Train travel in Italy is a convenient, inexpensive way to see much of the country, especially its major cities and towns. The nationwide rail system was begun in the 1800s, and expanded greatly under the Fascist regime of Mussolini, who famously, "made the trains run on time." Bombardment during WWII devastated the rail lines but reconstruction occurred under the post-war Marshall Plan. The first high-speed trains debuted in the 1970s and today, Italy continues to, little-by-little, at least, modernize and expand its rail system.
Traveling by train is usually the best option for visiting large and medium-sized cities, where driving is nerve-wracking and parking is scarce and expensive. In major cities, the train station is usually in the city center or right on the perimeter. In medium and smaller cities, especially those at higher elevation (like Siena or Orvieto, for example), the station is at a lower elevation and is connected to the center via bus, funicular or a short walk or taxi ride.
It's worth noting that if you want to see the Italian countryside and tour its more remote hilltowns, trains are not the most ideal option, as many towns don't have nearby stations. And because train tracks often have embankments on both sides, you don't always have an idyllic countryside view out your window.
Types of Trains in Italy
With exceptions as noted, all trains are part of the national rail line, Trenitalia.
Frecce fast trains
Frecce are Italy's fast trains that run only between major cities. Seat reservations on Frecce trains are mandatory and usually included in the ticket price. Tickets for the Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, and Frecciabianca high-speed lines (Frecciarossa is the fastest) are available on the Trenitalia website – you'll notice right away when searching that the fast trains are significantly more expensive and, well, faster than other Trenitalia trains. Different travel classes are available, but even the basic Freccia service is clean and comfortable.
Intercity and Intercity Plus trains
Intercity trains are relatively fast trains that run the length of Italy, stopping at cities and larger towns. First and second class service is available. First class coaches offer slightly better seats and are generally less crowded. They very often have cleaner bathrooms as well. Seat reservations are compulsory on the Intercity Plus trains, and the fee is included in the ticket price. Seat reservations can be made for most Intercity trains, too.
Regionale (Regional Trains)
These are the local trains, often running around work and school schedules. They are cheap and usually reliable, but seats can be hard to find on major routes. Many regional trains have only second class seats, but if available, consider buying a first class ticket. It's less likely to be full especially during commute times and doesn't cost much more. We have to be honest – Regionale trains, while cheap and frequent, can range from clean and comfortable (with air-conditioning in hot weather) to dirty and even smelly – with bathrooms that you may not want to set foot in. This is by no means always the case, but know that Regionale trains are a bit of a roll of the dice.
Italo, a private rail company, runs fast trains on routes between several major cities. In recent years, it has taken a bite out of Trenitalia's business, particularly where it competes with the Freccia trains. Italo has an extremely modern fleet of clean, comfortable trains, with service classes ranging from Smart (standard) to Club Executive (VIP class).
Some small private rail companies serve towns in one area such as Ente Autonomo Volturno that has routes from Naples to places like the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii or the Ferrovie del Sud Est that serves southern Puglia.
Finding your destination on the train schedules
Train schedules are displayed in train stations, for both departing (partenze) and arriving (arrivi). Most train stations have either a large board or small televisions listing trains that will arrive or depart soon and which track they use. Even if your train is listed on the screen, you may have to wait a while before you see the track listed and making your way to the correct platform.
Buying an Italian Train Ticket
There are a number of ways to buy a train ticket in Italy or before you go:
- Search schedules and buy train tickets online and see train schedules at Trenitalia or Italo. This is our preferred method of buying tickets, which you can either print or save on your smartphone to show to the conductor. Both companies have convenient apps for Android or Apple devices, which allow you to search, purchase tickets and track your train's progress in real time.
- Go to a ticket window at the station equipped with the time and destination of the train you want to take, the number of tickets you need, and ticket class (primo or secondo).
- Use a ticket machine if the station has them. These are pretty easy to use, and you can avoid long lines at the ticket window but you may need to pay in cash.
Note: Unless you're really doing things at the last minute, we strongly recommend buying your tickets online.
For travel on regional trains, note that a train ticket buys you transportation on a train, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a seat on that train. If you find that your train is crowded and you can't find a seat in second class, you may try to find a conductor and ask if your ticket can be upgraded to first class.
Train Travel FAQ: Should I Buy a Rail Pass for Train Travel in Italy?
Boarding your Train
Once you have a ticket, you can head out to your train. In Italian, the tracks are called binari (track numbers are listed under bin on the departure board). In smaller stations where the trains go through the station you'll have to go underground using the sottopassagio, or underpassage, to get to a track that isn't binario uno or track number one. In larger stations like Milano Centrale, where the trains pull into the station rather than passing through, you'll see the trains head-on, with signs on each track indicating the next expected train and its departure time.
If you have a printed regional train ticket or ticket for one of the small private lines (or any ticket without a specific train number, date, and time), just before you board your train, find the green and white machine (or in some cases the old-style yellow machines) and insert the end of your ticket. This prints the time and date of the first use of your ticket, and makes it valid for the journey. There are stiff fines for not validating your ticket. Validation applies to regional train tickets or any ticket that does not have a specific date, time, and seat number on it.
Note that if you have an e-ticket or PDF, or a printed ticket with a QR code on it, there is no need to validate it – just show it to the conductor when he or she passes on the train.
If you don't have an assigned seat, just board one of the train cars for your class of travel. Usually, there are racks above the seats for luggage, or dedicated shelves near the ends of each coach for your larger baggage. On some trains, large pieces of luggage can fit between two rows of back-to-back seats. Note that you will not find porters in the station or waiting by the track to help you with your luggage, you will need to get your luggage onto the train yourself.
It's customary to greet fellow passengers when you sit down. A simple buongiorno will do nicely. If you want to know if a seat is vacant, simply say Occupato? or E libero?
At Your Destination
Train stations are bustling places, especially in large cities. Be careful about your baggage and wallet. Don't let anyone offer to help you with your luggage once you are off the train or offer you transportation. If you're looking for a taxi, head outside the station to the taxi stand or bus stops. In cities with subway systems (metro), there is usually a metro station inside the train station.
Train Travel FAQ:
- Can I Buy Train Tickets Online?
- How Do I Validate My Train Ticket?
- When Should I Buy My Train Tickets?