Lonely Planet associate editor Ann Douglas Lott recently traveled through Italy aboard a vintage train, regional trains and bus. Here, she shares some tips and insights for anyone planning a similar trip.

When I told people I had a trip planned to Italy, the joy with which they talked about their own travels there was endless – the dreamy landscapes, the fascinating ruins, the life-changing slice of pizza they had, how their daily cup of coffee just hasn't compared since – but I knew I wouldn't truly understand that joy until I experienced it for myself.

Yes, I was recently a first-timer in one of the planet's most-visited destinations, so my expectations were exceedingly lofty. The plan was a grand rail (and occasional bus) tour stopping in Rome, Perugia, Florence and Venice – all in just one week. Initially, the pressure to cram in as much as I could that week was at the front of my mind, but thanks to the Italian art of slow living, I learned to appreciate pacing myself as I journeyed (and ate) my way through this incredible country.

Also a first-timer in Italy? Here's what you should know

L: holding a hotel room key in front of the bed; R: A view of the hotel pool from a room balcony
Left: Not your average room key at the Sina Villa Medici; Right: Enjoying views of the Villa Medici's private garden with my morning coffee and some light reading © Ann Douglas Lott

Where did you stay? What was the vibe?

Four fabulous destinations meant four fabulous, centrally-located hotels to match. I was invited to stay at a different five-star Sina hotel in each city: the 150-year-old Bernini Bristol in Rome, the hilltop Sina Brufani in Perugia, the classy Villa Medici in Florence and the canal-side Centurion Palace in Venice.

The brand has been owned and operated by the same family for over 60 years, so that classic Italian charm is undeniable. I also just adore a hotel that feels like the destination it's in, so details like the Brufani's elegant, classical decor and the Villa Medici's grand, early 19th-century lobby enhanced the whole experience. While considered luxury hotels, don't dismiss these if you like to stick to a tighter travel budget; nightly rates at these properties cover a broad spectrum, typically depending on the popularity of the destination. Perugia, for example, would suit a budget traveler more than Florence (Perugia was my favorite stop – more on that later).

Left: A view of the town of Perugia framed by a window; Middle: a swimming pool with glass on its floor that looks over ruins; Right: a view of the Grand Canal in Venice
Left: The stunning view from my room at Sina Brufani in Perugia; Middle: Notice the windows on the pool floor – directly above an ancient ruin; Right: Step on the Centurion Palace's porch, and you're on Venice's Grand Canal © Ann Douglas Lott

Some highlights: 

  • Sipping Aperol spritzes on the hotel's panoramic rooftop at sunset in Rome
  • The Perugia hotel's pool with a glass bottom that peers into an ancient ruin, plus the view of Umbria's rolling hills from my room
  • The vintage keys and private garden with its own pool at the Florence hotel
  • Enjoying views of the Grand Canal from the Venice property's front porch
Left: a row of green velvet train seats; Top right: a retro, symmetrical viewing cabin at the rear of the train; Bottom right: a view of the mountains through the train window
Left: The bright green seats in our Arlecchino cabin looked classically Italian © Sina Hotels; Top right: Wes Anderson would love this train's viewing cabins; Bottom right: Views! Views everywhere! © Ann Douglas Lott

Favorite activity from the trip?

Let's talk about the ultimate train ride. It's always a good idea to roll through the Italian countryside, but on a beautifully restored 1960s masterpiece? That's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Arlecchino is the stuff of Wes Anderson films, with its roomy, brightly colored velvet seats, massive windows, vintage bar car and a chic, retro viewing cabin at either end of the train. Departing from Rome, we crawled through Lazio and into the Umbrian countryside, between green hills, through mountain tunnels and past lovely medieval towns like Assisi.

I count myself lucky to have scored a seat on this journey to Perugia – the Arlecchino doesn't run daily like the Trenitalia lines. But the operator of this line, Fondazione FS Italiene, runs similar journeys throughout the country almost daily, so you can still experience the magic of riding on a vintage Italian train. Tickets can be booked on the website, where you can also learn about each of their historic lines. Prices vary depending on the journey, but most hover around €50 per adult. If you prefer a speedier ride and choose to go the Trenitalia route, staggering views are guaranteed no matter which service you board.

Plan your own rail adventure through Italy with our tips for getting around

Top left: a whole pizza and a beer; Bottom left: gelato with a view of a canal in Venice; Right: walking while holding a sandwich
Top left: A whole pie (or five) from Zizzi Pizza in Rome; Bottom left: Blackberry and stracciatella gelato from Gelateria Nico in Venice; Right: The #4 sandwich from I' Bacaro De Bischeri in Venice © Ann Douglas Lott

Best thing you ate?

