All Aboard Italy's Majestic Old-Timey Train Rides
Like the Hogwarts Express, but make it Italian.
Throughout the world, the last few pandemic-strewn years have revived the allure of train rides—and more so of journeys along old tracks that force us to unplug from technology. Italy isn’t exactly a mecca as far as suped-up high-speed railways are concerned, but if you’re looking for some very, very slow—not to mention epically scenic—travel options, the country’s beautiful old-timey trains surely won’t disappoint.
Snag a ticket and prepare to experience the thrill of discovering unknown shepherd trails, sleepy villages, abandoned underground mines, mountains once roamed by outlaws, and lush Alpine valleys rife with fairy tale lore. Some tracks date back to the end of the 1800s, traversed by trains still rolling on steam and offering the chance to experience little-known areas you’re bound to miss by car.
Up until after World War II, when many roads still had yet to be built, these railways were the only means of transport for many Italians. Kids lined up to take the morning train to go to school at a nearby village, which might have taken them hours to reach. If time is of no essence and you’re okay with running late, start packing and hop on one of these historical locomotives. Sitting back in your vintage seat, you’ll feel like you’re traveling back in time.
When this famous track debuted, travelers thought the wintery panorama out their windows looked like a corner of Siberia, a network of fields covered in fluffy snow and crisscrossed by frozen streams. Hence its curious name: the Trans-Siberian Railroad. This steam locomotive connects two of the country’s wildest, most remote central regions—Abruzzo and Molise—crossing the Apennine mountain range and cruising through a maze of ghost towns lined with crumbling cathedrals. Departing from the town of Sulmona, renowned for its artisan confetti, it runs all the way to Isernia with stops in various villages, offering stunning views of snow-capped peaks and pristine valleys dotted with grazing sheep and forests. It passes by meadows and canyons once roamed by pilgrims and outlaws who took refuge here in the 1800s, monasteries founded by wandering hermits, and cozy skiing resorts. Last but not least? You’ll get a peek at the shimmering Adriatic coast, too.
Each morning, local commuters each hop aboard this storied line to get to Rome’s center, oblivious of the treasures along the way. Built in the early 1900s, there remains just one single track and a few wooden carriages with large benches. It leaves from Piazzale Flaminio in Rome and runs north across the Roman countryside all the way to the stunning Etruscan city of Viterbo, passing by sites of ancient Roman battles, mausoleums, catacombs, chestnut forests, lavish nut farms, and medieval castles still owned by the heirs of once-powerful lords. The ancient village of Civita Castellana, cut from the jagged rock and suspended above a precipice, is among the route’s most spectacular stops.
Fans of archaeology can’t miss this ride. The Archeo train takes in the best of the Campania region. It connects vibrant Naples, packed with street vendors and wild drivers, to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum, all buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius volcano erupted nearly 2,000 years ago. The train, sporting wagons dating back to the 1930s, then rolls south through Cilento National Park with its dreamy beaches, arriving in the picturesque villages of Ascea and Sapri. Lush lemon groves and cliff-hanging fishing villages turn heads along the way.
Gear up to experience the thrill of traveling across what used to be Italy’s top lair for illicit bandits on the run. This old steam locomotive cuts through the Sila National Park deep in Calabria, ascending to an altitude of 1,400 meters. The ragged hills and isolated caves were once the perfect spots for kidnappers to hide their victims while waiting for a ransom. Today, you’ll come across places where time stands still, like the old shepherding towns of Moccone, Camigliatello, and San Nicola Silvana—places that many Italians have never even heard of, let alone seen. Don’t forget to pick up traditional delicacies like spicy Calabrian ‘Nduja sausage and a bit of Sanguinaccio cake, made with chocolate and pigs blood.
We all know Tuscany is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations, but here’s a way to escape the crowds and savor the views while you’re at it. This historical train runs through the most stunning, untouched part of the region: The D’Orcia Valley, with its fluorescent green plains, olive groves, and classic country roads lined with cypress trees and premium vineyards. Frescoed Renaissance-era chapels and medieval hamlets dominate the fertile valley, buttressed by family-run farms and regal estates. The train departs from the town of Asciano in the province of Siena, and arrives near the coast in Monte Antico. If Tuscany is your favorite, this ride—which guarantees silence and peacefulness—is a must.
It might be a short ride, but this option is both very intense and extremely panoramic—and probably not the best idea if you’re afraid of heights. The 1907 single-carriage wooden train carries riders from the northern town of Bolzano in the German-speaking Alto Adige region up to an elevated snowy plateau on the Dolomites mountains. Shuttle through white, icy fields believed to be inhabited by workaholic folkloric creatures who sprinkled crystals to cover the peaks, creating a snowy blanket. Charming Alpine towns are among the few stops, though the best part of this journey is the view of the rocky peaks that emit a pink glow at sunrise and sunset.
Imagine descending into a labyrinth of mines onboard a tiny train, just as the miners used to do. The Buggerru mine on the tropical island of Sardinia is a tunnel fit with panoramic clefts cut deep into the rock to showcase the sandy beaches and tranquil inlets below. The old railway track was built to haul raw mined materials to the harbors to be shipped. However, the underground journey could give you goose-bumps—as with most mines in the area, this was a place where many laborers lost their lives, or at the very least, were forced to endure terrible working conditions.