Overview

Italians say that Turin (Torino), the major city of the western Alps, seems more French than Italian. Its wide boulevards in a grid pattern and its 17th- and 18th-century architecture do bear more resemblance to Paris than Florence. A stroll about the city center provides architectural enthusiasts examples of Renaissance, baroque, turn-of-the-century and modern buildings. The city is also distinguished by miles/kilometers of 18th-century colonnades.

Turin is the capital of Piedmont, a region that even Italians consider to have the best food in Italy. Many years of French occupation have left a mark on Piedmontese cuisine, which includes more cheese dishes and sauces than is common in traditional Italian cooking. The Piedmontese are an independent-minded people who have invented their own style of cuisine that is neither French nor Italian, but incorporates the best of both. Turin also has a well-deserved international reputation for its coffee and claims to have invented chocolate, or at least gianduitto, the delicious confection made from chocolate and hazelnut. Temptation beckons in every window, so it is best to leave your diet at home.

Geography

Turin lies in the Po River Valley at the entrance to Valle di Susa, the historic access road through the Alps to France. The Alps are an hour's drive west of Turin, and today the E70 motorway speeds skiers to mountain resorts on the border with France.

The source of the river Po is in a cave on the top of Monte Viso, a large pyramid-shaped mountain that can be seen on Turin's western horizon. The water gushes down the mountain, descending 500 ft/155 m in its first 10 mi/16 km. By the time it reaches Turin, it is a sedate river that meanders through the city from the south to the northeast.

Turin's central area follows a Roman grid, with streets running northwest of the Po River. The main roads around the center are Corso Regina Margherita to the north, Corso Inghilterra to the west and Corso Vittorio Emanuele II to the south. Piazza Castello is a large square in the center with two colonnaded streets, Via Roma and Via Po, connecting it to Turin's other main squares, Piazza San Carlo to the south and Piazza Vittorio Veneto to the east.

History

Turin's geographical position at the foot of the Alps has made it an ideal place for travelers to rest both before and after the difficult journey through the mountains. The settlement was originally named Taurasia, after the Taurini tribe who lived there in about 500 BC. Hannibal rested there with his exhausted troops and one remaining elephant after a terrifying winter journey through the Alps during the Punic wars of 218 BC. He burned the village to the ground.

The foundations of this Roman colony named Taurinorum were laid under Julius Caesar in the final decades of the first century BC. The Roman Empire declined around the fourth century AD, and Turin was once again subject to barbarian invasions. After rule by the Lombards (568-774) and Franks (778-888), Turin passed to the house of Savoy in 1046. The Savoy family ruled for 900 years, eventually becoming kings of Italy—the last Savoy king, Vittorio Emanuele III, abdicated in 1945.

Turin was severely bombed in World War II by Allied forces. The damage was so great that parents loaded their children onto trains bound for the relative peace of Tuscany. One woman, Iris Origo, protected and cared for more than 500 Torinese children on her farm near Montepulciano. Turin benefited from the post-war boom when many southerners moved north looking for work.

The city became a company town and its population soared along with the output of Fiat cars. The car manufacturer's heyday was in the 1970s: Fiat bought Ferrari in 1969 and Lancia in 1978.

The Winter Olympics were held in Turin in 2006, the second time that Italy has hosted the Winter Games. The city is enjoying the benefits of hosting the Games, which helped to shed its image as an industrial city. Turin has been able to mold itself into a new tourism and business hub by showcasing its culture, food, rich history and high-tech industry. It is now the fourth most-visited city in Italy after Rome, Florence and Venice.

Sightseeing

Turin's main sights are within easy walking distance of Piazza Castello, the city's central square. Palazzo Reale and Palazzo Madama are two grand Savoy palaces located on the piazza. Just off the north end of the square are two churches: the Duomo and San Lorenzo. The Turin Shroud is hidden away in a large black marble box in the Duomo, but there is a small museum in San Lorenzo with a full-size reproduction on view. Views from the top of La Mole at sunset are stunning, but beware that on sunny weekends the wait for the lift can be more than one hour. Just south of Piazza Castello is the Egyptian Museum (Museo Egizio) featuring the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside Cairo. Farther south, across Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, is the Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art (GAM), and still farther south in Lingotto is the tiny but perfect Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli.

Note that most of Turin's sights and museums are closed on Monday, as are many shops and restaurants. All sights are closed on Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Easter and All Saints' Day (1 November). Most attractions and museums do not accept credit cards for admission.

It is highly recommended that you purchase a Torino+Piemonte Card if you plan to do any sightseeing in Turin. The card is available in two-, three-, five- and seven-day versions and allows free admission to more than 180 museums, monuments, royal residences and fortresses throughout Turin and Piedmont, a discounted price on the City Sightseeing Bus as well as free access to the panoramic lift in the Mole Antonelliana, to the boats for river navigation on the Po, to the tramway Sassi-Superga, and the train to and from the Turin International Airport. It also allows for reductions on guided tours, as well as on theater, opera and concert tickets. The Torino+Piemonte Card varies in cost: two days, 26 euros; three days, 30 euros; five days, 35 euros. Purchase the card at any tourist office or transport station, or ask your hotel concierge, as many keep a stock of cards to sell to guests. http://www.turismotorino.org/card.

