With some of Europe’s fastest trains and most scenic routes, Italy is a great place to travel by train. The country might be more famous for its deluxe sports cars and challenging driving conditions, but Italian trains are economical, comfortable and direct, offering an insight into local life, often with great views thrown into the bargain.
With a bit of savvy route-planning and a flexible schedule, you can quite easily piece together an itinerary that’ll make the journey just as impressive as the destination.
Travel in style on Italy’s fastest trains
If you thought Ferraris were fast, you’ve clearly never travelled on a Frecciarossa 1000, Italy’s arrow-headed high-velocity trains that reach a top cruising speed of 300km/h. The fastest Frecciarossas connect Turin, Milan and Venice in the north before heading further south via Bologna and Florence to Rome, Naples and Salerno.
As a rule, the fastest Rome–Naples trip clocks in at a smidgen over an hour, Rome–Florence zips by in roughly 90 minutes, while Rome–Venice takes 3 hours 40 minutes, which is still very respectable considering the same journey takes well over five hours by car. On these and other main routes, there are approximately two trains an hour.
These streamlined rockets-on-wheels are not only faster than Ferraris, they’re also invitingly comfortable with leather seats, a complimentary glass of prosecco (in business class) and a relatively luxurious dining car where the view changes every five seconds.
Italy’s most scenic train journeys
The speed of Freccia trains means that the scenery is often rendered a blur. For Italy’s most spectacular rail journeys, you’ll have to seek out small private lines and abandon any stringent time constraints.
The epic Centovalli, or ‘100 valleys’, line that starts in Domodossola in Piedmont and travels across 83 bridges in two hours of condensed alpine splendour to terminate in Locarno in Switzerland.
Another beauty is Sardinia’s intentionally slow Trenino Verde, renovated in the 1990s, that runs four summer-only tourist trains along narrow-gauge track through some of the island’s most remote enclaves.
Equally seductive is the Ferrovia Circumetnea which rattles out of Catania in Sicily circumnavigating Mt Etna on a diminutive locomotive that looks more like a trolley bus than a train. En route it crosses lemon groves and lava flows, stopping at remote stations every five minutes.
Rail is also the best way to travel in some of Italy’s most scenic and popular destinations, including the Cinque Terre, where cheap trains connect the five picturesque cliff-top villages, passing through numerous tunnels in the steep cliffs and giving views of the ocean. The bargainous Circumvesuviana connects Naples with Sorrento via the archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii, providing views of Mt Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples along the way.
Arriving in Italy by train
Some of Italy’s finest train journeys cross its international borders with its neighbours to the north. The Brenner Pass route that links Munich with Venice over the Alps is sometimes touted as the finest train ride in Europe, while the EuroNight overnight train between Rome and Vienna with two-bed sleepers (from €100) is a fun option if you’ve never bedded down on a train.
If you’ve got over £2000 to blow and want to imagine you’re living in a Graham Greene novel or an Agatha Christie whodunit, take the Venice Simplon Orient-Express (belmond.com) from London (or Paris) to La Serenissima. This luxury art deco hotel on wheels runs roughly once a week between March and November and was seemingly invented with romance in mind.
Turin’s recently refurbished Porta Susa station is a terminus for French TGV trains which provide rapid service to Lyon and Paris. Milan offers Thello (thello.com) overnight trains to Paris or daytime coastal trains to Nice and Marseilles. By using a mixture of Eurostar and TGVs, it’s possible to travel between Milan and London in one day for a cost of around €65 (or Paris for as little as €25) and you get to see awe-inspiring alpine scenery into the bargain.
Operators and train types
The lion’s share of the country’s rolling stock is run by state-owned subsidiary, Trenitalia (trenitalia.com) which presides over a complex spiderweb of lines that penetrates all 20 of the country’s regions.
Alongside the flagship Frecciarossa, they also operate Frecciargento tilting trains, which run between Rome and Venice at speeds of up to 250km/h. Slightly lower down the speed scale are Frecciabianca and Intercity trains, though these are still usually faster than driving, especially when you factor in traffic and parking.
If budget is more of a concern than speed or you want to get to smaller towns and villages, you’ll probably find yourself travelling on regionale trains, which are surprisingly cheap and stop at all stations. The regionales’ sometimes well-worn carriages aren’t exactly opulent, but a tight holiday budget will stretch a lot further travelling this way.
Providing a bit of friendly competition at the high-velocity end of things are the new-ish Italo trains (italotreno.it) run by NTV, which offer free wifi and lunch boxes provided by high-end food market, Eataly. Like the Frecciarossa, they connect Salerno and Naples in the south with Venice, Milan and Turin in the north, passing through Rome, Florence and Bologna on the way.
Tickets and passes
Rail passes such as Eurail and InterRail won’t usually save you money in Italy, because you still have to pay a reservation fee of around €10 for high-speed trains, and tickets for regular trains aren't expensive. It’s generally cheaper to purchase separate tickets for each journey.
High-speed train tickets come with a specific seat reservation and must be purchased before you get on the train. You can buy tickets online or in person at booths and multi-lingual machines (called biglietto veloce) in stations.
Although trains rarely sell out, pre-booking can save you a lot of money. You can normally book tickets up to four months in advance, the earlier the better if you want to qualify for ‘economy’ or ‘super-economy’ fares which can – with luck – cost less than half the amount of same-day tickets.
Regionale trains, which stop at nearly every station, don’t require reservations. Just pay for your ticket before departure, jump on the train and grab a seat wherever you like.
Validating your ticket
Legion are the tourists who have been caught out by ticket validation in Italy. As regional train tickets aren’t dated, you must ‘time-stamp’ them in a convalida machine on the platform before boarding the train.
Ticket inspectors can fine people travelling with an un-validated ticket (around €50 if you pay on the spot) and although pleas of being an ignorant tourist sometimes work, it’s generally not worth the risk – or embarrassment.
Tickets for high-speed trains don’t require validation, as they can only be used on the specific service they are valid for.
Italy’s train stations inhabit a sliding scale that starts with Rome’s massive Stazione Termini, a mini-city with bookshops, bars and restaurants, and filters down to the kind of single-platform middle-of-nowhere stations that walkers stagger into at the end of lengthy hikes. Most reasonably sized towns will have a centrally located station with a bar where you can grab at least a caffè and a panino, along with slightly iffy toilets.
Stations in large cities like Naples, Milan and Florence are rarely more than a kilometre from the city centre. Venice’s Santa Lucia station even abuts the Grand Canal. But beware: some cities have more than one train station. Turin has two (Porta Susa and Porta Nuova); Rome has four, the most central being Termini (the others are Tiburtina, Ostiense and Trastevere).
Popular legend suggests it was Mussolini who made Italy’s trains run on time, though it’s debatable that Il Duce was solely responsible for ending railway tardiness. Suffice to say, Italian trains are rarely inordinately late and probably suffer fewer delays than planes or car travel. However, keep an eye on the random one-day scioperi (strikes) which are part of Italian culture and can bring public transport to a virtual standstill.