An Italian adventure that's just the job

by Briony Stephenson

Cafe culture, high culture, high-end shopping and the world's most delicious pizza and chocolate. If you're looking for an unforgettable Italian mini-break, Turin luck

Despite hosting the 2006 Winter Olympics,Turin has yet to capture the public's imagination. With barely an English voice to be heard, Turin feels a long way from the camera-toting hordes of Milan, Florence or Verona.

Despite its status, Italy's secret city is rich in culture and less than a two-hour flight from London.

Whether you arrive by rail or airport shuttle, you are likely to arrive at the drab Porta Nuova station. Just a few hundred metres away, though, lies Via Roma, Turin’s grandest street with opulent arcades that are so characteristic of the city. The locals flock to this area for a dazzling Christmas light display.

The Galleria Sabauda and Museo Egizio (Via Accademia delle Scienze) museums demand a few hours each. The latter is particularly fascinating. Go when the schools are on holiday and it wil be far less crowded. The hall of sarcophagi is worth the entrance fee alone - the room is entirely black, with the exhibits artfully lit for maximum drama.

Further to the west of Piazza Castello is the Mole Antonelliana, the tower that is the symbol of Turin. Its distinctive dome and spire are visible from parts of the city centre. Beware climbing it if you are a student as legend dictates that you will not finish your degrees if you reach the top before graduating. The Mole is so famous that its shape is used for bottles of chocolate liqueur.

The main street west is Via Veneto. This mishmash of shops leads down to Piazza Vittorio Veneto where trams criss-cross from all angles and the Alps suddenly rise up in the distance. Walk alongside the River Po or across one of the bridges for views of the hills and mountains beyond.

You can’t write about Turin without mentioning its cafes. There is no better way to spend an hour than over a thick, rich hot chocolate in Baratti & Milano, one of the best-loved cafes.

Turin’s most famous contribution to gastronomy is gianduia, a hazelnut and chocolate confection. If you’re visiting in February or March, check the dates for the annual CioccolaTO event, which boasts chocolate displays, tastings and talks. The majority of exhibitors come from around Turin itself.

When it comes to snacks, pizza is ubiquitous, although kebab and falafel shops have really taken off. For something more atmospheric, the centre has plenty of bars with sandwiches (tramezzini) and toasted panini. There is also Brek (various locations), a national self-service chain that offers economic but satisfying meals.

The evening is the best time to sample regional food. There are numerous excellent restaurants offering traditional Piedmontese dishes. Ristorante del Cambio (Piazza Carignano) is one. Try bollito misto (boiled meats, often including offal) and agnolotti (small ravioli filled with minced meat) for local flavour.

More than just luxury labels, Turin offers brilliant shopping opportunities for all budgets and tastes. Just off Piazza Castello is Europe’s longest pedestrianised street, Via Garibaldi, where you’ll find the official Juventus football shop amongst other stores. Shops specialising in books and CDs about Turin and Piedmont are also worth a look.

Book lovers will enjoy Libreria Luxembourg close to the Museo Egizio, with its mix of local guides, niche literature and art books. Design is also well represented, whether you are interested in cutting-edge bedroom furniture or eye-poppingly expensive tableware.

Some of the real finds are outside the centre. Il Grifone (Corso Turati 15/H) is a designer discount shop with great stock and outstanding bargains. And don’t forget to visit Lingotto, the former Fiat factory that is now a striking shopping centre.

There are some good hotels around Porta Nuova that are conveniently located for the centre. I recommend the three star Hotel Due Mondi on Via Saluzzo. Colourful fresco-painted ceilings make its rooms stand out from the usual budget hotel. It;s the perfect base for exploring everything Turin has to offer.