Fort of Exilles in the Val di Susa in the region of Piedmont

An Insider’s Guide to Piemonte

The region of Piemonte (Piedmont) lies in northwestern Italy, bordered by Switzerland in the north, France in the west. Its capital and largest city is Turin (Torino). Piemonte does not attract the tourist crowds that other regions do, but it should. Not only is it home to many gastronomic specialties, like the white truffles fro Alba and amazing stuffed pastas, but it has more DOCG (17) and DOC (42) wines than any other region. Among these are two of the most internationally renowned in all of Italy, Barolo and Barbaresco.

Piemonte is home to many iconic Italian brands that the world knows and loves

Nutella, Lavazza, Vermouth, Slow Food, Espresso itself, the famous moka pot, home of Martini and Cinzano, Campari (for all you Negroni-lovers), Eataly! Make a pilgrimage to the region where many “Made In Italy” items have their origins. If you are a food and wine enthusiast, you will have a fantastic time in this region, especially if you’re visiting during truffle season, wine harvest season, or Turin’s chocolate festival. Some of the best-known wines from Piedmont are also some of the best-known Italian wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto. Home to Fiat, Nutella and Lavazza coffee, the grassroots of the Slow Food Movement began in Piedmont and farm-to-table foods can be enjoyed year-round.

Piedmont has several attractions related to its one-time royal family, the House of Savoy, who moved in the mid 16th century from Chambery, France to Turin. With its status as the original capital of Italy, from 1861 to 1864, the royal family’s palaces, now UNESCO World Heritage sites, include the Palazzo Reale and Castello del Valentino in Turin, the Palazzina di Caccia in Stupinigi, and the Palace in Venaria. Additionally, Turin houses one of the most venerated relics in the Catholic Church, the legendary Shroud of Turin.

map of piedmont italy

A few facts on Piedmont

  • Piedmont is the English name for the region – the Italian name is Piemonte, which means literally “the foot of the mountains”
  • The capital of Piedmont is Torino (Turin)
  • There are five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Piedmont: the residences of the Royal House of Savoy in and around Turin; the Sacri Monti (nine 16th-17th century chapels and other religious buildings); Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps; Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato.
  • Piedmont is bordered by the Italian regions of Aosta Valley, Lombardy, Liguria, and Emilia-Romagna, and it also shares borders with France and Switzerland
  • Famous people from the Piedmont region include Vittorio Emanuele II (the first King of a united Italy whose name appears on monuments and streets all over the country), Giovanni Agnelli (founder of the FIAT car company), Cesare Pavese (20th century writer), and Paolo Conte (singer and pianist)
  • People from Piedmont are called piemontesi (plural). The singular version is piemontese

What to Do & See in Piedmont

Here are a few of the cities and towns of Piedmont you might have on your list:

  • Turin– Capital of Piedmont, Italy’s first capital, Shroud of Turin is in the cathedral, home to world-class Egyptian Museum & National Cinema Museum
  • Alba– Home of Ferrero company (makers of Nutella), famous for truffles & wine, historic center ringed by ancient Roman walls
  • Asti– Important town in Piedmont wine region, historic city contained by medieval walls, Palio di Asti is Italy’s oldest palio race
  • Barolo– Very small town famous for its eponymous red wine
  • Acqui Terme– City with hot sulphur baths frequented by ancient Romans
  • Stresa– Popular tourist resort town on Lake Maggiore
  • Verbania– Largest town on Lake Maggiore
  • Lake Maggiore– Italy’s second-largest lake, part of the lake is in Switzerland’s Italian canton (Ticino)

Piedmont’s geography span’s gorgeous lakes, rolling valleys, and Italy tallest peaks. Here’s a brief guide to Piedmont’s top destinations, from elegant cities and charming villages to storied castles and more:

What to see and do in Turin

The capital, Turin

Turin, called Torino in Italian, virtually unknown outside of Europe, is the crown-jewel of Northern Italy. With elegant royal palazzi, medieval architecture, contemporary art, elegant gardens and public squares and 12 miles of arcades grace much of the Left Bank of the Po River, and nearly a dozen museums to choose from, visitors to Piedmont could spend all their time just in Torino.

