This fairy-tale mountain village in the valley of Monte Rosa over the border from Zermatt in Switzerland is one of the most picturesque and least touristy bases for skiing and hiking in the Piedmont Alps. The town’s architecture features mostly traditional wood with some stone chalets of Germanic origin, which are decorated with red geranium window boxes and frilly white curtains. It is a true rural idyll where you’ll find cows grazing on the pastures surrounding one of the local churches.
Lake Orta has been hailed as the ‘Italian lake tourists haven’t discovered’ and is just 90 minutes from the region’s capital, Turin. The charming village of San Giulio is located on a promontory that juts out into the water, giving it the appearance of floating on the lake. The village hosts the festival Ortafiori in April and May, a large feast and display of blooming flowers in the streets. Take a boat trip to the lake’s tiny Isola San Giulio, or use it as a base to hike and admire the surrounding hills.
Lake Maggiore is another of Northern Italy’s big lakes, bordering both Lombardy (on the east shore) and Piedmont (west shore). In the Piedmont province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Stresa is the lake’s main resort town, offering regular ferries to the beautiful and quirky Borromean islands. The Grand Hotel is where Ernest Hemingway famously wrote part of his moving novel A Farewell to Arms, in which the main characters flee World War I by rowing across Lake Maggiore to safety. In addition to the lake, tourists can take a cable car that travels to the top of Mount Mottarone in just 20 minutes; here visitors will find fresh mountain air, panoramic views of the landscape and several hiking trails.
The vineyard-covered landscapes of Piedmont’s Langhe-Roero and Monferatto regions have been recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. South of Turin, between the Po River and Ligurian Apennines, the area is celebrated for producing world-renowned wines from ancient grape varieties. The village of Barolo is at the heart of producing the mighty red wine, Barolo, from Nebbiolo grapes. Vineyard tours and wine tastings aside, the village’s main attraction is the medieval Castello Falletti. Otherwise, it is a sleepy place made for leisurely walks, sipping espresso and trying new gelato flavours.
The town of Alba, also located in the protected Langhe region, has Italy’s highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants and is at the heart of Piedmont’s white truffle season between September and January as the host of an annual festival dedicated to the gastronomic delicacy every October. Aside from being a foodie heaven, Alba is the quintessential fortified medieval town with a soaring 12th-century gothic cathedral, Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, at its centre. On Saturdays, the whole town is occupied by a classic Italian street market selling fresh produce, clothing and jewelry.
If you walk along Neive’s cobbled streets of rusty-hued cottages, you’ll catch glimpses of the surrounding verdant hills. It is another typical Langhe village with a mixture of buildings from the 13th to the 18th century centred around several plazas, which are lively with village life. Located just northeast of Alba, the town of Neive has some of the same gastronomic delights but with less fanfare and fewer tourists.
Asti’s fascinating medieval history is apparent in its vast gothic cathedral (the largest in the region) and imposing turreted castle. After a rivalry with nearby Alba was resolved, it was proclaimed an independent city-state in 1095. Due to its strategic position, it garnered enough power and wealth to mint its coins. Like Siena in Tuscany, it also hosts one of Italy’s oldest Palio competitions (medieval horse races) every September; records of a Palio event from 1275 suggest it’s been a longstanding tradition. What Asti is best known for, however, is for being at the centre of the landscape that produces Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti, two celebrated sparkling white wines made from the Moscato Bianco grape. You can sample them at one of the town’s many charming wine bars or venture to a nearby winery for a formal tasting.
In 1986, the Slow Food Movement was founded in Bra with the aim of preventing the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions and to prevent the negative effects of increasingly fast paced lifestyles on the quality of food that people consume. The not-for-profit organisation still has its headquarters in the Piedmont town and it hosts a biannual Slow Food cheese fair. Bra is not the most picturesque village in the region, but its historial qualities exude charm, as do the several small, family-run shops selling locally produced products such as organic sausages, cheese and chocolate. Moreover, like almost everywhere in Piedmont, the town is set against the stunning backdrop of the snow-capped Alps.
Saluzzo is a small town in the Cuneo province of Piedmont, under an hour’s drive from the Parco Natural Monviso, making it an ideal base for travellers wanting to take a hike during their trip. It is typical 14th-century hill village, with a small castle surrounded by a maze of narrow streets, medieval buildings and elegant palazzos. It also has interesting literary links—Saluzzo was the setting of the final story of Boccaccio’s The Decameron as well as Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.
A mere 170 people live in Chianale, the village with the highest altitude in the Varaita Valley, located on Italy’s border with France. It comprises a disparate cluster of tiny, old stone houses and a small parish. A strong stream cuts through its centre and a dam, which was constructed in the early 1940s, creates a beautiful lake in the summer months. On the village’s periphery is the Alevè forest, the largest forest of Swiss pines in Europe, and beyond that are the pyramid-like peaks of Monte Viso. A visit to Chianale is like going back in time because there are almost no signs of modern life, only green pastures and mountains as far as the eye can see.