With rolling green hills in Tuscany, snow-covered peaks in Lombardy, endless vineyards in Umbria, and pastel painted Mediterranean towns, Italy is a country your eyes will beg to behold.
But they can’t feast on the scenery through a teeny tiny aeroplane window at 31,000 feet. Flying may be the most convenient way to get across the US, Canada or Australia, but that’s not the case in Italy.
Sure, road trips are an option. I mean, driving along the Amalfi Coast with the wind in your hair is the kind of stuff movies are made of. Although, the movies don’t show drivers duelling to the death over a parking spot at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or navigating terrifyingly narrow backstreets in the heart Rome. And I haven’t even mentioned Italian driver etiquette. I just made that phrase up, it doesn’t exist.
Enter train travel. I recently travelled for 3 weeks between Italy’s most beautiful cities while admiring dramatic coastal seascapes, quaint towns, and voluptuous hills; all from a comfy train, without going through a single airport security check or resorting to fisticuffs for a frickin’ parking spot. Yep, rail is definitely my favourite way to travel around Italy.
My handcrafted 100% organic 3-week Italy rail itinerary starts in Milan and travels to La Spezia, Cinque Terre, Rome, Florence, and Venice before wrapping up back in Milan. This plan works best with a Eurail Pass and pre-booked train reservations so you don’t have to fuss about with train tickets while you’re on vacation. Simply jump on board set off to discover Italy.
Air travel tip: For our trip, it was cheaper to fly into Milan, but this rail itinerary can be started from any other city along the route just as easily. So find out if your flights are cheaper to Milan, Rome or Venice.
Using Your Eurail Pass – The Best Way To See Italy By Train
Eurail is the ultimate flexible all-in-one train ticket that works in 31 European countries, including Italy. Think of it as Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, but replace chocolate with trains.
Before you can reap the benefits of using a Eurail pass in Italy, there’s a couple of things you have to do from home:
- Purchase your Eurail pass online leaving enough time for it to be mailed to your home address before you leave. I recommend using Eurail’s shipping calculator to make sure it will arrive in time. Note: the validity clock only starts ticking from your first European train trip.
- Choose the dates you want to travel between cities and reserve your train seats.I recommend finding the best train times on Eurail’s Rail Planner app (iOS , Android), jotting down the trains you want to book, then booking all your reservations in one hit online. The sooner, the better, especially during busy periods. Each reservation attracts a variable fee of around €10 per person and a booking fee of around €2 per person.
Note: Reservations aren’t required for all trains in Italy. Regional trains travelling between major cities usually require reservations while local trains usually don’t. The Rail Planner app alerts you if the train you’re considering requires a reservation.
Oh, and “metro” trains (such as short distance lines within Rome) are operated by municipal governments and are not covered by Eurail.
For this rail itinerary, I recommend choosing a Eurail Italy Pass with 8 travel days in 1 month, meaning you can catch as many trains as you like in a one month period providing you don’t spend more than 8 calendar days on trains. This pass costs US$278 for an adult in 2nd class or US$371 for 1st class. If you want to extend your rail itinerary into France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia or Croatia, then one of Eurail’s Global Passes will fit better.
When you arrive in Italy:
- Validate your Eurail pass at any major train station by getting it stamped at the main customer service office. This should take around 5 minutes (providing there’s no massive queue). Leave extra time though – “efficiency” is not part of the common vocab here.
- Before catching any train, write the date of travel in the top section of your Eurail pass and the date, time, departure point, and destination in the bottom section.
- When the train conductor checks your train ticket, simply show your Eurail pass (and train reservation, if required).
Italy train tip: While we printed our reservations in advance, you can alternatively show the conductor the digital copy on your smartphone (and save a tree).
Day 1: Travel from Milan to La Spezia
Time: just over 3 hours
We arrived at Milano Centrale Station 90 minutes before our 14:05 train (IC669) to La Spezia Centrale Station so we could validate our Eurail passes, get some lunch, and find our train. Our first stop was the Trenitalia Customer Service Office to get our Eurail Passes validated. The customer service office shares a storefront with the Trenitalia Ticket office, the doors on the right are for tickets, the doors on the left are for customer service.
After grabbing lunch at Panzera, we found our train platform on the nearest LCD information screen and walked to the train platforms.
