Are you preparing for a trip to Italy and wonder if you should drive? Or perhaps you’re thinking of renting a car of your vacation? Let me be the first to say, driving in Italy is no easy feat. But, at the same time, it’s not impossible, so I created this article to help you make the right choice.
Now, I should begin by saying the Italian Train system is quite fantastic and it can take you to every major city very efficiently. Unfortunately, some areas of the country can only be reached by car or bus.
If you want to rent a car and drive around the rolling hills of Tuscany, these are a few things you need to know.
What do I need to drive in Italy?
Let’s start with your driver’s license. If you want to travel around Italy you will need your local country’s driver’s license and an international driving permit – or the IDP. The IDP is just a translation of your main license into several different languages. Remember that when driving you will need to carry both licenses with you.
Now let’s move to the different types of roads. There are several different types of road in Italy but for simplicity, we will only consider the 3 most important ones: Autostrade, Tangenziale and regular roads.
In Italy, you drive on the right side of the street, the same as most of North America. And speed limits are in kilometers.
These are the main highways in the country. You have to pay for toll and they have green signage. When you get on the autostrade you take a ticket that you use when you pay at the exit.
You can pay by cash or credit card at the toll booth. Pay attention when picking a lane at the toll booth! You wouldn’t want to end up on a lane that doesn’t accept the form of payment you want to use.
The speed limit on the autostrada is 130km/h unless you see a sign with a different limit. Autostrada can have 2, 3, or 4 lanes. On 2 lanes highways, traffic is on the right lane and you use the left lane to pass. On 3 lanes or 4 lanes, trucks can only use the right lane and the middle lane to pass.
A very important thing about Autostrada is that you can not park anywhere on it! The most right lane is for emergency only and parking there is forbidden. You can stop briefly at the SOS areas along the autostrada, but keep in mind that they’re for emergencies only!
Stazioni di Servizio (Service stations)
If you need to gas up or you need to use the washroom on the autostrada you can stop at the Stazione di Servizio, also called Autogrill. These are stop areas with gas stations, coffee shops, and often restaurants.
Here you can buy pretty much anything you need from beer to cigarettes, sunglasses, or phone chargers. Obviously, you can have coffee and food. The price of gas at the Autogrill can be slightly higher than on the regular roads. Bathrooms are also usually free. Also, in Italy, it’s normal to pee on the side of the road. I know, weird right?
When you drive back to the autostrada from the Autogrill you will have to use a corsia di accelerazione. These are the merging lanes in Italy and they are very different from the North American equivalent. You have to stop, and then accelerate when it is safe. It’s my experience, though, having lived in Italy for more than 5 years, no one knows how to use these lanes – so proceed with caution.
Something that might be a bit confusing on the autostrada, and in Italy in general, is the fact that the signs do not show the cardinal directions. Rather, they show the last stop of the autostrada. For example, if you are in Rome and you want to go to Florence, you will have to take the autostrada towards Milano. We highly suggest you do a little research in advance on where you want to go. Also be aware that GPS in Italy, and Europe in general, might be a bit off. So check your itinerary beforehand or ask a local which one is the best way to get to your destination and then compare it with what the GPS is suggesting.
Tangenziale and Regular Roads
Now let’s move to the other two types of roads. Tangenziale and regular roads.
Tangenziales are very similar to Autostrade, but they have blue signage. They are free. The speed limit on the Tangenziale is 90km/hr unless otherwise specified. They usually connect cities or a city to the autostrada. There can be 2 or 3 lanes and the same passing rules apply.
Lastly, there are just regular roads. On regular roads and in Tangenziale you will find these things called Autovelox. These are little orange columns with lasers and cameras that detect if a car is going faster than the limit. Be very careful of those or you might get a ticket!
On regular roads, you will find many, many roundabouts. These are very common all over Europe and are used at intersections to keep the traffic flowing and avoid traffic lights. They can get a bit confusing at the beginning but they become easier once you use them a couple of times.
Be aware of ZTL
You might find a sign in cities around the city center that says ZTL or Zona a Traffico Limitato. These are limited traffic areas and you should not enter them unless you have a permit. If you do, cameras in those areas will take a photo of the license plate, and you will receive a ticket in the mail. A very important tip for you, when you book a hotel in Italy, is to ask if it is located in a ZTL. If that is the case you can ask them to provide you a permit to access the hotel
In general, you can park on the street unless you see a no parking sign.
Pay very close attention if you see lines on the parking spots. If the lines are white, the parking is free. If they’re blue, you need to pay to park. Yellow lines are strictly reserved parking (handicap, special permit, buses, etc.)
Sometimes you will find a sign that says Disco Orario, which means you can park there for free for a limited amount of time. You will have to display the time you parked on the dashboard. Many cars come with a little wheel on the windshield in which you can put the time that you parked. If your car doesn’t have one of those you can just write the time on a piece of paper and leave somewhere immediately visible.
Pay parking usually has little pay stations nearby. Most of those pay stations take credit cards, but not all of them. Remember to carry some change with you just in case. Many cities have implemented pay apps for smartphones. One of the most common ones is EasyPark, and we suggest you set it up before your trip.
One thing that always surprises me about driving in Italy is the random checks by the police. Every once in a while, you will see a police car on the side of the street pulling cars over. If this happens to you, do not panic. It doesn’t mean you have done something wrong. They usually just check your driver’s license and car registration. Sometimes the police officers can be intimidating because they might be carrying a machine gun but in fact, they are usually very polite and friendly. If you get stopped at night they might also check for drinking and driving so be aware.
Where you should not drive!
In our opinion, you should avoid driving in major cities unless you have some experience in driving in Italy, especially Rome and Naples. Traffic can be quite chaotic there and it can make anyone quite nervous. Besides, taking a train to Rome and Naples is so much easier than driving. We also wouldn’t recommend driving on the Amalfi Coast. That stretch of road is very narrow, very windy, and very, very busy. We suggest you to take a tour — or, better yet, a boat tour.
Some extra tips
Turning right on a red light is illegal in Italy, so be careful, especially for North American drivers. Another thing to know is that automatic cars in Italy are not that common, so remember to ask for an automatic when you make your reservation if you don’t know how to drive a stick shift. Also, the roads here are narrow, parking spaces are small, and gas is expensive (like more than $7 a gallon), so renting a small car might be in your best interest. You might have a hard time maneuvering a big SUV on city roads. Italians can also be quite aggressive drivers and they tend to change lanes often so be very mindful when driving.
Lastly, if you get a ticket, it will be sent to the car rental company and they will automatically charge it to your credit card. Oh, and we also suggest you get good insurance when you rent a car here, just in case.