While it may be Italy’s fourth largest city — after Rome, Milan, and Naples — Turin is often overlooked as a destination by tourists travelling to Italy, dismissed as little more than FIAT and football. Even the celebrated American author Henry James, who spent a great deal of time cavorting about the Italian peninsula, concluded, "Turin is not a city to make a fuss about." But James is wrong and if he had at any point encountered Friedrich Nietzsche, the German would have set him straight. For Nietzsche, Turin was "magnificent," and "not a place that one leaves easily."
Situated along the River Po and framed by the Alps, Turin played a fundamental role in the unification of Italy, functioning as its first capital city and home to its royal Savoy family. Later, in the decades following the Second World War, the expansion of industry and the "Italian economic miracle" (where can you get one of those when you need one?) lured droves of southern Italians — still suffering the social consequences of underdevelopment — to migrate north. Between 1953 and 1963 for instance, the population of Turin grew from 753,000 inhabitants to 1.4 million inhabitants, thanks in large part to domestic immigration from the south.
The fact is that Turin probably isn’t going to outshine Rome, Florence, Amalfi, or Venice - the cities tourists typically look forward to visiting. Few cities in the world truly do. But Turin isn’t Manchester circa 1844. It is a city of miles and miles of elegant arcades — built, for the most part, so that the kings and queens could enjoy their daily passeggiata without getting wet — and grandiose coffee houses, which are some of the best and most visually stunning in a country that has an espresso bar on almost every street corner. It is a city of varied museums and ornate palazzi with well-maintained turn-of-the-century façades, is home to the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt, makes some of the best food and chocolate in all of Italy (seriously), and is every bit as stylish as Milan but less snooty, monolithic, and dreary. And if that wasn't reason enough to visit, it is of course the home of La Vecchia Signora.
So if you’re ever fortunate enough to watch the bianconeri play at Juventus Stadium (which deserves a post of its own), take the time to explore the city. One of Turin’s best attributes is that while it is easily navigable by foot, it is also public-transportation friendly with a surprisingly extensive bus, tram, train, and subway system. Thank you to the 2006 Winter Games, I guess.I should note that as a Torontonian almost every city with a public-transportation system quantifies as "surprisingly extensive" for me.
Before digressing on what to see in Turin, there are a few caveats to bear in mind. To begin, these lists are by no means exhaustive and are in no particular order. Sometimes the best way to discover a new city is to just stroll around aimlessly. Even if you never visit a single museum, almost every street in Turin makes for a charming Baroque picture. If you can afford a lengthy stay and perhaps a car, Piedmont’s hill towns (Alba, Saluzzo, Barolo, etc.) are definitely worth exploring and are every bit as enchanting and idyllic as the towns in Tuscany. Also, Juventus Stadium isn’t included in these lists as a must-see because DUH. Just keep in mind that like many other grounds, Juventus Stadium isn’t located in downtown or historic Turin, but the guided tour and a trip to its excellent museum are worth your time. Don’t forget a camera…and maybe some tissues! It can get a little bit dusty in there sometimes. Weird.
It may be beneficial, depending on the amount time spent in Turin, to purchase a Torino+Piemonte Card, available at any of the tourist spots in the city (Porta Nuova Stazione, Piazza Castello/Via Garibaldi, and the Venaria Reale). It grants cardholders free admission to over 190 museums, exhibits, and castles, as well as reductions on outdoor activities, parks, concerts, and operas. It also provides free lifts to the Mole Antonelliana’s observatory, free cable car rides from Sassi to Superga, free boat rides along the River Po, and free voyages on the Venaria Express shuttle bus. A full list of attractions covered by the Torino+Piemonte Card can be found here. Finally, as is often the case in Italy, most museums are closed on Monday.
La Mole: Designed by architect Alessandro Antonelli, the Mole is the architectural symbol of Turin, hence why the inter-city Juventus-Torino derby is so aptly referred to as the Derby della Mole. Initially, it was supposed to be a synagogue, but when the Jewish community was unable to continue financing construction, the Municipality of Turin took over and dedicated the structure to King Vittorio Emanuele II and national unity, which posterity has shown to be a waste of a dedication. Anyway, back when it was constructed, it was the tallest building on Earth at 167.5 metres. Today, it’s just tall, hideous, gaudy, and strange. Sorry. Its saving grace is the interior. The Mole houses the National Museum of Cinema as well as a panoramic lift, which takes visitors to the top of the cupola where they are treated to a pleasant 360-degree panoramic view of the city, the surrounding countryside, and the Alps.
Superga: Before its unification in 1861, the Italian city-states spent centuries being invaded — quite successfully — by various foreign powers. One notable exception occurred in 1706, when the French and Spanish attempted to seize Turin during the War of Spanish Succession. Then Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, decided he could best plot military strategy by watching the enemy advance from the top of a hill called Superga. If Turin emerged victorious, he promised to build a votive monument atop the hill, and voilà, there stands the Basilica di Superga. An almost 20 minute cable car ride from Stazione Sassi transports visitors to the top of the hill for a view of the city that is not disappointing (and kind of romantic, actually). The interior of the Basilica houses the tombs of the members of the House of Savoy as well as a memorial to Il Grande Torino.
