Turin must be one of Italy’s most unsung cities. While most travelers to Italy head to the triptych Rome-Florence-Venice, Turin appears to remain off the tourists’ radar. It seems that, nowadays, the city is merely associated with the automobile industry. Indeed, it is here that Agnelli, the founder of Fiat, chose to build his automobile empire.
However, that would be forgetting that eight decades earlier another dynasty, not an industrial one, but a royal one, chose Turin as its capital. Nineteenth century Turin was also a favorite among intellectuals and artists, such as Nietzsche, who liked the city for its austere elegance, its atmosphere, its literary cafés, and its food.
Here are at least ten reasons why this bubbling and inspiring city definitely should be on your Italy bucket list.
1. Turin is Italy’s only true royal city
While Rome is associated with Antiquity and Florence with the Renaissance, Turin is Italy’s regal city per excellence. Other Italian cities did have their noble dynasties, but these reigned as princes over city-states or as emperors, before the country was unified into the State bearing the name Italy. Only Turin can lay claim to being the first capital of unified Italy, when the Kingdom of Italy was founded in 1861.
The city is also the birth town of the first King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy. Also born here were some of the major political figures and influential thinkers of that time, among whom Cavour, a leading figure in the movement toward Italian unification and Italy’s first Prime Minister. Nearly all of Italy’s history leading to the unification was centralized in Turin.
The grandeur of Turin can be witnessed all over the city: in the Palazzo Reale, Palazzo Madama, Palazzo Carignano, the large, majestic boulevards and the arcaded shopping streets, and, of course, in La Venaria, Turin’s equivalent of Versailles.
2. Turin’s historic cafés
The city counts the greatest number of cafés per capita, many of which are historic cafès. About every second or third house on Via Po, Turin’s famous promenade, is a café, confectionery or pasticceria. Piazza San Carlo, one of the main squares of Turin, alone counts three of Turin’s historic cafés.
There is probably no other city in the world with as many historic cafés still in operation, where you can soak up the revolutionary and literary atmosphere of the 19th century. Turin was a literary center for many centuries, from the establishment of the court of the Duchy of Savoy to the period after WWII. Nietzsche, but also Alexandre Dumas, Puccini, Rossini, Cavour and Cesare Pavese were all habitués of these famous coffee houses. See also: Turin’s historic cafés.
3. Italy’s capital of Chocolate
Turin is the Italian capital of chocolate. The famous gianduja, a hazelnut and chocolate paste at the origin of Nutella (which was originally called pasta gianduja), and the gianduiotti were created here. Originally, they were the direct result of the English embargo on cocoa during the Napoleonic wars. To curb the embargo, Turinese chocolate makers had the idea to mix hazelnuts (which were abundantly available in Piedmont), into the chocolate, creating the famous hazelnut and chocolate mix.
Another chocolcate-based icon of the city is the bicerin, a favorite drink among Italian and European aristocracy, made of espresso coffee, chocolate and whipped cream.
Another proof of Turin’s long chocolate tradition is CioccolaTo, a 10-day-long chocolate fair, a must-be rendez-vous for chocoholics from around the world, running yearly from the end of November through the beginning of December.
4. Birth place of the aperitif
Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth, you’re still going to love Turin, as it is here that the concept of aperitivo was born. It was in Turin that Gaspare Campari, the inventor of the eponymous drink, did his apprenticeship as maître licoriste in the mid 1800s. The many historic cafés are actually not just caffeine hubs. After work, people gather on the delightfully busy terraces of the cafés, chatting and enjoying a “Slow drink” with tasteful toasts and appetizers. Remember the tapas from your travels in Spain? Well, this is their Italian ancestor.
5. One of the food capitals of Italy
Turin is also renowned for its food. We already mentioned the aperitivi, but Turin also offers a wide range of Piemontese and Savoyard delicacies, among which, of course, the white truffle, served with pasta (the local tajarin) or risotto. Gnocchi and agnolotti are other types of local pasta, which can be served with Alp cheese or mushrooms.
Famous main dishes include the bollito misto, bagna càuda and fritto misto. The latter comes as a unique dish, usually containing six to twelve different veal pieces, including liver, brain, bone marrow, sweetbreads, and, (beware!), even testicles!
As for the bagna càuda, it is a kind of fondue with a hot dip made of anchovies, garlic and olive oil. The dish is eaten by dipping vegetables (raw, boiled or roasted), such as cardoon, broccoli, carrots, fennel, onions, peppers, celery, cauliflower and artichokes into the anchovies mix. I would have liked to add that you have to eat this dish at least once in your life when you are in Turin, but no… you may want to skip this one and try the other delicious Turinese specialties instead. 🙂
Then there is, of course, also the fantastic local wine: Barolo, Barbera, Barbaresco and Nebbiolo for the reds and Arneis, Gavi and Favorita for the whites.
Long before Bollywood (India) and Nollywood (Nigeria) there was Tollywood. Turin is the city where Italian cinema was born at the beginning of the 1900s. Major inventions and improvements made in Turin contributed to turn filmmaking into what it is today. The spectacular National Cinema Museum traces the history of the seventh art from its early beginnings until today.
The design and structure of the museum make it unique in its kind in the world. It is housed in the city’s iconic building, the Mole Antonelliana, which also happens to be the world’s tallest museum. The building was once also the tallest masonry building in the world, until the 1953 collapse of its pinnacle. Since then, the structure has been reinforced with iron, reason why it can no longer be considered exclusively a masonry structure.
Add to that the yearly Torino Film Festival, Italy’s most important film festival after Venice, and you’ll get a hint why the city is nicknamed ‘Tollywood’.
7. World’s most important Egyptian museum outside Egypt
Turin boasts the world’s second most important Egyptian museum after Cairo, not necessarily in terms of number of artifacts (as, when comparing collections, every single minute statuette or small piece is being counted), but because of its outstanding quality.
At one time the grandeur of a royal family was measured by the number of Egyptian mummies they counted in their collections of archeological trophies and the House of Savoy counted among Europe’s most active collectors of Egyptian treasures.
8. Turin’s “Movida”
Whether on the banks of the river Po (the Murazzi), on Piazza Vittorio Veneto, in San Salvario or in the Quadrilatero Romano, Turin offers plenty of places to enjoy the Turinese night life.
9. Modern art and design
The city boasts a number of modern and contemporary art museums, architecturally interesting buildings and futuristic projects. Light street art such as Luci d’Artista and ManifesTo adorn the city’s streets and house façades with lights, posters and banners from November to January.
10. Unique cultural treasures, religious relics and some esoteric stuff
Last but not least, Turin also hosts some of the world’s most valuable historic pieces and religious relics, among which the famous shroud of Turin, as well as Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait and his Codex on the Flight of Birds, and in the Egyptian museum, the most complete Egyptian ‘death books’ in the world.
On a more esoteric note, the city is also supposed to detain the key to deciphering Nostradamus prophecies, as well as the Holy Grail, the chalice from which Jesus drank during the last supper. The first one is said to be now safely guarded ‘somewhere’ in Turin as part of a private collection, while the latter is believed to be buried in the Church of the Great Mother of God.
Ideas for Day Trips from Turin:
Photo credits: all photos and photo collages © Slow Italy, except (from top to bottom): Piazza Castello by Fulvio’s photos; Palace of Venaria by *Vly*; Gianduiotto © DAV/Fotolia.com; spoon with cocoa powder © Elena Moiseeva/Fotolia.com; Museo del Cinema wide view by Edoardo Forneris; Museo Egitto Sphinx by ChrisGoldNY; Da Vinci Codex © Luc Viatour;