Turin: reasons to put it on your travel wish list
Updated: Sep 12
It's our first day in Turin and we're enjoying an espresso on Piazza Vittorio Veneto, one of the city's most beautiful 19th century squares which opens out onto the River Po. The sun is shining as we take in the fabulous views across the river of its tree-lined banks and the imposing church of Gran Madre di Dio. A classic orange tram trundles past and we're suddenly transported to a 1960s Italian film set. Not such a stretch - Turin was the primary filming location for the comedy caper The Italian Job where getaway cars drive through the porticoed streets, and interrupt a wedding on the steps of the church.
Stylish, elegant and effortlessly cool, Turin is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Italy with a vibrant café and aperitivo scene, and a bustling nightlife: like Milan, but with less attitude. The capital city of the Piemonte region has a dreamy setting, nestled at the foothills of the Alps whose prominent peaks provide a picturesque backdrop to the acres of red rooftops. Bordered to the east by the River Po, this part of the city is home to a series of leafy parks and river walks. The Quadrilatero Romano to the northwest is the beating heart of the old city with its warren of narrow streets and lively atmosphere. The city is crisscrossed by a series of grand boulevards which branch out into some of the most beautiful squares imaginable.
The Torinese have a real pride in their city which served as the first capital of a reunified Italy from 1861 to 1865. Regularly described as being the most French of all Italian cities, it has a long association with its neighbouring country. The annexation of the region by the French under Napoleon had lasting consequences for the layout and structure of the city as we see it today.
The orderly grid of streets laid down by the Romans was expanded by the French to include a series of wide avenues and grand squares. Reminiscent of Paris with its stately, tree-lined boulevards, the French influence is ever-present in the food, architecture and culture of the city. There are also echoes of Vienna in its decadent cafés and Art Nouveau architectural detailing. At every site of interest, there are information plaques giving an insight into its history, art and architecture. I wish other cities would follow suit.
Highlights of Turin
Compact and eminently walkable, Turin is a city best explored on foot. Its rich architectural heritage showcases a perfect blend of exuberant Baroque and ornate Art Nouveau, while its street signs are slick and cool in 1920s Art Deco.
Like Bologna, this is a colonnaded city with 18 kilometres of arcaded walkways along its splendid thoroughfares. Start at Piazza Vittorio Veneto at the heart of the city and walk beneath the porticoes of Via Po all the way to Piazza Castello where streets are lined with stately buildings and beautiful old cafés.
Dating to the 16th century, this impressive square was the centre of aristocratic life during the reign of the Savoy dynasty. Here you will find some of the most significant tourist attractions in the city including the Palazzo Reale or the Royal Palace, the historic seat of the House of Savoy; Palazzo Madama which houses the collections of Turin's municipal museum of ancient art and Teatro Regio, one of the most important opera houses in Italy.
Behind the Royal Palace you'll find the leafy and peaceful Royal Gardens, a restful place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are plenty of benches to sit beneath the trees to take best advantage of the palatial surroundings. In late September, the seasons were beginning to turn, the park looking particularly beautiful in its Autumn colours.
Dotted throughout the perimeter you'll find some superb classical statuary, and at the heart of it all is the monumental and dramatic Fountain of the Nereids and Tritons, dating to 1755 by the sculptor Simone Martinez. The gardens are free to visit via the Palazzo Reale - entrance is through the beautifully ornate iron gate below.
Dive into Turin's café scene
You cannot visit Turin without sampling one of their specialties, the Bicerin. Let me introduce you to this glorious concoction of molten chocolate and espresso topped with cream, and always served in a glass goblet. Decadent and divine! Best enjoyed in one of the city's historic cafés, we opted for an outdoor table at Caffé Fiorio, under the porticoes on Via Po. Dating to 1780, this café was once at the heart of artistic, intellectual and political life in the city. If those walls could talk! Today, you can expect friendly and warm old-school service from waiters in white shirts and black ties.
Caffè Fiorio, Via Po, 8/C
On the northern edges of Turin, just inside the warren of streets that make up the Quadrilatero Romano, stands the Porta Palatina, one of the best preserved Roman gates in the world. Comprised of two towers, arched windows, chariot entrances and arched walkways, it's one of the city's most awe-inspiring sites: a symbol of the power and might of the Roman Empire. Built c.25 BC, it is the only surviving one of the four original gateways to the town. Late afternoon is the best time to visit when the brickwork emanates a warm glow as the sun's rays drop. It's unmissable.
