All Aboard! 8 Spectacular Italian Rail Journeys


Rail holidays are having a renaissance — and Italy is home to some of the prettiest and easiest train routes in Europe. They don’t just get you from A to B, either. Some trips peer out at the craggy Calabria coast; others clamber up to Alpine towns like Bolzano. Then there are trips where the train itself is the star of the show (we’re looking at you, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express).

Best of all, we’re offering free first class train tickets* to anyone booking a multi-centre rail holiday by 31 January 2018. Not sure where to begin? Here are eight of our favourite rail journeys to get you started…

1. Lakes and mountains: Lake Garda to Bolzano

Sunset at Limone, Lake Garda

Northern Italy packs together a lot of dramatic scenery, including sea-sized lakes, snowy mountains and Shakespearean cities — and they’re all tied together by rail lines.

Start at Lake Garda, where you could spend a few nights boating between castle towns and exploring candy-striped gelato parlours. From waterside stations like Desenzano or Peschiera del Garda, it’s only a 20-minute train journey to Verona.

You could stay in Verona — or just spend the day there, hunting out Juliet’s balcony and admiring the 13th-century frescoes and crypt at the Basilica di San Zeno.

Looking up at Juliet's balcony at Casa Giulietta, Verona

Then it’s on to Bolzano via a direct train (the journey time starts at 1 hour 30 minutes). The scenery packs a punch, too, with the rail line climbing north towards Mount Baldo before ducking through mountain passes and past villages.

There’s lots to do in Bolzano. It’s the old capital of South Tyrol, so there’s a maze of medieval streets and Germanic mansions topped with fairy tale turrets.

Mountainous Bolzano

After a night or two in Bolzano, you could loop back to Lake Garda or transfer to Verona for your flight home.

If you like this, you’ll like: Venice, Verona and Lake Garda by train.

2. Foodie trail: Parma, Modena and Bologna

Vineyards towards Modena

This linear train route introduces two of the newest cities on our books: Parma and Modena. Along with Bologna, they complete the foodie triangle that takes in some of the most famous foodstuffs in Italy: Parma ham (prosciutto di Parma), Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano), Modena balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico de Modena) and Bolognese sauce (tagliatelle al ragu Bolognese).

Pasta making

The towns are so close together that you can stay in one (perhaps the middle town, Modena) and see the others on day trips — perfect if you don’t want to carry anything but a souvenir bottle of Sangiovese back with you.

Parma is less than a 40-minute train ride away from Modena, while Bologna is 17 minutes away on the fast train.

3. The Italian Riviera: the Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Liguria

With no parking or traffic to worry about, it’s easiest to see the multi-coloured villages of the Cinque Terre by train. The route trundles through tunnels cracked out of the dramatic cliffs, making the glimpses of the Ligurian coast all the more scenic.

Trains run a couple of times an hour on the Levanto – Cinque Terre – La Spezia line, stopping at each of the five villages along the way. The villages are only a 4- to 6-minute ride away from each other.

Hotel Porto Roca, Monterosso

You could spend a day hopping on and off the train line, or you could use a village as a base and explore the Cinque Terre National Park from there. We recommend the Hotel Porto Roca (above) in lovely Monterosso.

If you like this, you’ll like: Highlights of Northern Italy by train.

4. Flower power: Tuscany and Umbria

Train going through sunflower field

Time your train trip around Tuscany and Umbria right, and you’ll be faced with a haze of poppy or sunflower fields. (May for poppies and June to August for sunflowers.) These crops are famously elusive, rarely growing in the same place twice, so the best thing to do is to sit back on the train, relax, and let the fields come to you.

If you don’t manage to catch the blooms en route, then climb up to one of the many hilltop towns and admire the Van Gogh countryside from above.

Siena rooftops

We recommend staying in Siena for train trips to Pisa and Florence (about 1 hour 30 minutes away) or Lucca for days out to the Tuscany Coast (Viareggio is 45 minutes away by train).

5. City-hopping: Venice, Florence and Rome

Venice gondolas

Fast trains zip between all the major cities in Italy. But our favourite combination has to be a holiday that ticks off the big three: Venice, Florence and Rome.

Florence is less than two hours away from Venice when you catch a fast train; Rome is about 1 hour 30 minutes away from Florence. Between them all, you’ll see more museums, cathedrals and world-class restaurants then you can shake a stick at.

If you like this, you’ll like: Venice, Florence and Rome by train.

6. All aboard: Sicily

Mount Etna sunset, Sicily

Sicily is home to one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe: the 19th-century Circumetnea line that loops around Mount Etna. You’ll spy lava landscapes, medieval villages, high-altitude vineyards and pistachio groves as you creak upwards in a scarlet vintage train.

The modern train network mostly sticks to the coast, so you can skim between ancient seaside lookouts like the island capital, Palermo, and CataniaTaormina and Cefalu. You can even take the train-boat (yep, the train boards the ferry alongside the cars) over to Calabria.

If you like this, you’ll like: Rome, Sorrento and Sicily by train.

7. The once-in-a-lifetime: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

VSOE 1920s carriage

Agatha Christie, Champagne bars, Michelin-standard chefs, Art Deco carriages: the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is a train with a reputation that precedes it. It’s a pro at getting the little details just right, too, like slowing down as it chugs through the Alps or the sleeping cabins that come with footstools and 1920s detailing.

You can travel from London to Venice, London to Verona via Paris, or switch things up and finish off your Venice holiday with a trip back home on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

8. The epic: London to Sorrento

Sorrento through a palm tree

This is a real adventure, travelling via some of the most spectacular cities in Europe — London, Paris, Zurich, Milan, Rome and Naples — before finally fetching up in sun-warmed Sorrento. We recommend stretching out the journey over 12 days, so that you get time to see the mountainous Swiss scenery by day and wander around the regal shopping arcades of Milan.

If that trip sounds a little long, then you could always finish your journey in Milan, Rome or Naples.

If you like this, you’ll like: London to Sorrento by train.

Take a look at our Italy rail holidays or call our Italy Experts on 01293 839394* to create your own bespoke itinerary.

*01293 calls are charged at your provider’s local or national rate.