8 mins

Italy’s 9 most spectacular rail journeys

From breathtaking alpine adventures to sun-soaked seaside trundles, Italy’s trains are the perfect way to explore this fabled country

A train pulling into Manarola Station in Italy (Shutterstock)

1. Tirano to St. Moritz on the Bernina Express

The Bernina Express in winter (Shutterstock)

The Bernina Express in winter (Shutterstock)

This breathtaking train journey between the Italian city of Tirano to the Swiss Alpine resort of St. Moritz isn’t just one of the most amazing rail journeys in Italy: train buffs regard it as one of the most spectacular train routes in the world.

UNESCO have listed it as a World Heritage Route, recognising not just the incredible scenery, but the engineering skill needed to build it as well. It is the highest railway in Europe and uses spiral viaducts like the one at Brusio, to climb into the mountains. Expect tunnels, bridges, mountains and glaciers. And the most memorable four hours of your life.

2. The Inter-City from Rome to Catania

The Bay of Naples (Shutterstock)

The Bay of Naples (Shutterstock)

Arguably the best long haul train journey in Italy, you’ll start in the Eternal City and finish in Catania on the east coast of Sicily close to nine hours later.

Along the way you'll pass through some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the country, enjoying sweeping views of the Bay of Naples, Mount Vesuvius and craggy Calabria.

It’s a direct train too, so your train will be ferried across the Straits of Messina on a ship, one of the few places in the world where this still happens.

3. The Cinque Terre Express

A train at Manarola station in Cinque Terre (Shutterstock)

A train at Manarola station in Cinque Terre (Shutterstock)

The rail journey between Levanto and La Spezia only takes 20 minutes or so but it is arguably one of the most spectacular in Italy. It hugs the Ligurian coast and links the five pastel-coloured villages that that cling to the cliffs here.

Unsurprisingly, much of the journey is spent in tunnels. But the snapshots of vineyards, olive groves and picture-perfect villages when you emerge into the sunlight are all the more intense for that.

Besides, the joy here is alighting and exploring the colourful villages by foot.

Those feeling energetic could catch the train to Riomaggiore and walk along the Cinque Terre trail to Monterosso. Each village reached offers a plethora of restaurants, bars and cafes to refuel. And a railway station to help you on your way when your legs get tired.

4. Reggio Calabria to Scilla

The Calabrian fishing village of Scilla (Shutterstock)

The Calabrian fishing village of Scilla (Shutterstock)

Short and sweet, this 13-minute train ride from Reggio Calabria’s lungomare (promenade) to the seaside town of Scilla certainly offers a lot of bang for your buck.

Heading towards the Strait of Messina, you’ll spot the silhouette of Mount Etna in Sicily and pass inlets and islets and fishing boats bobbing in the water.

Finally, you’ll reached Scilla, named after the Greek mythological creature that feasted on sailors, but today a popular beachside fishing village, dominated by the Castello Ruffo, an ancient fortress sitting on a hill overlooking the town.

5. Trenino Verde, Sardinia

The Little Green Train of Sardinia (Shutterstock)

The Little Green Train of Sardinia (Shutterstock)

You don’t catch a train in Sardinia to get somewhere fast. The trains on the island have been notoriously slow since D.H. Lawrence recounted his long and languid journeys on them in his book The Sea and Sardinia.

That’s not to say they should be avoided. Sardinia’s quaint Trenino Verde (little green trains) trundle through some of the most spectacular parts of the island, rattling along narrow-gauge lines from the mountains to the sea.

Five routes have been reopened, exclusively for tourism. Choose your route and enjoy the ride.

6. Venice to Florence

A train travels past the Devil's Bridge in Tuscany (Shutterstock)

A train travels past the Devil's Bridge in Tuscany (Shutterstock)

From Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square to the Florence’s iconic Duomo, what better way to visit the two stalwarts of Italian culture than by train?

It only takes two hours to get from the canals of Venice to the banks of the Arno in Florence. But you’ll be rewarded with views of some of the loveliest parts of Italy along the way. The Renaissance cities of Bologna, Prato and Ravenna await, as well as the mountains of Emilia-Romagna and the rolling hills of Tuscany.

It’s the best of Italy, but in a train ride.

7. Verona to Bolzano

Santa Maddalena village in the Dolomite mountains (Shutterstock)

Santa Maddalena village in the Dolomite mountains (Shutterstock)

The mighty Dolomites are the stars of this incredible rail journey from Verona to the German-speaking city of Bolzano. One minute you’re trundling through Renaissance villages. The next you’re climbing up through sleepy farmland and thick pine forests towards the glowering, jagged mountains.

It’s a magical three hours of grazing cows, alpine valleys and monumental snow-capped peaks. If you go in winter, Bolzano’s annual Christmas market awaits, where German-inspired stalls sell all kinds of Tyrolean treats.

8. The Circumetnea, Sicily

The Circumetnea travelling through lava on Mount Etna (Shutterstock)

The Circumetnea travelling through lava on Mount Etna (Shutterstock)

The Ferrovia Circumetnea – Round Etna Railway – does what it says on the tin. It starts in Catania, circles Mount Etna and finishes up in Riposto. Along the way it rattles through beds of lava and offers unmatched views of Mount Etna, a grumbling, smoking, live volcano.

The railway was built in the 1890s and is 110 kilometres long and takes three hours – a little bit longer if you are lucky enough to ride in one the older rolling stock such as Littorina, a train built by Fiat that looks like a 1950s bus.

9. The regional train from Rimini to Bari

Tremity Island, off the Adriatic Coast between Rimini and Bari (Shutterstock)

Tremity Island, off the Adriatic Coast between Rimini and Bari (Shutterstock)

It might be just a regional train, but the Trenitalia service from Rimini Station to Bari Centrale certainly delivers first-class vistas. Following almost the entirety of Italy's glittering Adriatic Coast, you’ll be treated to mesmerising ocean views and the delightful fishing villages and historic towns that dot Italy’s east coast.

The line does head inland occasionally, treating you to views of the rolling hills of Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio. But it is uninterrupted views of the coastline you’ll remember. Make sure to celebrate with a hearty riso patate e cozze once you get to Bari. It’s almost as perfect as the trip.

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