We took the scenic route to Italy
Did you know that you can easily take a train to Italy from London? It may not be the fastest way to get there but it can be a lot more fun than flying. You get far more space on a train than an aeroplane so it’s more comfortable. Moreover, you get to view all that lovely scenery on the way.
In this post, I’m going to share the details of our recent tour of Italy. We travelled by train from London and visited the beautiful Italian cities of Naples, Florence and Turin.
There are actually lots of different ways to get from London to Italy by train. However, I wanted to take the scenic route via Switzerland. A highlight is a trip on the world-famous Bernina Express.
Leaving London on a train trip to Italy
We started out bright and early on the 8.29am train to London St Pancras. We’re very lucky living close to London as it means we can be at St Pancras within 45-60 minutes so we can book a morning Eurostar.
If you’ve not been to St Pancras station before (or even if you have) it’s worth a look around. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes to browse. We like to sit in one of the cafes with large windows overlooking the main thoroughfare. It’s a great place for people watching.
I’d rather be on a train to Italy than commuting, wouldn’t you?
I used to commute through St Pancras every day. I’d look enviously at all the lucky people disappearing into the Eurostar terminal so I always get a bit excited each time we get to go through ourselves.
Living in the UK, before we can get anywhere in Europe we need to cross the channel. So, the first leg of our journey was to Paris Gare du Nord. This is when I like to settle down and start reading a new book on my kindle as it gets me into the travel mood straightaway.
Across Paris by metro
Once in Paris, we needed to take the catch the 4.23pm train to Zurich. This departs from the Gare de Lyon and thus requires a trip across Paris.
You could take a taxi but I think the easiest way to do this is to take the metro because it’s so quick, easy and cheap. When you get off the Eurostar walk all the way along the platform to the front of the train. Then follow the signs for RER D. All the trains stop at the Gare de Lyon and the journey takes about 7 minutes but I always allow at least 30 minutes.
You can buy tickets for the Paris metro at the buffet car on the Eurostar train. However, we just use the self-service ticket machines in the station. They take credit cards and are easy enough to use. Tickets cost 1.90 Euros each.
Gare de Lyon
There are a few food outlets on the main level at Gare de Lyon and we found a coffee shop upstairs with available seats and free wifi so we settled there to wait for our train. Underneath is a little supermarket underneath with a good range of sandwiches, salads etc which is very useful when you’re on the train all day.
There is not a lot of seating in the main concourse area but there are plenty of places to sit in the various food outlets on the lower levels beneath the platforms. This is also where you’ll find the toilets. Be warned they charge for the toilets at French stations so take some change.
Late arrival in Zurich
Our train set off for Zurich on time and we were soon speeding across the French countryside. We stopped abruptly somewhere south-east of Paris and an announcement was made that due to an incident somewhere ahead of us on the line we would be delayed for up to 2 hours. As it turned out the delay was considerably longer than that and we eventually arrived in Zurich just before midnight.
A very tiring day and consequently no time to enjoy an evening out in Zurich as we were just staying overnight. Everyone on the train stayed very good humoured throughout the wait and the onboard staff did keep us all well-informed. Obviously, there is no point getting stressed about these things as these things do happen which is why it always pays to be careful with your itinerary timings and not rely too heavily on tight connections.
Overnight in Zurich
We stayed at the Hotel du Theatre by Fassbind. It is ideal when arriving by train because its located just a few minutes walk from the station and luckily for us has a 24-hour reception. I actually emailed them from the train to say we were delayed and they responded very quickly to assure me that it was no problem at all. We were exhausted when we got there and had to leave early the next morning so we didn’t see much of it but we were grateful for a nice clean room with a decent shower and a comfortable bed.
The Bernina Express
It was a very early start the next morning as we had to be back at the station to catch the 7:07 am train to Chur. This takes just over an hour and is just a local train but we were very impressed with how clean the Swiss trains were. They even had flowers in the toilet.
