The ultimate guide to exploring Italy by train
Days in Rome are balmy and blue-skied. Tuscany’s hills have a shading of fresh green. Poppies dot Puglia’s ancient olive groves, camellias bloom in villa gardens and lemon blossom scents Amalfi’s medieval streets.
Spring is glorious in most places, but especially in Italy, where its reach is long – from early April in the warm south to late June in the flower-covered meadows of the high Alps – and looking ahead to its embrace is never more heartening than during the British bleak mid-winter.
It’s a wonderful time to travel, but especially if you are on a train, either moving between towns and cities, where temperatures are perfect for urban sightseeing, or rolling through countryside – Umbria’s pastoral hills, say, or Sicily’s wild interior – that is at its seasonal best.
There was a time, of course, when train travel in Italy was a challenge. Quaint, yes, but often ramshackle, unreliable and crowded. Those days are gone. Local, rural trains can still be quaint – but in a good way – while high-speed services between major cities, along with online booking procedures, are as good as any in Europe.
Italy is made for train travel, thanks to the lie of the land and that famous shape: you can cover long north-to-south distances quickly on flat coastal main lines, or travel from west to east – Turin, Milan, Verona, Venice – across the plains of the Po.
But then it pays to pause and meander along little regional lines, from the network that links the Italian Lakes and valleys of the Alps or the scenic rural railways that thread through Umbria, Tuscany, Abruzzo, Sicily and Puglia.
Below we have outlined three itineraries between key Italian cities, but not on high-speed, non-stopping services but rather using slower trains that take in less well-known but first-rank towns filled with art, food, architecture, culture and other of Italy’s many temptations.
It’s easy to plan and execute Italian rail trips under your own steam. Italians are generally helpful and have more than enough English to point you towards the railway station. Travel in spring and you’ll also enjoy less crowded cities and often better rates in hotels.
But if you want someone to do the booking for you, or be on the spot throughout to help out, we have listed several tour operators who specialise in tailor-made or small-group escorted rail journeys.
Rail prices below are the lowest available at the time of writing for advance tickets purchased online. Tickets bought on the day may cost more. Journey times are averages; trips may be slower – or quicker. Hotel rates are “from” prices for double rooms.
Turin to Florence
Let’s start in Turin (turismotorino.org), because if you want to travel to Italy from the UK by rail, the route to Piedmont’s fine Baroque capital is the obvious one, thanks to direct connections from Paris (6hr; £35). Stay in the historic Grand Hotel Sitea (grandhotelsitea.it; doubles from £89), not Turin’s fanciest accommodation but central and excellent value.
This unsung city is definitely worth a day or more – visit its museums, elegant squares, palaces and historic cafés before taking a slow but magnificently scenic train through the Alps to Ventimiglia (4hr; £15) via Cuneo.
This leaves you on the Italian Riviera with fast options south to Genoa and Pisa. Ignore these and take your time. In summer, busy Alassio has the best beach on the first stretch of the Riviera, with Finale Ligure a good overnight bet year-round if big-city Genoa is not for you.
Better still is Camogli (welcomecamogli.it), 45 minutes south of Genoa by train (£3.60) and lovely at any time of year. Stay near the waterfront at the Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi (cenobio.it; from £126).
Ninety minutes south again – with a change of trains at Sestri Levante, another charming little resort – are the Cinque Terre (cinqueterre.it), five impossibly pretty but busy coastal villages, all served by train. Manarola and Vernazza are the standouts but visit early or, better still, make nearby Levanto your base. Be sure to take a boat ride along the cliff-edged coast (navigazionegolfodeipoeti.it).
Continue south on the main-coast line, but hop off at Vezzano to head inland to Aulla, where a superb little line runs through the mountains to Lucca (2hr; £9), a magnificent town (turismo.lucca.it) and – given its rail links – a good base for visiting nearby Pisa, Pistoia and Prato, and for onward trains to Florence (1hr 20min; £8) or Rome (3hr; £24).