As the home of Italy’s royal family, Turin is definitely not lacking in the palace department so I did some internal debating and narrowed it down to my three favourites. In no particular order…
Palazzo Reale: Located in the appropriately named Piazza Castello, Palazzo Reale was a former residence of the Savoy family. Its exterior, while striking, is a little bit dull; however, the interior is very lavish and quite opulent with beautiful tapestries (like, of scenes from Don Quixote!) and gold-plated everything. My personal favourite room is the dining room. I don’t think the Savoys ever did Chinese-out-of-a-box-while-watching-TV night. If you’re into arms and armour, the Palazzo Reale also contains one of Europe’s most sizable and impressive armouries and if you’re into art, the palace is home to the Galleria Sabauda, which contains pieces by Rembrandt, Mantegna, and Veronese. Note that Piazza Castello is also home to Palazzo Madama, which houses the Museo Civico di Arte Antica, a museum of ancient art.
Palazzo Carignano: This Baroque creation with the redbrick façade is easily my favourite building in Turin in one of the city’s most charming squares. Italy’s first king, Vittorio Emanuele II, was born inside the palace, so it’s only fitting that the interior of the palace houses the Museo del Risorgimento. The museum is enormous and fantastic. It contains everything from videos in almost every room providing helpful context for the Italian movement for unification to the actual first Parliamentary Chamber of the Kingdom of Italy. Particularly neat to see was the very first copy of the lyrics to Gigi Buffon's favourite tune, the Inno di Mameli, as well as the original clothing and horse-drawn carriages used by the upper echelons of 19th century Piedmont society.
Casa Scaccabarozzi: The torinesi refer to this building as the "Fetta di Polenta" because it’s tall, narrow, and yellow like a, well, slice of polenta. Its official name, Scaccabarozzi, was the surname of the noblewoman for whom the home was constructed. She also happened to be married to the architect who, if you’ve been paying attention, is naturally none other than Alessandro Antonelli. For many years, they were the only two inhabitants of the building as many were afraid that it would collapse. But it’s still there. And it’s a definite…head turner.
Some notable exceptions: the Reggia di Venaria Reale (in the suburbs, but Turin’s version of Versailles), Castello del Valentino (stunning French-inspired building that would have made the list if it wasn't often closed to the public; park is great for a jog and people watching).
* They are royalty in my heart.
Museo delle Antichità Egizie: With 650,000 objects on display in the museum and 26,000 objects locked away in storage, it is no wonder the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Jean-François Champollion, memorably wrote, "The road to Memphis and Thebes passes through Turin." Outside of Cairo, it is the only museum devoted entirely to all things ancient Egypt, with a collection containing writing materials, personal cosmetics, statues of pharaohs, and tombs. While some rooms are quite informative, others are reminiscent of a picked-over clothing store on Boxing Day (or Winners all year long). Hey Italy, would it kill you to make friends with order and efficiency every once in a while?
Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli: Opened by none other than L’Avvocato himself and located on the top floor of a former FIAT factory, the gallery contains 25 works of art by artists including Canaletto, Renoir, Matisse, Dresden, and Picasso from the Agnelli personal collection. And hey, if 25 works of art seems like too few, if there's anything the Agnelli family has taught us it's that sometimes it’s better to buy one quality defender than five not-so-great ones just because you can. The principles of building a good football team can be applied to collecting art too, you know?
Museo dell’automobile: AMAZING. I mean, I guess the whole purpose of the museum is to put into context the importance of the car in the development of Turin and its economy blah blah blah, but even if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, just look.
Everywhere. Almost every piazza in Turin is beautiful and makes for an ideal place to gaze upon generally well-put together individuals while sipping on a bicerin (espresso, milk, AND chocolate) or nibbling on a few gianduiotti (traditional Piemontese boat-shaped chocolates), but if your time in Turin is short, don’t skip Piazza San Carlo or Piazza Vittorio Veneto.
Duomo di San Giovanni: Designed by Guarino Guarini, who lived a double life as a priest by day and architect by night, the Duomo di San Giovanni is the cathedral that houses the Sacra Sindone or Holy Shroud. The problem is that regardless of whether you believe the Sacra Sindone is a 14th century forgery or the real burial shroud of Jesus Christ, the shroud is made visible to the public very, very, very infrequently, and by that I mean, it’s more likely Maurizio Zamparini keeps the same manager for a whole two seasons. A photocopy is on permanent display in its place.
Borgo e Rocca Medievale (Medieval Village): Half of the fun of visiting Italy, and maybe Europe more generally, is to see, well, cool old things. Following that logic, you'd think the Medieval Village in the middle of Turin would be on a must-see list, right? Wrong. The problem is that the village isn't...ugh, from the Middle Ages. It's merely a reconstruction of a medieval village, built in 1884 for Turin's world exposition. It won't cost you anything to walk around the village, but there are numerous better and more fulfilling things you could do with the 6 euro it costs to enter the Rocca, the reconstruction of a medieval castle. Hint: buy a gelato. Or two. Look, it's Italy. There are authentic medieval villages everywhere and some particularly neat ones in the Piedmont countryside.