Many people are fearful of driving in Italy. I admit I was one of them. Growing up in Texas where we have lots of space, are overly hospitable and have something called lanes, I was terrified of driving in Milan. Not only are there cars on the streets in Milan, but people, cyclists, scooters and trains. Ok, they are really trams, but in my mind, having to compete with something riding along tracks when I don’t even have a lane, seems like a train. Of course, a lot of my fear stems from the USA and European differences. Probably someone coming from Amsterdam would not be freaked out by the trams, but still might be scared to drive in Italy. So here is a guide of what to expect driving in Italy.
You must drive with your lights on when driving outside urban areas and are required to wear a seat belt. Unlike in the United States, you cannot make a right turn on a red light. Roundabouts are big in Italy. You always yield to the cars already in the roundabout and cars coming from your left. You can use your cell if you have a hands-free device. I am assuming texting is also forbidden, but I am not sure about this one because I so often see the bus drivers doing it while driving.
Geographically speaking (and this is only based on my personal experiences), driving in the north seems to be easier than in the south. The farther down south you go, the more relaxed drivers seem to be with the rules – as in stopping at a Stop sign is mandatory.
Cities and Towns
As mentioned above, you will be sharing the road with pedestrians, trams, buses, scooters, cyclists and fellow drivers. Often there are no designated lanes. Sometimes what seems like a two-lane street will have a row of three cars. peaking of rows, double and triple parking is common especially in cities like Naples and Rome. If you find yourself boxed in, just honk a few times and the guy drinking his coffee will come out and move his car. And since we are on the subject of honking, sometimes when there is a two-way street, but clearly only enough room for one car to fit, you will hear honking. This is an oncoming car warning you they are coming. The honk method is used for any situation in which two drivers cannot see each other.
Note that in most larger cities, traffic is limited in the historic center. Make sure you look for the signs. They will look like this or something similar:
Driving Culture in the City
Italians are patient drivers when relationships are involved. What does this mean? Well, if you are driving to the market and you see your friend on the street, of course, you are going to stop right in the middle of the street, roll your window down and have a little chat. The cars that start building up behind you will allow you a small exchange of words. This kind of thing just does not bother them. So, if someone is blocking the traffic to chat for a few seconds, resist the urge to honk.
Interstates – Autostrada
Unlike the interstates in the United States, the Autostrada is a toll system. Yes, in Italy you have to pay to go fast. How fast you might ask? The speed limit is 130 for the Autostrada and 110 on main highways. The Autostrada will be noted by a green sign and the regular highway will be designated by a blue sign. Now back to the money situation. If you are trying to budget toll costs for your trip, have a look at viamichelin.com. As an example, going from Milan to Rome which is 350 Miles, will cost approximately 40 euro.
Most toll roads require that you take a ticket and pay at the exit. At times, you just pay a set amount to enter. For the first type of toll road, upon entering, just take a ticket – and don’t lose it! If you do, the toll to be paid will be calculated from the farthest station of entry. When you exit, you can pay cash (noted with a sign showing coins) or pay with a credit card (noted with a sign that says: “Carte”. The credit card booth will usually have a much shorter line. Make sure you do not enter the Telepass line as that is reserved for those with a monthly subscription.
Driving Culture on the Autostrada
I have heard people say that they think Italian drivers are aggressive bullies on the freeways, and the truth is they are not. But there are certain rules you need to be aware of. The left lane is used for passing. If you linger around in that lane you might run the risk of having a driver tailgate you and even flash his brights. The truth is, they are not really being rude, they just want to make their presence known and want you to move aside. So don’t be insulted, just move over so they can get by. Don’t pass on the right. If you do this, you are looking for trouble.
Autogrill. Ah the Autogrill. This is one of my favorite parts of the Italian road-trip. The Autogrill is a restaurant, but oh so much more. They are difficult to describe. There is a bar for coffee, a restaurant, but also shopping. Yes, food shopping at the rest stop – like foodie food shopping. My descriptions cannot do the place justice, so to read more about the Autogrill, have a look at these two articles: www.thisnewview.com and www.bbc.com.
All roads lead to Rome. And sometimes they literally do – which can be kind of confusing. But for some of the regular street signs and their meanings, look below. For the entire list, have a look here: Road_signs_in_Italy.
Now if you happen to be in Venice, make sure you pay attention to their street signs too. 🙂
As discussed above, public parking and parking lots will be designated with the “P” sign. These areas are paid parking and the parking spots will be designated with blue paint, as in the photo below. If you find white parking spots, those are free. The yellow is parking only for residents of the area. When you have to pay for parking, typically there will be a meter nearby. (photo below) Head on over to the parcometro (love that word), pay the meter for the amount of time you wish to park, then put the ticket on your dash reflecting your time. If you don’t see the meter, likely there will be a store or cafe’ nearby where you buy a scratch card. The scratch card is a bit confusing and usually the store attended will help you complete it, the instructions are on the card and in English.
You might also see the “P” with a little timer below it. This means parking is free, but you have to set the time you arrive using the little disk found on your front windshield. You set the time you leave the car and have one hour from that time to make it back to the car. The parking lines will be painted white since this parking is free.