When we arrived at Chur the 8.32 am Bernina Express was waiting for us on the opposite platform. It’s one of those sightseeing trains with large panoramic windows. I had booked 2 windows seats and luckily we were on the right-hand side for the best views on the route to Tirano. You can select your seats when booking but they won’t guarantee which way around the train will be so it’s a bit hit and miss.
Not surprisingly, it’s very much a tourist train – they provide printed maps and there is even an app that you can load on your phone to give you information on each point on the journey. A drinks trolley serves very good coffee – the best I’ve ever had on a train and a selection of soft and alcoholic drinks
Benvenuto in Italia – Welcome to Italy
We arrived in Tirano right on time. Surprisingly, the train actually appears to drive down the high street as it enters the town which is really cool. We only had about 10 minutes to find our way from the arrival station to Trenord but fortunately, it was right next door. There are very limited facilities at the station but there is a small cafe that sells coffee, snacks, ice-cream etc.
Now we’re not so much on a train to Italy as a train through Italy as we crossed the border to arrive in Tirano. We grabbed some seats on the train and looked forward to viewing the Italian countryside on our way to Milan. The train wasn’t at all busy when we set off but it filled up as we got closer to Milan.
We arrived in Milan on time which gave us several hours to look around. On balance we could probably have caught an earlier train from Milan but I’ve been delayed trains too many times before to chance it. Milano Centrale is a huge station. We spent quite a long time just wandering around the various shops and looking at the older parts of the building. Wandering down some wide stone steps we found a lovely cafe, Bar Motta. An excellent place to relax for a while with some delicious Italian coffee.
Our train to Italy arrives in Naples
Finally, after two days on the train to Italy we arrive in Naples. Napoli Centrale opens onto the Piazza Garibaldi and I must admit we headed straight through with barely a glance at the station. After another long day travelling we were now at our first destination. Now we could look forward to a few nights in one place.
Before I booked, I spent a lot of time choosing a hotel in Naples. I wanted something accessible from the station but also near the historic centre. Naples can be quite intimidating as a city and at first glance, the area feels a bit rundown. It’s actually fine and we didn’t feel unsafe at all during our stay. However, if I visit Naples again I’ll stay further into the tourist area and take the metro or a taxi to/from the station. There are so much better areas to stay than around the station.
Sightseeing in Naples
After breakfast, we headed out on foot to explore the city. First, we were headed for the cathedral but came across the really fascinating Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiara. This complex comprises two churches and an interesting museum. You enter through the newer baroque Church of Santa Maria Donnaregina Nuova. Once inside, the interior is stunning. Upstairs the Diocesan Museum showcases a myriad of Christian artwork and sculpture. Behind the newer church is the much older Church of Santa Maria Donnaregina Vecchia which dates back to 780. Its style is plainer but it’s still visually striking. All that is well worth the 6 Euro entrance fee. https://www.museodiocesanonapoli.com/
Naples Archaeological Museum
Next we headed for the Archaeological Museum. https://www.museoarcheologiconapoli.it/en/.
We visited on the first Sunday of the month so entry was free thus it was very busy but it is so worth braving the crowds. There are artefacts from Pompeii here which I was keen to see ahead of our visit tomorrow. However, there is so much more to see. I love museums where the building is worth viewing as well as the contents and this one does not disappoint.
Staying on foot we found our way to Dante Square and the Via Toledo. This is a great place to take a break and grab some food. Nearby, there are some lovely restaurants with outdoor seating. After a good lunch, we spent some time exploring the many narrow streets and browsing the shops.
Our next stop was Castel Nuovo (Italian for New Castle) which sits overlooking the Bay of Naples. We timed it really badly and it was closed so we only got to see it from the outside. Anyway, now our feet were feeling the strain so we headed back to our hotel for a well-earned rest.
Into the shadow of Vesuvius
No train tour of Italy would be complete without a trip to Pompeii. Today was one of the highlights of our tour for me. For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to visit the archaeological site of Pompeii. It has such historical significance as so many details of Roman life have been gathered there.
