What to do with 36 hours in Turin, Italy
We’re often asked how to make the most of a brief opportunity to see Europe’s cities. Here’s a detailed answer for a little known “hot spot:” Turin (Torino to Italians).
As the capital of Italy’s Piedmont region, Turin represents one of three “capitals” of Italy. Rome is the classical heart, Milan the commercial center, and Turin the first diplomatic and industrial capital. It was Turin and the Piedmont that gave birth to modern Italy through the political philosophers Count Camillo Cavour and Giuseppe Mazzini.
Turin, with its roots in the historic Savoy dynasty dating to the 11th century, was Italy’s link to royalty throughout Europe and, at the same time, the core of the modern Italian state. The Kingdom of Italy was founded in 1860 and the House of Savoy ruled over the peninsula until 1946 when the monarchy was exiled and Italy declared itself a Republic in 1948.
Today Turin is pre-eminent among Italian cities as the industrial capital and nostalgic home of Italy’s royal family, a family which now lives in exile mainly in Spain. Because of Turin’s regal past and its proximity to France, the Piedmont acts as a cultural border region between France and Italy, combining the more refined culinary arts of France with those of Italy. The Piedmont is also the premier wine region of Italy, featuring Barolo, Italy’s most famous “noble wine.”
Turin sits on the banks of Italy’s principal river, the Po, which flows north at this point. A Roman settlement, the Romans placed Turin (Augusta Taurinorum) on the Po at the confluence of a major tributary, the Dora Riparia River, which flowed east from the French and Piedmontese Alps. On a clear day, winter or summer, Turin is dominated by a broad and almost 300º arc of snow-capped Alpine peaks including the Ligurian Alps to the south, the various French Alpine chains to the west (the Maritime, Cottian, and the Graian Alps), and the Pennine Alps to the north, most famous for the Matterhorn which is on the border between Italy and Switzerland (the Matterhorn is called Cervino in Italian).
Turin’s urban geography was dominated by the rectangular grid of the Roman city through the middle ages and into the late 16th century. Today you can identify the historic center by the dense network of rectangular city blocks in the area west of the Madama Palace along the Via Garibaldi. As Turin began to grow as a duchy and then as capital of the Savoy dynasty, royal planners kept the regular street pattern, enhancing it with long, straight boulevards punctuated with formal piazzas and squares often named for members of the royal family.
3 p.m. – Check into your hotel and get ready to explore Turin
We assume you’ve done your research in advance and have booked your hotel so all you have to do is check in, drop your bags and maybe grab a quick shower to get the road dust off of you before head out on the town.
Note: Remember your small tourist map of Turin; if your hotel desk can’t supply you with one, the Official Tourist Information Office can give you one. You might want your guidebook, too.
We suggest you purchase a Torino Card. This card is valid for 48 or 72 hours and allows you free admission to 130 or more museums, monuments, castles, fortresses and royal residences throughout Turin and the Piedmont region. It also allows free use of the “TurismoBus Torino,” a public transit service connecting the city’s main tourist attractions. Your Torino card allows you to get on and off at fourteen sites along the route. A hostess on board provides pointers and advice to visitors.
Turin is known for chocolate production so chocolate lovers should work some tasting at the local historical cafes and patisseries into their plan.
Begin with a walk north along Via Roma, the heart of Turin. This main road links the two main Piazzas, the Piazza Castello and Piazza San Carlo, the latter dominated by an equestrian statue of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy (dating to 1838). If cioccolata calda (hot chocolate) is your thing, one of the oldest chocolate houses in town, Caffè Torino, is on the square. Take your time and enjoy a drink as good as or better than cappuccino. Head on to Piazza Castello with its Monumental Palazzo Madama. This medieval monument houses the Piedmont’s regional art museum.
Via Roma ends just north of the Palazzo Madama at the entrance to the Royal Palace, the royal seat of the house of Savoy from 1660 until 1885. Take time to visit the Palace which is well endowed with furnishings from the 17th and 18th centuries. Weather permitting, the royal garden is worth a visit.
The Savoy family did their best to be part of the jet set of Europe’s royal families of the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the most famous architects of the period was Filippo Juvarra whom the Savoy invited from Spain to add to the architectural richness of both Palace and the city of Turin. Several features in the palace are attributed to Juvarra.
6 p.m. – Time for an aperitif (aperitivo in Italian)
The bars and cafes of Turin played an important role in the 19th century political negotiations that gave rise to the modern state of Italy in 1860. So seek out the Mulassano Bar (Caffè Mulassano, Piazza Castello, 15) or the nearby “Baratti e Milano” café in the Galleria Alpina for a classic Piedmontese aperitivo of red or white vermouth, a fortified wine flavoured with absinthe (say “vermouth bianco” or “vermouth rosso”).
Relax and watch the aristocratic Piedmontese also taking their evening aperitivo, but don’t ruin your appetite as you taste some of the hundred or so different appetizers on order. If you are lucky you will see a stately Piedmontese gentleman or two with a typical Savoy moustache.
Before heading to dinner, especially if it is a clear evening, walk east toward the Po River, and climb Turin’s best-known landmark, the 67-metre-tall Mole Antonelliana. Take the elevator to the top for the best view of Turin and sunset over the Alps in the distance. (Note that this is also a great thing to do early in the morning as morning light will light up the view of the Alps as well). The tower closes at 8 p.m (11:00 pm on Saturday). If you are a cinema fan plan to come back here tomorrow as the Mole Antonelliana houses the national cinema museum. Note the nearby Vittorio Emanuele bridge over the Po which leads to the imposing neo-classical Gran Madre di Dio (the Great Mother of God) church. The church was built after 1814 to commemorate the return of the House of Savoy to Piedmont after the defeat of Napoleon.
