Not so long ago, Turin (Torino) – Italy’s great northern powerhouse – was largely ignored by tourists, unfairly dismissed as little more than a giant Fiat factory. Yet this elegant city of Baroque palaces and graceful piazzi would be a prime draw were it anywhere else other than this spectacularly beautiful country.
Since hosting the Winter Olympics back in 2006, Turin has undergone major regeneration, transforming its former industrial spaces into cultural quarters, sprucing up its museums and investing in a swanky new metro system.
The city and its hinterland, the Piemonte region, is also one of Italy's top food destinations. Its traditional lures – wines (such as Barbera and Barolo) and the white truffles of Alba – are now joined by the Slow Food movement and a cosmopolitan approach to cooking rare in Italy. Here's why Turin should be your next gourmet trip.
Italy’s first capital, and the seat of the royal House of Savoy for centuries, Turin’s illustrious legacy lingers on in its array of sumptuous nineteenth-century cafés.
Several grace the grand central square, Piazza San Carlo. Start your day amid acres of gilded mirrors and plush red velvet of Caffè San Carlo, where coffee – served by a bow-tied barista oozing expertise – and a croissant savoured at the marble bar will set you back little more than €2.
Festooning the counters and cabinets of Turin’s grande-dame cafés are mounds of tiny pasticcini (pastries), delicate morsels of sweet treats originally designed for aristocratic appetites. They come in dozens of varieties, from crumbly baci di dama (ladies’ kisses) to bignole, mini choux buns filled with cream.
There’s a fine selection at Caffè Torino, another of Piazza San Carlo’s august fin-de-siècle institutions, and don’t miss Caffè Mulassano on nearby Piazza Castello. With its coffered leather ceiling and a marble-and-bronze water fountain, this diminutive, three-tabled spot is a fantasy of Art Nouveau.
Work off your breakfast with a visit to the brace of fine museums east of Piazza San Carlo: the beautifully restored Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano, which preserves Italy’s first parliament chamber, and, more impressive still, a wander among the pharaohs at the atmospheric Museo del Egizio.
For generations of schoolchildren, the real highlight is a stop between the two at the unassuming Pepino gelateria for a pinguino – the world’s first choc ice, patented in 1939. Still family-owned, and run by the inventor’s great-grandson, the dapper, youthful Edoardo Cavignano, Pepino focuses on quality over range, with just six flavours of artisanal gelati. For an unusual floral twist, try the violetta.
Heavy on butter and cream, traditional Piemontese cuisine is as rich as the region’s heritage, and meals are invariably generous, four-course affairs.
Gloriously garlicky bagna caôda is a mainstay, a salty and addictive warm dip of anchovies, oil, milk, butter and cream that blends hearty mountain cooking with the lighter influences of the Mediterranean.
Traditionally the centrepiece of a meal, kept warm over a hot flame and served with bread, crudités or roasted veg, bagna caôda is now often served as an antipasto, along with other local staples such fonduta di Raschera (fondue with tangy Raschera cheese) and vitello con tonnato (thin slices of veal in tuna sauce).
Tucked into a corner of Piazza Vittoria Veneto, one of the biggest arcaded squares in Europe, intimate Porto di Savona is one of the best choices for Piemontese cuisine at unpretentious prices. Go hungry and don’t skip the primi (invariably pasta) – both the agnolotti al sugo de arrosto (pasta squares stuffed with roast pork and veal) and tajarin al Castelmagno (tagliatelle with crumbly cheese) are filling but superb.
Real foodies could easily lose half a day browsing and grazing around the gourmet paradise of Eataly, a few metro stops south of the centre in the former industrial quarter of Lingotto. Housed in a converted vermouth factory, this vast food emporium is a fabulous showcase for the country’s best produce, with entire rooms devoted to regional cheeses, cured meats, an agrigelateria and plenty more.
There are ten restaurants on site, and the basement is devoted almost entirely to booze. Hopheads can acquaint themselves with the burgeoning Italian craft beer scene at the birreria, as well as a spectacular array of wine.
Eataly has close links with the global Slow Food movement, centred in Piemonte, and the city hosts the world’s largest gastronomy festival, the biennial Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2016.
While you’re here, call into Fiat’s former headquarters, now remodelled by Renzo Piano as the Lingotto Centre. The Fiat-owning Agnelli dynasty’s priceless collection of artworks is displayed in a serene glass gallery suspended above the former factory building, with sweeping views across to the mountains.
Chocolate has been made in Turin for almost 500 years, and the Torinese proudly claim that it was here that the Swiss chocolatiers came to perfect their techniques.
Artisanal chocolate-makers abound across the city centre, each selling their own version of individually wrapped giandujotti, a melt-in-the-mouth blend of chocolate and hazelnuts that provided the inspiration for two of Piemonte’s biggest culinary exports – Nutella and Ferrero Rocher. For the flair, quality and impeccable sourcing the cioccolateria of master craftsman Guido Gobino is unparalleled.
Glossy and thick, hot chocolate in Turin is a joy, too. One local twist you shouldn’t leave without trying is the bicerin, best sampled at one of candlelit marble tables of the cosy, wood-panelled Caffè Al Bicerin, where the drink was invented. A warming combination of sinfully rich chocolate and strong local Costadoro coffee, topped with cold cream (to keep in the heat), it’s a great way to keep the Torinese winter at bay.
By evening fall, it’s time to join the locals in an aperitivo, yet another invention the city can claim as its own. Vermouth was created here in 1786, and with it the concept of the preprandial sharpener. Vermouth remains the top choice, served over ice or in a knee-buckling Negroni; search out delicately balanced Cocchi or bitter, distinctive Punt e Mes over big boys Martini Rosso and Cinzano.
Up until around 9pm, aperitivi are accompanied by a generous array of snacks – like tapas, a budget-friendly alternative to forking out for dinner. For a quiet drink make for the atmospheric Quadrilatero Romano, whose narrow cobbled streets are filled with inviting bars and restaurants. The grungier San Salvario district has a friendly, neighbourhood feel; laidback La Cuite is a good place to get your bearings.
Livelier still is Lobelix II, one in a string of clubby, student-friendly bars flanking the north side of Piazza Vittorio Veneto, where bartenders mix up wicked cocktails and tables groan under the weight of a gargantuan buffet. It may not be royal cuisine but at €10 a head no one’s complaining.
easyJet fly from London Gatwick and Luton to Turin from £29.99. Ed stayed at the Grand Hotel Sitea (doubles from £129, including breakfast). For more information see piemonteitalia.eu and turismotorino.org.
Top image © Marco Saracco/Shutterstock