Italy is a country of great passions, its art, culture, and food inspiring people from all over the world to visit in order to get a taste of la dolce vita.
The singularity and character of each city is seen in the playful nicknames they are given, from the Eternal City to la bella. Experience their many splendours by taking a train to one of these top Italian cities. Better yet, travel the country from top to toe to get a feel for just how powerful Italy’s cultural kick really is. Because this is a country so beautiful, even the train announcements sound like poetry.
Equal parts bougie and bolshie, grand and gritty, Bologna is the historic capital of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. While Rome is the “Eternal City” and Florence is “la Bella,” Bologna has three nicknames: “la dotta, la rossa e la grassa.” - “La dotta,” the educated, doffs a cap to Bologna’s university founded in 1088, the oldest in Europe. “La rossa,” the red, is a reminder of the city’s left-leaning politics and its historic culture of student protests, while “la grassa,” the fat, is reflective of Bologna’s gastronomic grandeur, a city whose food legacy is as rich as the ragu it gave birth to.
Known as the Cradle of the Renaissance, Florence’s wealth of art and culture is breathtaking in its expansiveness. From fresco-adorned churches and museums bursting with masterpieces to 15th and 16th century palazzi practically around every corner, this UNESCO World Heritage city is a testament to Italy’s enduring cultural legacy. When travelling to Florence by train, don’t miss hiking up the 2km path from Ponte Vecchio to Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset. From this beautiful vantage point, it’s easy to see why Henry James once said of this city: “Everything about Florence seems to be coloured with a mild violet, like diluted wine.”
Genoa, Italy’s largest sea port, has a long history of welcoming travellers from near and far. Nicknamed “La Superba” (the Proud one), Genoa has a rich and contradictory history, its architectural heritage reflecting both its former glory days as the Most Serene Republic of Genoa in the 12th and 13th centuries, as well as its history of seafaring squalour. Today, Genoa is a sparkling historic city with an old town full of twisting caruggi (narrow streets), Enlightenment-era halls and a UNESCO-listed palazzi. Genoa is also a gateway to the Italian Riviera and the beautiful Cinque Terre, with a train to La Spezia taking just over 1 hr 30 mins.
A city where money talks, creativity thrives and fashion reigns, Milan is a heady blend of old-world romance and gritty, fast-paced cosmopolitanism. Thanks to its long-standing status as Italy’s financial capital, Milan’s mixture of old and new architectural styles is unlike any other Italian city. Art deco and rationalist buildings sit alongside Zaha Hadid’s additions to a contemporary skyline such as Generali Tower and CityLife Residences. In contrast, the National Science and Technology Museum Leonardo da Vinci, housed in a 16th century monastery, welcomes cultural disciples to The Last Supper. Travel to Milan by train for a fast-paced, high-fashion city where aperitivos are ritual and living well is an art-form.
Travel by train to Naples, a wholly singular city, blending together history and modernity with an energetic intensity quite unlike any other European destination. The birthplace of pizza draws plenty of hungry visitors each year, including those hungry for culture. Naples’ historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the largest in Europe, covering 1,700 hectares and 27 centuries worth of history. Aside from exploring its own piazzas, frescoes and food, Naples is also the perfect jumping off point to visit Pompeii and the glamorous Amalfi Coast.
Rome, “The Eternal City”, is aptly nicknamed with a seemingly endless itinerary of things to see and do. Boasting 3,000 years of urban development, ancient icons like the pantheon, Colosseum and Roman Forum, as well as beautiful basilicas and ornate piazzas, few cities can rival Rome's monumental artistic heritage. Go for the awe-inspiring art, stay for the lively street life, and discover why this hot-blooded European capital is one of the world’s most charismatic and romantic cities to visit.
Siena, in Tuscany, is a celebration of all things medieval and Gothic. Said to have been founded by Remus’ son Senius, Siena sits over three hills, its beating heart the Piazza del Campo, where the Roman forum once sat. To walk the city’s streets is to immerse yourself in a giant open-air gallery with awe-worthy architecture and monuments around every corner. Lose yourself in Siena’s historic contrade (districts), a network of tightly-knit neighbourhoods that are as colourful and lively as they were in the 17th century.
Although Turin gave birth to Italy’s speedy Fiat cars, slow is definitely the way to go when exploring this elegant city. There’s a hint of Paris in Turin’s tree-lined boulevards with an added air of Vienna too in the city’s art-nouveau buildings. While Turin might seem at first to be a blend of other beautiful European cities, there’s no mistaking its singularity when it comes to the arts, music and gastronomy, particularly as pioneer in the Slow Food movement. Turin is also the gateway to the Italian Alps and the cross-country ski slopes of Sestriere, Claviere and Pragelato. Lift the shroud on this Alpine city and experience la dolce vita in a place that knows how to celebrate life’s simple pleasures.
Venice, a marble city built on water, has always carried with it a glamorous audacity that has sparked the imaginations of poets, artists and tourists for centuries. The city’s Grand Canal reflects Venice’s architectural mastery with six churches and 50 palazzi lining its banks, the Palazzo Ducale and Basilica di San Marco being its waterway’s crowning glories. Of course, for Venetian culture at its most vibrant (and most busy), don’t miss the city’s famous February carnevale for music, masks and Piazza San Marco madness. The city has a reputation for being overcrowded and suffering from overtourism, for for information on the best time to visit Venice by train, read our dedicated blog on the subject here.
‘Fair Verona’, best known as the Bard’s backdrop for star-crossed lovers, is a city easy to fall in love with. Beyond its balconies, Verona boasts beautiful bridges over the Adige River, countless churches and a wonderfully preserved 1st century amphitheatre where the city’s annual Summer Opera Festival takes place. Combine a trip to this romantic city with Venice, only 50 mins away by train, or dip out of Verona and onto the shores of Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, where crystal clear waters meet jagged mountains, less than 20 mins away.
Image credits from top to bottom: Bologna iStock ©ValerioMei, Duomo in Florence from Giotto's Bell Tower iStock ©borchee, Colourful streets of Naples iStock ©javarman3, Turin, San Carlo Square iStock ©Alessandro Cristiano.