Driving in Italy: rules, tips, and tricks
Driving in Italy is… interesting.
And it’s not all the same! The driving styles in, let’s say, Northern and Southern Italy differ from each other. As do driving in cities vs the countryside or highways and coastal roads.
But still, it’s quite doable. Plus, there are many places where you really do need a car to enjoy your stay.
So, let me give you some tips and share some things you need to know about hitting the road – and road trips in Italy.
Is driving in Italy really necessary?
You’ve probably heard a lot of stories from different people about how crazy it is to drive in Italy and to rather stick to public transport.
Well, partly, it’s true. Most of Italy is well connected by public transport such as trains.
But really, the necessity of the car depends on where you go.
Places where you should rather use the public transport
In short: cities, the Amalfi coast, Cinque Terre and other coastal places.
Most cities, such as Milan, Rome, Florence, and Naples, have really good public transport and really bad traffic and parking. If you’re going to Venice, know that it’s completely car-free.
If you do have a car and want to go to a city, park somewhere on the outskirts. It will save you a lot of time, headaches, and nerves.
If you’d like to visit some of the lakes in the North as a day trip, that can easily be done by train or other public transport. If you’d like to spend some time exploring, a car is a good idea.
Plus, there are usually Limited Traffic Zones covering the historic city centres.
ZTL – Zona traffico limitato – limited traffic zones
Many of the big cities have ZTL where vehicle access is limited. Usually, only residents, public transport, emergency services, and specific permit holders are allowed in these zones. The entry is controlled by cameras.
There’s quite a hefty fine if you enter the ZTL without a permit. And you get fined every time your car gets photographed, which means at least twice – on entry and exit.
ZTL generally covers most of the old towns of the cities and historic city centres, but it’s not limited to that.
Places such as the Amalfi coast and Cinque Terre have narrow – very narrow – roads with a crazy number of turns. As you can see in the video, it’s quite scary to drive them.
You might easily lose your mind or your mirror there. The bus that we were driving on in Amalfi coast stopped at a bus stop. Another car was passing us, hit the bus, and lost a mirror. Nobody was really fazed by this fact – apparently, it happens a lot.
Another thing is, that parking is scarce and expensive. You might spend hours finding a parking spot, only to find something a kilometre away.
Tip: if you’re travelling from Sorrento to Amalfi on a bus, sit in the front row on the right, as that gives you a great view of the coast.
I know the public transport in the south is not reliable, but it’s still better than driving in those areas.
Another story. We were visiting Cinque Terre, and of course, the railway workers were on a strike. There was a station attendant there, so we asked about the nearest train and showed him the timetable we had. He laughed, acted like tearing the timetable apart, and asked “why do you need a timetable in Italy?”. So yeah, that’s how it goes.
Anyways, in the same Cinque Terre, it’s pretty much impossible to move around with a car.
Places where it makes sense to drive in Italy
Otherwise, a car is quite useful in many places. For example,
In the Dolomites or generally the mountains, it’s better to have a car so that you can stop wherever to enjoy the views. Theoretically, it’s possible to explore with public transport, but the car just makes it that much more convenient.
The same goes for Tuscany, Puglia, and other regions with many nice villages or beaches. Generally, in the south, public transport is really unreliable. We almost missed our flight (where we were working as the crew, haha) because 2 buses in a row didn’t come when we went to the beach near Pisa.
In Sardinia or the other islands, if you’d like to explore many beaches, a car is very useful. Gives you a lot of freedom.
If you’d like to spend some time exploring the Italian lakes (Garda, Como, Iseo, Maggiore, Lugano… there are many), a car is quite useful. It gives you the opportunity to explore them more properly, especially if you’d like to see more than one lake or you’d like to drive around one of the smaller ones (Iseo is a good choice for that).
Do Italians drive like it’s shown in the movies?
Before moving to Italy, we expected that Italian drivers will be just like they are shown in movies. That is, fast, crazy, always honking the horn, etc.
In reality, though, most (not all, of course) cars drive under the speed limit and rather carefully. Of course, there are cars that speed like crazy – both in villages and on autostrade, but those are a minority.