Piazza San Carlo
A short walk brings you to yet another magnificent square. At its heart stands an equestrian statue of Emanuele Filiberto, while the south side is dominated by two twin churches in Baroque style: San Carlo dating to 1619 and Santa Cristina from 1639. Between the two, the grand boulevard of Via Roma stretches away towards the elegant facade of the Porta Nuova train station.
Piazza Solferino and some fabulous public art
Turin is a city that is absolutely bursting with public art. Really good public art: vivid, dramatic and full of life. Some of the best examples can be found around Piazza Solferino at the southern end of the Quadrilatero. The wonderful Fontana Angelica occupies a prominent position at the top of the Giardino Alfredo Frassati, completed in 1929 by the sculptor Giovanni Riva.
Four figures surround the fountain, emblems of the four seasons. The two females personify Spring and Summer, representing both the sacred and profane aspects of love: virtue and vice. The male figures represent Autumn and Winter, and are also thought to depict Boaz and Joaquim, the legendary guardians of the Pillars of Hercules. They face each other across the fountain, their muscles bulging, while water pours from the wineskins they hold, thought to be a symbol of knowledge. Allegorical symbols surround the figures and the entire effect is dramatic and utterly wonderful.
At the opposite end of Giardino Alfredo Frassati stands the equestrian statue of Duke Ferdinand of Genoa, in the act of commanding his troops in battle. Dating to 1877 by the Italian sculptor Alfonso Balzico, it's a remarkably lifelike representation of a war scene. The stance of the Duke calls for respect and shows confidence yet his eyes betray him, showing fear at what's to come. The bronze detailing is remarkable, from his handlebar moustache to the tassels on his uniform. The level of realism is even more evident in the figure of the wounded horse, slumping to the ground under the weight of his master, nostrils flared and seeming to gasp for breath.
On the sides of the pediment base are two sculptural scenes in high relief. Again, the detailing is extraordinary. On the first one, we bear witness to a flurry of activity: the leader appears to issue a command as their horses jolt to a dramatic stop. On the other side we are privy to the most incredibly meticulous scene of wartime strategising: the figures on the left keep watch while those on the right plot their moves on a map. It's one of the finest pieces of public sculpture I've ever seen. You can't miss it.
Enjoy two of the city's panoramic viewing points
The iconic landmark building of Turin is a striking one, completed in the late 19th century and named after its architect Alessandro Antonelli. Consisting of a square base topped by a dome and spire, at 167.5 metres the Mole Antonelliana was the tallest masonry building in Europe upon completion. Today, it still holds the record of the world's tallest unreinforced brick building.
The panoramic glass lift was a later addition in 1961 as part of the centenary celebrations of Italian unification. It's an unmissable experience to take in some of the most spectacular views of the city and the surrounding Alps from the terrace. From up here, you really get a sense of the grid-like layout of the streets. Best time to visit is late evening before sunset when the fading light brings a soft glow to the fiery-coloured expanse of buildings which spread out for miles before you.
Originally envisioned as a synagogue, the Mole is now home to the very cool Italian National Museum of Cinema. Tracing the history of cinema from the earliest days of photography and the beginning of cinematography in the 1890s, it showcases a large permanent collection of cinematic paraphernalia, props and memorabilia up to the present day. A personal highlight was the fabulous collection of black & white photos of Italian movie stars throughout the years. A spiral layout, similar to the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York, allows visitors to move upwards through the exhibition levels, while still maintaining a view of the museum space below. Booking in advance is essential.
Mole Antonelliana, Via Montebello, 20
Monte dei Cappuccini
From Piazza Vittorio Veneto, cross the Vittorio Emanuele I bridge where a short but worthy climb brings you to Monte dei Cappuccini. The views as you ascend are jaw-dropping, perfectly framed by trees. In the far distance you'll note the hilltop Baroque Basilica of Superga, burial site of the royal House of Savoy. At the summit is the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Monte dei Cappuccini, built in the late 16th century for the Capuchin Order.
With a terrace overlooking the River Po, you can enjoy uninterrupted views of the red rooftops of Turin with the Alps as a backdrop. From here, you also experience the full scale of the Mole Antonelliana, as its dome and spire soar above the surrounding landscape, dwarfing every other aspect of the city as far as the eye can see.