Italy train tip: Platforms are often allocated at the last minute so don’t worry if your train hasn’t got a platform number yet, and the scheduled departure is in 7 minutes – it will come soon enough.
Train reservations include allocated carriage and seats so know which carriage number you need and find that number on the train doors. All carriages include luggage storage space so simply jump on board, store your bags, find your seats, and enjoy the ride.
Italy train tip: Most carriages have a large “1” or “2” painted on the outside – these indicate the “class”. Typically, the carriage number (indicated by “carrozza” in Italy) is smaller or even printed on paper fixed to a window. If you get on the wrong carriage, don’t worry. Just play the dumb tourist card and you’ll be fine.
Days 2-5: La Spezia & Cinque Terre
What to do in La Spezia
La Spezia is most famous for its close proximity to Cinque Terre - 5 colourful towns built into towering cliffs along the Ligurian coastline connected by train, and one of the most beautiful parts of Italy. We spent 1 morning exploring La Spezia town and 3 mornings exploring Cinque Terre. Afternoons involved relaxing in our Airbnb apartment in La Spezia which is cheaper, and closer to conveniences like supermarkets, than the Cinque Terre towns.
Recommended things to do in La Spezia:
- Visit Castello San Giorgio, a 13th century military fortress which is now a museum exhibiting ancient archaeological artefacts like roman statues, ceramics, funerary seals, coins, and jewellery. Museum tickets cost €5.50 and include access to the Castello terraces, which have the best views over La Spezia.
- Eat gelato at GRANDCRU Gelataria. It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a gelato connoisseur. I’ve picked up a few tricks to spot a good gelato and sadly, most gelatarias in La Spezia weren’t up to scratch… except for GRANDCRU Gelataria. This gelato was available in natural flavours – no “blue smurf” in sight – and not piled high. As expected, it didn’t disappoint.
- Walk along Ponte Thaon di Revel to Porto Mirabello. From the terraces of Castello San Giorgio, we spotted a funky suspension bridge leading to what looked like a floating park so we checked it out. Turns out the bridge lead to a relaxing walk along a marina where you can watch boats come and go or simply enjoy the sunshine. There are also a few restaurants at the marina like La Pia Porto Mirabello which is a relaxing spot to enjoy a drink by the sea.
- Eat farinata, a half way between a golden crepe and crumbly pizza base. Made from chickpea flour, it can be enjoyed plain or topped like a pizza. Farinata is found at most pizzerias in La Spezia and is a delish alternative for gluten-free eaters.
What to do in Cinque Terre
The easiest way to get from La Spezia to the 5 Cinque Terre towns, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Monterosso, Vernazza, and Corniglia is by train. These trains don’t require reservations so simply fill out your Eurail pass and jump on board.
We spent 1 morning exploring Riamaggiore and Manarola and another morning exploring Monterosso, Vernazza, and Corniglia. I recommend spending a third morning returning to your favourite town, for me it was Manarola.
Italy tip: Cinque Terre tends to get pretty crowded by midday when the tour groups descend so we tried to get out by 2pm each day.
The best thing to do in Cinque Terre is simply walk around and explore the picturesque alleyways, colourful buildings, and beachfront restaurants. Each town has a distinct feel, but they all have relaxing seaside vibes and delicious Italian food.
Recommended things to do in Cinque Terre:
When you leave Riomaggiore train station, you can either take a tunnel straight southeast to the centre of town or take a steep, winding elevated road.
- Eat gelato at Old School Geletaria & Snack Bar while lapping up the colourful sights all around. Yep, more gelato… why not, you’re on vacation! Tip: try the pistachio.
- Visit the Church of San Giovanni Battista of Riomaggiore, a cute little gothic-style church from the 1300’s.
- Taste local wine from the rooftop of La Conchiglia, a traditional restaurant with views you’ll probably recognise from Instagram.
There’s really only one path to take from Manarola Station which leads to a winding road with amazing views over the colourful town. This is the most Instagram-famous of the Cinque Terre towns.
- Snap a few Instagram photos at this popular viewpoint.
- Admire the works of street artists creating paintings inspired by the colourful village – near the same viewpoint.
- Grab a bite to eat and perhaps another glass of local wine at Nessan Dorma, a terrace style restaurant overlooking the town. Thanks to trains, there’s no need to worry about a designated driver!