The funny thing about Italian drivers is the turn signals. There are some that don’t show it at all, then there are others who switch the signal on and don’t turn it off until they have to use it again. But my favourite ones are those that turn on the opposite signal – such as the left one when they are turning right.
But the further south you go, the crazier the driving seems. And the parking as well, for that matter.
Anyways, Italians might be a bit more impatient drivers than those, let’s say, in the north of Europe. But still, it’s not that crazy. You have to be careful, just like everywhere else in the world.
Italian driving basics
Some legalities that you should be aware of before you rent a car and drive in Italy.
Basics needed in your car
- Hi-vis vest – easily reachable, for example, in the door
- Hazard triangle
- In winter – winter tyres or snow chains (required generally from November 15 – April 15).
Documents – driver’s licence and in some cases – an international one
You obviously need a driver’s licence when driving in Italy.
For EU residents, this simply means our normal driver’s licence that was issued in our home country.
For people outside of the EU, such as from the USA, Canada, etc., you guys need to have an international driver’s permit or licence with you. It will not probably be checked at the car rental agency, but if you are stopped by a police officer, it will be needed.
If you’re driving your own car that was registered outside of Italy, you need printed insurance that ensures coverage in foreign countries.
You need to be 18 to drive
The minimum age for driving is 18 in Italy.
But for renting a car, generally, there’s an additional fee if one of the drivers is below 25 years old.
Keep right and drive on the right
In Italy, cars drive on the right side of the road.
And when driving on a road that has more than one lane, you need to keep as right as possible. The right lane is the “slower” one and the ones on the left are for overtaking.
When you drive on autostrade, in tunnels, or outside the urban areas, your car’s lights must be turned on even during the day. Obviously, they are required when it gets dark out. Really, it’s just easier to have your lights on at all times or at least have them in auto.
You can’t turn right on the red light
It’s normal for Europeans that, unless there’s a small green arrow next to the main traffic light, you can’t turn right when there’s a red light on the main one.
In other words – if there’s a red light on the traffic light, you can’t turn red. Or, well, it can end up as a very expensive paid right turn.
Wear a seatbelt!
Seatbelts are required in Italy. It means – if the car has a seatbelt installed, you must wear it.
In a car rental in Sardinia, the assistant was telling me that in the middle seat in the back, you’re not required to wear a seatbelt (it wasn’t working properly). Well, I was looking it up now, and could only find that “everyone must wear a seatbelt both in the front and in the back seat”.
The only exceptions that I could find were:
- Children can travel in a rental car or a taxi without a restraint if they sit in the back and have a person older than 16 accompanying them;
- people suffering from particular pathologies, or who have physical conditions that constitute specific contraindications to the use of seat belts;
- pregnant women in conditions of particular risk resulting from the use of seat belts.
But I wouldn’t risk it, really. If a policeman goes for the “everyone in the car must wear a seatbelt” law, there will be no point in arguing.
Use of car seats for kids
Kids younger than 12 years old or shorter than 1,50m need to have a car seat or a booster seat. You can check more info here.
This is an EU law that is applicable in Italy as well.
When renting a car, make sure that you rent a car seat with it. Or take one with you when travelling to Italy.
Types of roads in Italy
There are six main types of roads: autostrade, strade extraurbane principali, strade extraurbane secondarie, strada urbana di scorrimento, strade urbane di quartiere, and strade locali.
Well, that’s the legal way of dividing them, at least. For normal driving purposes and reading a map purposes, it’s like this:
- Autostrade – motorways/highways, usually a toll road. The speed limit is 130km/h (110km/h in bad weather). The signs for autostrade are green, and the road letter is A (such as A4 – the highway from Torino-Trieste). These can be both in and out of urban areas.
I’m giving the main speed limits for these roads, but of course, there can be other speed limits posted. Pay attention to the signs!
- Strade extraurbane principali – major highways out of urban areas, the speed limit is 110km/h (90km/h in bad weather conditions). These generally have blue signs. The letters for the road can be SS (strada statale) or SP (strada provinziale), SR (strada regionale) or SC (strada comunale).