Church of Gran Madre di Dio
Worth a visit, and not just for its association with The Italian Job, the Church of Gran Madre di Dio enjoys a prime location on the River Po, surrounded by trees, surmounted by Monte dei Cappucini and accessible from the Vittorio Emanuele I bridge. Modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, it was built in 1818 to celebrate the fall of the Napoleonic empire. Entrance is reached by a flight of steps where six columns support a triangular pediment topped by a dome.
A figure of Vittorio Emanuele I stands proudly on a pediment at the base of the steps accompanied on either side by two statues representing Faith and Religion.
Step inside for an interior view of the dome which is a replica of the Pantheon in Rome, albeit smaller in scale. Around the walls are a number of statues within niches and a particularly striking sculptural Stations of the Cross series. Beneath the dome are four illuminated bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin. Entrance is free.
Piazza Gran Madre di Dio, 4
Ponte Umberto I
A glorious spectacle at any time but particularly when lit up at night, the Ponte Umberto I is one of the main crossing points on the Po. Connecting its eastern bank with Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, the bridge was built in the early 1900s, replacing a previous steel structure. An information plaque tells us that the four striking bronze sculptures were later additions in 1911, personifying Art, Industry, Mercy and Valour.
Evening strolls along the river paths are highly recommended: the section between the two main bridges is of particular note. Expect sweeping views of abundant forest on one side, with the church of Monte dei Cappuccini peering above the trees.
In total contrast, on the western bank near Piazza Vittorio Veneto, you'll find some cool feminist graffiti on what's known as the Murazzi or the quays: a series of walls and arches built during the 19th century to protect the city from flooding. A meeting point for students and young people, this is known as one of the buzziest parts of the city, where pubs and clubs spill out onto the riverside.
Parco del Valentino
Acres of leafy green parkland line the Po on the south-eastern side of Turin. Here you'll find the gorgeous Parco del Valentino, an oasis of tranquility beloved of locals and tourists alike, offering some spectacular river views and some time out from the hectic pace of city life. And, I might add, the constant honking of car horns. Life slows down here and I was struck by the quietude as a lone kayaker glided away in the distance. An idyllic place to spend a few hours.
A hub for cyclists and joggers, a series of wide paths run through the park, giving an impression of a smaller-scale Central Park. Dotted throughout are places to stop for a coffee or aperitivo. A very pretty spot.
Castello del Valentino
At the heart of the park stands Castello del Valentino, an extraordinary 17th century French-style chateau which today is home to a university architecture faculty. Laid out in a horseshoe shape, four square towers are topped with pointed roofs and interlinked by a wide colonnaded inner courtyard. The marble pavement with inlaid design is particularly striking, especially at night. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and visits are permitted through guided tours.
Next to the palace, you'll find the Botanic Gardens. Established in the early 18th century, it is home to over 2000 different varieties of plants. Visitors will enjoy wandering through the serene garden spaces and the wooded grove on the hills leading down to the river Po. You'll also find an arboretum and a number of greenhouses.
At the southern end of Parco del Valentino is the remarkable Borgo Medievale Not actually a medieval village, as first impressions might suggest, but a large-scale recreation built in 1884 for the Turin International Exposition. The village consists of authentically narrow streets with a series of fortifications, towers, houses and artisan workshops, and is free to wander through. The Rocca or fortress is referred to as the highlight of the site and accessible only by guided tour: sadly it was closed for restoration works on our visit. Inspiration for the project was drawn from the artistic and architectural features of 15th century buildings throughout Piemonte and the Aosta Valley.
For information on pricing of guided tours, click here.
Eating and Drinking
Get lost in the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero
The vibrant cluster of cobbled streets in the trendy Quadrilatero Romano district is full of cosy cafés and trattorias and bustling aperitivo bars filled with students. Don't come with a plan - just wander aimlessly and see what's around the next corner. You'll be spoilt for choice. One such happy accident led us to the fabulous Ristorante Casa Amélie, close to the Santuario della Consolata.
