The ultimate guide to exploring Italy by train

Manarola – Julia Lav/Shutterstock

The days in Rome are mild and heavenly. The Tuscan hills have a shade of fresh green. Poppies dot the centuries-old olive groves of Puglia, camellias bloom in the gardens of the villas and lemon blossoms perfume the medieval streets of Amalfi.

Spring is glorious in most places, but especially in Italy, where its reach is long – from early April in the hot south to late June in the flowery meadows of the high Alps – and looking forward to its embrace is never more encouraging than during the bleak British winter.

It’s a wonderful time to travel, but especially if you’re on a train, moving between cities and towns, where temperatures are perfect for urban sightseeing, or traversing the countryside – the pastoral hills of Umbria, for example, or the Sicily’s wild hinterland – which 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 and rural trains can still be picturesque, but in a good way, while high-speed services between major cities, coupled with online booking procedures, are as good as any in Europe.

Italy is made for rail travel, thanks to its landform and that famous shape: you can quickly cover long distances from north to south on the main flat coast lines or travel from west to east: Turin, Milan, Verona, Venice – across the Po valley.

Umbria - Claudio Leolini/4Corners Images

Umbria – Claudio Leolini/4Corners Images

But then it’s worth stopping and meandering along small regional lines, from the network that connects Italian lakes and the valleys of the Alps or the scenic rural railways that cross Umbria, Tuscany, Abruzzo, Sicily and Puglia.

Below we have outlined three itineraries between major Italian cities, but not on high-speed, non-stop services but rather using slower trains that take you to lesser-known but first-rate cities rich in art, food, architecture, culture and another of the many temptations of Italy.

It’s easy to plan and execute Italian rail journeys on your own. The Italians are generally helpful and have more than enough English to direct you to the train station. Travel in the spring and you’ll also enjoy less crowded cities and often better rates at hotels.

But if you want someone to book for you or be always on site to help out, we’ve listed several tour operators who specialize in bespoke or accompanied small group rail travel.

The rail prices below are the lowest available at the time of writing for tickets purchased in advance online. Tickets purchased on the day may cost more. Travel times are average; travel can be slower or faster. Hotel rates are “starting from” prices for double rooms.

Turin to Florence

Let’s start in Turin (turismotorino.org), because if you want to reach Italy from the UK by train, the route to the beautiful Piedmontese Baroque capital is the most obvious, thanks to direct connections from Paris (6 hours; £35). Stay at the historic Grand Hotel Sitea (grandhotelsitea.it; doubles from £89), not the fanciest accommodation in Turin but central and excellent value.

This undiscovered city is definitely worth a day or more: visit its museums, elegant squares, palaces and historic cafés before catching a slow but beautifully scenic train across the Alps to Ventimiglia (4 hours; £15) via Cuneo.

This leaves you on the Italian Riviera with quick options south of Genoa and Pisa. Ignore them and take your time. In summer, busy Alassio has the best beach on the first stretch of the Riviera, with Finale Ligure a good night-time bet all year round if the big city of Genoa isn’t your thing.

Even better is Camogli (welcomecamogli.it), 45 minutes south of Genoa by train (£3.60) and lovely at any time of year. Stay near the seafront at the Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi (cenobio.it; from £126).

Turin - robertharding

Turin – robertharding

Ninety minutes south again — with a train change in Sestri Levante, another charming little resort — is Cinque Terre (cinqueterre.it), five impossibly pretty but busy coastal villages, all serviced by train. Manarola and Vernazza are the highlights but visit early or, better yet, make nearby Levanto your base. Be sure to take a boat ride along the rugged coast (navigazionegolfodeipoeti.it).

Continue south on the main coast line but disembark at Vezzano to head inland to Aulla, where a superb little line cuts through the mountains to Lucca (2hrs; £9), a magnificent city (turismo.lucca.it) and – given its rail connections – a good base for visiting nearby Pisa, Pistoia and Prato, and for onward trains to Florence (1hr 20mins; £8) or Rome (3hrs; £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 £97). from £190) the best smartest option.