- Strada Extraurbana Secondaria – minor highways out of urban areas, the speed limit is 90km/h (80km/h in bad weather conditions). These are just the general roads outside of built-up areas, with one lane in each direction. The letters for this road can also be SS (strada statale) or SP (strada provinziale), SR (strada regionale) or SC (strada comunale).
- Strada urbana – an urban road. The speed limit is 50km/h, but check the posted one, of course. It can be as high as 70 and as low as 20 in places.
- Strada locale – generally, in the old towns, the really small roads. This can be a “zona 30” – the speed limit is 30km/h, or “zona residenzale”, which means a place full of pedestrians, bicycles, and other obstacles.
- And then there’s a Strada bianca – which means gravel road. Check for the posted speed limit, otherwise, drive in a way that feels safe to you.
Tips for driving in Italy
Speed cameras in Italy
Apparently, Italy has the most speed cameras in Europe. So that’s one of the things that you need to be careful about when driving in Italy.
But don’t worry, there are always road signs before speed cameras. They say Controllo elettronico di velocità on them.
There are two types of machines: Autovelox and Sistema Tutor.
Autovelox is a picture-taking machine, so to say. If you speed, it takes a picture of the number plate, and you’ll get the fine in the mail. Even if it’s a rental car, you must pay the fine. You’ll find autovelox everywhere: on the autostrade, on the country roads, and even in the smallest of towns. One of the towns near lake Iseo had like 5 of them in each direction of the road, and it was a tiny town!
Sistema Tutor is a system that measures the average speed in a segment of the road on autostrada. Basically, a camera catches your number plate when you drive under it and again under the next one when you exit the segment. A system then measures the average speed you had on that segment. If it’s above the speed limit, you get a fine.
Non-EU residents must pay their fines on the spot
If a police officer pulls over an EU resident, they can just pay the fine later.
If it’s a non-EU resident that has been pulled over, the fine must be paid on the spot. Don’t worry, usually it can be paid with a card as well.
Getting gas for your car
Diesel in Italy is “diesel” or “gasolio” and unleaded (gas) is “senza piombo”, “super” or “benzina”. If you rent a car, the type of fuel will most probably be noted on a keychain and the rental agent will inform you.
Be careful about which pump you use, though. in some gas stations, there are two types – attended pumps, where someone will pump the gas for you, and others where you pump by yourself. The attended ones are like 30 cents more expensive for a litre.
Tolls in Italy
Autostrade are generally the only toll roads. When entering the tolled portion, you take a ticket, and when exiting, you put the ticket in a machine which then calculates how much you need to pay. There will usually be a sign saying “alt stazione” before the toll booths.
- Do not lose your ticket.
- There’s a payment system called Telepass system which can be used by people that have registered for it. Basically, it’s an automatic payment – the machine scans the car’s licence plate, and the payment is automatically taken from the connected bank account. Rental cars generally don’t have Telepass, so make sure to avoid the yellow lines that lead to that exit.
- When exiting the highway, take the correct lane: blue are for paying with a card (carta di credito), white – for paying with cash (contanti), and yellow are for Telepass.
- If you see that there’s a mistake with the calculations when exiting the highway, press the aiuto button. There should be a person nearby that will help you. Once, the system calculated the toll for a truck. Since I drove that segment really often, I knew it should cost 1,60 euro, but the price was like 5-something euros. The attendant fixed it.
- Cash lines are usually a lot longer than the card ones, but just in case make sure to have some cash in your car. There might be times when the car payments just don’t work.
There are three types of parking: free, paid, and authorized (e.g., administration workers or disabled).
Parking spaces with white lines usually mean that you can park for free. But make sure that they are not reserved for residents, in some places, it’s like that.
Blue parking spots mean that the parking is paid. Generally, you will find a white sign under the blue “P” sign that shows times when the parking is paid. There will aslo be a machine nearby where you can pay. Make sure that you know your car’s licence plate number and display the ticket in the window. In some places, you can pay on an app as well.