Two useful websites for up-to-the-minute information on current exhibits and hours are http://www.visitatorino.com/en and http://www.comune.torino.it/en.

Probably the most efficiently run outfit, though, is the Turismo Torino office, which will give you the best information on museums, events, shows, bed-and-breakfasts and hotels. http://www.turismotorino.org.

Nightlife

Turin is a young city with a thriving nightlife of bars, restaurants, cafes and clubs. Turin's clubs don't usually get going until after 11 pm but the city comes alive well before then; at 6 pm people gather at their favorite bar for an after-work drink called aperitivo. Two of the most popular after-work beverages, Martini and Cinzano, are made in Turin. Sparkling wine, either Prosecco or Spumante, is another popular aperitivo.

The Torinese have taken the Italian custom of aperitivo to new heights. Establishments compete with each other to offer the most bountiful and splendid buffets during the period between 6 and 9 pm. For the price of a drink, you can help yourself to a lavish selection of food including pasta, tiny pizza, stuffed tomatoes, bruschetta, mushroom caps, olives and crisps. Drinks cost one or two euros more than usual, or you may be charged an extra two euros for the buffet. The food is meant to whet the appetite, but you will see many Torinese students tucking into what looks like their evening meal.

The two most popular areas of Turin for aperitivo are Via Po and around Piazza Vittorio Veneto and in the lanes of the Roman Quarter (Il Quadrilatero). Just northwest of the Roman quarter is an area known as Borgo Dora, an abandoned industrial district that has been taken over by all-night clubs and discos. Prepare to take a taxi both ways, as buses stop running before the clubs open. There's a row of dance clubs along the Po River that have outdoor dancing in the summer months. Turin also has a number of English and Irish pubs, especially along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.

Dining

Piedmont is a large region where grains such as risotto (rice) and polenta (corn) are grown in the Po River Valley. Cheese and high-quality meats are to be found in Valle Maira and Valle Grana in the Alps, and Langhe produces Barolo and Barbaresco wines as well as chestnuts, hazelnuts, mushrooms and the world-famous white truffles.

The Savoy dynasty transformed Turin into a glamorous city, attracting chefs, architects and artists from throughout Europe. Although the capital of Italy was later moved to Rome, the influence on the cuisine of the region can still be felt today. Piedmontese cuisine uses sauces that reflect a French influence, and there is a decidedly Austrian influence in its cakes. Turin is the birthplace of the sweet treat gianduiotto, a chocolate and hazelnut confection that dates back to the 19th century, and it also claims that solid chocolate was invented there (a royal decree issued in 1678 authorized its production for export).

Turin has a great many historic cafes and chocolate shops: Caffe Fiorio is an old baroque cafe dating back to 1750 where the Savoy family would gather, and Platti is from the art-nouveau period that took Turin by storm in the early 1900s. Gianni Agnelli, the late chairman director of Fiat, formed the soccer team Juventus at one of its tables.

In recent years, there has been a steady increase in not only the volume of restaurants but the quality as well. The region has nine Michelin-star restaurants—many of them chef-owned and serving traditional regional dishes with new, creative twists. The wines of the region, most famously Barbaresco and Barolo, become more interesting when consumed with local cuisine. Today, it is the restaurateurs who are preserving many of the traditional Piedmontese recipes that are time-consuming and difficult to prepare at home, such as tajarin, a remarkably light, hand-rolled pasta or agnolotti del plin, a small, handmade ravioli that is closed with a pinch (the Piedmontese word is plin). Families often go out to enjoy many of the traditional dishes rather than prepare them at home; fortunately, there is no shortage of good restaurants.

It is no coincidence that the Slow Food Movement is headquartered in Piedmont. This movement was founded in the town of Bra in the 1980s, and its members take pride in bringing to light the effects of fast food and modern growing techniques on culture, specifically the loss of diverse culinary traditions and recipes.

In May and June and from September to mid-November, it is wise to call ahead for a weekend lunch or dinner reservation, especially if there are more than four people in your party. If you don't have a reservation, arrive early; this in Piedmont is 8 pm. It is polite to notify the restaurant if you need to cancel. Dining is an experience not to be rushed. Dinner generally begins at 8 pm, and it's acceptable to occupy the table for the entire night. It is also not unusual to see tables sitting empty waiting for guests who don't arrive until 9:30 pm. Restaurants and many osterias (taverns or bars) open at 12:30 or 1 pm for lunch and generally do not serve past 2:30 pm.

If you want a quick meal, look for a cafe with meal service, as they typically serve food throughout most of the day or night. Don't feel you must order every course at every meal. However, ordering only a single course at dinner is considered impolite.

Tax is almost always included in the price of meals. In establishments where you eat sitting down, your bill will generally include coperto, a type of cover charge. Some restaurants will automatically include a service charge, so be sure you look at the bill. Italians are not known to tip much, if at all; tourists are expected to tip 10%-12%.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks or tip: $ = less than 10 euros; $$ = 11 euros-25 euros; $$$ = 26 euros-50 euros; and $$$$ = more than 50 euros.

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