As elegant and iconic as a pair of Gucci pumps, Italy has more must-see sights than you could squeeze into a lifetime. With so much to do and see, most visitors can't wait to roam around, taking in everything from Roman ruins and Renaissance art to Florentine food and Milanese fashion, and from sparking Sicilian seascapes to crystal clear Alpine air.
Fortunately, getting around this slender, boot-shaped country is easy, thanks to superb transport infrastructure, with buses and trains ferrying passengers between buzzing cities and mountain villages, boats buzzing from fishing port to beach resort along the coast, and roads that climb across some of the most dramatic mountains in Europe.
Whether you have your heart set on touring Tuscany, time-traveling in Rome or eating your way around Emelia Romagna, here's what you need to know about getting around in Italy.
Travel by train for views of the stunning Italian countryside
Italy boasts an extensive rail network spanning the length of the country, meaning most major cities – including Rome, Florence, Naples, Bologna and Palermo – are connected by regular train services. Best of all, you can sit back and soak in the gorgeous scenery in between them.
Most trains are run by Trenitalia, Italy's national train operator, while a handful of high-velocity services are handled by privately-owned Italo. Routes are well integrated into the Europe-wide Interrail and Eurail rail pass system. Trains in Italy broadly fall into three main categories:
- Regionale: the slowest and cheapest trains, generally stopping at all or most stations en route
- InterCity (IC): faster services operating between major cities (their international counterparts are called EuroCity)
- Alta Velocità (AV): High-velocity Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, Frecciabianca and Italo trains, with speeds of up to 300km/h and good connections between major cities.
Reservations can be made on the Trenitalia and Italo websites, at railway station counters, and at self-service ticketing machines, as well as through travel agents. Though tickets can usually be bought on the day of travel, Trenitalia and Italo offer decent discounts on advance purchases. Generally, the earlier you book, the greater the saving – though refunds and changes on such tickets are highly restricted.
Ticket prices in Italy tend to be in line, if not slightly cheaper than, other Western European nations, and vary depending on train type and class. Most Italian trains have 1st- and 2nd-class seating, with a 1st-class ticket typically costing from a third to half more than 2nd-class.
If it's classic Italian scenery you're after, plan your trip around some of Italy's dramatic mountain railway journeys. The trip on the cute, red Bernina Express train between Tirano and Chur, St Moritz or Davos in Switzerland is one of the best rail rides in the Alps.
Buses are the inexpensive way to explore Italy
Though slower than trains, buses are a cheaper form of transport in Italy, and they provide access to smaller towns and villages not served by Italy’s rail network. Buses are run by a host of private companies, including Flixbus, Marinobus and Marozzi, with a web of routes that stretches to all corners of the country. Services range from meandering local buses to small villages that may only run once a day, to fast, reliable intercity connections.
Tickets can be purchased online through bus company websites. Alternatively, in larger cities, most intercity bus companies have ticket offices (usually at or near the main bus station) or sell tickets through travel agencies. In villages and smaller towns, tickets are sold in bars or on the bus. Advanced booking is not generally required, though is advisable for overnight or long-haul trips in high season.
Getting around by car, motorcycle or Vespa means maximum freedom
Having a private vehicle in Italy means you can travel at your own pace and visit regions with minimal public transport, which is particularly handy in the mountains. Road conditions are generally good, but lax maintenance in some areas means that you should be prepared for potholes and rough, bumpy surfaces, particularly on smaller, secondary roads.
Local driving conditions can also take some getting used to. Roads can be narrow, non-resident vehicles are restricted from entering the centro storico (historic center) of many towns and cities, and traffic congestion is common. Parking can also be hard to find in urban areas (one reason for the huge popularity of scooters) and local drivers have a reputation for being impatient and quick to use their horns.
Car hire companies operate throughout the country, allowing you to pick up and drop off vehicles in most major cities. Operators include Avis, Europcar, Hertz and Italy by Car, among others. Consider hiring a small compact car, as doing so will reduce your fuel expenses and make it easier to negotiate narrow city lanes and tight parking spaces.
Agencies throughout Italy rent motorcycles and scooters, ranging from small Vespas to large touring bikes. Prices start at around €35/150 (US$37.50/160.50) per day/week for a small 50cc scooter and rise to above €80/400 (US$86/428) per day/week for a 650cc motorcycle. A license is required to ride a scooter – a car license will do for bikes up to 125cc; for anything over 125cc, you'll need a motorcycle license. Wearing a helmet is compulsory on all two-wheeled vehicles.
