Turin, or Torino as it is called in Italian, is located in the north of the country as the capital of the region of Piedmont.
Turin is a beautiful and classy location for a winter city break, nestled close enough to the Alps to glimpse stunning snow-covered peaks as you fly into the airport.
Turin is famous for its chocolate, coffee, Juventus football club, and for being the home of Fiat and the location of Alfa Romeo’s headquarters; both Italian automotive icons. Most recently, Turin hosted the Eurovision Song Contest 2022 (and will be passing the baton on to my home city of Liverpool in 2023!). Nutella was created in the nearby town of Alba too!
Before Italy’s unification in 1848, Turin was the capital of the Duchy of Savoy, of the Kingdom of Sardinia under the rulership of the Duchy of Savoy (despite being so far away!) and notably the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy after unification. This rich history means that Turin is the third economic city of Italy after Milan and Rome.
We arrived in Turin from Manchester on the 17th December and it was very cold but a dry sort of cold that is actually really refreshing. I bought a pair of gloves as soon as we arrived but I am a fan of cold places, having loved previous trips to Iceland, Stockholm, Finland and Estonia. I’m a January baby from the north of England after all.
A cold Italian city is a lovely place to visit round Christmas and Turin certainly looked festive and cosy at all turns. Italy does sun-soaked beach days well and it likewise does twinkly Christmas very well too, strings of fairylights and candlelight for everywhere the eye can see.
There were dustings of snow around where footsteps don’t tread which made for a lovely backdrop to Christmas trees lit up in gold. There were signs around saying ‘Torino: che spettacolo‘ (Turin: what a spectacle/show) signalling lights and other festive decor all around which made the city even prettier. It sounds slightly strange to say but I feel like Turin is a city that suits Christmas; maybe I just feel this because I haven’t seen it in spring or summer but it looked so sparkly and cosy everywhere you looked.
There is also plenty to do when visiting Turin for 2-3 days but it makes for a chilled itinerary. A lot of it revolves around eating and drinking which is totally fine but there is also a lot to learn at its museums and a lot of history and culture laden on its elegant streets (as is the case with most of Italy really!)
As with anywhere in Italy, there is an impressive range of coffee bars in Turin, but especially so given that it is home to Lavazza. The coffee bar window displays are bejewelled with pastries and marzipan fruits, from brioche to pistachio cream filled cannoli, macarons and meringue and hundreds of types of biscotti and praline truffles.
There was a great Sicilian-run coffee bar right near our Air B&B called Caffè Vergnano 1882 where we went on both mornings. The waiters were patient with my Italian and gave us an assortment of pastries to try for free, only charging us for coffee and marzipan. Crema di pistachio is now one of my current obsessions- try it if you can get hold of it!
Interestingly, Turin houses the biggest Egyptian museum in Italy and is considered the second most important Egyptology collection after the Museum in Cairo! I wondered what the link was between Turin and Egypt then I learned that the grandiose leaders of Turin when it was the capital of the Duchy of Savoy decided to win reverence from their citizens by claiming ancestry from the pharaohs. They imported many artefacts over the years after the King had sent a man to Egypt to acquire 300 items to bring back to Turin.
A full price ticket for an adult is 15 euros, 12 euros for concessions, 3 euros for students, and 1 euro for infants. Family tickets cost 30 euros.
The museum houses an impressive and vast number of artefacts and statues (over 37, 000 of them!). I was intrigued by the ancient Egyptians’ beliefs in the afterlife and how they connect with the dead, which was all laid out and explained on ‘The Book of the Dead of Bakri’. Here is a picture of a part I liked and actually found quite comforting, from the chapter entitled ‘Spells for Amulets’:
I didn’t take a photo but was struck by a couple of ancient skeletons laid out behind thick glass displays, I am always fascinated by anything you can still see that is that old, it’s equally macabre and enthralling. It amazes me how things can be preserved for that long. The display showed us that the rich would be laid to rest in wooden coffins/tombs because wood is not so plentiful in Egypt as in other countries, and poorer people were put in barrels/ large bowls made from clay as shown for the aforementioned skeleton.
There is a room of statues of pharaohs and sphinxes which are striking against the black decor under golden spotlights.
There was also an interesting exhibition that showed how papyrus (early paper) was made along with lessons in reading/writing in hieroglyphics. There were also etched cave wall façades grafted onto Italian walls all the way from Egypt!
It took us around 2 hours to slowly walk around and view as much of the museum as possible, and is definitely something educational and interesting to spend a cold morning visiting!
This tower is a landmark of Turin and was originally intended to be a synagogue but instead became a monument dedicated to national unity. Nowadays it is home to the National Museum of Cinema . We didn’t go inside but you can if you wish! Regardless, it is a striking figure in the Torinese sky, especially as the day grows darker and it is lit up. Freidrich Nietzsche thought of it as the greatest architectural feat he had ever seen.
By late afternoon we were feeling very cold as we traipsed through the crowds filled with a startling amount of people, all probably doing last minute Christmas shopping or just out enjoying a Saturday evening in the city centre.
As I mentioned earlier, Turin is famous for its chocolate- namely Nutella which was created in nearby Alba; gianduja– a similar chocolate and hazelnut spread, the gianduiotto (a particular shape of chocolate bar), the bicerin (a layered hot chocolate with espresso) invented in the 1700s, and the famed chocolatiers Baratti & Milano.
Belgium and Switzerland get most of the credit when it comes to chocolate in Europe, but Italy also creates its fair share of high quality chocolate, in Torino and Perugia to name but two cities.
