The Cinque Terre Express
One of Italy’s loveliest rail routes is the coast-hugging track along the Cinque Terre in Liguria. Called an express, it’s more of a gentle pootle above all five of the Unesco-listed seaside villages in this celebrated national park. Setting off from La Spezia, the route ends in Levanto. You can hop on and off for strolls along the labyrinthine lanes of colourful villages, such as Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola – or stay put and drink in the sight of tiny village-crested bays and inlets, fronted by pristine thumbnail beaches.
The Cinque Terre Train Card allows access to all hiking routes and unlimited train travel between the villages. One- to three-day options from €18.20 at cinqueterre.eu.com
The Circumetnea, Sicily
If you don’t fancy hiking Sicily’s most famous volcano, a thrilling alternative is the Ferrovia Circumetnea from Catania that encircles Etna’s base, ending its journey in Riposto. This dramatic journey sees you rattling across lava beds, past fields of prickly pears and little hamlets, then soaking up across Etna’s foothills views of its snow-capped, smoking peak. Constructed in 1898, it’s 110-km long and the whole route takes around three-and-a-half hours. Try to board one of the green or red vintage rolling stock that look like dinky vintage school buses – they were made by Fiat in the 1950s.
Tickets cost €7.25 from circumetnea.it
The Bernina Express
Train buffs consider the legendary Unesco-listed Bernina Express route from Italian Tirano to St Moritz to be one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world. The highest railway in Europe, it has spiral viaducts to get up the mountains. At times, the train clings to the mountainside thousands of feet up – and you’re rewarded head-swivelling with views across the Brusio viaduct, then there are waterfalls and glaciers, and up to the ear-popping peaks of the Italian and Swiss Alps. Autumn is pretty when the leaves change colour and begin to fall and winter, when the mountains are snow-draped.
The Italian section of the Bernina Express starts from Tirano, which has links with trains from Milan. The four-hour train journey costs from £49. Panoramic carriage seats need to be booked in advance at rhb.ch
Reggio Calabria to Scilla
It only takes 20 minutes, but if you have time to kill before catching the ferry to Sicily, the train ride from Reggio Calabria’s promenade-set Stazione Lido to the seaside town of Scilla is a delight. Leaving the rather ugly port area, you can expect glimpses of neat coves and sandy beaches, then little islets and fishing boats, and, on the approach towards the Strait of Messina, Mount Etna itself. Arriving at Scilla, spend time exploring this charming fishing village set on ochre-green cliffs. Highlights include its sprawling clifftop castle, broad sandy beach and excellent seafood restaurants.
Tickets one way from £2.10 through Rail Europe
Trenino Verde, Sardinia
Sardinia’s dinky Trenino Verde (little green trains) trundle along narrow-gauge tracks across some of the island’s most stunning regions – all the way from the coast to the mountains. Don’t expect speed: tThese dedicated routes are famously slow as recounted by DH Lawrence in The Sea and Sardinia. But who needs to be in a rush when you have the chance to discover the wild heart of this extraordinary island? Pulled by a 1956 diesel locomotive, one of the most dazzling routes travels from Arbatax to Villagrande. Across the flats of Tortoli, you climb to mountainous Gennargentu national park.
Daylong guided Trenino Verde train journeys including multiple stop-offs at points of interest and delicious food tastings cost from €55pp, sardegnatreninoverde.com
Little Trains of the Dolomites
The elegant vintage Renon narrow-gauge mountain railway is one of the oldest and steepest funicular railways in Europe. It chugs all the way to Collalbo, past undulating meadows and towering jagged mountain ranges. Join an escorted rail holiday and you get expert guidance around the mountainous rail routes. The trip includes a ride on line 700 between Mezzolombardo and Caldes, with spectacular views over Dolomiti castles and a dramatic ascent up one of Europe’s steepest tracks, the Mendola funicular railway.
The nine-day Little Trains of the Dolomites tour runs in September and May from £1,499pp, including B&B accommodation and excursions, arenatravel.com
Rome to Siracuse
Travel to Sicily by rail doesn’t sound easy and yet it’s one of the best direct long-haul Italian journeys around. Your train is shunted across the Strait of Messina via ferry while you can go up on deck for a breath of sea air. Kick off from Rome in your air-conditioned carriage for the 11-hour scenic ride to Naples and Salerno, then on to Taormina, Catania and Syracuse. Once in Sicily, coastal and mountain views turn to seascapes as well as glimpses of snow-dusted Mount Etna.
Book in advance for super-economy tickets from £66.70 one way, second class at Rail Europe, links with Trenitalia
Venice to Florence
Ditch the car and link two of Italy’s top must-see cities by rail. It takes just over two hours to swap the canals of Venice for Florence’s meandering Arno. Travelling by train ensures a stress-free ride and some of the most gorgeous snapshots of the country along the way. En route you pass the exquisite Renaissance towns of Bologna, Prato and Ravenna, then through the mountains of Emilia-Romagna and alongside the vine-terraced hills of Tuscany. If you’re after a direct route, catch the high-speed Frecciarossa – but a more leisurely journey, admittedly with changes, ensures time to absorb those dreamy panoramas.
Tickets from £26.50 one way, booked in advance from Rail Europe
Venice to Rome rail holiday
A small-group rail holiday is a great way to take in Venice, Florence and Rome, staying in hotels along the way and experiencing local culture. Highlights include leisurely walks, museum visits and sipping an Aperol spritz in the quieter canal-side cafés of Venice; then a detour rail trip to Pisa. In Bologna, the focus is on food, with a tasting session of DOP meats, cheeses, wines and tortellini-making in the food markets of the Quadrilatero quarter, and in Florence and Rome, there’s plenty of time to explore the highlights of both these cities.
A seven-day Venice to Rome by Railway tour costs from £1,498pp, including return flights, with responsibletravel.com
Rimini to Lecce
Follow Italy’s sparkling Adriatic by regional rail and you’ll be rewarded with dreamy sea views and glimpses of historic towns and small fishing villages. The line from Rimini down to Lecce is an absolute treat – and though it takes about six hours, you’ll shore up some unforgettable images. Swapping Rimini’s glitzy beach clubs for workaday Pesaro, the Frecciabianca stops at Ancona, Pescara and Foggia in Puglia. Occasionally, the track heads inland beneath the hills of Umbria and Tuscany, finally reaching dazzling baroque Lecce. Celebrate with a local pasticciotto and a spritz – almost as delightful as the journey itself.
Tickets one way from £55.70, through Rail Europe or Trenitali