With so much history, culture and amazing architecture, not to mention fabulous food and wine, it’s no wonder that Italy is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. Travelling by train is a relaxing way to get around Italy and the great thing about rail travel is that it also allows you to get away from the major cities and enjoy some wonderful day trips.
It doesn’t matter where your interests lie - with food and wine, art, history or just taking in the spectacular Italian scenery, rail travel makes it easy to see the best of Italy away from the cities.
Top 7 day trips in Italy by train
There are endless options but I’ve included a few suggested day trips by train from Italy’s major cities to help get your holiday plans started.
1/ Milan to Varenna day trip by train
Como is often the destination for those wanting to visit Lake Como from Milan but my suggestion is to head to Varenna instead. Just an hour by train from Milan, Varenna is a picture-postcard Italian lakeside village. Allow some time to wander the steep, narrow alleys of Varenna before hopping onboard a ferry to one of the many other lakeside towns including Bellagio, Menaggio or Tremezzo.
Enjoy lunch at a lakeside cafe and lick a gelato as you stroll along one of the many lakeside promenades or shop in the lovely boutiques. Ties and scarves made of Como silk are popular and reasonably-priced. There are numerous gardens and villas that are worth a look, too, if you are so inclined.
Then, after a day spent admiring the stunning lake views, catch the ferry back to Varenna for your train back to Milan.
Further reading: Where to stay and what to do at Lake Como
2/ Milan to Turin day trip by train
For food and wine lovers, Turin, the capital of Piedmont, is the place to head for a day trip from Milan. In just one hour, the super-fast Trenitalia Frecciabianca whisks you from Milan to Turin where you’ll be greeted by some impressive Baroque architecture, much of it dating back to when Turin was the royal seat of the Savoys.
Turin has long been known as the home of the automotive company Fiat but more recently has developed a reputation as a world class food and wine centre. The slow food movement started nearby and one of the city’s most popular eateries is Eataly where you can sample local foods, including smoked meats, cheeses and pasta, all produced in the ‘slow food’ method.
Whilst in Turin you should also sample locally grown truffles and hazelnuts, the local chocolate, Guido Golbino, and of course, the local wines from the surrounding Barolo and Barbaresco regions. By the time you jump aboard your train back to Milan, your taste buds will have reached sensory overload and you’ll be well and truly content.
3/ Florence to Pisa day trip by train
One of the most photographed buildings in Italy has to be the Leaning Tower of Pisa and with the journey by train from Florence only taking around an hour, getting there is easy.
If the Leaning Tower is the main purpose of your visit to Pisa, I strongly recommend pre-purchasing your entry ticket online before you arrive. Only 40 people are allowed in the Tower at any one time (each group is allowed to spend 30 minutes inside), so booking a set entry time will save you a long wait in the ticket queue and guarantee entry. After climbing the 300-odd steps you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views over the city.
Other sights close to the Leaning Tower that are worth a visit include the Duomo (Cathedral), which features a magnificent pulpit and paintings, and Battistero (Baptistry).
4/ Florence to Siena day trip by train
An hour and a half by train from Florence lies the city’s long-time rival, Siena. This hilltop Tuscan town is one of the most-visited in Italy, not only for its annual Palio, a famous horse race around the medieval streets, but also for its fine architecture, art and cuisine.
The town’s main square, Piazza del Campo, is dominated by the Mangia Tower (built in the 14th century), and Santa Maria Church, but the Romanesque-Gothic Siena Cathedral is also well worth a visit for its superb mosaic and painted interior, said to be amongst the most elaborate in all of Italy.
After exploring the town, grab a seat at an outdoor cafe and enjoy a coffee or the local specialties whilst people watching, before hopping aboard your train for the journey through the rolling Tuscan countryside back to Florence.
5/ Genoa to San Remo day trip by train
Around two hours by train from the maritime city of Genoa lies the coastal beauty of San Remo, fondly known as the pearl of the Italian Riviera. With its Mediterranean climate and attractive beaches, San Remo became popular with the rich and famous of Europe during the 19th century. Today it is sometimes referred to as a ‘wannabe Monte Carlo’ (which is only about an hour away to the west), because of its casino and the well-dressed folk who can be seen around town.
Highlights of the town include the Russian Orthodox Church with its onion-domed top and the Villa Nobel, now a museum dedicated to Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, of Nobel Prize fame. You can lose yourself for hours in the jumbled streets of the old town but most visitors find themselves at some point heading for the beach to soak up the Mediterranean sunshine.
6/ Genoa to Monterosso by train
Ideally you’d spend more than a day visiting the five villages of the Cinque Terre but it is possible to see them on a day trip by train from Genoa. About 90 minutes after departing from Genoa, you’ll arrive in Monterosso, the most northerly of the five Cinque Terre villages.
Regular trains (at least one per hour in summer) run between each of the villages so my suggestion is to spend some time exploring each of them. Each village has its own unique characteristics but they all have one thing in common - they are oh so picturesque.
If you’ve departed Genoa early, you may have time to walk the paths between a couple of the Cinque Terre villages. Doing so gives you stunning views over the Ligurian coastline and the views from above each village as you approach on foot are not to be missed. But, if you’d prefer to take the faster option, jump aboard the train which stops at each village - Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - before returning to Genoa.
TIP: You’ll need to purchase a Cinque Terre Trekking Pass (€12 for one day) which covers unlimited train journeys between the villages and access to the walking trails (which are part of the Cinque Terre National Park) for the duration of the pass.
7/ Rome to Orvieto day trip by train
Just over an hour by train from Rome, Orvieto is a history lover’s paradise. Inhabited since Etruscan times, the town is home to a stunning cathedral (with a breathtaking facade), fortress, Papal residence, medieval piazzas and a huge underground tunnel system. Upon disembarking your train, catch the funicular (€1) for the short ride to the old town where your exploration can begin.
Dug deep into the volcanic rock on which the city sits, are a series of more than 400 caves connected by tunnels that date back thousands of years. Used for multiple purposes over the years including bomb shelters, fridges and hideouts when the city was under siege, today you can take a tour of the caves with a local guide. After the tour, why not visit the Museo Claudio opposite the Cathedral, where you can see a fascinating display of Etruscan artefacts and Greek ceramic pieces?
As well as enjoying the historic sights of Orvieto, most visitors leave with a fondness for the surrounding landscape. Dotted with olive and cypress trees and grape vines, this is the rural Italy you’ve seen on so many postcards. For the best views of the Umbrian countryside, and the best photo opps, head to the town walls which are just to the north of Piazza San Giovenale.
Which of these day trips by train from Italy's major cities would you most like to take? Please tell me in the comments below.
This article was sponsored by Rail Plus (now Rail Europe) but all words and suggested day trips are my own!