In addition to royal history, Turin reflects the history of the Risorgimento, the movement which led to Italian reunification. The Palazzo Carignano, where the Italian parliament met for the first time, is today a museum devoted to that time in Italian history. Also with the historic and elegant cafés, which served as a meeting place for such literary royalty as Puccini, and Neitzche, Dumas and Cavour, Turin has gifted the world with Fiat (the Agnelli family built Fiat into the world’s 7th largest car manufacturer), and has been known as the chocolate heart of Europe since the 1600’s. Hot chocolate and chocolate-hazelnut spread were both invented here.

If museum fatigue sets in, stroll the elegant boulevards and piazzas of Torino, tour the massive flagship Eataly store, or take a break in one of Torino’s historical coffee houses like Caffè San Carlo, Al Bicerin or Caffè Torino.  Torino has the grace of Paris and the splendor of Vienna, mixed with the rich culture and utter beauty of Italy.

  • The Shroud of Turin, believed to be the cloth that covered Jesus, was brought to the city by the Savoy
  • Chocolate Festival, CioccolaTÒ
  • Visit the Museo Egizio, the best collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo
  • Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile to discover the history of Italy’s own FIAT with a rooftop test track
  • National Cinema Museum atop Turin’s iconic Mole Antonelliana building
  • Palazzo Reale to see Greek and Roman archaeological treasures and the personal art collection of the Savoy dynasty, among other masterpieces. Stroll through Palazzo Reale’s magnificent gardens, from the same designer who created the renowned gardens of Versailles.
  • Torino’s Mole Antonelliana, the 167-meter-tall domed building that marks the city’s skyline, is home to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, showcasing equipment and film memorabilia from the very first motion pictures to modern day cinema
  • Lavazza museum dedicated to all things coffee
  • Indulge in a Bicerin, a layered drink of melted chocolate, espresso and heavy cream
  • The city is the birthplace of the aperitivo which is the Italian tradition of having evening drinks and snacks
  • Turin is a celebration of Italian literature. Writers such as Umberto Eco, Mark Twain, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Friedrich Nietzsche have admired the city
  • Eat at Ristorante del Cambio, Turin’s most famous restaurant, serving meals since 1757. Their Pollo Marengo, was invented for Napoleon after an early triumph over the Austrians in the northern hills.

venaria reale Visit the Venaria Reale

One of Italy’s Top Five Tourist Attractions is in Turin. The Venaria Palace is a really remarkable place, perhaps even bigger and more impressive than the Palace of Versailles. With a roughly 862,000 square-foot floor plan, the Venaria Reale is one of the biggest palaces in the entire world.

The 17th-century palace, together with the other buildings that make up the Residences of the Royal House of Savoy, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A Baroque masterpiece just outside of Torino, visitors can tour the palace, including the breathtaking Galleria Grande, the Theater of History and Magnificence dedicated to the Savoy family and legacy, and approximately 10,764 square feet of frescoes. Thanks to an eight-year, multi-million dollar restoration, visitors can also stroll more than 120 acres of restored gardens. Originally designed as an estate for hunting and leisure for Duke Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy and Duchess Maria Giovanna Battista, the Venaria comprises the palace, gardens, a park for hunting grounds, and an entire village, not to mention sculptures, fountains, staircases, terraces, ponds, and frescoes.

sacra di san michele in the region of piedmont as seen on our walking tours of piedmontVisit Sacra di San Michele

Another splendid place is a monastery, very like that of the famous novel Name of the Rose. The monastery, called the Sacra di San Michele, is an unbelievable sight. Nobody really knows when this imposing monastery, high on a hilltop to the west of Turin was built. Local legend has it that it was built by angels in the 11th century. Whenever it was built the Sacra di San Michele is an incredible sight to behold as you drive out from Turin. Exploring the monastery is even more overwhelming. Once you enter through the famous Gate of the Zodiac you are literally in another world, another age entirely.