LEARN TO PARALLEL PARK! Gotta know how to do it. Have a look at this video below. If you follow the simple rules laid out on the video, you will find it really does work!
Driving Culture When Parking
Sometimes you will find NO parking at all. In this case, if you just have to run into a place very quickly, you can usually park in a restricted area or double park leaving your emergency lights on. Obviously I don’t want to encourage any illegal activity! However, this is the way the Italians do it – especially in places like Rome and big cities.
Renting a Car in Italy
One of the best option for car rentals in Italy: www.autoeurope.com.
Drivers Licences Requirements in Italy
If you have a license issued by an EU country, you can drive in Italy without obtaining an International Driving Permit. If you come from a country outside the EU, you will need an International Driving Permit obtained from a place like AAA (for Americans).
A navigator is especially useful and handy. However, consider bringing and old-fashioned map too. I learned this lesson from my big sis on a long road-trip we made with five kids. She had asked me if I had a map, and I admit I laughed in her face….”who needs the map when we have the navigator?” Well it seems big sisters know a thing or two more about life than us younger sisters, because on that trip, we lost all of our connections: for the phones and the navigators. It was such a pleasure driving around lost in Southern Italy with five kids, three of whom were throwing up – SUCH a pleasure. Now I never take a trip without a real map.
I guess no post devoted to driving and roads in Italy would be complete without a mention of the Appian way. Of all the spectacular drives one can take in Italy – Amalfi, Tuscany, the Alps, I guess Via Appia Antica is my favorite. It was one of the earliest Roman roads built. It was originally a military road built in 312BC that connected Rome to Brindisi but is still in use today. In fact, I have been on this road many times. Next time you are in Rome, it is a must see. It is relatively near the Aqueduct park that I love so much.
So that is it! Happy trails!!!
Once you get used to driving in Italy it is fine. I think the drivers are very skilful, but they do drive very fast and take risks, but are generally courteous.
Yes Debra….I agree….and I admit I was surprised to get the “thank you” waves from people when you let them in. And tru…just a matter of getting used to a different way.
Most of that still sounds a bit terrifying but it sounds like you’re cool as a cucumber now! 🙂 And I do like that they stop to chat – it’s very Irish 😉
You know Linda…in the US…many families are made up of an Italian-Irish mix….especially in NYC. I think the two cultures have a lot in common – – for sure some catholic guilt ha, ha, ha…anyway…they are always gorgeous too, you know that someone named Mario O’Sullivan is gonna be a very good looking guy….even if he has to go through life with that crazy name.
Glad that my friend referred me to this page I’ll be driving a car in Italy for the first time. We’ve been there before and driven around, but being behind the wheel is totally different. Thanks for all the great tips (with pics, even)!
Hi Cathy! Thanks for stopping in. You are going to have a great trip! It is true, driving in the city can be intimidating at first, but truly – – -if you just go with the flow, you will see it is not as bad as it seems. Again – enjoy your trip!
I love this post! So funny-love the stopping to talk to chat also. I DO remember driving in Milan (Britt was behind the wheel)-he is usually confident in the driving department-loves the German autobahn-BUT, driving around Milan completely unnerved him-I think it was the “no clear lanes” for cars, so there were cars everywhere! hilarious! fun and funny experience! we were laughing later! we will leave the driving to you in July!
ha, ha, ha, Sheri! We just had the OPPOSITE experience in Germany! Umberto was trying to keep up with those speedsters! I had to tell him to slow it down…it was scary going that fast!
Such useful info! I’ll have to keep it handy for when I get brave enough to drive. I’ve so far used the excuse that I can’t drive a standard and gotten away with it! I just love that people stop with 3 cars behind them in the middle of my village to have a conversation -and no one gets impatient or honks. It’s so amazing. The Autogrill is fun-and in Southern Italia they usually have really fresh mozzarella di bufala. Ciao, Cristina
Hi Cristina…I know…isn’t the Autogrill so fab!!! I recently have a friend visit and totally forgot to tell her to stop there! I am not sure how that happened because usually it is the FIRST thing I tell people about when taking a road trip in Italy. Anyway…if I am ever down south, for sure I will try the fresh mozzarella! Buon weekend!!! Baci…
Love Autogrill!!! I was mortified when Henry forgot his drivers license and I had to drive in Italy. It was scary and I’m sure I broke a lot of laws but we survived! I don’t think I’ll ever get used to round abouts. I hate ’em. The honking thing reminded me of Granada – in some places it was common practice to triple park and then simply lay on the horn when you want to leave so the owners of the cars blocking you in know to move their car. Really crazy!
Lyn!!!! I wanted to work your Danica Patrick story into this post somehow – – but I could not figure out a way. Anyway….you kicked some MAJOR butt driving on that trip…..I think at that point, I had only been driving around the neighborhood – – – and YOU – – all over Italy….highways, city, back roads……TOTALLY Danica!
Her hee – I like that comparison! 🙂
When I return to the states, people seem to drive so slow compared to what i’ve become used to in Italy. It is an entirely different world on the road. I’ve had some white knuckle experiences in Rome, but I really love the skill the Italians have developed with driving. They get to where they want to go and don’t fiddle around. I like that. What a great post idea, Diana. I don’t recall ever reading one about driving in Italy and reading/deciphering the signs and so on. Very helpful!!
