When it comes to travelling Italy by train, most veterans will tell you it takes time to perfect. First-timers often get overwhelmed – unnecessarily. Italian public transport is far cheaper than the taxi alternative. Moreover, it’s an opportunity to see all walks of life in a concentrated area! Plus, the sense of independence is priceless. We’ve broken down travelling Italy by train into easily digestible chunks. Don’t forget to scroll down to the end of this article for useful public transport links. All aboard!
How to ride the Metropolitana (subway)
Firstly, not all cities actually have a subway system. You’ll only find them in Rome, Milan, Naples, Turin, Catania, Genoa and Brescia. Anywhere else, public transport revolves around buses and trams. The Italian subway is known as the Metropolitana. It’s important to note that these trains DO NOT travel out of town. They’re more for getting around inside the city itself. Trains run every 5-10 minutes (for the most part), but it can be tricky to get onto the right one! Lucky for you, we’re here to help! To sum up, the entire Metro process can be expressed up in 2 easy steps: buy your ticket; plan your route.
1) Buy your ticket
Here, you have 2 options. You can practise your Italian with the clerk at the biglietteria (ticket booth), or you can use the self-service machines as you enter all stations. Thankfully, buying a ticket is quite simple. Especially because regardless of which station you’re trying to get to, the tickets are the same. Here, it should be noted that you can buy single-ride tickets, day-passes and week-passes. We recommend a day-pass (for around €7). It will save you a few bucks, and it means you’ve got a plan B lest you get pick-pocketed! For a step-by-step tutorial on buying Metro tickets, check out this video.
2) Plan your route
So, you’ve bought your ticket. You’ve made it through the turnstiles (which validate your ticket electronically). Now it’s time to plan your route! This a lot simpler than you think. There will be a map on the wall, showing the different trains and the stations they stop at. Firstly, find the station you’re trying to get to. Identify the colour and name of the ‘line’ it’s on. Then, figure out which direction you’re going in. Let’s use Rome’s Metropolitana map as an example:
(Click here for a detailed map of Rome’s public transport systems, including the Metropolitana routes. Use this when following the instructions below).
- For example, let’s pretend you’ve been visiting the museum at the Vatican, and next you want to go to the Teatro Opera. The nearest station to depart from is the Ottaviano San Pietro station, on the orange-coloured Line A. You would need to get to the Repubblica station (which is closest to the Teatro Opera). This is 5 stops away, on the same orange line.
- But how do you know you’re travelling in the right direction?! You need to look at the last stop on both ends of Line A. In this case, Battistini is the last stop on the left end. Anagnina is the last stop on the right end. You can see on the map above that to get to Repubblica, you need to travel towards (but not all the way to) Anagnina. You will therefore follow the signs in the subway station labelled ‘MA, Anagnina’. If you were to follow the signs labelled ‘MA, Battistini’, you would end up getting on the wrong train, going in the opposite direction.
Got all that? If not, bear in mind that Italians are friendly. You’re sure to find someone who can point you in the right direction (in Englitalian).
Bonus tips for Italy by train
Metropolitana stations are demarcated by a big red square, with a white ‘M’. This sign will be visible above ground close the whichever station it’s indicating. Also, Metro tickets can be used as bus tickets in the same city you bought them in. Just pay attention to the time limit! Lastly, keep your ticket on you the entire time! You’ll sometimes need it to get out of the Metro station.
How to take intercity trains in Italy
Now for travelling across all of Italy by train. This is a slightly different ball game. The good news is that most cities are on the railway network! You could travel Italy by road, but this involves renting a car and of course, ensuring you don’t get lost – though that could be fun! Train travel makes things a lot easier, and you’ll have just as incredible a view of the Italian countryside. But, if you’ve never travelled by train before, it can be quite intimidating. Especially when you’re doing it in a foreign country! Here’s where we take you by the hand and lead you through each step of the process.
1) Start by booking tickets in advance
It is possible to arrive at one of the national railway stations and buy your ticket on the spot. However, first-timers should definitely book in advance. This will give you peace of mind, and avoid unnecessary bloopers.
To book your tickets in advance, simply visit Trenitalia’s official site (which is also available in English! Yay!). You can also check out the various intercity routes here. The tricky bit is knowing which major station you’ll be departing from. We discuss this further down.
Bonus tip for Italy by train
When you type your departure or arrival station in the Trenitalia ticket form, be sure to use Italian names. Stations in Rome, for example, are listed under Roma. Naples is under Napoli, Florence is under Firenze, etc.
In essence, Trenitalia is the national system that runs most of the trains. The three most common types of train are the Frecce trains, the InterCity trains and the Regionale trains. We don’t have space to discuss the ins and outs here, but ItaliaRail gives a very helpful description. Basically, some trains are faster than others, and some trains will take you to more rural destinations.
2) Getting to a national railway interchange
Your ticket is booked and paid for. Your bags are packed. Now what? Well, you need to get to the nearest ‘interchange’ station. This probably means taking the Metropolitana (subway) to the nearest major interchange. We’ve already covered how to navigate the Metro above, so we won’t repeat ourselves. What you need to know is how to identify an interchange! Take a look at this integrated public transport map for Rome. If you look at the legend in the top right-hand corner, you’ll see the black train icon. It indicates ‘interchange with national railways’. In other maps, this might be indicated with the Trenitalia logo. In any case, consulting the maps shows there are only two interchanges in Rome. Termini and Tiburtina. You would look for the exact same icons/logo on Metro maps in any other city.
3) You’re at the major interchange. Now what?
Now that you’re there, find the nearest ticket machine. Here, you’ll either buy your ticket, or you’ll print out the one you pre-booked online. Buying the ticket on these machines works much the same way as buying a Metro ticket, which we described above. You will definitely be able to pay for these tickets by card, by the way!
Now you walk over to the large electronic screen, showing arrivals and departures. You find your train on the board using the train’s number, printed on your ticket. The board will tell you whether or not the train is running on time. It will also indicate the platform. So, in essence it’s exactly like in an airport. You find your departure gate (platform) on the electronic info board. You wait in front of that platform to board the train. If you’re in a more rural station, the English translation of the info on the board might not be available. Here’s a translation just in case! Destinazione is Destination; Orario is Departure Time; Ritardo is Delays; Informazione is Information; and Binario is Platform.
If you get especially lost, don’t hesitate to find an information desk (look for the word Informazione). At major city stations, there is normally always someone who speaks at least a little bit of English.
Bonus tip for Italy by train
Don’t forget to validate your ticket! We cannot emphasise this enough! Not validating your ticket at one of the obliteratrice (ticket validators) will mean a major fine. They are sometimes yellow, sometimes green. You’ll see them on every platform. It’s simple.To be sure, insert your ticket and allow the machine to print a validation on it. Once you’re on the train, someone will come by and ask to see your ticket. Best be prepared!