Apparently, chocolate came to Turin when the Duke of Savoy- Charles I- married Catherine, the daughter of the Spanish king. Spain had brought chocolate over from Central and South American countries that they had colonised and took the traditions of drinking caco from Mayan and Aztec nobles.
Hence, this royal union brought chocolate to Italy who began to make it their own way, mixing it with popular Italian flavours such as hazelnut and coffee.
We were cold and fancied a bicerin so joined the queue outside Baratti & Milano then quickly realised the queue was extensive indoors and we were told it would take an estimate one hour to be served.
I knew it would be a gorgeous thing to taste but we had to factor in going for dinner too before it got too late so ducked out of the queue and got a bicerin from a standard but perfectly pleasant street bar.
After the pizza and crisps given with an early evening Aperol Spritz, we didn’t fancy a sit-down meal in a restaurant. I’d seen the Mercato Centrale Torino on the Instagram of someone I follow so it seemed the right place to go for a light bite to eat.
We almost didn’t have to purchase any food as that many samples are given out by the people on the food stalls which range from local Torinese cuisine, to classic Italian fare, to fried chicken and sushi. We tried a few things as we perused the stalls then had some mochi balls from the Japanese stall, before grabbing a few chicken bites (in the reverse order of sweet to savoury).
We visited the cantina which stocked hundreds of bottles of wine, where there was curiously one bottle with 35 euros written on in it in white marker pen, with one right next to it for 450 euros.
Barbera is the most known red wine in Turin and I had been recommended to try some while here. I asked the woman pouring the wines to choose a glass of Barbera for me, and I have to say that while I am no expert at all, it was just ok, I didn’t love it as I do some other Italian wines.
Wine experts may have deemed Barbera a great one for all I know but it was just a bit watery and bland for my tastes. Wine, like food, is very personal though and everyone likes what they like.
The next day, we returned to the Mercato Centrale Torino for lunch and I had an amazing cacio e pepe. The thing I was happiest with though was I went to one food stall to order while my partner went to another, and I had to order and converse in Italian as I have had to several times in the past, but this time there was no expression of puzzlement or amused smile or correction. We understood each other perfectly and the transaction went smoothly! I went back over to the cantina and ordered drinks and had the same seamless conversation with the man there.
Anyone who has learned a language before will always recall the moment that you have a smooth and mutually intelligible exchange with a native speaker who isn’t your partner or friend, and something clicks and you get such a confidence boost for future talks with native speakers!
[You can read about my Italian learning journey at the following links:
Andrea is a classic Italian coffee lover and he got me into having a morning espresso when we first met. I had never been a coffee fan really, and had only tried one espresso before I knew him, which was in Tallinn, Estonia. My unseasoned palate thought it tasted like rocket fuel but now we have an espresso maker in the home that was a gift from Andrea’s mum, and I look forward to it now when I wake up for work.
We tend to buy Lavazza coffee and I had recently read a book* on espresso where a whole chapter was dedicated to Turin’s history of coffee mainly via Lavazza, so it was interesting to visit its museum.
[*The book is called ‘Espresso: The Art and Soul of Italy’ by Wendy Pojmann]
The Lavazza Museum is really modern and interactive and you can learn so much about both the origins of the company and of coffee itself. You can ‘create’ your own blend on a screen by selecting your tasting preferences then it recommends the Lavazza blend for you. There are imitation coffee shops from the early 20th century and upstairs has an exhibition on Lavazza’s numerous advertising campaigns from over the decades.
It takes approximately 1 hour to visit the whole museum and your ticket also gets you a drink at the end of the visit. I expected an espresso but to my pleasant surprise, it was a cold cherry flavoured drink infused with espresso which was unusual but so interesting and I wished I could have another!
After our tour, we went back out into the cold December streets and had a wander around to burn some time before an evening restaurant reservation.
We turned into the Piazza San Carlo, one of the main squares in Turin, and saw the churches and elegant porticoes that house several more coffee shops and chocolatiers. When we left Turin the next morning, we headed back in this direction for the train station and stopped off for an espresso under one of the porticoes, which at 3 euros seems quite cheap to a Brit but was quite pricey for an Italian who is used to great coffee for only 1 euro.
I have to say though, and Andrea agreed with me on this too- that espresso was the nicest I have tried to date. Well, he thought it was really good but not the best he’s tried however he did say it was excellent, but for me in my limited coffee experience, it definitely was.
Back to the late afternoon, with it being a few days before Christmas, it was really cute to see the outdoor advent calendar and see three of the doors open across the days we were in Turin.
Restaurant Recommendation: SaporDivino
I searched around online for a while to find a restaurant that was open on a Sunday evening that I liked the sound of but then I found SaporDivino. The name is a play on words of ‘Sapor Divino’ which would mean a divine flavour, and Sapor di Vino which would mean Flavour (or taste) of Wine.
It is a small, rustic and familial restaurant on Piazza Borgo Dora which only had around five tables in a cosy setting with dimmed lights and candles on the tiled tables.
We both ordered the cheeseboard (served as a starter, not a dessert) and it included some beautiful cheeses served with orange blossom honey and a jam. I don’t know the names of the cheeses but there were four that were cured/semi-cured and two soft cheeses, one rolled in herbs and the other stronger than appearances would have you believe. This, with a shared bottle of Barbera and the tenderest steaks we’ve had in a long time made for a memorable meal (and it is hard to say that in Italy as they are almost all quite special).
The next morning, it was time to head to the train station for a 2 hour journey to Reggio Emilia to meet Andrea’s 3-day-old niece at her home!
Turin is a classy, clean and elegant city that I would recommend for a winter/festive city break; 2 nights would be enough to visit the main museums and walk around the city centre, sampling the chocolate and coffee of which that the Torinese are quite rightly very proud!