The Italians’ reputation precedes them, and not just their penchant for flirting or cooking superb food, but their driving style. YouTube is full of vacation videos of Italian cities where cars and scooters go at breakneck speed down narrow lanes avoiding pedestrians more by chance than by intention. This driving approach is accurate, but that should not put you off going on a road trip in Italy.
Driving in any large, busy city can be a trial if you’re not used to it, but step outside onto the autostradas, the motorways, or into country lanes, and you’ll be just fine. Add to that very stringently enforced speed limits, and apart from the odd adrenaline kick, you will be able to relax soon enough after picking up your car.
But, as with driving in any new country, there are different rules, experiences, and factors to know and look out for. So, to help you relax, adjust, and really enjoy all the fabulous sights this country has to offer, here are some tips and tricks to know before you book that rental car.
1. Choose The Best Time
When it comes to choosing the best time for your road trip through Italy, there are two main issues to consider: crowds and weather. Both coincide nicely. The Italian — and European — school breaks over summer generally start in early June and last until the end of August, making those the busiest months. This is also the hottest time in Italy, a time when it gets uncomfortably warm and uncomfortably busy. So, the best time for your road trip is spring and autumn between April and early to mid-June, or, my personal favorite time, early September to the end of October. In early September, it is still warm enough to swim in the sea and cool enough to go sightseeing. The school kids will be back at school, and the piazzas perfect for long, leisurely stops at cafes, lingering over a coffee or a spritz.
Pro Tip: If you are visiting in September, the weather is simply perfect for a cabriolet. You might as well enjoy the fresh Italian wind in your hair and sun in your face.
2. Renting Your Car
You will find all the major car rental companies at the airport. There really isn’t one that is better than others, but you will need to check prices and availability according to your budget and desires, preferably before you set off. That said, if you intend to drive in cities as well as the countryside, then a compact car might be advisable. Note that there might be a cut-off age of 70 or 75 years of age for car rentals, depending on the provider, and you will need an international driving license.
When choosing a car, look closely at the transmission, as manual cars are still very popular in Europe, but automatics are also widely available. Also, double-check if GPS is included in the car. If not, it is worth paying extra to get one as it is especially useful for city driving, even if the country roads are generally well signposted.
Pro Tip: Get the best insurance cover you can afford, with the lowest excess limit. Not only does it take the stress out of driving and parking, as you do not have to worry about scratches, but also, depending on where you are heading off to, car theft can be a problem in cities, and it is good to know you’re covered.
3. Get To Know Your Car
Once you have got your car, spend some time getting to know it. European cars often have different setups where blinkers and lights are concerned, so play with those. Check on which side the gas tank is located and what gas the car takes. In Italy, gasolio means diesel and benzina senza piombo is unleaded gas.
There are both attended and self-service gas stations in Italy, but not all self-service stations take debit/credit cards, so have some cash ready.
Pro Tip: In case the car breaks down, you will find yellow call boxes in regular intervals along the autostradas, but on country roads, you will need to use your phone to call 116. This will connect you to the local car breakdown service, which, for a price, will help you. Other emergency numbers are 113 or 112 for police, 118 for medical assistance, and 115 for the fire department.
4. Get To Know The Road Signs
One of the biggest challenges when driving abroad is the road signs, especially the parking signs. Many signs, such as stop, no entry, and other warning signs, are pretty much universal, but every country adds its own quirks and specialties. Have a look at the signs and learn those you don’t recognize, but memorize the most important ones, such as the “no parking” ones. These signs have a red circle with a red slash on a blue background. A red circle with a red X on a blue background means no parking and no stopping.
In general, the autostrada’s speed limits are 130 km/h in dry weather and 110 km/h in wet weather. (Your car will have a speedometer in km/h, but as rough guidance, 1.5 km/h is roughly 1 mile/h). Outside of built-up areas: 90km/h to 110km/h, in built-up areas 50km/h to 70 km/h, depending on signage. Maximum speeds are advised on a circular white sign with the number within a red circle.
Pro Tip: There are many speed cameras dotted along all types of roads, so please take it easy and do not get a speeding fine. Tickets can cost you up to 350 euros ($420) and are usually waiting for you when you bring the car back to the airport.
5. Avoid The ZTL Zone At All Cost
ZTL stands for Zona a Traffico Limitato and denotes a limited traffic zone, typically near a historic town center. Whatever you do, do not drive into it, and do not ever park inside the zone. The fines are extortionate, and you often get a fine and your car towed. Yes, you will see some cars driving in the zone, but they often have special permits to do so. All city and village centers that are historic and worth seeing — which means pretty much all of them — have these zones. These areas tend to have parking spaces on the city limits for you to leave your car and then walk or shuttle into the city center.
Pro Tip: To help you with parking, download the Easy Parking app and the Interparking app. Both help you not only find parking but also pay cashless. For those pesky parking meters in cities, make sure you always have a stash of euro coins handy.
6. Drinking And Driving
What about that glass of wine with lunch or the tasters at the vineyards? Well, the alcohol limit in Italy is 0.05%, which is roughly equivalent to 1 or 2 glasses of wine, depending on your size and constitution, and whether you have had a meal with it or not. Obviously, the safest option is not to drink while out and about and leave the wine for the evening.
Pro Tip: Temptation will be huge when driving through Italy to stop at a vineyard, but why not instead take a day off, leave the car in the hotel car park, and go on a tour, complete with hotel pick up and drop off instead? Better safe than sorry.
7. How To Choose An Itinerary
Where to go is the most difficult aspect of driving in Italy. At 116,348 square miles, a length of some 740 miles, and width of roughly 240 miles, crammed full of historic sites and a coastline crying out for you to stop and stay awhile, plus islands dotted along the coast wanting you to visit as well, choosing a route is not easy.
Here are five suggestions.
Tuscany: Heading out from Florence via Pisa, Siena, and some other stops, is a 1-week round trip through Tuscany, catching some of the best sights.
Amalfi Coast: This picturesque stretch of coast is perfect for driving and stopping off. You can either head down, driving from Rome, or take a train and set off from there. On a typical 1-week itinerary along the Amalfi Coast, you’ll see Naples, Sorrento, Positano, Salerno, and should stop off for a day trip to Capri as well.
The Northern Italian Lakes: Setting off from Milan, you can drive along the foot of the Alps to Lake Garda, Lake Como, and Lake Maggiore, taking your time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery.
The Northeast: Taking in Verona, Venice, Bologna, and San Marino, a week’s worth of driving — preferably longer, of course — will take you through mountains, along the coast, to beaches, and even a new country.
Sicily: Sicily is so different from northern Italy that it is a destination in itself and worth a week-long road trip taking in the main sites. Spread over 9,927 square miles, the island is large and offers you a few different options, depending on where you’d like to stop off.
Don’t let mostly inaccurate stereotypes of Italian drivers put you off taking a road trip — or five — through Italy. Driving is one of the best ways to see this amazing country’s many different sights, just take your time, make sure you plan lots of stops along the way, and enjoy la dolce vita.