How to Travel by Train in Italy

There are plenty of reasons to travel by train instead of plane: In addition to avoiding the hassles that come with flying (long security lines, cramped seats), train travel allows you to slow down, relax, and take it all in. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the country famous for la dolce vita is particularly picturesque when seen from the rails. Here’s what you need to know about traveling on Italian trains.

Italian Train; Tania Sona Smith/Flickr

The Different Italian Trains

Italy’s national train system is remarkably thorough and easy to navigate. Spanning more than 115,000 square miles, the country is connected via rail from Taranto to Trento. Additionally, many of the most popular trains are high-speed. Trenitalia, the national train company, operates three: the Frecciabianca, which travels at speeds of up to 124 miles per hour, the Frecciargento, which reaches 155 miles per hour, and the fastest of the three, the Frecciarossa, which can reach 224 miles per hour. All three can knock a significant chunk off your travel time. For example, driving from Lecce to Milan can easily take more than 10 hours; on the train, it’s just over eight. 

In addition to Trenitalia, visitors can look to the Italo trains, which are privately owned. These swanky trains launched in 2012 and have free Wi-Fi, stylish interiors (the company was created by two former Tod’s executives), and even a cinema car. Italo uses the same high-speed infrastructure as Trenitalia, allowing its trains to reach speeds that are comparable to the Frecciarossa. While the Italo can make train travel all the more pleasant, tickets are a little pricier than its government-run competitor.

Italo and the high-speed trains are great for traveling between larger cities, but if you’re connecting to an outlying town, you’ll likely be on an InterCity (IC) or InterRegionale (IR) train. These no-frills trains don’t have different service classes and make a lot more stops than their high-speed siblings, but they can be a great way to reach off-the-beaten-path spots like San Gimignano in Tuscany or colorful La Spezia, a less-touristed alternative to Cinque Terre. (Note that these trains often don’t have air-conditioning, so brace yourself for a steamy ride, if you’re traveling during the summer months.)

Buying Tickets for the Trains in Italy

For English-speaking visitors, buying train tickets is a breeze. Both options mentioned above have robust and easy-to-use online ticketing platforms that let you view the different schedules and routes. Another simple option is Rail Europe. The company represents more than 50 train lines across the entire continent, making travel between countries a snap. You can also buy tickets at the station -- just don’t forget that these tickets need to be validated by using one of the green-and-white machines before boarding the train. Failure to do so can result in a hefty fine.

Train Routes in Italy

Not sure where to start your trip? A few of the most popular routes for Italian train travel include Milan to Verona to Venice before heading south for stops in Bologna and Florence. (You can even hit up Pisa and Genoa, if you have time.) Alternatively, start your trip in Florence and head into Tuscany. While a car can make it easier to visit some of the smaller villages, a few, like San Gimignano, have train stations. From here, you can visit Siena before heading onward to Rome. If you want to visit southern Italy, start your travels in Rome or Naples. From Naples, you can easily access the Amalfi Coast, including Sorrento and Salerno. Even Sicily is connected to the mainland by train.

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