Hi Susan! Thank you! You know? I was thinking about how confusing it must be to someone visiting Italy – even just for parking. Yellow lines, blue lines white lines. What do they all mean? When I first moved to Italy, I did not understand the honking on the tight streets. No idea the drivers were trying to warn me. Anyway….Ummm…I admit I have never driven in Rome because there is always a family member who is driving….so cheers to you! Sei bravissima! Proprio bravissima!
I didn’t know about the tight streets either…I thought they were just being annoying. Naples is the worst…a literal white knuckle experience. There are no “lanes” its a free-for-all experience. When in Naples, do what the Neapolitans do…I think that’s how it goes:)
Susan…..errr….Naples scares me even when my hubby or father-n-law are driving! I have only driven through there on my own once. There – a stop at the “stop” sign is optional!
Very true…it is the craziest traffic I have ever encountered! Hey, we are survivors…we should be proud:)
I enjoyed reading this post! Your commentary about the Roma sign makes me laugh 😀 😀 sorry but just too funny and remind me of Indonesian traffic signs!
Ha, ha, ha…Indah!! Yes….I wish I had better pics, because there are MANY that are like that….all confusing….and lovely when you have to make a decision on which way to go while driving 100 kph!
Another very interesting post, Diana. Drivers stopping to chat sounds familiar… it is not unknown for side streets around here to be blocked by cars coming in opposite directions stopped with the windows down for the drivers to have a chat
Thanks Graham…..see? I kinda like that people stop to chat…this could never happen in America…..I REALLY embrace this part of life on this side of the pond. Thanks again…have a great week…..
Very interesting and all very true. I am just back from driving in Italy. I come from the very north in Friuli and driving there is not so bad. It is different as you say in southern Italy. I love stopping on the Autogrill as the food can be so nice there.. perfect also for a caffe’ e cornetto..yum!
Hi Alida…yes….even in Varese things are relatively calm. People even wave “thank you” when you let them in – – – just like we do in Texas. And I have to say that the autogrill has some of the yummiest cornetti around. What about driving in the UK? I would be afraid to do it on the other side of the street!
🙂 I know!!!!
Great post! We rented car in Italy, and we struggeled a little bit. We shoudl have read this post before that! Because here there are many useful tips! 🙂
Hi Hanne! Great job! You rock! I was scared to drive for a year! Anyway….thanks for the kind comment. 🙂
I am still too chicken to drive in the Netherlands (all of those canals, all of the bicycles!!) and I think that must be child’s play compared to driving in Italy! I laughed out loud when you mentioned people stopping in their cars to say hello to friends, and cringed at the thought of undesignated lanes … my cold Northern heart loves organization and order too much to fathom it!
Sophie! Yes!!! ARRRGGGG…the missing lanes!!! Just paint some lines on the street for god’s sake!!! And I can tell you that I would probably be more terrified in the Netherlands with all the bike folk. Especially the moms with like three kids in those cute carts?? No thanks…..I for sure would be sticking to public transportation. Anyway…have a good weekend!!!!!
Love the photo of the Fiat 500, that is definitely Italy. Way different than Alberta where we are, here bigger is better! Preferably a big truck! Try getting that through the narrow cobblestone street of the Italian cities:) We had a road trip in France / Italy some year ago. Yes – the Italians definitely used the horn more than what we were used to, but after a while we got used to the ‘language’ and found it was more of a way of communicating. I actually found then polite in traffic. They would always let you into their lane in heavy traffic or if you were trying to get out from a side street. We loved our road trip experience! 🙂
Yes….the truck thing is the same in Texas. For sure bigger is better in the Lone Star State. Road trips are fun in Italy…but France as well….crazy beautiful things to see there!
Nice overview! Good observations. I love that about drivers allowing time for people to talk to friends from out their windows. So true. You mentioned that on the autostrada, drivers aren’t really that aggressive. I have to point out the truck drivers, because they either purposefully drive over the line especially right as you’re trying to pass them, or the roads are just so narrow that it’s hard not to do. But I’m convinced it’s the first one, and Italian truck drivers are scary.
This is a helpful post! I’m going through steps to getting my license now 😮 since being a US citizen, Italian resident you can’t drive with an international permit …. grumble grumble
Hi Diana! thanks for stopping by! Yes….I admit the truck drivers scare me too. Actually….I think most of the drivers handling large vehicles tend to be more aggressive. Oh holy Moses! Your DL….have fun with that! Gosh…it was such a nightmare. The appointments and running around alone was crazy! Go to get photos, go to get the bollo and then – the eye doctor! REALLY?!?! The eye doctor?!?! When the lady at the DL office in Texas was in essence the eye doctor….ha, ha, ha…so funny. Americans can be so efficient. Anyway…big party when you get that document!
Those complaining about Italian drivers obvious have never driven in Boston. So, I can’t seem to find info on purchasing a car and if I need an Italian drivers license. I am a resident (and citizen) with International license. Anybody know?