09 Jan 48 Hours in Trieste, a hidden gem in Northern Italy
Towards the end of 2019, at approximately T-minus eight months until my Big Three-O, I finally decided to get going on a 30 Before 30 list. Because what better way to end my second decade than by failing to complete a series of things that I didn’t even need to do in the first place?
Numbers 1 to 10 are – unsurprisingly – places to visit. But, somewhat more surprisingly, not a single one is outside the country. Why? Well, in the interests of being a well-rounded adult, I thought it might be a nice idea to visit all the regions of the place I call home before I turn thirty.
Until now, I’ve been to just ten of twenty of Italy’s regions. Still to go, Trentino Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia in the north, Marche, Umbria, Abruzzo, and Molise in the centre, Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabriain the South, and Sardinia, floating around on the left hand side of the boot. If I’m being honest, I know I’ll never manage to get to every single one of these before July. If nothing else, it’ll be fun to try.
Sadly, most of these regions are exceedingly time-consuming and/or expensive to get to from Torino – a city strategically placed if you like quick visits to other countries, but less so if you want to stay in the same one.
Considering we had neither holiday days to take nor money for a big trip, S and I decided to kick off the challenge by visiting the most easily-accessible of the ten: Friuli Venezia Giulia, represented by the city of Trieste.
At a cool 550km away, Trieste is – as the crow flies – actually further away from Turin than Marseille, Zurich, or even Innsbruck. But what this city has that those other three don’t is a direct, high-speed train connection from Torino Porta Nuova. We boarded the Frecciarossa on a Friday at lunchtime and arrived five hours later in Trieste, just in time for Spritz o’clock (which – especially here – is always).
Side note: we’d done a fairly last-minute booking, just a couple of weeks before our visit, and in the meantime the heavens had well and truly opened on the entire Italian Peninsula, leaving the entire North East underwater. Luckily, we didn’t need snorkels or even wellies, but we risked a ruined trip big time. So let’s just say that the first weekend in December is probably not the ideal time to plan a visit to this part of Italy.
Anyway, I was thrilled to have a good excuse to visit Trieste, because I’d been curious about the place for a while – it had even been on my shortlist of cities to move to, back when I was into buying plane tickets to cities I’d never been to and transferring my entire life there (ah, to be young!).
As I’d suspected, this city is a little treasure. At something like 15km from the Slovenian border, and about 10 more km from Croatia beyond that, with a history of invasions, re-invasions and even a brief stint as an independent city-state, Trieste is unsurprisingly a delightful mish-mash of cultural influences.
While you may find yourself picking apart every detail you come across, trying to figure out if this is an “Italian thing” or perhaps more of a “Central European thing”, at the end of the day you’ll probably conclude that Trieste doesn’t fit neatly into any box. And that that’s actually what’s so charming about the place. You have the architectural grandeur of Turin, the higgledy-piggledy alleyways and sea air of Genoa or Naples, pastel coloured art nouveau facades that wouldn’t look out of place in Riga, the aperitivo culture of Venice, the literary cafés and buttery pastries of Vienna, the charming melancholy of Paris… but an overwhelming sensation that despite the endless comparisons, this place is totally unique.
Now, let’s just get one thing straight before we move on: there is not a whole lot to actually do in Trieste, which is presumably why tourist guides often quietly leave it out. This is not a tourist’s paradise by any stretch of the imagination. There are no world famous galleries, no mind-blowingly exciting museums, no huge towers to climb or iconic sights to visit. This is not Florence or Rome.
But that, friends, is the beauty of the place. It is small, quiet, almost completely devoid of tourists, and a joy to aimlessly wander around. There is absolutely no point in trying to construct a minute-by-minute itinerary – the only thing to do here is improvise.
We had 48 hours in Trieste, which was an ideal amount of time to get a feel for the place.
Having done no research whatsoever, our first act of improvisation on Friday night was dinner. Our Airbnb host had taken our rather simple brief (“nearby, cheap”) and provided us with a set of very vague directions (“down the hill, keep going down, left at the bottom, keep going for a bit, there.“) to somewhere he was sure would fit the bill: a buffet named Da Siora Rosa.
