Driving in Italy is one of those topics that can get travellers on the edge. Some of the more persistent stereotypes focus on this and no discussion on the possibility of renting a car in Italy is complete, without someone piping up to tell you that they did it once in 1983 and it was an absolute nightmare. Once again, I am happy to tell you that stereotypes are not, in fact, accurate depictions of reality. Do I mean to say that driving in Italy is always and everywhere an unfailingly pleasant and stress-free experience? Of course not, but neither would I want you to believe that all of us arrive home every evening, mildly surprised at having made it to work and back in one piece. Driving through a Rome, Milan or Palermo at 9 am on a working day, for instance, is not the same as driving through a small town in Umbria in the afternoon and the experience of driving to the seaside in mid-august does not remotely resemble the experience of driving along the same route in February. There are, however, a few customs and rules – yes, we have some of those too – that might feel peculiar or unfamiliar for those used to driving in different countries or different continents. This is a quick and practical guide to driving in Italy and it covers a few basics that you might not be aware of. Particularly if you are planning on visiting small towns, seeing the countryside and generally going off the beaten path, renting a car or driving your own could be your only options.
1. Driving in Italy: the basics
What do you need in order to be allowed to drive in Italy? Depending on where you are from, a valid licence might not be enough. Drivers from some non-European countries might need an international driving permit. Rental companies will generally not ask for it, but if you fail to present one upon request of the authorities you will get a fine. Always consult your embassy’s website before planning your trip, in order to be aware of all the documents and permits you might need.
2. Renting a car
Booking in advance is your best option, particularly around national holidays. If you are used to automatic cars, please be aware that we are not. If you rent, borrow, steal or buy a car in Italy, it is generally understood that it will be a manual transmission car. If you are unable or unwilling to drive a manual vehicle, you should expressly ask for a manual one in advance, as they are much less common and therefore not always available. Do invest in a GPS with your rental, as it will save you a lot of time and hassle, but bring backup maps too, for three reasons. First of all because GPS is not always right, maps are not always up to date as for one-way streets, building sites and temporary interruptions. Moreover, it is not uncommon for two totally different towns to share the same name and you should always double check your route. Finally, if you are lost and need to ask a local, nothing beats showing them a map, handing them a pencil and asking them to trace the route for you. Finally, be sure to ask what kind of fuel the car you are renting runs on. It may be petrol (benzina) or diesel (gasolio) and you should never put the wrong kind of fuel in your car’s tank.
3. Speed: metric units and limits
One of the first and most important facts you should always bear in mind when driving in Italy is that speed is always measured and referred to in kilometres per hour, not miles. Therefore, if you are used to measuring distances and speed in miles, you should spend some time getting acquainted with the idea. One kilometre equals 0.62 miles, therefore, when you see a speed limit of 100 on the highway, you should be aware that it means approximately 62 mph. Speed limits vary between 80 and 130 km/h on highways and between 10 and 50 in most urban areas and – while it is true that in the past they were often ignored – in recent years a strict surveillance has been enforced, involving a widespread use of speed cameras.
4. Restricted areas
Most city centres are off-limits to cars or only accessible to residents. This is due to the fact that most Italian cities have been built around the original settlements, sometimes dating back to the early middle-ages, a time when roads and alleys were designed to be walked by people, cattle or carts, all of which were smaller than the average automobile. If you find a sign with the letters ZTL (which stand for “Zona a Traffico Limitato”, meaning “Reduced Traffic Zone”), you should not drive through it unless you have a special permit. Some ZTLs are only enforced during the daytime or on weekdays: be sure to check or ask the locals before you venture past the surveillance camera, or you might get a fine. If you are interested in exploring our ancient city-centres and medieval fortress-towns, park your car and simply walk.
Most non-Italian drivers, particularly American ones, perceive Italian drivers as aggressive and threatening, even when they are at their most relaxed. This is largely due to the casual habit of tailgating, which of course, to us, does not feel like tailgating at all. This might have something to do with the fact that both Italian cars and Italian roads are generally smaller than their American counterparts and that our idea of personal space encompasses a shorter radius. For all that, it is customary to keep shorter safety distances than elsewhere, particularly within cities. The best thing you can do is relax and remember that there is no need to panic. The car following you is not going to bump into you, nor is the driver passive-aggressively asking you to pull over and make way. Speaking of making way, if you are unsure whether or not you have the right of way at an intersection and the car coming across from your side flashes its lights at you, that means that the driver is asking you for the right of way and they are really quite keen on it and not willing to stop. On the other hand, if a car coming from the opposite direction on a two-way street flashes, it means there is a police car ahead of you and you might want to check your speed, papers, seatbelt and put down your phone. Which you shouldn’t be using in the first place. Also, please, lay off the horn. It’s not funny and those who honk as soon as the lights turn green are simply rude. Imitating them will only encourage them. Just don’t.
Parking might be a long and complicated affair, particularly in city centres. Parking areas are available, but they fill up incredibly quickly and this might leave you to circle a few blocks repeatedly, hoping for someone to pull out just as you are passing. If you park between blue lines, make sure to get a ticket and not exceed the amount of time that you have paid for, as Italian traffic wardens hate stereotypes and are therefore ruthlessly efficient. Yellow lines mean that a parking spot is reserved to those who carry a disabled permit and they require extra space cleared for the loading and unloading of wheelchairs. White lines mean that parking is free in that area, but if you are visiting a major city you might as well forget that they exist.
Here’s a short list of the basic Italian word you might need while driving. Please note that directions in Italy are never expressed in terms of cardinal points. Upon asking how to get from Rome to Florence, you will never be told to “drive north”, but rather you will be directed to the particular highway that you need to take and told where to get off it.
(Sempre) Dritto: straight ahead
Girare: to turn
Stazione di servizio/Benzinaio: petrol station
Autogrill: petrol station with an overpriced restaurant of dubious quality on the highway
Sistema Tutor: there are speed cameras in this area. Slow down
Controllo elettronico della velocità: ditto
ZTL: reduced traffic zone
Passo carrabile: do NOT park here. Seriously, don’t.
Fai da te: Self-service