In 1969, The Italian Job brought excitement and drama to Turin. Next year's Winter Olympics should do the same, says William Ham Bevan

WHERE?

Turin is the capital of the Piedmont region of Italy, and is situated on the west bank of the River Po. Although known as an important manufacturing centre, it possesses some of Europe's best examples of baroque architecture.

The main gateway is Turin airport, 16km away (00 39 011 300 0611; www.aeroportoditorino.it). A regular shuttle bus (€5/£3.50) operates to the city centre every half-hour at peak times, and every 45 minutes off peak. Buses stop at the Porta Nuova and Porta Susa railway stations on the way to Via Paolo Sacchi in the city centre.

Getting around Turin is straightforward, thanks to an efficient public transport network. The system is about to be expanded with the opening of a long-awaited underground line in November.

Tickets must be bought in advance of boarding buses, trains or trams, and are obtainable from any shop displaying the ticket-agent symbol: a white T on a blue background. Single tickets cost €0.90 (£0.65) and are valid for 70 minutes; a 24-hour pass for the inner section of the network costs €3 (£2.15).

A better alternative is to buy a Torino Card from one of the three Turismo Torino information points (00 39 011 535 181, www.turismotorino.org): at the airport, Porta Nuova rail station and Piazza Solferino. The card costs €15 (£11) for 48 hours or €17 (£12.15) for 72 hours. It entitles you to free travel on public transport and the hourly TurismoBus guided tours, free entry to most of Turin's museums and exhibitions, and reductions on concert and show tickets.

The centre of Turin is set out on a symmetrical grid pattern, and is easy to navigate. To take in the baroque treasures at the city's heart, the best starting point is Piazza Castello, once power base to the House of Savoy. The square is dominated by the Palazzo Reale and the facing Palazzo Madama (entry to public sections free with Torino Card). Both are open Tuesday to Monday, though the art and antiquity gallery within the latter remains closed for restoration. A suggested walking itinerary of the city's significant buildings is available from the three Turismo Torino posts.

Many of Turin's hotels rely heavily on the conference trade, so there has been little impetus to exceed the adequate. This is beginning to change, and late December will see a new five-star hotel, the Golden Palace, open in the Palazzo Toro in downtown Turin (00 39 011 55 12 111; www.goldenpalace.thi.it). Those wishing for 20th-century architecture can stay in the Lingotto complex, south of the central area on via Nizza. This modernist landmark was once home to Fiat. It now houses a conference centre, shopping mall, art gallery and two hotels: the four-star Meridien Lingotto and a five-star annexe, the spectacular Turin Art + Tech (both 08000 282840; www.lemeridien.com). Double rooms at both start at €225 (£161) room only, and both hotels permit guests to go jogging on the former test track at roof level, featured in the 1969 film The Italian Job.

Another hotel that stands out from the pack is the Hotel Boston (00 39 011 500 359; www.hotelbostontorino.it), which crams an eclectic selection of modern artwork and furniture into an Art Nouveau building not far from Porta Nuova station. Doubles from €120 (£86) including breakfast.

It is difficult to eat badly in Turin. The most venerable restaurant is the Ristorante del Cambio on Piazza Carignano (00 39 011 543 760). It boasts gilt-edged mirrors and liveried waiting staff, and is reputed to have changed little since Count Cavour plotted Italy's unification here over traditional Piedmontese dishes such as barolo-braised beef and polenta. Mains start at €30 (£21.40).

For a less expensive take on local specialities, Le Vitel Etonné on via San Francesco da Paola (00 39 011 812 4621) is highly recommended. The name is a pun on the Piedmont classic of vitello tonnato - veal in a tuna mayonnaise sauce.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Michelin-starred Combal.Zero, 12km west of the centre at Rivoli Castle (00 39 011 956 5225; closed Monday and Tuesday; bus 36 from Porta Nuova station). This is Turin's most talked-about restaurant and commands a national following. Davide Scabin, Italy's answer to Heston Blumenthal (with the same flair for self-publicity), conjures up an experimental cuisine using local ingredients; he claims some of his dishes are so tricky to match with wine that he has to create his own drinks to accompany them. Mains from €28 (£18.80).

WHY?

The eyes of the world will be on Turin between 10 and 26 February next year, as the 20th Winter Olympic Games get under way; see www.torino2006.org for details of all events. The opening and closing ceremonies, and all the ice-rink events except for curling, will take place at venues within the city - including the newly refurbished Olympic Stadium, built by Mussolini in 1933.