From our hotel, we walked to Porta Nolana station. The few extra minutes walk meant we could be on the train from its origin station and hopefully get a seat. It was pouring with rain when we started out but my enthusiasm was undimmed. Unfortunately, I had a few problems with a new GPS app on my iPhone and had a few problems finding the station. As a result, we arrived very wet.
In front of the station is a small news kiosk where we bought our tickets. You can buy them inside but this is convenient and they spoke good English. In Naples, you need to validate your ticket before you use it. Look for the little yellow machines. It’s important. Until you validate you don’t have a valid ticket.
We got off the train at Pompeii Scavi station. From there it’s a short walk to the entrance to the park. There’s a lot of people trying to sell you stuff as you walk along this road and also quite a few restaurants if you’re hungry.
We travelled in November and crowds were very light. Probably also because of the rain that day. There was no queue at all at the ticket desk and we were inside the park within minutes. I’m told it gets very busy in summer, though, with long queues.
When I arrive at a tourist attraction I like to wander around at my own pace and take in the atmosphere. I had read loads of books on Pompeii before we came and also watched several TV documentaries. Hence, I didn’t want a guided tour. We just headed on in and followed our noses.
The site is vast so I was glad I’d worn comfortable walking shoes. The walkways are large cobbles so that I spent a lot of time stepping up, then stepping down. It’s hard work! Definitely worth it though. Pompeii is amazing.
The amphitheatre is right on the far edge of the site. We had to get the map out to find it but we were determined to get there. We’ve seen a few amphitheatres around Europe as this is one of the most impressive. As you walk into the main arena you can imagine the gladiators fighting and the crowds roaring.
Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii
Did you know that Pink Floyd recorded a documentary-style concert here at Pompeii? I did because Paul is a huge Pink Floyd fan. However, I didn’t know there was an exhibition about the film in the corridors running under the amphitheatre. The exhibition features footage from the film along with photographs and loads of information. They also play audio from the film which echoes wonderfully through the stone corridors. We spent quite a long time enjoying the exhibition. As well as being fascinating, it was nice and dry inside.
On our way out of the amphitheatre, we were adopted by a dog. He seemed harmless enough but we didn’t encourage him at all. Still, he followed us fairly closely as we walked over to the large gymnasium opposite the amphitheatre.
The gymnasium is where the gladiators would have trained. Now it contains 13 rooms of exquisite treasures from museums all over Europe. It’s an interesting diversion from the main site and is included in the ticket price. Our canine companion followed us in which was quite embarrassing. Other people glared at us thinking it was our dog and we didn’t have it on a leash. I wanted to keep saying “It’s not our dog”. After a while, we started to see the funny side though and it became a bit of a joke between us checking where the dog was.
Our friend abandoned us as we moved away from the amphitheatre area so he clearly hangs out there looking for company. He didn’t look like a stray as he was well-fed and groomed so I guess he might belong to someone who works there. Look out for him when you visit.
We spent far more time exploring Pompeii than we had anticipated. For this reason, we decided not to try and fit in a visit to Herculaneum but to return to the hotel instead. I was sad that we didn’t see it but it’s a brilliant reason to return to the area again sometime in the future.
On the train to Florence
Firstly, there is a great sandwich shop at Napoli Centrale station. We bought some delicious food to take on the train to Florence. It’s a short 3-hour hop from Naples to Florence on the Frecciarossa train. Sit back and relax and watch the Italian scenery slip by.
We booked a lunchtime train so that we arrived in Florence after our hotel room was available. I like it best when we can check-in and settle into our room on arrival.
Firenze Number Nine
We stayed in a fabulous hotel called Firenze Number Nine Wellness Hotel. It has a small spa and is literally steps away from the famous Duomo complex in the historic centre. https://www.firenzenumbernine.com/
We booked the classic room, which was beautifully decorated with an enormous bathroom with a spa bath. Everything about this place is just wonderful. It was so lovely to come back to the hotel to relax in the spa after a busy day sightseeing.
