Are you wondering if you should drive in Italy? Perhaps you’re thinking of visiting Italy and renting a car?
Let us be the first to tell that the Italian Train system is quite fantastic and it can take you to every big city very efficiently. Unfortunately there are some areas of the country that can only be reached by car or bus. Well 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 neet 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. Autostrada, 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. They have a toll. And They have green signage. When you get on the autostrada you take a ticket that you use when you pay at the exit of the autostrada.
You can pay by cash or credit card at the toll booth. Pay attention when picking a lane at the toll booth to take the one that accepts 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 2,3,4 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 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 again 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 Stzione 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… weird! 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.
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. So for example, if you are in Rome and you want to go to Florence you will have to take the autostrada towards Milano. So we 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 in advance 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. These are usually one maximum of two lanes. They have a lower speed limit. 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 because you will 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 once you use them a couple of times they will become easier.
Be aware of ZTL
In cities around the city center, you might find a sign 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 drive in those areas there will be cameras that 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 the following sign.
If there are lines in the parking lot, pay very close attention to the color of the lines. When the lines are white parking is free. In case lines are blue it is paid to park. Lastly when lines are yellow is usually reserved parking (Handicap, special permit, busses, 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 it very visible.
Pay parking usually has little pay stations nearby. Most of those pay stations take credit cards but not all of them. So carry some change with you just in case. Nowadays many cities have implemented pay apps for smartphones. One of the most common ones is EasyPark, we suggest you set it up before your trip.
One thing that always surprised me about driving in Italy is the random checks by the police. 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, unless you have some experience in driving in Italy you should avoid driving in major cities, especially Rome and Naples. Traffic can be quite chaotic there and it can make everyone quite nervous. On top of that, taking a train to Rome and Naples is so much easier than driving. Also, we would suggest you not drive on the Amalfi Coast. That stretch of road is very narrow, very windy, and very busy. So we would recommend you to take a tour or even better a boat tour.
Some extra tips
For north American drivers remember that turning right on a red light is illegal in Italy, be very careful. Another thing to know is that automatic cars in Italy are still not that common so if you don’t know how to drive a standard car, remember to ask for an automatic when you make your reservation. Also, remember that roads are narrow, parking spaces are small and gas is expensive (Like more than $7 a gallon) so rent a small car. A big SUV will be very difficult for you to drive. Italians can be quite aggressive drivers and they tend to change lanes often so be very careful.
Lastly if you get a ticket this 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.
Well folks, we hope that our few tips about driving in Italy helped. If you follow these simple rules we gave you, you will see that it is not that difficult driving here and you will be able to explore more than just a few major cities. If you have any questions please leave a comment below and we will try to answer you the best we can. In the meanwhile see you soon!
Rick and Andrea
Andrea was born and raised in Northern Italy. At the age of 30, he moved to Vancouver Canada. Over the years he traveled extensively in North America, Europe, Central America, and Asia. He is passionate about traveling, cruising, and travel photography. He likes to write about his traveling and shows his travel photos.