The Mountains

The northwest corner of the Alps where the Mont Blanc stands, highest peak of Europe, is actually part of the Aosta valley, a separate Italian region. Monviso is, therefore, the highest peak in Piedmont, with its 3841 m above the sea level (12,600ft) a favorite summer destination for trekkers and outdoor lovers. Made up of two different valleys, the northern Val di Susa and southern Val Chisone, many of the 2006 Winter Olympics events were held in the state-of-the-art facilities of the Via Lattea. Visitors can ski roughly 400km of runs through at least seven different resorts, including a jaunt into France to Montgenèvre’s slopes, all included with the Via Lattea ski pass. Piedmont is ruled by mountains and beautiful valleys, making it a great destination for winter sports lovers as well as Alpine aficionados looking to hike in the warmer months.

One of Italy’s largest nature reserves Gran Paradiso is found in these mountains. The other mountain area that is one of my favorites is the Val di Susa. One of the great attractions of this area is the famous castle which housed the man in the iron mask – the Castle of Exilles.

Fort of Exilles

Besides spectacular natural beauty, lovely little towns and a unique culture these valleys are also home to The Great Wall of Europe – the greatest defensive structure ever built in Europe and second only to the Great Wall of China in terms of length, Fenesrrelle Fortress.

The Lakes

Piedmont is also home to most of Lago Maggiore, Italy’s beautiful resort lake that sits across Piedmont and Lombardy. The lakeside town of Stresa has been a favorite destination for artists and writers since the 19th-century (parts of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” was set here). Not only is it the perfect distance between Torino and Milan, it’s also the perfect jumping-off point to visit the ancient villas and luxurious gardens of the Borromean Islands.

isola bella on lake maggiore

Though Piedmont shares Lago Maggiore with Lombardy and even Switzerland, Lago d’Orta is all Piedmont’s. Circled by forest, Lake Orta is perhaps the most peaceful of Italy’s northern lakes. Orta enjoys far fewer international tourists, making it the perfect place to escape the crowds. Swim or enjoy a boat ride on the lake, tour the narrow streets of medieval Orta San Giulio or ferry over to tiny Isola San Giulio for a unique day trip.

Orta san giulo on lake orta

The Valleys

The rolling valleys of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato are a wine lover’s paradise. It’s the land of Piedmont’s famed white truffles, sweet hazelnuts, and outstanding chocolate production. Here Barolo, the king of wines, is produced, along with other world-class wines made from the prized Nebbiolo grape. The beautifully cultivated vineyards of the area stretching from Asti to Cuneo are interrupted only by hilltop towns and charming castles.

Visit Bra, the hometown of the Slow Food Movement; Barolo, the namesake of the famed Barolo wine and site of the Museo del Vino; and Barbaresco, with its 11-century medieval tower and equally noteworthy wines. As you tour the vineyards, dedicate some time to sleepy hamlets like Serralunga, La Morra, Diano d’Alba and Grinzane Cavour.  Don’t miss ultra-charming Alba, the capital of the Langhe and home of the annual Fiera Internazionale di Tartufo Bianco (“The International White Truffle Festival”). Just 30 kilometers to the north is Asti, home of the sparkling white Asti Spumante.

Hike in the Sacred Mountains

The nine summits of the Sacri Monti (two of which are in Lombardy) have been given UNESCO World Heritage status for the 16th and 17th-century chapels built upon its peaks. Designed to celebrate different aspects of Christianity, these tiny structures not only have a deep spiritual history, but are also beautifully integrated into the surrounding nature of Piedmont’s valleys, forests, and lakes.

Take part in the festivals

Of course, the international white truffle festival is held in Alba each fall, but there’s also the famous Cioccolatò chocolate fair every year in Torino. The Palio race of Siena enjoys worldwide acclaim, but each September Asti holds a Palio of its own, considered the oldest horse race in Italy. There is the Cheese Festival held every two years in the town of Bra. Or, for the adventure seeker, visit Ivrea during the epic Battle of the Oranges, a massive food fight celebrated each year during Carnival.

seralunga d'alba castle visit in the langhe wine region of piedmontWine Region of Piedmont

Piedmont’s wine route is perhaps the best of all Italy’s wine routes. Piemonte is surrounded by mountains, the Alps to the North and the Apennines to the south. The slopes heading towards the Apennines is where you’ll find the quality wine production in Piedmont. The cold alpine air from the Alps and the warm air from the Mediterranean meet over Piedmont and create the ideal environment for quality wines, a large temperature variation between night and day. The typical day begins with morning fog that slowly burns off. This means the land higher up on the hills gets more sun, making the higher elevation vineyard sites the most coveted.

The unique natural beauty of this region was recently recognized by the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations body, which in 2014 added the ‘vineyard landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato to its elite group of UNESCO cultural and natural sites. The area includes the towns of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba in the Barolo DOCG, as well as Barbaresco and Neive in the Barbaresco DOCG. The region’s primary grape varieties are Barbera (31%), Moscato (22%), Dolcetto (13%), and Nebbiolo (10%).

Hills and towns are every bit as picturesque as the better known Tuscan ones. In fact there are more hills per square mile here than in Tuscany and set amongst these hills are a few of my favourite villages – Barolo , La Morra and Neive. Autumn is the time to visit, this is when vineyards are a blaze of colour and every small town has a local truffle, mushroom or wine festival. Nothing beats wondering around historic old towns savouring local delicacies and great cheeses. Talking of old towns don’t miss Saluzzo, a little to the west of Le Langhe. This wonderful and as yet undiscovered old town, perched on a glorious hilltop, is just superb. Montiglio is another gem.

tajarin with shaved truffleThe local food specialties of Piedmont

No guide to Piedmont is complete without a note on its delicious local cuisine. Piedmont is a veritable Epicurean paradise. Home of the renowned white truffle, and its namesake annual festival, it’s also a land rich in dried fruits like walnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts, homemade cheeses, soft delicate veal, and all the fresh veggies for which Italy is known. When in Italy, it’s always best to eat local, and the Piedmont region is no exception.  With some of Italy’s best wines, truffles, beef and chocolate, the northern Italian region of Piedmont offers a plethora of exhilarating tasting experiences.

  • The white truffle of Alba, nicknamed “white diamond”, a delight of gastronomes everywhere, is rare and specific to the region of Piemonte. These delectable beauties are the most expensive truffles in the world, selling for about $200.00 US per oz or $4000 a pound. Unlike black truffles, the white truffle should not be cooked, only shaved over raw veal or Tajarin pasta. There are five kind of white truffle depending on the kind of tree on whose roots it grows (oak, poplar, linden, weeping willow and vine trees). Truffles grow from August to January with peak season between September and December.  During this time 1,500 licensed trifolao, truffle hunters, roam the forests with their dogs.
  • As Piedmont does not lie directly on the coast, the cuisine is predominately meat and dairy. Hunting and fishing is commonplace In the mountainous areas to the west; game like wild boar,  as well as freshwater trout from mountain streams. As in the nearby region of Valle d’Aosta, many of the meat recipes come from across the Alps – hearty braised meat and mixed boiled meats, called bolliti, served with a variety of sauces.
  • There is also traditional stock-rearing of cattle and pigs. Piedmont is known for it’s prized breed cattle, called “Razza bovine piemontese”. These are almost exclusively raised on smaller family farm which adhere to a high standard of breeding. In the 1870s, this breed began exhibiting a unique “double muscling” characteristic that resulted in beef with extra muscle mass and very little fat and low cholesterol content. In spite of the lack of marbling, this lean beef is tender and juicy, and often enjoyed raw in Carne Crudo.
  • Historically, in autumn people head into the forests and hills to collect mushrooms and nuts, which could be dried or roasted and used all year round. Today fall menus in Piedmont feature porcini mushrooms, hazelnuts and chestnuts.
  • The influence of neighboring France and Switzerland is exhibited in Piedmont’s vast array of cheeses.  From Taleggio, Ossolano d’Alpe, also called Bettelmatt, to Castelmagno, Robiola di Roccaverano, Bruss, and Murazzano, nine of the over 40 Italian DOP cheeses hail from Piedmont.
  • When in Piedmont, stick to Piemontese classics, like the typical bagna cauda. Literally, “hot bath”, it is a hot sauce made with anchovies, olive oil, and garlic, and used as a dip for Piedmont’s delicious fresh vegetables. Another dip of the region is the classic fondue, thanks to the border shared with France.
  • The river valleys of Piedmont supply fruits, vegetables and grains to the region, not only the Po River but smaller tributaries like the Tanaro, Belbo, and Bormida. Fruit orchards dot the hillsides alongside neatly terraced vineyards. In the spring, the Saracen asparagus from Vinchio is cultivated in the hills between vines. Summer brings red and yellow peppers, known as “Quadrato d’Asti”, which are enjoyed raw with bagna cauda, or preserved in oil.
  • Rice and corn flourish in the fertile Po river valley the provinces of Novara and Vercelli. So you will find many types of risotto and polenta on the tables of Piedmont. Gnocchi and pasta are common here as well, the hand-made local pasta include tagliatelle, here called tajarin, as well as a stuffed ravioli type pasta, here called agnolotti dei plin (pinched). Piemontese pasta is characterized by the use of only egg yolks, sometimes up to 30 yolks per kilo of flour. Great fresh yolks from truly free range chickens are bright orange in color, and I will always recall the deep vibrant hue of the first plate of agnolotti I enjoyed in Piedmont.
  • Down in the valley, bordering the seaside region of Liguria, sample Piedmont’s renowned classic vitello tonnato–cold sliced veal in a tuna, anchovy, and caper sauce. Or, try the esoteric snails from Cherasco, served in or out of the shell, pan-fried, roasted, or stewed with onions, parsley, walnuts and anchovies.

Finally, indulge your sweet tooth in the birthplace of modern chocolate. Desserts are dominated in Piedmont by two well known products: chocolate and hazelnuts. Piedmont has given us gianduja (inspiration for Nutella), a Piemontese specialty of chocolate-hazelnut cream, and, of course, Nutella. Turin has been known for chocolate production as far back as the sixteenth century, today home to candy producers Caffarel and Ferrero Rocher. Best place to get the gianduja, shaped like a three-point hat, is at Stratta, a beautiful shop dating back to 1836. In 1937, Pepino, invented ice cream on a stick, known as un pinguino (a penguin).

Where to Stay in Piedmont

Piedmont may be famous for its mountainous landscapes, beautiful lakes, and acres of vineyards, but just because many of your accommodation options may be away from big cities doesn’t mean they’re all rustic. In fact, some of the most high-end hotels and B&Bs in the region are in places like the towns surrounding Lake Maggiore. Agriturismo is popular in Piedmont, as many of the vineyards and other agricultural operations in the region have opened their doors to overnight visitors, and in the larger cities and towns you’ll also find the usual range of hotels and hostels. One thing to keep in mind is that if you’re planning to stay at a more rural B&B, or if the town where you’ve chosen your hotel doesn’t have a good-sized train station, you’re likely to need a car to get around or you can hire me as your driver-guide for your private group with a customized itinerary. 

How to travel to Piemonte

Travelers can fly directly into the Torino airport or any of Milan’s international airports. Torino is just a 2-hour drive from Milano Malpensa airport. At Travels with Audrey, we provide our guests on our “Flavors and Vistas” small group tour, a dedicated tour manager who picks you up at the Milan airport.

When to visit Piedmont

Piedmont is beautiful and accessible year-round. Choose the season based on your wish-list in the region. Skiers will want to visit in winter, while hikers should choose summer or fall. Fall is prime time for foodies who want to savor food and wine at the height of the harvest, and for those who want to experience the famed White Truffle Festival of Alba.

Conclusion

The city of Turin may not be on Italy’s Venice to Rome tourist circuit, but this dynamic city has a lot to offer. It is one of Italy’s industrial and economic powerhouses, home to the headquarters of some of the country’s most iconic brands: Fiat, Caffarel, and Martini & Rossi. It was the first capital of modern Italy, and today it’s known as Italy’s chocolate capital.

Join me on cultural vacation to experience the best this region has to offer, on our “Flavors and Vistas” small group tour, where the “real Italy” is still going strong.

Planning a trip to Italy?

Would you like to visit Italy without investing all the time and research necessary to arrange it? I can help with that! I specialize in creating authentic trip experiences, with customized itineraries for private groups, or independent travel, and leading our small group trips in northern Italy. Contact me, to discuss the possibilities. I would love to help you make your vacation a truly unique experience.

About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, to European native parents, and raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, and how I look at the world and travel continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish and English of course). I have spent a lifetime in several countries in Western Europe, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working. I grew up with the local customs and traditions of these countries.