Skiing, snowboarding and sledging events, as well as the curling, will be held at various mountain locations. These will be accessible by rail from Turin to one of the three nominated Olympic stations - Pinerolo, Oulx and Bardonecchia - from which a free bus service operates to the venues.

Alongside the sporting action, a "Cultural Olympiad" of arts events will be taking place, including theatre and dance performances, exhibitions of the visual arts and stagings of two Puccini operas. Final details are soon to be announced on the Olympic website.

Next April also sees Turin take over from Montreal as UNESCO World Book Capital, with further literary events planned over the course of the year (see portal.unesco.org).

WHAT?

The Torino Card permits free entry to all the museums mentioned here. Turin's celebrated shroud is now displayed only on special occasions; you can see an interesting exhibition about it in the Museo della Sindone, via San Domenico (00 39 011 436 5832; www.sindone.org); it opens daily from 9am-12 noon and 3-7pm, admission €5.15 (£3.70).

Turin's other cultural attractions deserve more recognition than they have received. One little-known gem is the Museo Egizio, on Via Accademia delle Scienze, which houses one of the world's largest Egyptian collections (00 39 011 561 7776; www.museoegizio.org; open 8.30am-7.30pm daily except Monday; admission is €6.50/£4.60). It is a no-nonsense sort of exhibition, where the artefacts - including an entire temple, shipped over block by block - are allowed to speak for themselves. Also notable is the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Italy's national film museum (00 39 011 812 5658; www.museonazionaledelcinema.org; open daily except Monday, 9am-8pm, to 11pm Sat; admission €5.20/£3.70). This is located in the city's most iconic building, the Mole Antonelliana - portrayed both on the Italian two-cent coin and in stylised form on the 2006 Olympic logo.

The modern art collection at the Museo di Arte Contemporanea warrants the 12km trip to the restored Rivoli Castle. A shuttle service runs to the castle from Piazza Castello on Saturdays and Sundays; at other times, take bus 36 from Porta Nuova station. The museum features works from artists including Gilbert and George, Jeff Koons and Soll LeWitt - as well as Maurizio Cattelan's signature stuffed horse. The museum (00 39 011 956 5222; www.castellodirivoli.it) is open Tue-Thu 10am-5pm and Fri-Sun 10am-9pm, €6.50 (£4.60).

It is difficult to leave Turin without sampling two of the items on which its fame rests: chocolate and vermouth. Chocoholics can avail themselves of the "Chocopass" from one of the Turismo Torino centres - a book of coupons that can be exchanged for sweet treats throughout the city. Ten coupons valid for 24 hours cost €10 (£7), while 15 coupons valid for 48 hours cost €15 (£11). Look out for the gianduiotti (hazelnut pralines), bicerin (melted chocolate with coffee and cream) and pinguino (a chocolate ice-cream designed for eating on the move). To sample the characteristic Torinese aperitif, try ordering a "punt e mes" at Baratti & Milano (00 39 011 440 7138), an elegant and lively period piece of a café, just off the Piazza Castello; open Tuesday-Sunday from 8am until 9pm.

TOP WINTER OLYMPIC EVENTS

Friday 10 February: Opening ceremony, Stadio Olympico, Turin

Some spaces for the ceremony remain available at the time of writing. Tickets for this and all events may be ordered by calling 00 39 039 838 250, or online at www.torino2006.org

Sunday 12 February: Men's downhill, Sestriere Borgata

Alpine skiing's blue-riband event is likely to be a nail-biter. The course alternates shallow, winding turns with abrupt sections of greater steepness - favouring the most versatile downhillers, and perhaps producing an upset.

Monday 20 February: Figure skating (free ice dance), Palavela, Turin

The spectacular new Palavela arena - unveiled to host this year's short-track speed skating championships - will be the setting for the event in which Torvill and Dean took gold in Sarajevo in 1984.

Thursday 23 February: Women's curling final, Pinerolo Palaghiaccio

The only event in which Great Britain will be defending a gold medal from the 2002 Winter Olympics - the first since 1984. A strong contingent of Scottish spectators is assured.

Sunday 26 February: Men's ice-hockey final, Stadio Olympico, Turin

A climactic farewell event for the 20th Winter Olympics, facing off just six hours before the closing ceremony in the same stadium.

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