Turin – The Most Underrated City You Must Explore on Italy Vacations

Europe & UK

Turin skyline with Alps in background, Italy

Many Europe-bound travellers opt for Italy vacations, and for good reasons. So, if this country gets into your psyche and you have already visited places like Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, and other major centres, consider, Turin in the north-west part of Italy. Why? Read on!

My impression of Turin before I visited it was of an industrial city producing, above all, automobiles. This is true, it does. But once you find yourself in Turin, you wonder where the industry is as you will find a very sophisticated, architecturally-magnificent and elegant metropolis. It is said that Turin is not particularly like other large Italian cities as it appears to have more of a French flavour. I was ambivalent at first about this. What I saw were wide tree-lined boulevards featuring a proliferation of exquisite gardens, majestic, colourful and historical buildings, and an abundance of cozy cafes, plus a great selection of bars, restaurants, and upscale boutique shops. Yes, there is a French flavour to the city.

However, one cannot live on coffee and shopping alone. Let’s delve into some of the major attractions Turin has to offer on Italy vacations. One of my favourite places was the banks of the River Po which dissects the city. There are some lovely walks either by the river or in the adjoining park. You can sit at one of the several open-air cafes and watch the rowers practising on the river with, on a clear day, the Alps in the background. The park I mention is called Parco del Valentino, and if you do spend time there, visit the 16th-century Castello del Valentino, a UNESCO World Heritage building which resembles a Loire Valley chateau architecturally, and was one of the residences of the Royal House of Savoy. While in the vicinity of the river, cross over to the north side and walk up the slope to an excellent viewpoint which gives a bird’s eye view of the rooftops and streets of Turin.

Po River in Turin, Italy
Po River

Continuing on foot, cross back over the river and head south back to the centre, passing by the circular Piazza Carlo Felice which is ringed with outdoor cafes. Then walk up the extraordinary arcaded Via Po which has a whole host of cafes and boutique stores plus outdoor bookstalls selling both reading material and second-hand vinyl records and CDs.

You will finally reach, probably the most interesting area of Turin in the large impressive square, Piazza Castello. Here you will find the Royal Palace of Turin (Palazzo Reale di Torino), a historic building of the House of Savoy, again built in the 16th century. The palace reflects the ornate tastes of the ruling families at that time and is Italy’s answer to Versailles in France. Today it is a museum with throne rooms, ballrooms, and apartments all lavishly furnished. There is also a collection of arms and stuffed horses plus an art gallery, the Galleria Sabauda, with a collection of 8000 works of art. Behind the palace are the Royal Gardens, designed by the same person who designed those at Versailles. Across the Piazza Castello is Palazzo Madama, which once housed the headquarters of the provisional French Government during the Napoleonic Wars. It offers two collections, one of art and the other, of ceramics.

Aerial view of Piazza Castello central Baroque square in Turin, Italy
Aerial view of Piazza Castello central Baroque square

A part of Turin which is totally charming and should be visited on Italy vacations is the medieval district with its narrow cobblestone streets harbouring small boutiques, cafes, bars, and restaurants. At one end, you will find the Duomo di San Giovanni Battista church, a Renaissance-style building built in the 15th century and which is the resting place of the Turin Shroud (the allegedly linen cloth in which Christ was wrapped when he was taken from the cross and on which, mysteriously, there appeared an image of a bearded face). Unfortunately, the shroud is not viewable as it is kept in an off-limits chapel within the church. However, you can purchase a replica of the cloth. If you want to know more about the Turin Shroud, visit the Holy Shroud Museum which goes into depth about the various theories and mysteries surrounding this phenomenon.

While on the subject of museums, I highly recommend a visit to a very interesting museum, the National Cinema Museum. I went in there and 2 hours just flew by. What it contains is the history of movie making, video excerpts from famous international movies from the thirties to recent times, and many hands-on exhibits such as magic lanterns, stage items from early Italian movies, and other memorabilia. Just to give you an idea of the scope of the museum, it contains 20,000 paintings and printed artworks, 80,000 pictures, 300,000 film posters and 12,000 movie reels.  If you go there, you must combine your visit with an ascent by elevator to the top of the iconic Mole Antonelliana tower, which is constructed within the museum. Once at the top, you will experience fantastic panoramic views of Turin and the Alps in the background (the museum is very centrally located).

Sunset view of Turin with a close-up of Mole Antonelliana towering the city, Italy
Sunset view of Turin with a close-up of Mole Antonelliana towering the city

The Egyptian Museum contains one of the world’s largest collections of Egyptian artefacts and is the second-most important after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It has a system of escalators which seemingly takes visitors on a path along the “River Nile” over the three levels of displays. It also tells the history of the archaeological expeditions during which the artefacts were found. Additionally, there are ancient sarcophagi and mummies discovered in Egypt. One more important museum is the National Museum of the Risorgimento which contains 30 decorated rooms detailing the military campaigns that led to the unification of Italy in the 19th century, with uniforms, paintings, weapons, maps and correspondence.

Want to go shopping? Head to the elegant Via Roma which houses every name brand designer store you can think of. At one end of the Via Roma is Turin’s most beautiful square, the Piazza San Carlo, which has been said to be possibly Italy’s most beautiful. Turin is famous for its chocolate in regard to its history and its quality. There are so many chocolate shops throughout the city. For the past few years, Turin has hosted a chocolate festival each November. All the chocolate in Turin is of a high quality.

Piazza San Carlo square at sunrise with twin churches of Santa Cristina and San Carlo Borromeo in the Old Town centre of Turin, Italy
Piazza San Carlo square at sunrise with twin churches of Santa Cristina and San Carlo Borromeo in the Old Town centre of Turin

Should you have the time and inclination on Italy vacations and are a wine aficionado, you can take the train for a 35-minute ride to the town of Asti, famous for its sparkling wine, Asti Spumanti, as well as for the production of Barolo and Barbaresco wines. It is also a historic town with interesting piazzas and churches. If there on a Wednesday or Saturday, you can enjoy the local food market selling cheese, herbs, oils, and wines. Another town of similar interest is Alba, again about a half-hour outside of Turin. Here, among its charming small streets, you can find stores selling wine and food and crammed with inviting restaurants.

Evening view of a narrow cobblestone street in town of Alba in Piedmont, Italy
Evening view of a narrow cobblestone street in the town of Alba

Finally, should you be a skier or want to visit a nearby Alpine village on your trip to Italy, then head to Aosta, about 112 kilometres/70 miles north of Turin and easily reached by train. Aosta is surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks and caters to skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer. An added attraction is that Aosta has a long history dating back to Roman times, which is reflected in its well-preserved city walls and sites such as the Roman amphitheatre and forum.

Aerial view of Aosta, Valle d'Aosta, Italy
Aerial view of Aosta, Valle d’Aosta

So, in a nutshell, you now have good reasons to include the city of Turin in your travel plans for an Italy vacation.