Buffets are arguably what Trieste is most famous for. They are nothing to do with all-you-can-eat buffets, but instead a variant on what I have always known as the “Italian Old Man Bar” – a bona fide category, if you ask me – think wood paneling, ever so slightly mismatched cutlery, 1970s floor tiles, retro but not deliberately so, food unceremoniously plonked on your plate, delicious, but not a thing of beauty.
On offer, a selection of reasonably priced, hearty, mostly pre-prepared foods. You can mix and match whatever’s available, or just play it safe and order from the menu. All the dishes are of course intended to be washed down with large quantities of affordable local booze (you can ask for a glass of wine, but probably won’t see anyone with less than a jug). Local food in Trieste, much like local culture, is a hotch potch of all sorts of bits and pieces – a treat for the chronically indecisive.
These buffets are not even slightly nice to look at, but they’re typical, welcoming, cheap, and yummy. At Da Siora Rosa, we were squeezed in despite the whole place being rammed, treated with kindness, and stuffed to bursting with various kinds of meat, fish and sauerkraut, and paid about 15€ per person. A good start to the weekend, I think we can all agree.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to discover – to our delight – that it wasn’t raining (for the first time in what felt like a century). The obvious conclusion was that we needed to do all of our exploring in the next 9 hours, just in case the forecast was right and we were stuck inside all day Sunday.
Cue a Saturday of extremely efficient tourism.
After a delicious pancake breakfast at trendy Mimì e Cocotte, we set off towards Piazza Unità d’Italia, where we were greeted with a variety of Christmas music, different tunes blaring from different speakers around the square, making for a very trippy experience when standing in the centre. We decided to save the rest of the city centre for later, instead hopping straight on bus n° 6 up the coast, to see one of Trieste’s most famous landmarks, the Castello di Miramare.
(I am reliably informed that in summer, you can get to Miramare on a boat from the city centre. But this was December, and I get very seasick, so no thanks anyway.)
After a false start involving trusting Google Maps too much, staying on the bus for too long and trying (unsuccessfully) to arrive at the castle through a garden centre, we made it to Miramare.
From the outside, the bright white castle looks like it was designed by Mattel for a Barbie Princess. It’s extremely nice to look at, and the surroundings make it even more so.
The history is a bit more grim, unfortunately – commissioned by Ferdinand Maximillian of the House of Habsburg in 1856 after he ended up taking shelter in the gulf on a stormy night and deciding it’d be a great spot for a big fancy house, the castle was supposed to become home for him and his wife Charlotte of Belgium. Pity that 8 years later, before the place was even completely finished, the pair got shipped off to become the Emperor and Empress of Mexico (don’t ask me why) and then Ferdinand was executed by firing squad just a few years after that. Charlotte returned to live in the castle but, understandably, wasn’t loving life in quite the same way by then.
Sad story, nice architecture.
Again, there’s not a lot to do here, but wandering around the grounds is a pretty nice way to spend a crisp, winter morning. This being Italy, there is of course a coffee shop hidden in the gardens, so despite the castle not really being close to anywhere, you can make a morning of it without worrying that you’ll grind to a halt due to under-caffeination.
Access to the grounds is free, but if you want to see inside the castle (and the interiors are pretty extra), tickets cost 8€. After walking all the way around the grounds, S and I were cold enough to be willing to spend a few euros for half an hour of warmth, so inside we went.
Starting to feel peckish, we headed back down the footpath away from the castle and onto the pine-lined seafront path where we walked until our legs were tired before taking the bus for a few stops the rest of the way back into the city.
Wandering down an alleyway, we came across a sweet little wine-and-nibbles place called Al Ciketo. It was barely lunchtime, but we got a glass of Prosecco and some cured meat down us and warmed up, ready for some more walking around.
The afternoon was spent walking down the side streets of the centro storico, stumbling across tiny shops and cute cafés. As it turns out, Trieste is full of one-of-a-kind boutiques and original little stores – two favourites were the Etre Concept Store (beautiful clothes with sadly less-than-beautiful price tags) and Piolo & Max, the coolest little store selling all kinds of locally-made liquors – the lady working there was also more than happy for us to taste one of practically everything, which was an added bonus.
A quick nap later (no regrets) and we were ready to head out to sample Trieste’s nightlife. That’s a lie, we are old and boring. But we were ready at least for a quick aperitivo and some tasty local food.
