Torino, Italy: A Place to Get Lost in Culture

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Torino: Piazza Vittorio Veneto
Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Cindy Bigras photos.

Falling in Love With Torino, Italy

By Cindy Bigras
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Writer

Taking the time to sit a spell: One of the joys of Torino.
Taking the time to sit a spell: One of the joys of Torino.

Sometimes love takes a while, but once your heart swells and you’re completely smitten, there’s no turning back.

That’s how it was for me with Torino, (aka Turin) but not until I let go of images of rolling Tuscan hills, pastel-colored villas perched on cliffs, and Calabrian beaches.

That’s not Torino, Italy! It’s a large European city filled with history and culture yet manages to retain a small-town feel.

Torino’s Regal Air

The House of Savoy has a long history and the Italian Savoy-Carignano branch originated here and served as monarchs of Italy from 1861 to 1946 when the king was exiled because of his support for Mussolini.

The monarchy is gone but the city retains a regal air with grand baroque architecture, wide avenues, and large open piazzas. Cobblestone streets and 18 km of arcades running the lengths of avenues throughout the historic center contribute to its beauty.

Begin by getting to know Piazza Castello, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and Piazza San Carlo. Walking around is pleasant but there’s also efficient bus and tram service.

Tickets at the Tabacchi

Get your ticket (valid for ninety minutes) from the Tabacchi store and be sure to validate it at the machine on board because inspectors rarely show mercy to passengers who haven’t tried to understand the system.

Cheese monger in Torino.
Cheese monger in Torino.

Two Royal Residences

Piazza Castello is home to two royal residences; Palazzo Madama, the oldest building in Torino has the façade of a castle on one side and a palace on the other.

It houses the museum of ancient art. Palazzo Reale at the back of the piazza is the ornately decorated royal residence of Emanuele Filiberto; it hosts the armory and an impressive art gallery.

Both buildings were named Unesco World Heritage sites along with eleven other royal properties located in or around Torino, Italia.

Mole Antonelliana from Via Montebello
Mole Antonelliana from Via Montebello

Set off on Via Po towards the river. Halfway there turn left onto Via Montebello where you’ll find the quintessential symbol of Torino, the Mole Antonelliana. You’ll know you’re getting close when you look up and see the impressive 167-meter spire.

The building was designed as a synagogue but was never used as such. It houses the exceptional Museo del Cinema, a must-see, then take the elevator to the roof for incredible views!

A few blocks beyond Via Montebello is The Fondazione Accorsi at Via Po 55. The residence was home to Pietro Accorsi, a twentieth-century art collector who lived here until his death in 1982.

The property and eclectic collection are faithfully maintained by volunteers eager to help. I make it a point to visit whenever in Torino; there’s often a special exhibit and never a crowd.

Now you’ve arrived in the impressive Piazza Vittorio Veneto, a hub of activity for locals and tourists alike.

University students head to class, senior citizens sun themselves on benches, and often open-air farm markets set up shop. If you want nightlife this is your neighborhood!

Numerous cafes and shops are found in the arcades and in good weather, you’re likely to find markets in the square itself.

Via Po runs right through the piazza and you can tell by the cables overhead this is a busy area for the trams.

The Gran Madre Church is visible long before you reach the Piazza, sitting as it does right across the bridge in a hip residential neighborhood that isn’t nearly as busy as Piazza Vittorio.

The church exterior looks imposing, but the inside is small and intimate. By Italian standards it’s fairly new, having been constructed in 1831 to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon and the return from exile of Vittorio Emanuele III.

Climb the Hill to the Church

Next, climb the hill to visit the Monte Dei Cappuccini church and convent of the Capuchin friars.  The terrace offers panoramic views of the city below. The Museum of the Montagna is located next to the church.

The focus is on life in the harsh alpine climate and the importance of these mountains to the Piemonte region of which Torino is the capital.

The name, Piemonte derives from the French “at the foot of the mountains”. Torino indeed is surrounded by mountains which were the site of many winter sports events when Torino hosted the 2006 Olympics.

Porta Palazzo

Starting again from Piazza Castello, it’s a short walk to Porta Palazzo to shop at one of the busiest, most diverse markets you’ll see.

Vendors in the pavilion offer fresh cheese, meats, fish, unbelievable bread, and other sweets, but there’s also an outdoor area where farmers sell produce, spices and eggs.

