Public transportation in Italy (and in Europe as a whole) may be this summer's most affordable method of sightseeing. Buses and trams (funiculars) often follow routes that will drop you off directly at the best monuments and most scenic viewpoints—for a much lower cost than hired cars and double-decker red buses.
Be aware: Italian subways (metros) do not navigate the city as efficiently as their Paris, London, or New York cousins—nor are they remotely as attractive. So, follow this rule of thumb: skip the subways and stay above ground.
One exception to the above guideline: If you're visiting Naples, you should know that some artists are enhancing their station stops with temporary exhibitions and installations. Napoli's stations, for example, are curated and designed by Italian contemporary artists.
Other warning: Buses, subways, and trams are seldom air-conditioned. They're also subject to mysterious delays and spontaneous labor strikes. But all of that is part of the charm of vacationing in Italy. Stop control-freaking your way through life and relax.
Here are some examples of useful bus lines and trams (funiculars) in major cities.
In Rome, mini-buses zig zag across through the historic center. A savvy traveler hops on the 116 for a relaxing tour from Trastevere, around Campo de' Fiori, behind the Pantheon, through the Piazza di Pietra to Villa Borghese, and back in 70 minutes. (Rome transport info: www.atac.roma.it)
In Venice, why sink a few hundred euro into an over-priced gondola ride on the Grand Canal, when you could instead catch the same views for €6.50, with a single fare vaporetto ticket (line 1) which can last 60 minutes. If you want something closer to a gondola-like experience, hop on one of the city's seven traghetti, short-distance gondola transport where up to 10 passengers ride standing up, for 50 eurocents. (Venice transport info: www.actv.it)
From Napoli to Amalfi, go sea gazing on the coastline Sitabus, which will take you stopping at Sorrento and Positano for a nail-biting five euros of unlimited rides in a 24-hour period. (Timetables, in Italian www.sitabus.it
By far the most interesting options in ground transportation are the funicolari —trams or cable cars that transport passengers up and down Italian hills and mountains, adding a distinguished flair to the menu of many transport systems. Several, like those in Genova, Napoli, and Bergamo, are integrated into each city's public transport system, with tickets costing the same as single fares on standard buses. These funicular are nearly Disney-fied in their futurist looks. In some of smaller hill towns where the transport menu is sparse, an old-fashioned funicolare often appears as the only means to getting up the hills—like the turn-of-the century fire-engine red cable car in Montecatini or almost medieval metal cage at Gubbio.
Additional Public Transport Resources
CORRECTION: 2:49p.m. The spelling for the word funicular has now been corrected.
—Erica Firpo, blogging from Rome for our Affordable Europe series.