The spa area has a wonderfully calm, relaxing atmosphere. We spent time soaking in the large jacuzzi pool and enjoyed time in the sauna and steam rooms. In summer the hotel has its own pool complex just outside the city with a free shuttle. Obviously, that wasn’t available in November but what a lovely bonus if you visit the city during the summer?
In fact, Firenze Number Nine is one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in for some time. Staying here was a highlight of our train tour to Italy and I’d definitely recommend it if you’re visiting Florence.
Certainly, no tour of Italy would be complete without a visit to Florence. Florence has been on my bucket list for a long time and I wanted to pack in as much as possible while we were there so it was a busy few days. We bought the Firenze card which gives you access to all the main museums and galleries for 72 hours. Before we went I read mixed reviews on the card but we found it excellent value for money and it really made exploring Florence easy. Even in November, there are queues at the main galleries but with the card, you walk straight in.
I like to draw up a rough day-to-day schedule for sightseeing in a place like Florence as there is so much to see. We cover one area of the city per day which keeps the walking down slightly and avoids crisscrossing the city too many times. Several times we went off-piste and detoured into a museum or gallery that wasn’t on the list just because it looked interesting. We just showed our Firenze card and walked on in. We saw some great places that way – like the Franco Zeffirelli museum.
Although the main galleries like the Uffizi and Academia are still busy in November the crowds are manageable. We got to the Academia shortly after it opened and actually had Michelangelo’s David to ourselves for a wonderful few minutes. It was a fleeting experience as you can imagine but still rather a golden moment. In the smaller museums, the crowds were very light. I think it was a good time to go. We were lucky with the weather though and it was mild and even sunny at times.
Our stay in Florence was magical and I was very sorry when we packed our bags and headed for the train station. Our final stop on our tour of Italy was Turin. Unfortunately, our luck with the weather finished and we arrived in Turin in the early afternoon to dark clouds and pouring rain. Nevertheless, we pulled out our raincoats and made the best of it
When I book a hotel I like to stay somewhere near the centre or main attractions so I can walk everywhere. If that’s not possible then we stay near public transport instead. Fortunately, Turin is compact enough to make walking easy. You can always jump on one of the trams if you get tired.
The highlight of our trip to Turin was the Egyptian Museum (Museo Egizio). This is a truly amazing place and should be on every train tour of Italy. It has the most marvellous exhibits. I have never seen so many sarcophagi in one place before. The museum building is very modern but you are transported back to Ancient Egypt as you wander through its galleries. A free audio guide is included in the ticket price and they suggest different routes depending on how long you want to spend there. We wanted to see everything so we just made our way slowly through each floor. If you’re in Turin, go to this museum. It really is amazing.
In November there was a chocolate festival taking place. Street after street of delicious chocolate concoctions. I had no idea it would be there but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
This area of Turin is the city centre and it is a nice place to browse the many shops. The pillared and covered walkways in front of the shops make it an excellent place to wander on a rainy day. I think it’s always worth spending some time just wandering in a city to soak up the atmosphere rather than just charging from attraction to attraction. We enjoyed exploring Turin and looking at the beautiful architecture. The weather certainly didn’t ruin this part of our train tour of Italy at all.
Our train tour to Italy had to finish sometime and now we had to head home. I got a very good deal so booked 1st class seats on the TGV train from Turin to Paris. For some reason, I thought it would be a double-decker train. I always think that’s really cool sitting upstairs. Anyway, it wasn’t but it was very comfortable in 1st class. It’s always worth checking the upgrade price as it really was only a few Euros extra and you get much more comfy seats. Since it was a 6 hour trip to Paris this was very welcome.
It took us 2 days to get to Italy because we took the scenic route but we made it all the way home in one day. That’s quite incredible, isn’t it? In fact, we were back in London at 7.30 pm that day. What a great trip though. I really recommend travelling to Italy by train. We had a fabulous time. Can’t wait to go back to Italy again.