Within Lucca’s old walls – which is where you want to be – the Hotel Ilaria (hotelilaria.com; from £97) is a long-established mid-range choice, with the revamped Grande Universe Lucca (grandeuniverselucca.com; from £190) the best smarter option.
Venice to Florence
Fly or ride one of several scenic rail routes through Switzerland and the Alps to arrive in Venice. After a few days in the city, choose one of two slow-train options to Florence: the first via Ferrara (1hr; £8.50), an unsung medieval and Renaissance gem (ferrarainfo.com), and then Ravenna (1hr 10min; £6.50), celebrated for the extraordinary Byzantine mosaics adorning many of its churches (turismo.ra.it).
Trains via Faenza and Borgo San Lorenzo will then take you to Florence (2hr 30min; £11.50) on a scenic line through the Apennines.
A superb, but busier alternative takes you first to unmissable Vicenza (45min; £5.85) for a day’s sightseeing focused on this tiny city’s Palladian architecture (vicenzae.org) before a short hop to Verona (40min; £5.30) and two or more days exploring the city’s churches, picturesque old centre and one of Europe’s finest Roman amphitheatres (turismoverona.eu).
Stay at the comfortable but no-frills Hotel Accademia (hotelaccademiaverona.it; £97), a central four-star, or more-frills Victoria (palazzo-victoria.verona.hotels.veneto.com; from £146).
Then head for Mantova (46min; £3.75), barely visited but beautifully situated on a trio of lakes (take a boat trip), and with a magnificent ducal palace, sleepy squares and lovely arcaded streets that will keep you happy for two days or more (turismo.mantova.it). Stay at the Hotel Broletto (hotelbroletto.it; from £110) or the Palazzo Castiglioni (palazzocastiglionimantova.com; from £236) for a treat.
Trains run to Florence (3hr; £25.50) via a change in Bologna but consider a roundabout route with a morning or more in both Parma (for its food, cathedral and shopping) and Modena (for its cathedral, museums and Albinelli market) before taking a slow train to Florence from Bologna via a change at Prato (1hr 12min; £35) – itself worth a morning – and another captivating ride through the Apennines.
Florence to Rome
This is a slow and easily varied itinerary for a journey that takes 90 minutes (£14) by high-speed train. It offers a great way to see the countryside and hill-towns of Umbria (umbriatourism.it), plus two fine Tuscan towns, along with a scenic ride through the uplands of Abruzzo (abruzzotourism.it), one of Italy’s least-known regions.
First stop is Arezzo (1hr 10min; £9; arezzoturismo.it) to admire its main square, Piazza Grande, and the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in the church of San Francesco. Then it’s a 20-minute train journey to Cortona for the night – you’ll need a bus or taxi for the 20-minute ride from the station at Camucia-Cortona – followed by a morning to explore the sublime medieval town. Stay at the Hotel San Michele (hotelsanmichele.net; from £65).
Then into Umbria, past Lake Trasimeno, perhaps with a day in Perugia (turismo.comune.perugia.it) for its Etruscan- and Roman-era streets and the art-filled Galleria Nazionale. Then a definite overnight in pretty Assisi (visit-assisi.it), full of picturesque corners and home to one of Europe’s finest religious and artistic monuments, the Basilica di San Francesco. Stay at the no-nonsense Pallotta (hotelpallotta.it; from £50) or the smarter Fontebella (fontebellahotel-assisi.com; from £116).
Hop off the train a few minutes south of Assisi for an hour or so in Spello, a maze of medieval streets, and then give a day to Spoleto (spoletocard.it), perhaps Umbria’s loveliest hill-town, before the train on to Terni. Treat yourself in Spoleto with a stay at the Palazzo Leti (palazzoleti.com; from £106) or save money with a night at Il Panciolle (ilpanciolle.it; from £64).
From Terni take the scenic line south for a night in Sulmona (3hr; £18) via a change in L’Aquila. Sulmona (visit-sulmona.it) is a delight, all airy piazzas and ancient streets, usually with not a visitor in sight. From Sulmona it’s an easy train ride to Rome (2hr 30min; £11) via Avezzano.