Set in the shadow of the Alps, at the foot of a wooded hill on the bank of the Pô River in the northwestern region of Piedmont, Turin is the birthplace of many iconic Italian brands. Its varied claims to fame include FIAT cars (which stands for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino), Olivetti business machines, Lavazza coffee, Martini vermouth and Juventus football club.
But before the 19th century made Turin the industrial powerhouse of Italy, the city had already been shaped by a rich historical past reaching back two millennia. Founded during the reign of Emperor Augustus (circa 9 BC), Turin has retained the checkerboard plan typical of ancient Roman cities, as well as the imposing Porta Palatina and adjoining remains of its Roman and medieval rampart, which now open onto a park filled with roman ruins.
The Golden Age of the Savoy
Then, in 1563, Emmanuel-Philibert transferred the capital of his powerful Duchy of Savoy from Chambéry to Turin, ushering a golden age for the Piedmontese city. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Turin grew under the influence of two great architects, Guarino Guarini (1624 – 1683) and Filippo Juvarra (1678 – 1736), who covered the city with grand palaces and imposing churches in a sober style that became known as Piedmontese Baroque. Along the straight streets of old Turin, lined with arcaded buildings (some 18 kilometers – 11 miles – of them), all constructions were required to adhere to a uniformity of style and materials dictated by the court architects. The result of this early urban planning is a unique inner city filled with elegant palazzi and stunning courtyards, remarkable for its discreetly aristocratic charm and serene atmosphere.
At the heart of it all, the Piazza Castello showcases the most emblematic monuments of Turin: the Palazzo Reale, which was the residence of the Dukes of Savoy from the 17th to the end of the 19th century and the Palazzo Madama. The latter, a remarkably heterogeneous building, sums up the city’s past. Here, behind with the sumptuous facade of the 18th century Baroque palace, the rear of the building remains an austere medieval castle anchored to Roman towers. Today the Palazzo Madama houses a rich museum of ancient art of the region..
Meanwhile, the Palazzo Reale is now an extensive museum complex including the Royal Apartments, the Museum of Antiquities, featuring the archeology of Turin ,and the Galleria Sabauda, a showcase of the royal art collections amassed by the House of Savoy over the centuries, mainly Italian and Flemish painting (Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Tiepolo, Memling, Rubens, etc.). Also not to be missed is a walk through the spectacular 17-acre (7-hectare) Royal Gardens.
Museum and Churches
Beyond the Piazza Castello, the city center is filled with museums, often housed in historic palaces, and grand churches, starting with the 17th century Church of San Lorenzo. Behind its austere facade, it houses a profusion of Baroque elements and a high cupola adorned with windows that flood the building with light. Behind it, one of the rare Renaissance buildings in Turin, the cathedral San Giovanni Battista and its campanile, is one of the rare Renaissance buildings in Turin. The famous Holy Shroud is kept there. A short distance away on the majestic Piazza San Carlo, reminiscent of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, Turin has her own set of twin Baroque churches: San Carlo Borromeo and Santa Cristina.
A ten-minute walk away, the sumptuous Palazzo Carignano is the most startling Baroque palace in the city. Designed by Guarini as the private residence of the Princes of Carignano, a cadet branch of the House of Savoy, it is entirely constructed in exposed bricks with a unique curved facade and double staircase atrium. The interior is known for its splendid frescoes and stucco decorations. Today it houses the museum of the Italian Risorgimento (Italian Revival), the 19th century period that lead to the political unification of the country. The museum exhibits various weapons, banners, uniforms, printed documents and manuscripts, and artworks of the period.
Another legacy of the greatness of the Savoys is the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum). Opened in 1824 and housed in the austere Palazzo dell’Accademia delle Scienze, this Turin institution houses the most important collection of Egyptian treasures outside Cairo.
The Mole Antonelliana
Named after Alessandro Antonelli, the architect who designed it in 1863, the Mole Antonelliana is one of the most iconic sights of the city. A soaring 167 meters (550 feet) high, this monumental building has become the visual symbol of Turin. Originally intended as a synagogue, the Mole (pronounced Mo-lay) actually became a monument dedicated to King Vittorio Emanuele II. Today the Mole is internationally famous Museo Nazionale del Cinema (National Cinema Museum). Inside, the rooms are dedicated to various aspects of the cinema industry: cameras, poster collections, legendary directors and movie stars, video installations and much more. And a central glass elevator can take visitors high up the dome for a panoramic view of the city.
The Birthplace of Chocolate
Turin, has a long association with cacao delicacies. Cacao was brought to the city at the end of the 1500s when Catherine, daughter of Filip of Spain, married Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. At the European courts of the time, the food was consumed as a drink, vaunted for its invigorating properties. Then in 1776, also in Turin, Frenchman Doret developed the first machine for processing cacao and mixing it with sugar and vanilla. The solid chocolate bar was born. Meanwhile, the Bicerin, a new concoction made of espresso coffee, chocolate and whipped cream was fast becoming a favorite among Italian and European aristocracy and artists. Invented at Caffè al Bicerin in 1763, which sits on a tiny piazza across from the Santuario della Consolata (a minor basilica of central Turin) the drink is still served today to the delight of local and visiting chocoholics.
Good to Know
- Getting there — By Air: Turin international airport supports scheduled flights from most European capitals. By train or road : Turin is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. It’s about an hour’s drive on good mountain roads to the French border to the north and slightly more to the Mediterranean sea and the southern French border. The A6 Highway connect Turin to Nice, France, while the A5 runs north to Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland.
- Getting around — The center of the city is easily walkable. To explore farther afield, Turin also has an efficient, integrated system of buses, trams and metro.
- Visiting — Palazzo Reale, including the Museum of Antiquities and the Galleria Sabauda, Piazzetta Reale, 1, 10122 Torino, is opened from Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Palazzo Madama , Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Piazza Castello, 10122 Torino, is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday. Egyptian Museum, Via Accademia delle Scienze, 6, 10123 Torino, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm and Monday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. It also occasionally offers extended hours indicated on their website. National Museum of Italian Risorgimento, Via Accademia delle Scienze, 5 , 10123 Torino, is opened Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Mole Antonelliana, Via Montebello, 20, 10124 Torino, is open Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday.