Italy's second-largest region is arguably its most elegant: a purveyor of Slow Food and fine wine, regal palazzi and an atmosphere that is superficially more français than italiano. But dig deeper and you'll discover that Piedmont has 'Made in Italy' stamped all over it. Emerging from the chaos of the Austrian wars, the unification movement first exploded here in the 1850s, when the noble House of Savoy provided the nascent nation with its first prime minister and its dynastic royal family.
Most Piedmont journeys start in stately Turin, famous for football and Fiats. Beyond the car factories, Piedmont is notable for its food – everything from rice to white truffles – and pretty pastoral landscapes not unlike nearby Tuscany.
The region's smaller towns were once feuding fiefdoms that bickered over trade and religion. Today the biggest skirmishes are more likely to be over recipes and vintages as they vie for the gourmet traveller euro.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Piedmont.
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. Among its many highlights are a statue of Ramses II (one of the world's most important pieces of Egyptian art) and a vast papyrus collection. There are also 500 funerary and domestic items from the tomb of royal architect Kha and his wife Merit, dating to 1400 BC and found in 1906.
Some 21km west of Turin, the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art is a giant of modern art in Piedmont. Its ambition and reach, not to mention healthy regional funding, has been the envy of Milan, Venice and Rome's art worlds. The permanent collection has a sizeable number of Arte Povera works, which are beautifully displayed in the historical setting, along with pieces from the Transavanguardia, Minimal, Body and Land Art movements.
OK, it may not enjoy the weighty publicity of its French counterpart, but this is one of the largest royal residences in the world, rescued from ruin by a €235 million 10-year-long restoration project. Humongous, ostentatious, regal, yet strangely underpublicised, this Unesco-listed baroque palace some 14km northwest of Turin was built as a glorified hunting lodge in 1675 by the frivolous Duke of Savoy, Carlo Emanuele II.
Vittorio Amedeo II's 1706 promise, to build a basilica to honour the Virgin Mary if Turin was saved from besieging French and Spanish armies, resulted in this wedding cake edifice, built on a hill across the Po river.
Turin's cathedral was built between 1491 and 1498 on the site of three 14th-century basilicas and, before that, a Roman theatre. Plain interior aside, as home to the Shroud of Turin (traditionally believed to be the burial cloth in which Jesus' body was wrapped), this is a highly trafficked church. The famous cloth is not on display, but you can see where it is kept and watch explanatory video presentations.
As the historic birthplace of one of the world's leading car manufacturers – the ‘T’ in Fiat stands for Torino – Turin is the obvious place for a car museum. This dashing modern museum, located roughly 5km south of the city centre, doesn't disappoint with its precious collection of more than 200 automobiles – everything from an 1892 Peugeot to a 1980 Ferrari 308 (in red, of course).
Statues of the mythical twins Castor and Pollux guard the entrance to this eye-catching palace and, according to local hearsay, also watch over the magical border between the sacred and diabolical halves of the city. Built for Carlo Emanuele II around 1646, its lavishly decorated rooms complete with jaw-dropping coffered ceilings house an assortment of furnishings, porcelain, and other finery. The Giardino Reale, north and east of the palace, was designed in 1697 by André Le Nôtre, who also created the gardens at Versailles.
Alba's winemaking-restaurateuring Ceretti family has commissioned a number of site-specific artworks in the region and this never-consecrated chapel is one of the most wonderful. Its Sol LeWitt exterior and David Tremlett interiors were added in 1999. Lewitt's playful intervention is visible from across the vines, but don't miss Tremlett's work inside, which is both serene and enlivening. It's always open, just push the door.
The pristine and impressive triumphal Arch of Augustus, dating to 9BC, sits just outside the centre of town. It marks the transition of power between the Celtic-Ligurian Marcus Julius Cottius and Roman Emperor Augustus, who in fact inaugurated it on his way home from Gaul. Its beautifully peaceful position makes it all the more enthralling, plus you'll often get it all to yourself.