All Articles A first-timer's guide to exploring Italy by train

A first-timer's guide to exploring Italy by train

Sleeper cars, slow routes, and more.

By Lina Zeldovich28 May 2024 5 minutes read
Train station overlooking the ocean, in Manarola, Cinque Terre
Manarola, Cinque Terre
Image: Julia Lavrinenko/Getty Images

A heritage trip to Italy—that was our post-pandemic resolution, a long time in the making. My husband’s family is from Rome, so we always wanted our son to reconnect with his ancestral culture and cuisine, and last summer finally presented us with a perfect opportunity. My own family, who aren’t Italian, were looking for a beautiful place for a family reunion to celebrate all the birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations we missed for the three pandemic years—and Sicily won the vote.

The plan was to spend a few days in the Eternal City before heading to Palermo, Sicily’s capital. A plane would get us there in two hours, but all we’d miss the rolling hills of the countryside and the seemingly endless vineyards disappearing into the horizon. Driving would take two days and wear us out. But, trains? Trains—especially sleeper trains—were a great option.

Italy has a robust train system, called TrenItalia, but figuring out the right routes can get confusing. Depending on whether you want to go fast or slow and what you want to see out the window will dictate what path you take. Here’s how to navigate Italy’s train system—without getting lost before you even embark on your journey.

Know when to take the slow route

Modern high-speed trains at Milan Central Station
Image: scaliger/Getty Images

If your goal is to just get there, Alta Velocità—the country’s high-speed trains—are your best bet. Reaching 190 mph, they connect all of Italy’s major cities including Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, and Naples. But with speed comes a downside: all you’ll see out the window is a colorful blur. If you want to see the country like we did—chugging through miles of green hills, vineyards, and seaside villages—consider taking the slower Regionale Veloce or Intercity trains. To compare, buzzing from Rome to Florence on a Alta Velocità train can take 1.5 hours while a regional one may take three, but you’ll see more and spend less.

Tip: Regional and Intercity trains are often less than half the price of the high-speed trains. For example, an average high-speed ticket from Rome to Naples costs about $60, but a slower train can cost $16 while adding only about an hour to your journey. Also, depending on the day of the week, an Intercity first-class ticket may be only slightly more expensive than a regular ticket, so be sure to compare fares if your plans are flexible.

Save big on sleeper trains

When booking our sleeper train tickets, we had to consider whether we wanted to share our sleeping compartments—called couchettes, with two lower and two upper berths—with other fellow travelers or have it all to ourselves. We decided to buy all four berths as a group of three, so we didn't have to worry about strangers getting on or off in the middle of the night. Our entire couchette for a 12-hour ride from Rome to Palermo cost about $250, which proved cheaper than buying three plane tickets and paying for a hotel room in Palermo for the night. Sheets, blankets, snacks, and a light breakfast are included.

Tip: One slightly annoying feature is that bathrooms are outside couchettes, so if you have to go, PJs are a must.

When (and how) to get a ticket

Trenitalia tickets machines in Rome Termini Train Station
Image: resulmuslu/Getty Images

Once you’ve settled on your train type, you can buy your tickets on TrenItalia’s official website or app. If you’re traveling during the low season in late winter or early spring, you can show up at the station and grab tickets from a vending machine or a clerk any time before departure—but don’t risk this during the high summer season, when popular trains sell out.

You can book tickets online around six months in advance, but certain routes may take longer to become available. Our sleeper train tickets finally appeared six weeks before the departure date when we were starting to reconsider our plans. Lessons learned: No need to worry, the tickets will appear closer to the date, just keep checking.

Tip: One of TrenItalia’s best perks is that tickets are usually 80 to 90 percent refundable up to 24–48 hours before your travel—and sometimes even up to two hours before departure, depending on the ticket. If your plans change, you can ask for a refund online or at the train station.

Delays are nearly guaranteed—but don’t worry

When our sleeper train was three hours late, I started to panic. I went from one info booth to the next asking questions in the best Italian I could muster. I got the same answer: “Don’t worry, the train will come.” When it finally came, we were so worked up that we boarded the wrong car and had to get off and run to the right one with our bags in tow, which was stressful since the train could have departed any minute. (It didn’t—it took another hour to get going.)

In Italy, delays or ritardi are so common that 10 minutes isn’t even considered a late departure. So even if your delay starts to grow, stay calm—it’s the best attitude for training across Italy. Interestingly, trains will often catch up with the schedule en-route. Our sleeper train was more than three hours late leaving from Roma Termini, but it arrived at Palermo Centrale exactly on time.

Opt out of train food

Trains are perhaps the only place in Italy where the cuisine is truly lacking. Even on the high-speed trains, which offer a café, a bar, and snack cart, the food just doesn’t quite compare. Many train stations have vending machines that offer triangular white-bread sandwiches called tramezzini, Italy’s version of fast-food, but on busy days they may run out. Instead, stock up on snacks at small neighborhood supermarkets before heading to the station. We always grab salami, prosciutto, mozzarella, breads, cornettos, peaches, and pears, making for a delish onboard picnic with ever-changing views.

Tip: Roma Termini’s Sapori e Dintorni Conad grocery store is an excellent place to stock up before a train trip from the Eternal City.

Now hit the tracks

Young woman using smart phone on train, in Sicily
Image: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

If you’re looking for stellar train views, take the following routes—some of the countries best—between April and October.

  • Rome to Cinque Terre: This regional train zips from the buzzing Italian capital to the centuries-old seaside villages on the Italian Riviera, known for their colorful houses perched on cliffs and breathtaking water views. For best vistas, sit on the right side of the train.
  • Milan to Venice: This route, whether on a high-speed or a regional train, whisks you from Italy’s capital of fashion and design to the Adriatic coast, passing through the fields and orchards of Veneto and Lombardy, which you can see from either side of the train.
  • Rome to Palermo: This regional sleeper train goes on a 12-hour overnight journey to Sicily. To reach the island, the train boards a ferry in the wee hours of the morning. Because it’s still pretty dark, you can’t fully enjoy the otherwise spectacular views of the water, but while on the 20-minute ferry ride, you can get off and explore the boat.
  • Florence to Pisa: This journey will transport you from the capital of Tuscany to Pisa, all the while chugging through the countryside's famed vineyards. It’s stunning from every seat on the train.