As Torino readies to host the world at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, many unwary tourists will discover Torino for the first time. One of the things tourists will discover is their excellent cafés and coffee: – Take a coffee break in Torino.

For the record, I love Torino. It is one of my favorite cities in all of Italy. Why? Sure, I love the Juventus Football Club. But it’s easily one of Italy’s grandest and most overlooked cities. It’s lined with fantastic Baroque architecture, pedestrian-only zones, and elegant shops. It’s Italy’s café, coffee (it’s home to Lavazza), and chocolate capital — as well as the heart of the Slow Food movement, home to many fantastic wines, and an Italian center for a lot of great high-end cuisine. Once you’ve actually been there, which few tourists have, it’s a very easy city to love (unlike Milan, for example, which takes a little more effort to like).

So why isn’t it more popular? For one, the industrial reputation brought on by being FIAT‘s headquarters. And while FIAT’s imprint is far more in its past than in its present, it’s also true that air pollution levels are sometimes a problem — given Torino’s location nestled in a valley outside of the Alps. Another reason? Other than it’s religious relic namesake, the Shroud of Turin, Torino lacks the big name tourist attactions.

Torino is perhaps a better place to live (or just be) than a place to see world-renowned sights to write home about. If you enjoy melding into a culture for a while — rather than hanging with the throngs of tourists who came over with you to oogle over the same attractions — you can have this city to yourself. This city of almost one million residents is so backroads that even “back door” European travel wonks like Rick Steves won’t be caught dead here. (I wasn’t so fortunate the last time I was in Vernazza in the Cinque Terre, for example.)

And sometimes, that’s just the way I like my travels. Standing at the Caffè Torino bar, sipping an espresso, and chatting up the controversial calls at the last Juventus match with the locals. I only hope that when the Olympics leave, I’ll have Torino back for myself again.