Yellow parking spots are generally reserved, such as for the disabled.
Some things to mark:
- If the parking says that you can park for a limited amount of time, make sure to put a time when you parked in the window either on a timing disk (you can usually buy them in tabacchi and supermarkets) or a note.
- Do not block gates or driveways, or any traffic for that matter, as your car can be towed.
- Do not park on pavements.
- Many parking payment machines accept only coins, so make sure to always have some on hand
Don’t leave huge gaps between cars
Because someone will definitely fill that gap. Unfortunately, tailgating is quite popular in Italy.
Even if you keep a safe distance on the highway, someone will probably go for that spot.
If someone is flashing the lights at you…
There are two main reasons why someone might flash their lights at you (or you might flash at them).
First, if it’s a car behind you flashing, it means “let me pass”. In that case, as soon as it’s safe, move to the right so that the car can, well, pass you, as it’s faster than you.
Second, if it’s a car in the opposite lane coming towards you flashing the lights, it means that there’s police somewhere close by or an obstacle. Basically, it means, “slow down and be careful”.
Another reason a car coming towards you might be flashing its lights is – “you are blinding me with your lights” – check that your high beam headlights are off.
Hazard lights on in the middle of the road
That can, of course, mean that the car is experiencing some problems and needs to stop.
But if someone suddenly turns on their hazard lights, say, on an autostrada and starts to slow down, it probably means that there’s a traffic jam incoming, or maybe there is an accident, or just general slowing down of traffic, etc.
Drink and drive in Italy?
The maximum blood alcohol limit in Italy is 0.5g/l (0,05%). That doesn’t give you a lot more than a glass or two of wine, so be careful if you decide to have some with the meal.
The limit is 0 for young drivers – those who are younger than 21 or holding a licence for less than 3 years, as well as professional drivers. And the fines for drunk driving are huge!
Do NOT leave your valuables in the car
No, not even if they are hidden. But that’s one of the general road trip safety tips.
Many people think that it’s safe to leave things like backpacks in their cars if those things are hidden, but nope. Robbers tend to follow cars if they see that, let’s say, someone puts their backpack in the trunk. When the owner leaves the car, they steal the bag.
Be fast at the traffic lights
Italians are quite impatient.
If you don’t move as soon as the light turns green at the traffic light, you’re going to get beeped at. So make sure to prepare for the light to turn!
Road signs in Italy
As mentioned already,
green signs are for toll highways,
blue – for non-toll roads.
Brown show different points of interest, such as attractions, historic sites, etc.
Black signs with yellow letters show where the industrial zones are.
White signs mean that something is or is in an urban area.
Generally, if something is written on a road sign in Italy, it’s written in Italian. In the north, depending on the neighbouring country, you can see signs in two languages – it can be Italian and French or Italian and German, for example.
Road sign “dictionary”
What the sign means is still usually pretty understandable even if it’s not in English. Here are some common words you might see:
- Entrata – entrance (for example, on a highway)
- Uscita – exit
- Aeroporto – airport. There will be a tiny plane next to it, too.
- Centro – centre
- Centro storico – historic centre
- Parco Nazionale… – national park
- Zona industriale – industrial zone (factories etc.)
- Parcheggio – parking
- Passo carrabile – tow away zone. Basically, this sign says “don’t park here” – you’ll mostly find them in front of driveways or garages.
- Ufficio turistico – tourist office
- Controllo elettronico di velocità or AUTOVELOX – electronic speed control. Speed camera incoming!
- Tutte le direzioni – literally, “all directions”. Usually, you’ll find this in confusing parts of towns, such as the historic centres, and it shows you how to get back to a bigger road that goes in “all directions”.
- Area pedonale – pedestrian zone. Cannot drive there.
- Servizio – service station soon, such as a toilet, gas station, etc. Usually found on highways.
- Senso unico – one way
Last thoughts about driving in Italy
Driving in Italy is not as crazy as I thought it will be. You just have to be careful, just like in any other new place that you’d drive.
Pay attention to the signs, don’t break the laws, and all will be well!