The aforementioned life-changing slice of pizza? It was a mozzarella and guanciale slice from Zizzi Pizza in Rome. But the best thing I ate was a ridiculously fresh sandwich from I' Bacaro De Bischeri in Venice: warm focaccia, prosciutto, arugula, caramelized onions and burrata.

Honorable mention: the amaretto mousse and tiramisu from Osteria Al Bacareto in Venice, ham and parmesan fettuccine from Harry's Bar The Garden in Florence (conveniently located inside the Villa Medici hotel) and a simple bite of burrata – so fresh it was still warm – in Perugia. Oh, and the whole gelato spread at Gelateria Nico in Venice, though I'm partial to stracciatella (chocolate chip).

Want more Italian restaurant recs? Here's where you should eat in Florence right now

Right: a wall of Murano glass cups; Left: a gallery of glass chandeliers, plants, animals and more
Left: Regretfully, I did not take one of these beautiful drinking glasses home with me; Right: Admiring Schiavon Art Team's glass gallery © Ann Douglas Lott

What was the most touristy thing you did? 

When in Venice, book a glass factory tour! Our hotel arranged for a water taxi to deliver us to Murano for a factory and gallery tour of Schiavon Art Team's headquarters, one of the island's many glassblowers. The taxi ride across the lagoon was a glamorous experience in itself – a private, classy wooden boat with leather seats – but you can also take a vaporetto to Murano for a fraction of the cost.

We entered a vast gallery of vibrant glass chandeliers, plants, abstract faces and even a mural of the Avengers (they can do it all). But the highlight was observing the glass masters at work – a team of five almost dancing to keep the glass hot while also perfecting the movements and timing of sculpting the given subject, in this case, a beautiful blue marlin. I could've sat there all day, but the canals were calling.

Left: the last few minutes of light over the town of Perugia; Right: looking up in an underground fortress
Left: Savoring the last minutes of daylight from Porta Sole in Perugia; Right: A tour of Perugia's underground fortress is a must © Ann Douglas Lott

What was the most under-the-radar activity you enjoyed?

If you need a place to stop between Rome and Florence, this is it. Umbria is everything you love about Italy without the crowds (except during Perugia's annual chocolate and jazz festivals in March and July, respectively), and the one night I spent in Perugia's medieval center wasn't nearly long enough.

While there was still daylight, I toured the underground fortress Rocca Paolina. You can enter the fortress via escalator from a small park called Giardini Carducci, which happens to be a fabulous spot to watch the sunset over the rolling hills of Umbria's countryside. The next morning, head to Sandri for a coffee and pastry – this is Perugia's most famous cafe. It's been a family-run business since 1860, and multiple locals told me it sells the best pastries around.

Right: a pair of red Mary Janes; Middle: a red neck scarf with illustrations of Capri; Right: a glass bead necklace and marbled notebook
I'm extremely proud of my shopping finds © Ann Douglas Lott

Did you bring home a souvenir?

Oh, did I shop. Here's the haul: in Florence, I snagged a pair of red and pink velvet Mary Janes at Bramada. It was a love-at-first-sight-through-the-window kind of moment. The rest of my shopping was in Venice: a marble-covered notebook of watercolor paper from Il Papiro (and regular notebooks for my family), a Murano glass charm necklace from The M Venezia (just €20–25 each) and a vintage red scarf with illustrations of Capri from Vintageria for just €5 – perhaps a sign that Capri should be my next Italian destination?

Pick up more souvenirs at these local shops in Rome and Florence

The author sitting in a viewing cabin of a vintage train
I spent the better part of the Arlecchino train journey sitting right here © Ann Douglas Lott

Best tip for someone who wants to plan the same trip?

The timing of this trip was simply marvelous: March shoulder season, specifically the week before Easter. The weather was decently warm as highs hovered around 15°C (60°F), the sun was mostly shining, and the Easter crowds hadn't yet made their way to the more popular cities. I packed a short, thin coat for the cooler nights and occasional wind.

Also, when you book a regional train ticket (aka, not the stylish Arlecchino), you have to validate it before you board your train. Otherwise, you'll face a hefty fine when ticket inspectors come to scan your ticket on board. Look for one of the green machines at the head of the platform, and insert your ticket to get it stamped. This isn't required on high-speed trains, though – those tickets are valid for a specific train service and seat.

Ann Douglas traveled to Italy on the invitation of Sina Hotels. Lonely Planet does not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage. 

Save our complete guide to Italy:

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