Discover Italy by train
Italy is a joy to travel by train; they’re fast, tickets are easy to buy and the network is so extensive you can explore the history, flavours and culture of multiple regions in one holiday. There are rail passes that give you access to multiple train services across the country, you avoid the harrowing experience of driving in the cities and get to see the spectacular scenery at your own pace, hopping off in quiet towns between stretches of vineyard-covered hills and deep blue sea.
Here are four routes to inspire your next trip, from spectacular lake and mountain views to ancient, colourful towns tumbling down into sparkling seas.
Milan to Venice via Como
Best for: Italy’s first-timers, romantics and spectacular water views
Time: 4 hrs travel, best as a three-day trip
Fly in/out: Milan (various airports) or Venice
Trying even a fraction of Milan’s fine restaurants would be a trip all of its own, so let your host pick out a gem, try saffron risotto or veal chops with fabulous wine, then head for the station the next day. From Milan Central Station to Como is only 35 minutes but in that short space of time the landscape transforms. After a pleasant trundle through vineyards and farmland, a mountain appears in front of you. The train ploughs straight through the middle of it and minutes later you’re in what feels like a lost valley, watching as the dome of Como’s cathedral and the narrow streets leading down to the turquoise lake approach. The station is at the heart of town and you can go from your seat on the train to paddling a boat across the water in ten minutes before finding a spot to feast your eyes and palette.
Moving on to Venice takes around three hours, but the train winds through the mountains and makes every minute a pleasure. A stop at scenic Lake Garda makes a surreally beautiful interlude and when you arrive in Venice, you step straight out of the station onto the banks of the Grand Canal. From there the romance of the floating city awaits, as well as tapas-like cicchetti with strong flavours of salt cod, anchovies and the cuttlefish caught in the lagoons just down the coast.
Stay at: Light and stylish Antica Locanda dei Mercanti in Milan. Contemporary and rustic Dolce Mistero Lake Como – Alaura, remote and stunning Essentia Guest House in Faggetto Lario. Chic waterside Zitelle 81 or the colourful retreat Palazzo Ca’nova on the Grand Canal in Venice.
Brescia to Bolzano
Best for: Those who prefer to enjoy mountain scenery by foot rather than transport
Time: 2.5 hrs travel, great for 3-4 days away
Fly in/out of: Brescia or Milan Malpensa/Innsbruck, Venice or Verona
The trip from Brescia, in the heart of the lakes, to remote Bolzano, gateway to the Dolomites, skirts past Lake Garda and climbs through stunning Alpine landscapes. There’s an option to stop in Lake Garda, hire a boat and enjoy the view from the water, hit the shops or sample the local gelato in a colourful gelateria. From here the train squeezes through narrow passes and remote villages as you rumble up towards Bolzano itself. The alpine town is a beautiful place, as well as the access point for the spectacular walking in the area. The town sits in a valley surrounded by vineyards, with terracotta-roofed villas in lush meadows on the outskirts. Mixing German and Italian influences thanks to its northerly location and wartime history, it’s a maze of cobbled streets and gothic architecture, with cafes and squares where you can pull out your hiking maps and plan a day trekking into the incredible countryside.
There are over 100 trails in the area with something for every experience level, from buggy-friendly promenades on the slopes just out of town, to 30km+ hikes deep into the craggy terrain. A cable car from Bolzano and a beautiful one hour 30-minute walk also bring you to the strange sight of the ‘earth pyramids’, wind-carved rock formations huddled on the mountainside.
Genoa to the Cinque Terre
Best for: Sea and spectacular towns
Time: 2 hrs travel, best as a 3-day weekend
Fly in/out of: Genoa or Pisa
Travelling down the Italian Riviera is one of the most romantic journeys in Europe, if not the world. The five colourful towns that make up the Cinque Terre, clustered on steep slopes above cobalt waters, sit within a huge National Park of the same name, offering a real feel for rural Italian culture. Life is governed by the rhythms of harvests and tides, and you’ll taste the freshness in simple food eaten in hilltop restaurants overlooking sea, vineyards and olive groves. There’s a myth that the whole region is car free, but while some villages do allow you to drive at least to the outskirts, train is by far the better way to travel. Starting out in Genoa with a ‘hop on hop off’ ticket you can wander down between the towns, stopping first at Monterosso to stroll the long beach and swim out round the rock.
If you’re on a long weekend trip, then you might head straight down to Riomaggiore in the south, but each town has its individual charms. Corniglia is one the less explored thanks to the absence of a proper beach, but the low, flat rocks that line the shore make perfect spots for sunbathing and slipping into the crystal clear waters when the heat gets the better of you. There’s no doubting that the area is popular with visitors, but the limited access and sheer size of the towns preserves the feeling of timeless, authentic life. It’s impossible not to be enchanted with the calm, friendly locals and the sheer vividness of the colours and flavours.
Catania to Riposto
Best for: A sightseeing experience as part of a Sicilian holiday
Time: 1-1.5 hours, great for a day out
Fly in/out: Catania Fontanarossa Airport
Rattling round Mount Etna’s dark slopes on the aging trains of the Ferrovia Circumetnea is more of an adventure than a journey. The time the trip takes varies hugely depending on the weather and the service is sensibly disrupted when the volcano is active. The routes around the mountain are still used, as they always were, by farmers accessing the upper slopes, where vineyards, olive groves and pistachio plantations thrive in the mineral-rich soil. Your ticket entitles you to hop on and off, picking up the local produce and meeting the people who live on the volatile land. If you head west, the route begins by climbing to the Maletto Plateau, giving you stunning views of the upper slopes.
Randazzo makes a great stop, especially if the famous market is on, and you can jump out at Bronte and see some of the most dramatic lava flows. On the approach to Riposto, the bay is laid out beautifully in front of you and the landscape softens as you descend through orange trees towards the pale town.