The 2006 Winter Olympics and Fiat – those were the only two things I could associate with Turin before visiting at the end of May. I wouldn’t even have flown there had it not been for the fact that flights to every other city in Italy were twice as expensive.
I realize I could’ve visited another country instead (Ireland was a close contender). But it had been four years since my last trip to Italy, and for some reason, I was dying to get back, even if it was just for a short, four-day holiday weekend.
So imagine my excitement when I found a roundtrip flight from Germany to Italy for €120 on the EXACT dates I needed. In fact, I was so overcome by bliss that I completely forgot to do a cursory search for accommodation options beforehand and, instead, impulsively punched in my credit card details on the spot.
When I finally got around to having a look at hostels in the area a few weeks later (confession: I tend to book accommodation rather last-minute), I had a mild heart attack. There were only two hostels available in Turin – the first in a rather shady part of town, and the second roughly thirty minutes from the city center. It looked like I would be stuck staying in hotels. Like, normally-priced hotels.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with my travel style, I prefer hostels. They’re ridiculously cheap, they’re a great place to meet new people, and they’re filled with young and often other solo travelers. So I was a bit concerned about blowing money on hotel rooms in a place I wasn’t even sure I would like. So concerned, in fact, that I decided to spend two of the four days in Milan where I was at least sure to find a cheap hostel dorm to spend the night in.
But my worries about Turin proved to be unfounded. And here’s why.
After waking up at my hotel near the train station and eating a very large breakfast (yes, I wanted to get my money’s worth), I headed out for a walk around the town.
Not more than five minutes after leaving the hotel, I stumbled upon this.
And by this I mean a square called Piazza San Carlo in central Turin. Its baroque buildings date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and it’s enclosed by beautiful arched corridors on three sides and twin churches on the other end.
Pretty nice, I thought to myself. But let’s see if Turin has anything else besides just a cool baroque square.
The gods of Turin must have heard me, because no more than fifty feet away was Galleria San Federico, an ornate art deco gallery with high domed ceilings, large glass lanterns, and a black and white marble floor.
And then, right after that, I walked into yet another square, this time with the Palazzo Reale, or the Royal Palace of Turin, directly opposite me.
And you know what the crazy thing was? Aside from a few school groups, there were hardly any tourists.
I’m serious. People stared at me like I was some strange outsider (which I suppose I was), just because I was walking around taking pictures. At one point, I even put my camera away, since I felt like I was somehow intruding.
The rest of the afternoon, I continued to stumble upon beautiful baroque squares, columned courtyards, ornate churches, palatial gardens, and marble statues. Even the wrong turns I took led me into quiet and colorful alleyways.
In fact, I loved these surprises so much that at one point, I stopped looking at my crumpled city map altogether and simply let myself get lost in the maze of arched boulevards and regal avenues.
My visit to Turin wouldn’t have been complete without seeing the Mole Antonelliana – arguably the city’s most recognizable landmark.
The Mole Antonelliana was originally conceived as a synagogue but today houses the National Museum of Cinema. For me, though, it will always be that place with the scariest. elevator. ever.
I’m not even exaggerating. The elevator is made out of glass, there are no walls on its sides, and it takes its poor passengers up 80 meters (or 260 feet) to the viewing platform at the top of the building.
Still not frightened? Okay, let me simplify things. You’re practically dangling in a glass box looking into the hollow interior of the Mole Antonelliana with a drop of 24 stories should one of the four wires above you snap.
I will admit, though, the view from the lookout platform was pretty spectacular, even if it was too hazy to see the Alps.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Turin (besides the pasta, and the wine, and the cappuccinos, and the gelato, and more gelato) was people watching.
After walking around the city’s cobblestone streets the first morning, I sat down at a cafe next to the wide streets of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and watched as students, teachers, businessmen, and baristas strolled on by. (Oh, and by the way, there are cafes EVERYWHERE in Turin.)
As I sat and watched a city around me in motion, I felt once again like Turin was so authentic that I somehow didn’t belong there. That I was a lost tourist interrupting the pace of life.
At the same time, I felt a sense of appreciation for being able to gain a glimpse of everyday life in the Piedmont region of Italy – an area less tainted by hour-long queues, pushy street vendors, and outrageously priced pizzas.
On my last night in Turin, I went for a leisurely walk around the city, marveling at how beautiful its buildings looked in the warm, yellow glow of street lanterns.
The entire city had come to life in the moonlight and was pulsing with energy. Families sat on park benches enjoying gelato, musicians entertained crowds of mesmerized onlookers, and street actors walked around in costumes while reciting poetry.
As I walked around Turin on my last night, I remembered something I had read about the city – that it is often referred to as the “Paris of Italy”, a place that even rivals the beauty of la Ville Lumière.
After witnessing Turin’s cafe culture, baroque boulevards, palatial gardens, and regal elegance, I can certainly see why.
In fact, Turin is a lot like Paris – except, of course, without all the tourists.