Via Torino seemed to be where all the kids were at, so we headed there for a beer at a trendy little place called Draw before going for dinner in a nearby restaurant that we’d spotted that morning.
Nerodiseppia, a semi-fancy fish restaurant, was not cheap, but it was utterly delicious (incidentally, the photos on Google do not do the place justice, trust). Living in land-locked Piemonte, we don’t eat fish often, so spending an evening eating three types of fish tartare and super tasty seafood pasta was a real delight. Before turning in for the night, we went for a quick drink in another place we’d spotted in Via Torino, Mor. This tiny little place was full of people, and for good reason – their drinks are a m a z i n g. I didn’t even want to drink anything, but ended up ordering an elaborate cocktail just because it was impossible not to.
It was Sunday morning before we realised that we’d made a couple of rookie errors.
Number one: staying in a Airbnb with a 10am check-out where we couldn’t leave our bags, when our return train wasn’t until the evening.
Number two: purchasing half of Saturday’s adorable liquor store when we would have to carry our backpacks around all day long.
It was also grey, cold, and Sunday. Meaning that finding our morning coffee was going to be a struggle. On the plus side, we’d remembered that this was the first Sunday of the month. And in Trieste, like in many other Italian cities, that means free museums.
Considering we were staying near the Castello di San Giusto, we decided to head straight up the hill to start the day there, grabbing a (really, really bad) coffee in a tiny place on the way up.
(On the subject of coffee, by the way, here’s a local nugget: in Trieste an espresso is not called a “caffè” like everywhere else in Italy, but a “nero”. A caffè macchiato is a “capo”, and if you want your coffee in a glass rather than a coffee cup – although I’m not entirely sure what benefit that offers – you need to ask for it “in B”. Obviously if you ask for a caffè or a macchiato, you’ll get what you want anyway, you’ll just never pass for a local.)
Anyway, we’d hoped from two things from the castle: somewhere to leave our bags while we walked around, and a café to get a better coffee than the one we’d just drunk. Sadly, we found neither, and while the castle museum itself was half closed and rather underwhelming (the half we saw, at least), we did get some great views over the city from up there. You just can’t go wrong by going to the highest place in the city, friends.
We headed down the hill towards the city centre, where we finally found somewhere to put our alcohol-filled rucksacks down for a quarter of an hour, along with a good cup of coffee and a very buttery croissant at Adoro Cafè.
We took the opportunity to make a vague plan for the day, and realised how efficient we’d been the previous one. Considering we’d essentially already walked the vast majority of the city centre, S convinced me that we should spend our morning at the Trieste aquarium rather than wandering around more, for no better reason than he’d seen that they had a reptile area, and it was free. So that’s what we did. Needless to say, there is a reason that Trieste is not world famous for its aquarium, but considering we spent precisely zero euros, and S left thrilled to have seen several large snakes and a hideous moray eel, there’s only so much complaining a girl can do.
By the time we’d finished, it had started spitting with rain, and we were both already entirely fed up with carrying our heavy backpacks. So rather than going to another museum, we went to get more coffee, and then we went for lunch.
For our last Triestino meal, we headed to one of the city’s most famous eateries, and the one place that everyone I’d talked to before going to Trieste had recommended: Buffet Da Pepi. Again, we’re talking unapologetically unstylish interiors, and large quantities of food.
At Da Pepi, there is no menu to speak of. You are essentially asked, “Wanna eat?”, and then you get what you’re given. Which, it transpires, is pretty much every single part of a pig that you can imagine, served on a pig-shaped plate. After starting the meal by accidentally ingesting a tiny piece of tongue, I made S identify every piece of pig on the plate, and then bargained with him so that he would eat all the parts I found too gross, which meant that in the end I had a pretty enjoyable meal. But this place is not exactly for the faint hearted (or, you know, vegetarians).
A stroll in the rain, yet another coffee, and an entirely unnecessary trip to a pasticceria later, and it was time to make our way back to the station to head back to Turin.
In the end, Trieste was everything yet nothing like I expected it to be. It’s a gem of a city – as culturally confused as I am, and utterly impossible to describe.
For now, I’ll leave you with some more photos, but trust me when I say that this is a city that you can’t fully appreciate until you see it for yourself.