Monterosso is less hilly than the other towns with easily accessible accommodation, shops and restaurants. This would be my recommended base if you chose to stay in Cinque Terre. Monterosso station is a short walk to the beach and boardwalk.
- With its white sandy beach, Monterosso is definitely the town for swimming and sunbaking.
- Walk along Via Fegina to explore the centre of town with its clothing, souvenir, and artisan stores, restaurants and cafes.
- Try the best pizza of your life at La Pia. These guys have mastered pizza that’s both light and fluffy and crispy and crunchy. It’s so good I went back for a second helping.
The main street from Vernazza station takes you past souvenir stores and restaurants to a rocky pier where you can enjoy the sunshine. Just follow the downward slope of the hill and you can’t get lost.
- Order your favourite drink or a glass of local wine from the rooftop of Ristorante Belleforte. With its prime location overlooking the sea, this place gets pretty packed so I recommend booking a table online in advance.
- Vernazza was by far the busiest of the Cinque Terre towns. To get some space from the crowds, we headed inland and enjoyed a delicious lunch at II Pirata delle 5 Terre.
Corniglia is unlike any other Cinque Terre town in that it’s a good 20-minute walk from the train station up a series of very steep, zig-zagging steps. Think of purgatory, but with prettier views. It turns out there is a mini-bus that runs between the town and train station in 5-8 minutes for €1.50 per person. If only I’d known about the bus before I started climbing! Oh well, that’s my penance for eating mountains of sinfully delicious gelato.
- Wander through the streets to explore picturesque alleyways and buy cute souvenirs.
- Have a glass of local wine at Bar Terza Terra di Cardario Alison, a small bar with extra seating out on the Corniglia lookout point.
- Grab a photo of Manarola from this viewpoint.
Day 6: Travel from La Spezia to Rome
Time: 3 hours and 45 minutes
La Spezia Centrale Station is quite small but I suggest arriving about 15 minutes before your scheduled departure to navigate the underpass with your luggage, get on board and find your seat without rushing. We caught the FB8605 train from La Spezia to Roma Termini, the main train station in Rome.
Most long-distance trains in Italy have 1st and 2nd class carriages, but we soon discovered the definition of “1st class” varies from train to train. On the trains to and from La Spezia, 1st class meant a much quieter carriage with fold-out tables, electrical outlets, and extra luggage storage space. A snack cart came through twice every journey with the opportunity to purchase tea or coffee, soft drinks, and snacks like chips, nuts, and candy.
Days 7-8 Rome
What to do in Rome
For a full list of things to do in Rome, read my 2-day itinerary. The highlights include:
- Explore modern Rome with a Welcome to Rome City Stroll & Gelato Tasting tour. The tour visits the iconic Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the ancient Pantheon, and tastes gelato at my favourite gelataria in Rome, Don Nino.
- Visit the Colosseum with a 1-hour guided tour through Italy Travels. The tickets are valid for 2 days and include access to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.
- Take an Instagram-worthy photo outside the Colosseum from the viewpoint at the top of the brick steps at the north end.
- Visit the Roman Forum and walk through the ruins of ancient Roman temples, statues, and public buildings.
- Visit the Vatican on a VIP Pristine Sistine Vatican Tour with Museum Breakfast. With this tour, you can visit Michelangelo’s magnificent Sistine Chapel before the crowds and enjoy a buffet breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard. The knowledgeable guide will help you understand the plethora of Renaissance paintings, statues, and religious artefacts inside the unimaginably huge Vatican Museums before exploring St Peter’s Basilica.
Day 9: Travel from Rome to Florence
Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
We caught the FR9532 train from Roma Termini to Florence S.M.N. Romana Termini is a very large station so we arrived 30 minutes before our scheduled departure.
This time, our 1st class tickets meant we were in a business class carriage, with reclining leather seats, noise-suppressing glass dividers, and a complimentary bottle of water and snacks. Hello, luxury! The train also had a small restaurant/bar in a dedicated carriage. This is what exploring Italy by train looks like, baby!
The 90-minute journey flew by way too fast! Before we knew it, we’d arrived in Florence where we easily navigated our way out to the taxi stand and caught a taxi to our Airbnb apartment.
