Train travel has been cloaked in mystery since its earliest days. In the movies, heroines were clouded by great puffs of locomotive steam as they bid farewell to their beloved. Fantastic fight scenes atop moving trains have stunned and impressed audiences for years. And Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express remains one of the world's most beguiling whodunits.
Italy's first railway opened in 1839 and connected Naples with Portici, about five miles to the southeast. Today, a complex infrastructure of trains unites virtually every major Italian city and town (as well as many others throughout Europe) and provides an excellent introduction to some of the most stunning cities in this perennially popular country.
Venice: Arched bridges connect the picture-perfect canals and small spattering of islands that make up this idyllic floating city. Gondolas help visitors navigate the breathtaking winding waterways en route to their destinations around the city. At the heart of Venice sits one of its most famous landmarks—the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square), named after the stunning cathedral that sits on the east end of the square. It's an ornate, dramatic example of Byzantine architecture with its façade of Gothic columns, arches and spires.
Next door is the Doge's Palace, a Gothic-Renaissance fantasy of white and pink marble. It was the residence of Venice rulers and the Venetian Republic, a governing body that existed for more than 1,000 years. The palace also is home to the legendary Bridge of Sighs (formally, Ponte dei Sospiri), a narrow corridor built of fine white limestone with lattice-like screens covering two small windows. It connected the palace to the Prigioni, the prisons that were built across the canal in the late 16th century.
While the city's main square is popular and a must-see destination, many visitors are smitten with the small art museums, shopping stalls, quaint galleries and local cafés that line the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways in Venice.
Florence: A high-speed Eurostar train whisks you across the stunning central Italian countryside to the birthplace of the Renaissance. Dante, da Vinci and Botticelli all walked the picturesque medieval streets of Florence, and a stop at the Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce reveals magnificent paintings and spectacular works of art from the era. Many illustrious characters have been buried here, including Michelangelo and Galileo.
In the heart of Florence is the Piazza del Duomo, home to one of the most striking cathedrals in the city. Its exterior is covered by a decorative mix of pink, white and green marble, and the cathedral is crowned by Brunelleschi's magnificent cupola, a masterpiece of Renaissance engineering. Adventurous types climb the bell tower for sweeping views of the city and surrounding countryside. A must-see is Michelangelo's famous David at the Gallerie dell' Accademia. And the nearby Museo dell'Opera del Duomo houses an outstanding collection of Gothic and Renaissance sculptures.
As one of Europe's preeminent cities of art, it is easy to overlook some of its unsung charms. Florence is a cosmopolitan metropolis with astonishing gardens, celebrated shops and, of course, nearly unrivaled fine dining.