There’s also a large section for clothing!  I’ve never had safety concerns in Torino but friends have told me to be careful here. No jewelry or cameras are on display and wallets are tucked safely away so keep that in mind.

Rainy Day in Quadrilatero Romano
Rainy Day in Quadrilatero Romano

Not far from the market is the quadrilatero romano, the original roman city. The narrow streets look like a movie set and getting lost here makes for a relaxing afternoon.

Porta Palatina was the roman gate into the city and there is a small section of ruins comprising the ancient archaeological park.

Piazza S Carlo in Torino

From Piazza Castello cross to the far side of the square and enter Via Roma which is closed to vehicles.

Fashionable boutiques line both sides of the street making for wonderful window shopping.

You’ll soon arrive in Piazza S Carlo, a large square of baroque buildings with several tempting cafes under the arcades.  You can’t miss the huge statue of Emanuele Filiberto atop his horse, and sword at the ready.

Palazzo Carignano, one of the Unesco sites is here and houses the National Museum of the Risorgimento Museum documenting the historic period that resulted in the unification of Italy in 1861.

Just beyond Piazza San Carlo is the renowned Museo Egizio.  Don’t miss this gem by thinking Italy isn’t the place to see Egyptian art.

The museum opened in 1824 and in its early years acquired several immense collections of various Italian archaeologists and Egyptologists.

Street Art in Torino
Street Art in Torino

It is now the second-largest Egyptian museum in the world (after Cairo, of course). Some guidebooks recommend allowing two hours but I was just getting started at that point …and a bit overwhelmed which is why there’s a café!

Countless mummies, statues, manuscripts and artifacts are displayed. Click here to see the whole papyri collection At the time of this writing the ticket is 15 Euros but don’t forget to ask for senior or student tickets if appropriate, as most Italian museums offer them.

From Piazza Castello, you can take the #15 bus to the Sassi Superga stop but it might be wise to confirm that the tramway to Superga is running at the time.

If so, get tickets inside the reception hall and board the open air tramway which takes you up the vertical mountainside to the Basilica of Superga.

Superga elicits a strong reaction from Torinesi as it is a significant symbol of their city. It sits on a hillside with an expansive view of Torino and the not-so-distant Alps.

The church was constructed in the 1720s by Savoy Duke Victor Amadeus and hosts the royal tombs which are well worth a visit after you see the basilica.

FIAT in Torino

Fiat is an acronym meaning Italian Automobile Factory of Torino.  The company has been based in Torino since 1899 and contributed mightily to the growth of the city as an industrial powerhouse.  The Lingotto factory was completed in 1923 and became the largest car factory in the world.

It’s accessible by metro from the XXIII Dicembre stop (it’s located directly in front of the Lingotto metro stop) but is now used as a shopping mall.

The only thing left of Fiat is the test track on the roof where cars were tested following production. Within ten years of its construction, Fiat was already outgrowing the plant and built a much larger, more efficient factory called Mirafiori, still in use today.

Arcade in Via Roma
Arcade in Via Roma

Now you see why it makes perfect sense that Torino is home to the Museo dell’Automobile.  The excellent displays present the history of transport vehicles and do so with audio-visual support and nearly two hundred perfectly preserved cars of all types.

Torinesi and aperitivi go together like pasta and parmigiano.  Each evening around 7:00 head out to find a local spot – Corso San Maurizio behind Piazza Vittorio Veneto is very popular and a fun neighborhood to explore because the energy of the university students is contagious!

The Langhe vineyards south of Torino produce some of Italy’s best wines so take a look at the menu or trust the server to bring you something special. Sometimes a charcuterie board is called for – otherwise, a bowl of chips is often included.

Lastly, if you’ve read this far, here’s a final suggestion for after-dinner. Enjoy your evening with an amaro, which is a digestivo, Italy’s answer to having overindulged.

Amaro means “bitter” in English, and I can confirm that some first-timers make a nasty face when first trying it. Others look up with a knowing smile, acknowledging that they are fans of this herbal elixir!

A great spot for amaros is Caffetteria Antonelli in Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Their impressive collection includes all the standards but several others that aren’t distributed outside Italy.

Weather dependent, there should be ample seating and you’ll have table service under the starry sky. Enjoy!