Taking a Train to Sicily

Taking a Train to Sicily

Years ago, when I was living in Puerto Rico, someone asked me if I drove there or flew. I laughed, assuming the comment was meant as a joke, but as I soon learned, this person was dead serious – he had no idea that Puerto Rico was an island. I was reminded of this incident while making plans to move on from Italy’s Sorrentine peninsula to Sicily. When I told my Dad I was taking the train to Sicily he said, “You can’t do that, Sicily is an island.” In this case, I was not exhibiting geographic ignorance. From Naples, I boarded a train that took me to Villa San Giovanni, a small town at the tip of Italy’s boot. Here, after a brief wait, my train was loaded onto a ferry, which carried us across the narrow strait to the Sicilian town of Messina.

The journey is a little tricky, because the ‘official’ destination of the train is Palermo, which is on the complete opposite side of the island from where I was going. In actuality, when the train arrives in San Giovanni the individual coaches are separated as they are loaded onto the ferry. Upon arrival in Messina the cars are reassembled into two separate trains, one destined for Palermo on the northwest coast, the other bound for Siracusa on the southeast corner of the island. So when boarding in Naples it is extremely important to get on the right carriage, or you might end up somewhere you don’t intend to be.

Train cars roll into the bowels of the ferry boat

Train cars roll into the bowels of the ferry boat

It was a lovely ride through lush green countryside, punctuated by rolling hills and rocky escarpments, but the most fascinating part was at the ferry dock. I stood at the rear of my car and watched as it was uncoupled from the train and rolled onto tracks in the lower level of the ferry. Soon, we were pulling away from the docks for the short trip to Sicily. At this point, passengers are free to leave the train and go up on deck, but here again I need to offer a warning.

 In Villa San Giovanni, at the tip of Italy's boot, rows of green and white train cars wait at the docks for their turn to board the ferry to Sicily

In Villa San Giovanni, at the tip of Italy’s boot, rows of green and white train cars wait at the docks for their turn to board the ferry to Sicily

Though passengers are welcome to leave their train carriage, it is important to get back on the same carriage or, once again you could end up at the wrong final destination. Unfortunately, all the carriages look alike and they are lined up in endless rows in the bowels of the ship. The best way to be sure you return to the right train car is to note the number of the staircase by which you ascend (each stairway on the ferry has a different number), and the position of your train car with reference to the stairway. It’s also a good idea to leave something you recognize on your seat or table, so that when you return you’re absolutely sure you’re on the right car.

Once the train cars are loaded, the ferry begins the short trip to Messina, Sicily

Once the train cars are loaded, the ferry begins the short trip to Messina, Sicily

I climbed the steep, narrow stairways to the upper deck, where I hit the snack bar before making a circuit of the ship. Pulling my jacket close against the chilly breeze, I soaked up the brilliant sunshine as huge tankers and cargo carriers crossed our path. An hour later, I descended the same stairway and re-boarded my train carriage. Just minutes later it was rolled off in Messina, where we were jockeyed around, recoupled with other cars, and sent on our way down the east coast. I told numerous people that I’d taken a train to Sicily and most looked at me like I was crazy, but I’m living proof that it is possible.

22 Comments on “Taking a Train to Sicily

  1. this is not the only train ferry, in New Zealand a train ferry runs from Wellingtom to mapier , from the north island to the South island , I was an engineer on the M.V Aranui

    • Hi Fred: Thanks for sharing that. I’ll return to New Zealand one day and just made a note to include that in my itinerary.

  2. I would never think that you could take a train to Sicily. How big was the biat? Good tips on remembering your own car. They can come handy. Thanks for sharing!

    • The ferry was huge, Frank. I’m guessing about half the entire train could fit on the tracks in the lower level without being broken up.

  3. Good on you for saving a potential traveler the stress of being sent to the wrong place … this is a very useful post!

    • Thanks Adam! I did hope to provide valuable information that would make the trip easier for those who are unfamiliar and don’t speak Italian.

  4. I would have had the same reaction as your dad — I had no idea about the train ferry to Sicily. What a fun and interesting way to get there. I’ll keep that in my mind for my future trip — whenever that may be.

    • Hope you get to do it some day Cathy. Trains are such a relaxing way to travel and in this case they carried me past some spectacular scenery.

    • It’s a fascinating trip, Sacha, and I was surprised to discover it could be done via train/ferry.

  5. Loved reading your article 🙂 Very informative – especially the “getting back on the right car” info!

    Was on a slightly similar train on a ferry last summer, between Germany and Denmark. A wee bit different, in that the entire 4-carriage train just drives on to a waiting ferry (with passengers aboard the train!). It’s possible, and actually quicker, to take the more circuitous route by land. But there is a direct route – much more interesting:


    • Hi Iain: I’m with you – I will go out of my way to take a train. It’s my favorite mode of transportation. So relaxing, and yu see so much of the countryside.

  6. Love it, great to hear how this all works. I’m planning a trip to Italy with my parents for this fall, and we’re going to Siracusa on Sicily. Since we’re stopping in Reggio di Calabria first (my mom’s grandparents are from there so she wants to see it) we probably won’t do this on the way TO Sicily, but we will take the train ferry on the way back from Sicily to the Amalfi Coast. Looking forward to it!

    • Hi Ali: I went to Siracusa and absolutely LOVED it there.The old town is exquisite and the Greek Amphitheater is quite astonishing in its size. Be sure to see a puppet show at Teatro de Pupi.

    • I’ve started publishing photos and stories about Sicily, Fiona, and there will be quite a few more to come.

  7. Yes, I think I’d heard of the train on a boat before – unusual. I would love to go back and see more of Sicily and also Southern Italy – from my short cruise stop I thought it was lovely

    • Hi Heather: Sicily was very intriguing, and it seemed like a very complex culture. I think you’d really like spending more time there.

  8. I’m looking forward to seeing your pictures of Sicily. It’s high on my list!


    • Hi Libbie: My photos of Sicily are now being published – hope you are enjoying them.

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