By Sabrina Sucato
For travelers, Italy has la vita bella. From longstanding Roman ruins and picturesque country landscapes to delectable Mediterranean fare and celebrated cultural traditions, the boot-shaped country has it all. That’s why it, along with notable cities like Milan, Rome, and Venice, end up on must-visit destination guides and travel lists time and time again.
As one of the world’s more compact countries, Italy is also much cheaper and more manageable to traverse than, say, Australia or the United States. A flight to one of the main airport hubs in Rome or Milan is how many people enter the region. After that, public transportation is one of the greenest and easiest ways to get around in Italy.
Short of walking or biking, options like taking a bus or hopping on a train are the most eco-friendly ways to get from one spot to another. In Italy, public transportation options are surprisingly smooth and efficient. They are also a lot less risky and more cost effective than renting a car and road tripping it across the country. The high price of gas and pollution that goes along with it are not too appealing.
With that in mind, here is a quick guide to Italian trains, buses, and subways. While each style of ride is easily accessible to locals and tourists alike, they all have their own quirks that are helpful to know in advance.
Take The Train
There are two main types of trains in Italy: national and regional. Which one you choose depends on your start and end location. There are also a few privately owned train companies, but they only run in certain limited areas.
Le Frecce, Italy’s national train line, connects top tourist metropolises like Rome, Bologna, and Milan. Le Frecce trains are high speed and relatively affordable, especially if you purchase your ticket in advance. Ordering online and printing out your ticket ahead of time is highly recommended. Not only can it help you score a deal, but it will also mean you don’t have to worry about getting your ticket stamped in one of the ticket machines at the train station before you hop on board.
Regional trains, Italy’s more local trains, like the Trenord lines in the northern part of the country, tend to be cheap to use. Although they are a slight step down from Le Frecce in terms of quality, they are still clean and comfortable. On the plus side, fares for these lines are fixed, so there is no need to purchase in advance. Like the national train tickets, regional tickets also need to be machine stamped before boarding. Regional trains make local stops, so rides into a city could take longer than you expect. Also, make sure to check departure times online before heading to the station. Delays are not uncommon, and train strikes happen regularly. I know this from experience. I once had to take a circuitous bus to Milan to catch my Frecciarossa train to Bologna because the local train to the city was on strike for the day.
Hop On The Bus
Navigating the Italian bus system used to confuse the heck out of me. The first time I tried to get on the bus in Bologna, I was kicked off because I hadn’t purchased a ticket in advance. That’s lesson #1 of Italian buses — buy your ticket at the nearest tabaccheria, or corner store, before you try to ride the bus. You can spot a tabaccheria easily on the road by looking out for the big blue and white “T” sign hanging outside of it.
As for your experience once you get on the bus, it all depends on the region. In Bologna, the buses make a circular loop around the city, so it’s easy to figure out when you need to get on or off. Things can get more confusing in the Milan area. My best piece of advice is to let the driver know where you want to go. Sometimes they will stop directly at your destination, even if it’s not on the scheduled list of locations. At the very least, they will tell you when you need to get off.
Ride The Subway
Unlike trains and buses, subways in Italy can only be found in the biggest cities, like Rome and Milan. In these locales, the metro lines are much less extensive than underground systems in places like New York City or London. This means they tend to be significantly easier to navigate, since there are fewer lines and transfers necessary.
As someone who has utilized the subway in both Milan and Rome, I can safely say that Italian metros are significantly cleaner and smoother than their NYC counterpart. The lines in both European cities stop at or near popular visitor attractions, which makes exploring the sights a breeze. While tickets only cost a euro or two, the repeated cost can add up. Your best bet is to purchase a one-day, two-day, or weekly rechargeable card to minimize extra spending.
Whichever way you choose to traverse the country, remember that public transportation is the easy and green way to go. Ditch the car and experience Italy like a local. You’ll save money, reduce pollution, and get a glimpse into everyday Italian life all at once.
Sabrina is a 20-something freelance writer based in the scenic Hudson Valley, NY. She has lived in both Bologna and Milan, Italy, and is now hopelessly addicted to gelato. When she's not writing or dreaming of Italy, she can be found drinking copious amounts of coffee and testing out new dessert recipes.