Famous for its sports cars and chocolate, the elegant Italian city of Turin is only an hour from Milan by train, so I decided to spend a day there during my recent Italian jaunt. With its large charming squares, tree-lined avenues, covered walkways, palazzo-style buildings and Alpine backdrop, Turin is a picturesque city to explore.
As the capital of the Duchy of Savoy from 1572 and the first capital of Italy between 1861 and 1865, Turin has a long and interesting history, and as a result there’s lots to see and do. The city is home to numerous museums, a huge royal palace and a cathedral, as well as churches, grand cafés and an architectural gem of a tower. The capital of the Piedmont region also hosted the Winter Olympics in 2006.
When I arrived in Turin, I was cheered to find it had been snowing overnight, and while most of the snow had melted, there were still some pockets around, which added to the city’s wintery charms. After leaving the train station, I picked up a map from the tourist information office, then set off through the city via a series of palatial squares and handsome walkways.
When I reached the Piazza Castello, I was delighted to find it playing host to a silvery white Christmas tree, as well as a giant advent calendar (above). There was also a small Christmas market to the side. I love a good Christmas market and hadn’t found one in Milan, so I was pleased to come across it – although I was a little disappointed to find there was no mulled wine nor many Christmas-themed stalls.
From the market, I walked the short distance to Turin’s cathedral. The late 15th century cathedral is the home of the Turin shroud, the linen cloth that bears the outline of a crucified man and may or may not have been used to wrap Jesus’s dead body. Despite carbon dating suggesting the cloth is a clever medieval fake, there’s still much debate about the authenticity and the origins of the cloth.
The cathedral sits in a small square next to the royal palace beside a 15th century bell tower. After the magnificence of Milan’s Duomo, Turin’s fairly plain cathedral somewhat paled in comparison and inside there wasn’t much to see other than a massive display case, which I think contained the Turin shroud.
The shroud itself isn’t on display – the last time the public was allowed to view it was in 2015 – and I can only presume it’s inside the coffin-like structure that’s covered by the cloth (above). There were a few people sitting opposite in quiet contemplation and prayer, but if I’m honest, I found it a little weird. I’m not religious so the symbolism was lost on me and there was nothing to tell me what I was looking at, which I found confusing.
After looking around the cathedral, I headed to the bell tower where you can walk to the top for stunning views across the city for just €3. I climbed the rickety wooden and metal staircase, and when I got to the top, walked out onto the platform only to start slipping. The centre of the platform was covered with ice and snow – which at 272ft in the air, wasn’t the safest place to be sliding around!
Luckily, the edges around the bell tower were free from snow, so I kept to the edges and avoided the icy middle. Minor drama aside, the views from the top were incredible and well worth the climb. I could see right across Turin in all directions, but the view towards the snow-capped Alps was the best (above). It was stunning and I could have spent ages looking at it.
From the bell tower, I walked to the royal palace where I stopped off at the café for a cup of thick hot chocolate before looking around the royal apartments.
Home to the dukes of Savoy, the royal palace was commissioned in the mid-17th century by the regent at the time, Maria Cristina. The palace was built on the site of the city’s old bishops’ palace and construction continued until the 19th century. It is now, along with the city’s other royal residences, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The grand palace is enormous and the royal apartments within impressive, with ornate gilding, sumptuous fabrics, eye-popping chandeliers and magnificent works of art everywhere you look. My favourite room was the beautiful ballroom (above). I also really liked the Chinese room, so-called because of its black lacquer and floral print walls, and the council room, with its spectacular green furnishings.
The palace is also home to an massive armoury (above) that’s set over two rooms. The first room is a long hall with armoured soldiers and taxidermied horses, as well as display cases filled with helmets, guns, daggers, shields and more. The second room is much smaller, with a magnificent piece of Chinese armour that was gifted to one of the dukes of Savoy.
The royal palace is free to visit the first Sunday of every month – the day I visited – so it was heaving. It was great to have free entry, but it did mean it was so busy it was difficult to look around.
The armoury, in particular, was crammed with people taking photos and selfies. It was annoying trying to squeeze past so many people who were too busy taking photos to look at the exhibits and I didn’t find it a pleasant experience. It’s a shame as the armoury is such as grand and impressive room it must be a spectacular sight when it’s empty.
Once I finished touring the royal apartments, I followed the path through the building to the Galleria Sabauda, an enormous art gallery that’s housed within one of the palace’s wings.
The gallery features art works by Brueghl (Jan the elder, Jan the younger and Abraham), Anthony van Dyck and Rembrandt van Rijn. It also had a temporary exhibition about biscuit porcelain, so named because it’s twice baked. The gallery is extensive – in the two hours I was there, I didn’t manage to see everything – and the numerous works of art remarkable.
On the ground floor, underneath the gallery, there’s an archaeological museum, which tells the story of Turin’s origins and showcases archaeological finds from the city. The artefacts on display include coins, pieces of pottery, as well as an extraordinary bronze head of a young man. The museum was interesting and informative, and I learned a lot about Turin’s history.
The royal palace was fantastic, with lots to see, and it was much bigger than I had been anticipating. I hadn’t expected it to also house an art gallery and an archaeological museum, so I spent hours there, and it was so interesting and well curated, I was reluctant to skip any of it. The only downside, as I’ve already mentioned, was the hoards of people, which is to be expected when there’s free entry. I’d love to go back when it’s quieter so I can take my time seeing it all.