If you’d like to explore the pleasures of city living in Italy—but Rome, Florence, and Venice are too expensive, too over-touristed, or both—you might consider exploring one of its other treasures… the northern Italian city of Turin (Torino to the locals).
Since it burst onto the scene as host of the 2006 Winter Olympics, the emphasis on tourism and livability has continued in this historically industrial city, former home of Fiat (the headquarters of which moved to the Netherlands following its merger with Chrysler) and vermouth—invented in Turin in 1786. It’s a pleasant, walkable city where both museum-lovers and café-sitters can find plenty of options.
“Culturally, Torino has everything we were looking for—great food, museums, amazing public spaces,” says Frank Fradella, an artist and digital nomad who reversed his grandparents’ migration from Italy to America and garnered an Italian passport for his whole family in the process. “It also ticked off a lot of the boxes of what I needed in a home base. It has an international airport, it was close to other countries (France is just an hour away by car). We had never even been to Torino before we moved here, but it instantly felt like home to us.”
Ruled for 500 years by the House of Savoy, with its French roots and properties that extended into neighboring southern France, Turin boasts grand avenues and even grander buildings. The colonnaded Via Roma rivals the Champs Élysées in elegance. Here you can find designer shops, cafés with tempting pastries, and bars where it feels like time has stood still. The enclosed nature of the walkways makes shopping possible even when it’s raining. There’s an Apple store with staff that speaks English, conveniently located in the Via Roma arcaded walkways.
At one end of the Via Roma stands Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), home to the Dukes of Savoy for more than 200 years. Dripping with gold on its walls and ceilings, this stunning palace rivals many more famous palaces and museums for its beauty, while lacking the crowds of Versailles or the Louvre.
In front of the Palazzo Reale is an enormous cobbled square where much of Turin’s daily life is enacted anytime the weather permits. Gypsies, street performers, animal rights petitioners, impromptu games of soccer—you can find them here.
The other end of Via Roma ends in the circular Piazza Carlo Felice, where more outdoor cafés surround elegant gardens. People-watching opportunities abound.
The Egyptian Museum (Museo Egizio) is another do-not-miss attraction of Turin. The world’s first Egyptian museum outside of Egypt (and the best according to many), it was recently renovated to make it more user-friendly, with the exhibit space doubled. A system of escalators leads visitors on a trip along the Nile, including details not only of Egyptian life, but of archeological expeditions investigating it.
For the mystically or spiritually inclined, there’s the museum of the Shroud of Turin. A film of the history and scientific research into the shroud is included, as well as exhibits displaying its history from its discovery in 1204 to its arrival in Turin in 1532 to modern carbon testing results. The shroud itself is not on display here. It usually resides in the Duomo, away from public view, but it makes a public appearance every few years. Its last appearance was 2015, so you might get lucky.
Other museums include MAUTO (Museo Nationale dell’Automobile) for car buffs and Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano, home of Italy’s first parliament, which details the history of the unification of Italy and 19th-century Italy in a splendid 15th-century palace. You can also visit the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in the Mole Antonelliana building—a crazy quilt construction of layers of Greek columns atop a brick base, itself topped by a spire that once made it Europe’s tallest building.
Shopaholics on a budget shouldn’t miss Factory Outlets Turino on the edge of town. Like a southern California mall that was dropped onto the Turin outskirts, it boasts a tall tapered bifurcated Washington Monument type tower. Inside are all the Italian designers you’ve heard of plus several you haven’t, as well as outposts from American firms like Nike, Calvin Klein, and Timberland. Cafés at either end provide light refreshments, and the southern California type layout is continued with plenty of parking.
If you prefer to search for your bargains in flea markets rather than designer shops, Turin is well-equipped. A street market featuring everything from cell phone chargers and electrical converters to jumbled treasures of all ages spreads out over the streets around Porto Palazzo on Saturday mornings from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m.
The antique sellers with their regular stores along the path of the street market bring their wares out onto the street. Even grander than this weekly Balon market is the monthly version that occurs the second Sunday of every month, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. In addition to the locals, dealers from all over northern Italy bring their products to this monthly event.
The farther away from the streets lined mostly with high-end antique dealers you venture, the cheaper the merchandise tends to be. We furnished an entire kitchen, with cutlery, dishes, and glasses for less than 20 euros (US$22) here.
Both the weekly Saturday market and the monthly Grand Balon Sunday market take their name from the neighborhood around them. Balon is Piedmontese dialect for ball; the neighborhood takes this name because it was once used for the ball game of pétanque—the Italian version of the outdoor bowling game known in France as boules.
This outside market can be hot and humid in the summer and cold in the winter. A delightful café to pick up sweets from northern and southern Italy, as well as coffee and smoothies, is café Antiqua Borga, air conditioned inside and with a lovely enclosed seating area in front. Much of its claim to being historic dates to its 50s/60s theme, complete with music fresh from the jukeboxes of that era. Italian customers have been known to dance to it while waiting for their orders to be prepared.
When sightseeing wears you out, you’ll find refreshment in the wines of the region: reds including the complex Barolo and more drinkable Barbera, as well as sparkling whites from Asti. Piedmontese cuisine features locally produced meats such as rabbit, wild boar, and pheasant, as well as Porcini mushrooms and truffles (tartufo) when in season (September and October).
The Terra Madre Salone Del Gusto, a biannual event that claims to be the largest food and wine fair in the world, next appears in Turin in September 2020. Whether or not it is the largest in the world, it’s certainly the largest of the now 30-year-old Slow Food movement, which originated in the neighboring Piedmontese town of Bra.
Tastings, cooking demonstrations, and lectures on food take place at different locations around the city, including the Piazza Castello right in front of the Palazzo Reale. The Slow Food movement, biodiversity, and environmental awareness are strong themes in this event.
Like most historic European cities, Turin has too many cars for too crowded streets. It has an excellent metro system, and most of the main attractions are located within walking distance of the center. Renting a car is required to explore the surrounding countryside—full of delights and surprises of its own—but enjoying Turin is probably easier without a car than with one.