Turin, Italy: Regal Grandeur, Bohemian Nightlife
By Jim Sajo
Turin sits anonymously in Italy’s northwest corner, bypassed by the armies of tourists who have captured Venice, Florence and Rome. With the arrival of the Winter Olympics in February 2006, that all changed.
WHY GO THERE?
The intense passion of international sports competition played out amid the heart-stopping beauty of the Italian Alps. Turin exudes regal dignity of Italy’s historic royal family, yet boasts the most bohemian nightlife on the peninsula. Intriguing museums celebrate the art and culture of a city where citizens embrace chocolate and an aperitif as necessity rather than luxury.
WHEN TO GO
If you want to miss the crowds, visit in March for the month-long chocolate festival, or November for the film festival.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are no direct flights from the United States or Canada, although there are flights from the United Kingdom and major cities in continental Europe. Many discount airlines including Ryan Air, Easy Jet, and Air One fly into Turin’s airport. From there, bus and train service to central Turin is available. With departures every 30 minutes, a one-way fare is about 5 Euro.
You can fly to Milan’s busy international airport and continue by train or bus to Turin. Be warned though, Milan’s airport – Malpensa – translates roughly to “bad idea” and is possibly the most accurately named airport in the world. That said, the train to Turin is easy to find, cheap, and the ride takes about an hour and a half.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Take advantage of Turin’s excellent public transportation system. Free maps of the metropolitan network are available at the offices of Gruppo Trasporto Torinese, or GTT, in the train station. With a 2- or 3-day Torino Card purchased from the tourism office, or a multiple-ride pass from GTT, you’ll find buses and trams are safe and convenient.
The reputation as an industrial city belies the treasure troves of art found here. Generations of art collectors have left a rich cultural history in elegant museums. Some intriguing possibilities include:
Egyptian Museum - Via Accademia delle Scienze #6/phone 011 5617776. The largest and most impressive collection of ancient artifacts outside of Cairo, with more than 30,000 pieces. Papyri, masks, statues and reconstructed tombs complement the remarkable display of mummies.
Cinema Museum - Via Montebello #20/phone 011 8125658. The museum is inside the unique space of Turin’s most identifiable building, the Mole Antonelliana. It combines history with technology in an interactive display of 3,400 objects, 300,000 film posters and advertisements, and a library of 20,000 books. Visitors wind their way through exhibits celebrating divas, costumes, animation, and special effects.
Museum of the Holy Shroud - Via San Domenico #28/phone 011 4365832. A balanced view of the faith and science surrounding the mysterious cloth, thought to be the winding sheet of Jesus Christ. The Shroud itself is kept in Turin’s Cathedral and will not be on public display again until 2025, making this museum worth a visit.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
Luci d’Artista - Each winter, a group of artists, backed by platoons of technicians and construction crews, build an outdoor museum of light. Lining Via Roma, dazzling Piazza Carignano or lighting up the imposing façade of Palazzo Madama, the ultramodern exhibit (the first of its kind in Europe) is comprised of 60 miles of electrical cable and more than 700,000 light bulbs. A hypnotic site during an evening stroll.
Chocolate is made each day in hundreds of forms and combinations. Just about every street has workshops, candy makers, and pastry stores enticing you to make a significant gastronomic investment. Buy a “ChocoPass” from the tourist office; you’ll receive a discount for up to 15 treats at participating businesses. Here are suggestions for the best value, widest variety, and most elegant chocolate shops.
- Caffe San Carlo. Piazza San Carlo #156
- Pasticceria Ghigo. Via Po #52/b
- Pasticceria Guardia Costantino. Via San Francesco d’Assisi #17.
- Piacere di Cioccolato. Via Monte di Pieta #15b.
Another lively tradition is the aperitif. 220 years ago, a bartender blended white wine with a secret recipe of herbs and spices. Vermouth was born and became the mixer of choice for intellectuals, dignitaries and statesmen.
Years of experimentation to produce the perfect beverage spawned businesses throughout the city. One of them (Martini and Rossi) invented what we know as the martini, arguably the world’s most famous mixed drink.
Cocktail life is pervasive. Many bars, elegant or simple, serve an excellent aperitif. Here is a short list.
- Caffe Roma gia’ Talmone, Piazza Carlo Felice.
- Bar 21, Piazza Vittorio Veneto #21.
- Nuev Caval ‘d Brons, Piazza San Carlo #155.
Azalea Via Mercanti #16/email/Phone 011 538115. At 40 euro for a single, the Azalea is the cheapest, best located, and cleanest deal in town. Breakfast not included.
Le Petit Hotel Via San Francesco d’Assisi #21/Phone 011 5612626. Centrally located, this three-star brings breakfast to your room.
Turin Palace Via Sacchi #8/Phone 011 5625511. A Turin standard since 1872, this elegant hotel bathes guests in luxury and refined service. If price is no object, this is your hotel.
Turin’s most famous gastronomic celebrity, the truffle (tartufo), grows below ground among the roots of hardwood trees. Specially bred dogs sniff out the treasure for their masters.
Once removed from the ground and wrapped carefully in delicate linen handkerchiefs, the prize is carried to local markets. Hours later a waiter shaves wafer-thin slices onto your meal. The number of shavings determines the price, which will vary from stratospheric to ridiculous. The rich, smoky and aromatic delight is worth every euro.
Wash down your truffles with a glass of Barolo. “The king of wines and the wine of kings” has a deep garnet color and rich heady flavor.
Produced from the finest of the regional nebbiolo grape harvest, Barolo ages a minimum of three, but more likely up to eight years. Classic food partners are roasted red meats or aged, full-flavored cheeses. Barolo wines regularly win recognition at international competitions, and are widely considered Italy’s best.
For dessert, it is difficult to imagine a more delicious combination of sins than a tasty local chocolate and a fresh-pulled espresso. The modern star is the gianduja, a smooth delight that combines chocolate with cream from local hazelnuts.
Turin has the best selection of international restaurants in Italy. Chinese, Thai, Greek, Indian, Japanese, Mexican and Middle Eastern restaurants will be popular during the Olympics and are crowded year-round.
Here is a short list of Turin’s top eating spots:
- Ristorante del Cambio. (Piazza Carignano #2, phone 011 546690). Regal furnishings and lofty crystal chandeliers exude the elegance of the city’s past. The kitchen serves continental specialties prepared to perfection.
- Las Rosas Taqueria. (Via Bellezia #15/f, phone 011 5213907). Las Rosas features candle lit rooms, speedy service, and distinctive tile decorations. A variety of tequila-based drinks and draft beer is matched with excellent burritos and fajitas. Don’t miss the chipotle sauce.
- Punto Verde. (Via San Massimo #17, phone 011 885543). Exclusively vegetarian, their version of local favorite Bagna Cauda should not be missed. Superb presentation and an excellent wine list make Punto Verde a vegetarian dream.
- Pizzeria da Gennaro Esposito. (Via Passalacqua #1g, phone 011 535905). The best of many authentic Neapolitan pizzerias, and loved by local residents.
The best shopping opportunities are along arcade-covered Via Roma, which runs from the Porta Nuova Train Station to Piazza Castello, the heart of Turin and site for Olympic Medal ceremonies.
For more information about hotels, restaurants, tours or sight-seeing, head to turismotorino.org.
Freelance writer Jim Sajo has lived the good life in Italy for more than 13 years.