Best for a special treat
Ristorante Casa Amélie
Best for: refined, innovative Italian dishes & tasting menus with a contemporary twist. Expect warm and hospitable service, exciting, fresh flavours and a vast wine list with a wide-ranging price-point - see sample menu here. Opt for a street-side table. Ristorante Casa Amélie, Via Carlo Ignazio Giulio, 4/b
Best for cocktails
Staying in the Quadrilatero, bag yourself an outdoor table at Smile Tree to enjoy the views of Santuario della Consolata. Choose from a selection of truly inspired and uniquely crafted cocktails like Wild Tea, a combo of whiskey, lychee liqueur, smoked tea liqueur and lemon juice, or the Rosso di Sera 13 with Bourbon, Campari, apricot brandy, cordial and spicy bitter, all served up in a fancy presentation box. Divine! Smile Tree, Piazza della Consolata, 9c
Another hip and happening cocktail spot is La Drogheria at the heart of the aperitivo scene on Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Again you can expect some truly innovative cocktail combinations with a serious kick. Try the Doctor Strange, their twist on the whiskey sour, or the Katana, a Japanese take on the traditional Negroni. It's a fun spot to sit and watch the endless parade of well-dressed locals, and to enjoy those fabulous city views, especially when illuminated at night.
La Drogheria, P.za Vittorio Veneto, 18/D
Best for casual dining
For some truly excellent pizza, get yourself to Il Rospetto at the heart of Piazza Madama. Stop for a street side aperitivo on this lively square and before long, the wafting smell of woodfired cheesy goodness will have lured you, begging and pleading, for one of their tables. We got lucky. A huge pizza menu offers the option of a thin or traditional crust and we opted for the Melanzane e Parmigiana, and the Salciccia. Both were excellent and made with the highest quality ingredients: even the chili oil was great. Heroically, we also managed to fit in two desserts: a Tiramisu and an Affogato. I couldn't fault this place: staff were super-friendly and the value for money was astonishing - €52 for two pizzas, two desserts, sparkling water and a decent bottle of Barbera. It was a concerted effort not to come back here again the following night. A terrific find. Il Rospetto, Piazza Madama Cristina, 5
And now for something a little different... Turin's first vegan burger spot. Beloved of Instagrammers, it's a groovy, cheap and cheerful place for a quick pitstop offering a small but inventive menu of colourful and delicious chickpea and bean burgers. Flower Burger, Via Antonio Bertola, 29C
Best for aperitivi
We loved: 100 Mila Caffè for casual street side drinks. Favoured by locals, it's easy to see why. Expect a feast of bar snacks to enjoy with your drinks including nachos with salsa, and some seriously meaty olives. And let's just say they don't scrimp on the Campari in a Spritz - they're super-strong. 100MilaCaffè, Piazza Madama Cristina, 4/B
The classy La Santa cocktail and wine bar in the Quadrilatero Romano was another favourite with a wide-ranging wine and cocktail list. Service was friendly and professional, with street-side tables perfect for people-watching.
La Santa, Via Stampatori, 19/h
Best wine bar
For a classy yet unpretentious wine experience, check out Casa del Barolo, close to the Porta Nuova train station. A wine shop and enoteca, it has a small but carefully chosen selection of wines by the glass, or you can choose from one of the many bottles in the store. Glasses range from €6-€10: the Nebbiolo was a stunner. Service was highly professional yet warm and friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. If we hadn't had an early train to catch the following morning, we could easily have spent the evening here. Next time... Casa del Barolo, Via Andrea Doria 7
Best for coffee
You can't come to Turin without stopping for a coffee at one of the renowned locations of Caffé Vergnano, the oldest coffee roastery in Italy, dating to 1882. Cafés have retained their traditional, old-world elegance, and service is classy. Coffee arrives on a tray, accompanied by Biscotti and a small glass of sparkling water to cleanse the palate before consumption. All I can say is, it lives up to its reputation - this was, hands-down, the best coffee of our twelve-day trip across Italy. And that's saying something.
Caffé Vergnano, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 44 Bis C
There are no direct flights from Ireland but there are regular departures to both Milan Linate or Milan Malpensa with Aer Lingus or Ryanair Milan Centrale station is only 1 hour away from Porta Nuova in Turin by fast train.
And that's a wrap. After four jam-packed days, we were completely and utterly captivated by this lovely city. Eminently livable, we got the sense that this is a real, living and breathing city, and not a playground for tourists. It now seems strange to me that Turin is so often ignored when people talk about the best places to visit in Italy. It deserves better.
Just as an aside, the reason we came to Turin in the first place was down to the cook Mimi Thorisson and her beautiful book Old World Italian. A French native who now lives in Turin, her exquisite and visceral descriptions of the culture and food scene totally captured my imagination and I knew we had to go. Thanks Mimi!