Even though we were there a full 8 days, I’m slightly embarrassed to say that we engaged in almost none of the available Turin experiences – we didn’t go to a single museum, we only found ourselves in the city center a handful of times, and I stepped foot in exactly 1 church. Which is hardly something to brag about – it Italy you can find yourself stumbling into a church almost by mistake.
Jet lag hit me especially badly this time around – or maybe it was catching up on sleep after months of the whirlwind moving, socializing, and planning involved in stepping away from a country, an apartment and a job at the same time. Or maybe it was simply because the bed wasn’t very comfortable. Whatever the reason, we struggled to get ready for the day before noon and a lot of afternoons were spent in a kind of a haze as well.
Early on our visit, we did go to the Borgo Medievale, a recreated medieval village. It seemed primarily to be a collection of stalls used to sell Harry Potter wands? We also circled the nearby Fountain of the 12 Months, and made plans (that were never followed through on) to go to the Criminal Anthropology museum and the Museum of Cinema (which I have actually been to before, and I can say it’s absolutely fantastic).
I’m used to making use of every minute of my time when I travel; staying away from the hotel all day long, coming home with aching feet and pockets littered with ticket stubs. But with this extended trip, we’ve decided to try to stay put in quieter places, and to spend large portions of our days reading, writing, and working.
Honestly, it’s difficult for me to do that. It goes against my instincts and I’ve been struggling to completely relax, guilt-free. So despite the excess of intentional down time, I still found myself doing rather a lot of research on Turin…
A Capital City: the royal history of Turin
The capital of the region of Piedmont, Turin was also a Savoy capital from the 1500s onwards, and the first capital of unified Italy in 1861.
Beginning around the 1300s, the prominent noble family of Savoy ruled over Turin, remaining in power for centuries. They turned the city into a center of Catholicism, art, and architecture, with the Baroque palaces and elegant squares that define the city stemming from their influence.
When Italy unified, it was under Savoy rule. Vittorio Emanuele II was named King and Turin became capital of Italy for a few years, before it was moved to Florence, and then to Rome.
France also had its share of influence over Turin, due to the proximity of the border. They laid siege to the city multiple times in early modern history, including during Napoleon’s “liberation of Italy”. Many elements of French culture have seeped across the border, too, including the love of the croissant, which you can find in bakeries across Turin (or at least their own version of the pastry). The layout of the city is often compared to Paris.
When the Fiat factory opened in 1899, Turin became the economic backbone of Italy and the population grew as people moved there in search of work. As an automotive stronghold, Turin is often described as “The Detroit of Italy” (although I would argue that doesn’t quite encapsulate the glamor of the city…).
While that economic strength faded significantly in the 1980s, being host to the 2006 Winter Olympics has helped rejuvenate the city in past decades.
The Shroud of Turin (said to be the shroud used to wrap the body of Christ after he was crucified) is housed in the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, but is very rarely on display to the public.
The Palazzo Reale is the most prominent of the Savoy palaces in the city.
Museo Egizio is one of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world, with over 30,000 pieces
Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile – what it sounds like; a museum with a bunch of cars.
Highlights from our visit
Checking out tourist favorites Caffe Torino & Caffe al Bicerin in central Turin.
I didn’t take pictures because this was a fancy restaurant and I wanted to pretend I was a dignified lady.
Founded in 1927, Al Gatto Nero doesn’t need a flashy sign, but is marked by a subtle black cat illustration on a brown wooden door. The windows are dark, hiding the inside from passersby.
Inside, the space is dimly lit, and dozens of wine bottles are displayed along one wall. There’s a waiter for taking your order and answering questions, and another for placing and removing food, but each is adorned in formal attire.
We had the cod and mashed potato appetizer, the papperdelle with duck ragu as a primi, and steak with vegetables for secondi. The steak was carefully removed from the paper it was cooked in and sliced up at a table placed in the center of the room, apparently there for just these circumstances. We chose a half bottle of barolo wine without knowing what it would be like, but aware that it was a regional speciality, and it was delicious.
Aperitvo culture is especially strong in Turin, most likely because it’s the birthplace of the aperitvo staple, Vermouth.
Starting around the 1920s, workers would gather for a drink and snack after work and before dinner. The tradition stuck and became a huge part of northern Italian culture. While the social aspect of relaxing after work is one reason for this, the bitter drinks served are meant to stimulate the appetite, and the snacks are supposed to prepare your stomach for a larger meal.
One of my favorite times to stroll around the neighborhood was between 7pm and 9pm. Every little bar was filled with groups socializing over a Spritz or glass of wine, sampling snacks from the varied buffets.
Traditional Aperitivo drinks:
Negroni: red vermouth, Campari, and gin on ice with an orange peel
Negroni Sbagliato: Negroni with sparkling white wine instead of gin
Aperol or Campari Spritz – Prosecco, seltzer, and Aperol/ Campari
Bellini – Proscecco and pureed peach
Hugo: Prosecco, elderberry, seltzer, and mint
When we needed a break from Italian food, we found an Indian restaurant nearby and had a feast.
The simple pleasures of being in a new place
We loved going to the local grocery store and getting fresh pastas and produce to cook with, we relaxed on the tiny terrace in our Airbnb, and Sam got a squirrel to take an acorn from his hand.
We took a day trip to Novi Ligure to visit friends who run an Agriturismo called La Federica, which has definitely one of the best days of our trip so far. I have wonderful memories from a month I spent there when I was 19, and it also happens to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
And of course: Gelato
Last but not least, Turin is where we had the best gelato of our trip so far, at Niva Gelato. Mine was a chocolate hazelnut with whole hazelnuts mixed in and it was decadent and delicious.