Venice to Florence

Fly or ride one of the many scenic train 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: first via Ferrara (1 hour; £8.50), an unknown medieval and Renaissance jewel (ferrarainfo.com), and then Ravenna (1 hour and 10 minutes; £6.50), famous for the extraordinary Byzantine mosaics that decorate many of its churches (turismo.ra.it).

Trains via Faenza and Borgo San Lorenzo will then take you to Florence (2hrs 30mins; £11.50) on a scenic route through the Apennines.

A superb, but busier alternative, it first takes you to the must-see Vicenza (45 minutes; £5.85) for a day’s sightseeing focusing on this small town’s Palladian architecture (vicenzae.org) before a short hop in Verona (40 minutes; £5.30) and two or more days to discover the city’s churches, the picturesque historic center and one of the most beautiful Roman amphitheaters in Europe (turismoverona.eu).

Vicenza - Kate After/Alamy

Vicenza – Kate After/Alamy

Stay at the comfortable but no-frills Hotel Accademia (hotelaccademiaverona.it; £97), a central Victoria four-star or more frills (palazzo-victoria.verona.hotels.veneto.com; from £146).

Then head to Mantua (46 minutes; £3.75), little-visited but beautifully situated on a trio of lakes (take a boat trip), and with a magnificent ducal palace, sleepy squares and delightful arcaded streets that will make you happy for two days or more (turismo.mantova.it). Stay at the Hotel Broletto (hotelbroletto.it; from £110) or Palazzo Castiglioni (palazzocastiglionimantova.com; from £236) for a treat.

Trains run to Florence (3 hours; £25.50) with a change in Bologna, but consider a roundabout route with a morning or more in both Parma (for food, cathedral and shopping) and Modena (for cathedral, museums and Albinelli market) before taking a slow train to Florence from Bologna with a change in Prato (1hr 12mins; £35) – worth a morning in itself – and another fascinating journey 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 Umbria’s countryside and hill towns (umbriatourism.it), as well as two beautiful Tuscan cities, along with a scenic drive through the highlands of Abruzzo (abruzzotourism.it), one of Italy’s least known .

The first stop is Arezzo (1 hour 10 minutes; £9; arezzoturismo.it) to admire its main square, Piazza Grande, and Piero della Francesca’s frescoes 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 journey from Camucia-Cortona station – followed by a morning exploring the sublime medieval city. Stay at the Hotel San Michele (hotelsanmichele.net; from £65).

Frescoes from Arezzo - Massimo Borchi/4Corners Images

Frescoes from Arezzo – Massimo Borchi/4Corners Images

Then in Umbria, beyond Lake Trasimeno, perhaps with a day in Perugia (turismo.comune.perugia.it) for its Etruscan and Roman streets and the National Gallery full of works of art. Then a definitive overnight stay in pretty Assisi (visit-assisi.it), full of picturesque corners and home to one of the most beautiful religious and artistic monuments in Europe, the Basilica of San Francesco. Stay at the no-frills Pallotta (hotelpallotta.it; from £50) or the smarter Fontebella (fontebellahotel-assisi.com; from £116).

Get off the train a few minutes south of Assisi for about an hour in Spello, a maze of medieval streets, and then give yourself a day in Spoleto (spoletocard.it), perhaps Umbria’s most beautiful hill town, before your train to Terni. Treat yourself to Spoleto with a stay at 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 an overnight in Sulmona (3hrs; £18) via L’Aquila. Sulmona (visit-sulmona.it) is a delight, all airy piazzas and ancient streets, usually with no visitors in sight. From Sulmona it’s an easy train journey to Rome (2hrs 30mins; £11) via Avezzano.

Did you like Italy by train? What’s your favorite trip? Please share your experiences below

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