Exploring Italy by train isn’t a hard sell. But moving away from the main intercity routes can make it even more appealing. Some surprisingly niche routes, from busy commuter lines to tourist-geared journeys, allow you to see more of the country by rail than you thought possible. From riding through Alpine valleys to hopping between Azure beaches, here are eight of the best.
The Ferrovia Porrettana was the first trans-Apennine railway line in Italy, opened in 1864 and connecting Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany by rail for the first time. It was largely supplanted by the faster Bologna-Florence railway line in 1934 and then by the new high-speed Bologna-Florence line in 2009. Still, it remains the most beautiful trans-Apennine line, with very few tunnels, allowing you to enjoy the scenery as the train choo-choos along. Notable stops along the way include Marzabotto, where you can walk in the Parco Storico di Monte Sole — Italy’s only “historic park” — and visit the ruins of the Etruscan city Kainua; the eccentric fantasy castle of Rocchetta Mattei; the surprisingly pretty town of Porrettana itself (after which the line is named); and the hamlet of Molino del Pallone, a lovely swimming spot on the ridgeline of the Apennines. (It's also one of the few places you can comfortably swim between two Italian regions — the Reno river here forms the border between Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany.)
Sprouting out of Trento is the Malè railway line, which curves its way through Trentino’s beautiful Val di Non and Val di Sole, before ending at the village of Mezzana, squeezed in between the Adamello mountain range and the Ortler Alps. The railway is popular in winter as it drops you off near some of the region’s most notable ski resorts, such as Marilleva, but it’s lovely in other seasons too, especially summer, when you can hike or cycle back to Trento along the adjacent bike road.
Chugging along at its own pace along Italy’s Ionian coast from Taranto to Reggio Calabria, the Ionian Railway passes some of Italy’s best beaches. Many are protected as nature reserves to stymie any overdevelopment, such as in Metaponto and Castellaneta Marina, as well as the beaches of southern Calabria, where the mountains plunge directly into the sea. The line is slow, stopping at every little beach town along the way. But isn’t that precisely what you want in summer?
Treno di Dante
The Treno di Dante travels between Florence and Ravenna, following a route likely taken by the poet on his long exile from Florence. As well as the vertiginous Apennine scenery, stops of interest include Borgo San Lorenzo in Tuscany’s underrated Mugello region, the striking mountain villages of Crespino del Lamone and Marradi, the beautiful hilltop town of Brisighella and the historic cities of Faenza and Ravenna, where Dante spent his final years.
While most railway lines aim to be as fast as possible, the Trenino Verde (“Little Green Train”) aspires to slowness, winding its way through the green, mountainous interior of Sardinia. D.H. Lawrence rode the line in the early 1920s, and wrote that “all the strange magic of Sardinia is in this sight”. After a tumultuous 20th century of closures, restructurings and investment in other regional train lines, the Trenino Verde reopened as a purely tourist train for the summer. For those that enjoy slow travel, this is the ideal Italian railway line.
This remarkable train once had aspirations of being a commuter line for the Etna villages. Though it never quite achieved that lofty goal, it has been rediscovered as a tourist train, circumnavigating Mt Etna and allowing you to drop off and explore the surprisingly substantial towns that encircle the volcano, such as Randazzo and Adrano. Some stations are seemingly in the middle of nowhere, their purpose long since lost to time, but very useful for those who want to explore the wild, natural parts of Etna.
Vigezzino Centovalli Railway
Slow travel is once again the name of the game with this railway which plies the route between Domodossola and Locarno. It’s one of the few railway lines where the infrastructure is just as awesome as the nature, with an intricate network of viaducts and bridges carrying you over and then through the numerous gorges and tight valleys (allegedly over a hundred of them, hence the name ‘Centovalli’) that define this reclusive part of the Alps. The ride is especially evocative in autumn, when the changing foliage turns the valleys into a multi-colored wonderland.
This little-used line ferries you into the Venetian Alps, passing through Belluno into the Cadore region at the foot of the Dolomites. It’s an awe-inspiring route which follows the narrow valley of the Piave river before reaching the Alpine paradise of Cadore, with its eponymous lake and picture-perfect villages, including Pieve di Cadore – the birthplace of Titian. A bus from here also connects you to the ski town of Cortina (co-host of the forthcoming 2026 Winter Olympics).