Italy travel tip: Getting around in Italy by train is much, much easier with unlimited Internet access. I used a Tep Wireless hotspot every day, which can be shared with up to 5 travellers in your group. Read my full review for more details…
Days 10-14: Florence, Pisa & Lucca
What to do in Florence
For a full list of things to do in Florence, read my 4-day itinerary. The highlights include:
- Take a Best of Florence Walking Tour and see Michelangelo’s famous David sculpture. This is something you simply have to see in person, photos can’t possibly capture its magic. The tour also visits the Florence Duomo, Ponte Vecchio Bridge, and provides tips on getting around Florence.
- Take a Day Trip to Pisa and Lucca and climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa (after taking a holding-up-the-tower selfie, of course!). The tour includes lunch at a Tuscan winery and explores the beautiful medieval town of Lucca on foot.
- Climb Brunelleschi’s Dome and visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, St John’s Baptistery, and the Duomo Museum. Tickets must be booked online in advance.
- Buy an Italian leather jacket or handbag at the artisan leather markets.
- Watch the sunset from Pizzale Michelangelo.
- Visit the Uffizi Gallery and see acclaimed works of Renaissance artists including Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Botticelli. To avoid long queues, book tickets online in advance.
- Taste the world’s best gelato at Gelateria Edoardo. I’m not trying to hype it up, but this statement comes from my years of painstaking research all over the globe.
Day 15: Travel from Florence to Venice
Time: just under 2 hours
We caught the FR9418 train from Florence S.M.N to Venezia Santa Lucia and enjoyed the business class carriage again.
It’s important to note there are 2 train station in Venice, Venezia Porto Maghera and Venezia Santa Lucia. Venezia Porto Maghera is located on the mainland, not on the island with the famous canals. So if you’re staying along the canals, make sure you get off at Venezia Santa Lucia.
We stayed in an Airbnb apartment near San Marco and caught a water bus from outside the train station. Catching the waterbus around Venice was nowhere nearly as easy as catching the train around Italy. Find out why in my article.
Days 16-18: Venice
What to do in Venice
For my full list of things to do in Venice, read my 2-day itinerary. The highlights include:
- Visit St Mark’s Basilica and Bell Tower and be amazed by the ornate gold decorations inside and out. There’s a reason it’s called “The Church of Gold”. Book tickets online to avoid waiting 45 minutes or more in the queue.
- Visit St Mark’s Square Museums – the Correr Museum, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, the National Archaeology Museum, and Doge’s Palace. If these museums don’t get you up to speed on Venetian history, nothing will.
- Walk along Rialto Bridge, just keep an eye out for pickpockets targeting the bustling crowd.
- Go on a “traditional” gondola ride but be prepared to part with €80 for a 30-minute tour.
- Take a day-tour of 5 nearby islands including Murano, famous for handmade glassware; Burano, famous for handmade lace; and San Francesco del Desserto, home to a historic Franciscan monastery.
Day 19: Travel from Venice to Milan
Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
We caught the FR9714 train from Venezia Santa Lucia to Milano Centrale Station and completed our loop around northern Italy. Again, our 1st class tickets provide business class seats.
Days 19-21: Milan
What to do in Milan
For my full list of things to do in Milan, read my 1-day itinerary. The highlights include:
- Take a Best of Milan Tour and visit Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. The tour also visits Roman ruins, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and the Milan Duomo including access to the rooftop terraces.
- Visit Leonardo’s World Museum and see recreations of Leonardo da Vinci’s amazing inventions.
- Shop at the Golden Triangle, one of the most prestigious fashion districts in the world.
- Visit the Sforza Castle, a 15th century castle converted into a series of museums housing Renaissance artwork by renowned artists including Leonardo da Vinci.
The Bottom Line
Choosing just one city to visit in Italy is an impossible task. There’s ancient history in Rome, high fashion in Milan, Renaissance art in Florence, colourful towns in Cinque Terre, and the floating marvel of Venice, to name just a few. So that really leaves only one option… visit them all!
When you explore Italy by train with a Eurail pass, all the planning of inter-city rail trips can be arranged from the comfort of your couch at home. There’s no language barriers and no surprises later.
Add to the mix my epic 21-day rail itinerary, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an Italian vacation so spectacular even Michelangelo would applaud, er, if his skeleton could move.
Anyway, now it’s your turn to put in some effort… and do the research necessary to decide which city has the best gelato. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.