home to the Savoia dynasty from 1280, and by 1563 had become the capital a Savoy kingdom covering the northwest corner of Italy and southwest corner of France. As such, Turin also became first capital of modern Italy in 1861, when Savoy King Vittorio Emanuele II became the first head of state of a unified Italy since the age of the Caesars. To learn about Italy's 19th century Unification Movement, visit the Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento (TK)—if for no other reason than to find out just who were Garibaldi, Cavour, Mazzini, and all the other Risorgimento heroes after whom it seems half the streets and piazzas in Italy are named.

A Po-Side Park

The Parco del Valentino (tel. 011-669-9372), a lush sweep of greenery along the Po south of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, provides a wonderful retreat from Turin's well-mannered streets and piazzas. It is open daily from 8am to 8pm. Aside from riverfront promenades and extensive lawns and gardens, inside the park there's a collection of enchanting buildings. The Borgo Medioevale (tel. 011-443-1701), built for Turin's 1884 world exposition, is a faithful reconstruction of a medieval village based on those in rural Piemonte and the Val d'Aosta, with shops, taverns, houses, churches, and even a castle. It's open daily from 9am to 8pm.

The nearby Castello del Valentino is the real thing—a royal residence, begun in the 16th century but completed in the 17th century for Turin's beloved Marie Christine ("Madama Reale," wife of Savoy king Vittorio Amedeo) as a summer residence. It's a sign of Madama's Francophile leanings that, with its sloping roofs and forecourt, the castle resembles a French château. Since used as a school of veterinary medicine and a military barracks and currently as a university facility, the castello is continually undergoing renovations. Much of it, including many frescoed salons, is open to the public only on special occasions.

A Warning

Anything stated here about Turin is subject to change. As I write this, at the beginning of November 2005, much of the city is still in the throes of preparing for the Olympics. Half the buildings in the historic center are under scaffolding for a quick scrubbing of their marble facades before the limelight hits. Whole piazzas and streets are torn up as they hurriedly install underground parking lots, finish up a brand new subway system, and make ready to move the bulk of high-speed rail service from one train station to another.

Some of the city's major attractions are hurrying to prepare for the onslaught of visitors and attention as well. The Palazzo Madama is finally slated to reopen after years of restoration have kept its interiors—and its noted gallery of medieval and Renaissance art—closed to visitors. This layer cake of architecture mixes the skeleton of a Roman gate with the body of a medieval castle, the whole of it slapped with a baroque façade by Filippo Juvarra, including a staircase down which Michael Caine careened in a Mini Cooper in the (original) The Italian Job.

Also reopening (we hope) will be the various wings of the Palazzo Reale, which sprawls across the north side of Piazza Castello. Backed by gardens laid out by Le Nôtre, of Versailles fame, this was the Savoy royal residence from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

In addition to the usual rooms of sumptuous furnishings, pompous oil paintings, precious objets d'art, and gilded frippery, the Palazzo Reale complex houses an impressive Armeria Reale (Royal Armory) of arms and armor set in gorgeous baroque ballrooms.

The Biblioteca Reale (Royal Library) is only open for special exhibitions, but I think we can trust them to do so for such a major event as the Olympics—or at the very least to trot out the library's most treasured possession: Leonardo da Vinci's famous self-portrait, sketched in red ink on a freckled sheet of paper, as a sad-eyed old man with wispy white hair and a long flowing beard.

Tips & links


Visitor information:
Turismo Torino (the tourism authority) - www.turismotorino.org
Atrium Torino (info point for the city) - www.atriumtorino.it
Città di Torino (the City of Turin) - www.comune.torino.it
Vetrina Torino Cultura (cultural and events office) - www.torinocultura.it

How long does Turino take?

Planning your time: You could knock off the greatest sights in a packed day, but spend the night and give yourself (a) the chance to stroll the cafes at the evening evening passeggiata hour for loads of free nibbles washed down by Turin's famed cocktails and coffees, and (b) enough time really to see it all over two days. More than that is not really necessary.

Get the pass

The Torino + Piemonte Card gets you free rides on public transportation and includes free admission to more than 180 cultural sites: museums, monuments, exhibitions, fortresses, castles and Royal Residences in Torino and Piemonte.

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Visitor information:
Turismo Torino (the tourism authority) - www.turismotorino.org
Atrium Torino (info point for the city) - www.atriumtorino.it
Città di Torino (the City of Turin) - www.comune.torino.it
Vetrina Torino Cultura (cultural and events office) - www.torinocultura.it

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