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!!!