8 p.m. – Time for Dinner: Where to eat in Turin?
You probably have a long list of places you want to try this evening. If you don’t have plans, though, we suggest a small, traditional restaurant in the area of the Gran Madre Church – Ristorante Monferrato in via Monferrato 6 (phone +39-011-819-0674). Monferrato might be closed on the weekend so we would strongly recommend you check availability at the restaurant’s website: www.ristorantemonferrato.com. Ristorante Monferrato transports Piedmont’s rural culinary traditions into the heart of Turin from the wine regions of the Piedmont’s southeast “Langhe” region.
If you chose to head back to the city center, enjoy the evening stroll (“il passeggio” or “la passeggiata”) of the locals along via Po from the Vittorio Emanuele I bridge.
As a nightcap we suggest a gelato or one of the specialties from the cafès along the way back to the hotel. Stroll along via Roma or the Piazza Castello. Locals tend to gather later in the evening in Piazza San Carlo.
7:30 a.m. – Breakfast and a plan for the day
Be sure to ask for espresso or cappuccino rather than serving yourself the standard “Americano” from the coffee urn at your hotel’s breakfast buffet. Alternatively, you can go out for an “Italian breakfast” but forget the relaxed hour over coffee that you might enjoy in the U.S. Italians would never make breakfast a leisurely or social occasion. They grab an espresso or cappuccino and pastry on the run in a bar – no sitting, either. Stand at the bar with everyone else. (Have a few extra minutes? Read the paper that the bar is required by law to provide!)
We suggest walking off last night’s gelato with a walk back to the river to Piazza Vittorio Veneto then cross the Vittorio Emanuele bridge to the Gran Madre di Dio church. Hike up the Monte dei Cappuccini to the 16th century church, Santa Maria del Monte. On a clear day, the view of Turin and the Alps from the square in front of the church steps is wonderful.
If you are a climber or have an interest Alpine tourism the museum attached to the church houses the National Mountain Museum, open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
More museums? Turin has two of the most important portraits in the world. One is the Holy Shroud (The “Shroud of Turin,” about which you can read more here and here) kept in the 16th century Renaissance Cathedral (the Duomo) and the other is Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait. You’ll recognize the red chalk drawing of an aging Leonardo the minute you see it. More information on all the Royal Museums, inclding the Royal Library and the Royal Armory is available at Musei Reali Torino
A Saturday in Turin wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of Europe’s biggest open air markets in Porta Palazzo. Held in Piazza della Repubblica, the market is not far from the Duomo. Take time to explore and don’t forget to visit the Balôn market behind Porta Palazzo. This is the antique and flea market of Turin. If you are here on the second Sunday of every month don’t miss the “Gran Balôn,” a special monthly market.
We suggest a simple lunch in one of Turin’s many bars or cafes. Head back to Mulassano in Piazza Castello or to Baratti & Milano in the nearby Galleria Alpina. Simple sandwiches with a glass of wine at Baratti & Milano (Piazza Castello 29) should keep you especially if you follow them up with a “gelato” at Gelateria Pepino, an institution in Turin since 1884. (We suggest you try their “pinguino” – the penguin.) Gelateria Pepino is in Piazza Carignano.
If you have time for another museum we suggest the nearby Egyptian Museum housing one of the most important collections in the world. The collection once belonged to the Savoy family.
Finally, since Turin is the heart of Italy’s Agnelli family’s FIAT automobile industry you may wish to take in the Automobile Museum Museo dell’Automobile “Carlo Biscaretti di Ruffia.
For the art collection which the Agnelli family inherited from the Savoy family take tram or bus numbers 35-1-18-34 to the Giovanni and Marella Agnelli Lingotto Pinacoteca. This extraordinary collection is housed in the Linghotto industrial building, a cultural center converted from one of the first Fiat plants and now a symbol of Turin.
We suggest heading back to the town center along Via Roma to enjoy the animated shopping street. Try a new café or take time now for more chocolate as you’ve likely had your fill of museums for the day.
It’s dinner time and we recommend C’era una Volta (Once Upon a Time); very close to the train station of Porta Nuova).
You’ll find the full array of Piedmontese dishes available here. (If you haven’t yet enjoyed the classic “bagna cauda” we recommend it. Make sure you are up for a fondue of garlic and anchovies, though, before trying this one!)
We recommend a stroll and an herbal tea back in your favourite café along via Roma, Piazza Castello or Piazza San Carlo.
Enjoy a Sunday morning stroll along the Po River. We recommend heading south along the river to one of Turin’s largest parks, the Parco del Valentino. The park preserves a genuine 16th century castle and a reconstructed 15th century medieval hamlet. The hamlet was built for the 1884 international exhibition hosted by Turin. Of a Sunday morning the Parco del Valentino attracts families, kids on skates and bikes, and lovers strolling hand-in-hand.
If you have time for one excursion outside of Turin be sure to take in the exemplary rococo Hunting Lodge in Stupinigi, seven kilometres southwest of Turin. Erected in 1729 by the Spanish architect Filippo Juvarra, this was a convenient hunting retreat for the Savoy family. The lodge contains furniture and fine arts from the 18th century.
Grab your snack for lunch in one of your favourite cafes and don’t forget to take time to shop for chocolates on your way out of town. You’ll want to pick up “Gianduiotti” from Gertrosio or from Pastiglie Leone, one of the oldest candy makers in Turin.
Gianduiotti (or “gianduia”) are Turin’s unique contribution to the world of chocolate. They combine top quality milk chocolate with Piedmontese hazelnuts to make a delicious treat – a perfect gift to take home from Turin
This article was prepared by Rick with input from Paola’s nephew (Massimo) who has family ties to the Piedmont region.