Pre-booking costs less than hiring a car once you arrive in Italy. Renters must generally be 21 or over, with a credit card and home-country driving license or International Driving Permit. It's obligatory to wear seat belts (front and rear), to drive with your headlights on outside built-up areas, and to carry a warning triangle and fluorescent waistcoat in case of breakdown.
Internal flights are best reserved for longer trips
With Italy’s train and bus network being both cheap and reliable (and much more environmentally friendly), flying is usually not the most convenient way to travel domestically in Italy. However, if you need to get from one part of the country to the other as quickly as possible, then air services are available, and most major cities have airports.
Italy's beleaguered flag carrier, Alitalia, was replaced in 2021 by a new state-backed airline called ITA Airways, with flights to cities across the Italian mainland and to Sardinia and Sicily. Several low-cost airlines also operate domestic flights, including easyJet. It’s cheaper to buy tickets in advance of travel.
Cycling is a great way to explore the countryside in Italy
Cycling is a great way to explore villages and backroads in the countryside. It's very popular in northern Italy, including in the Alps and Dolomites, but less so in the south. Bikes are prohibited on autostrade (motorways) but they can be carried on some ferries, and on regional trains displaying the bicycle logo, where you'll need to purchase a separate bicycle ticket known as a supplemento bici. Bikes are available for hire in most Italian towns for €10 (US$10.75) per day upwards.
Boats zip along the coast and out to the islands
Navi (large ferries) sail to Sicily and Sardinia, while traghetti (smaller ferries) and aliscafi (hydrofoils) serve the smaller islands. Most ferries carry vehicles, but hydrofoils do not. On long-haul ferries, travelers can usually book a two- to four-person cabin or a poltrona, an airline-style armchair. Deck class (which allows you to sit/sleep in lounge areas or on deck) is available only on some ferries.
The primary embarkation points for Sicily and Sardinia are Genoa, Livorno, Civitavecchia (near Rome) and Naples. Ferries for Sicily also leave from Villa San Giovanni and Reggio di Calabria. Main arrival points in Sardinia are Cagliari, Arbatax, Olbia and Porto Torres; in Sicily, Palermo, Catania, Trapani and Messina.
Local transport is inexpensive and efficient in urban areas
Most towns and cities have efficient local bus services, and some larger cities also have extensive metro and tram networks. In Venice, water taxis, gondolas and vaporetti (small passenger ferries) perform the same role. It's usually possible to reach nearby villages fairly easily by local bus.
Taxis can be found around bus and train stations – if you call for a radio taxi by phone, the meter will usually start running when you place the call, not when you are picked up. Rideshares are another option in larger cities, though this is less common in Italy than in some neighboring countries. The apps Free Now (formerly MyTaxi) and Uber are used quite widely.
Accessible transportation in Italy
Italy is not an easy country for travelers with disabilities. Cobblestone streets and pavements blocked by parked cars and scooters make getting around difficult for wheelchair users. And while many buildings have lifts, they are not always wide enough for wheelchairs. Not a lot has been done to make life easier for hearing- or vision-impaired travelers either, though awareness of accessibility issues and a culture of inclusion are steadily growing.
If traveling by train, you can arrange assistance through SalaBlu online or by calling 800 90 60 60 (from a landline) or 02 32 32 32 (from a landline or mobile). You can also see the full list of services offered and details of barrier-free stations on the Rete Ferroviaria Italiana’s accessible travel information page.
Many urban buses are wheelchair-accessible; however, some of the stops may not be – check before you board. Some taxis are equipped to carry passengers in wheelchairs; ask for a taxi for a sedia a rotelle (wheelchair).
Two good online resources for disabled travelers are Village for All, which performs on-site audits of tourist facilities (namely accommodation providers) in Italy and San Marino, and Fondazione Cesare Serono, which provides a list (in Italian) of accessible beaches. For more information, download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide.
Why boats are my favorite way to get around in Italy
No form of transport connects you quite as strongly to Italy's fascinating past as traveling by boat. From the vaporetti of Venice to the shuttle boats that buzz around the Italian lakes and the ferries that connect the islands of southern Italy, arriving anywhere in Italy by boat is a nod to centuries of maritime history. The boats may have changed, but the light sparkling on the surface of the Mediterranean and the gently rippling waters of Lake Garda is the same light that greeted Renaissance painters and Venetian explorers.