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Driving in Italy

Pauline Kenny

Driving in Italy is difficult at best, terrifying at worst, but never be daunted! Millions of Italians and tourists do it every day, so there is no reason that you cannot master it. On our first driving trip in Italy, we were nervous. The traffic seemed to move very fast, the cars behind you were right on your bumper, the road signs were confusing. By the second trip it was much easier. On the third trip, Steve let Pauline do some of the driving! That's how relaxed he was!

On the whole, the Italian drivers are aggressive and fast, but competent. You will not find those "space cadet" drivers that we have in the US (especially here in Santa Fe). You must concentrate on your driving and be alert at all times. It works best when one person navigates and one concentrates only on driving. The navigation is a difficult job too; read more about that on the Navigating page.

On Slow Travel Photos - Italy - Instructions - Driving I posted a few pictures, so you can familiarize yourself with how things will look before you go on your trip.

"Ought not to daunt you. Never be daunted.
Secret of my success.
Never been daunted. Never been daunted in public."
- - The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway - -

Many people on the message board say they find the driving in Italy to be fun and easy and they are never daunted! I think if you are used to big city fast driving (e.g. in Boston), you will find the driving in Italy to be similar to what you are used to.

Italian license plate from the Rome province.

Italian license plate from the Rome province. The letter on the left blue section tells you the country. The province is on the right blue section.

Current Road Laws

Speed limits, September 2003

  • In 2003, new speed limits came into effect:
    50 kph in cities
    90 kph outside of cities
    110 kph on highways
    130 kph on autostrada
  • On the autostrada, you must drive with your lights on.
  • You must wear a seat belt.
  • The drunk driving laws are strict - do not drink and drive.
  • You must carry an International Driver's License (see below for more information).

Speed Limits

Since 2003, speed limits on Italian roads are being enforced more than before. There are speed cameras set up in many places. If you are speeding, you may get the ticket months later. It will go to your car rental agency and they will pay it from the credit card you used with them. People on the message board have reported receiving tickets that cost over 100 Euro. Read more about Traffic Cameras.

Do I really need a car in Italy?

Yes, if you are staying in the countryside. No, if you are staying only in cities.

The cities are difficult to drive in and parking is scarce (or expensive), plus most cities have good public transportation, so you do not need a car if you are staying in the cities. The train and bus systems are extensive in Italy, so you can move between cities easily without a car. If your trip is only to the larger cities, you will not need a car.

If you want to explore the countryside, you will need a car. Buses and trains to the smaller towns and villages are not frequent. If you rent a place in the countryside, you will need a car to get to the nearby towns and villages for supplies and to explore the area.

International Driving Permit (IDP)

Travelers driving in Italy need their driver's license and an International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP is a translation of your driver's license (bring your actual license too). Get an IDP at the Automobile Association (AAA in the US). It is good for one year.

You will have to show your IDP if you are stopped by the police for a traffic violation or at a checkpoint and you may have to show it when you pick up your rental car.

Up until 2004 you did not need it for renting the car, but now car rental companies are being told to check for it (and your home driver's license) when you pick up your car.

Are you sure that I need an IDP?

You will read on other message boards that an IDP is not needed in Italy. This argument goes on endlessly - some people think you don't need it - but people who have checked with the Italian police have been told that an IDP is legally required.

We always travel with one. We have never been stopped by the police, so have never had to use ours, but I have heard from many people who have had to show theirs.

Note: This is sometimes referred to as an "International Driving License", but it is a permit and you must use it with your license - bring both with you.

Is driving in Italy different from the US?

Yes. The roads are different and the drivers are different. Driving on the Autostrada is very different from driving on our US Interstates. Most roads other than the Autostrada are only one lane in each direction, so passing cars and being passed is a part of every driving experience. The roads can be very narrow and winding. Watch out for the British visitors driving around the countryside who may not be used to driving on the right.

Try to avoid driving in the larger cities like Florence and Rome. We once drove in and out of Rome and will never forget the experience. As we first came into the city, a motorcycle police officer escorted us out of the buses only lane that we had managed to get onto (and which was taking us where we wanted to go). As we left the city, we were almost killed at a neighborhood intersection where everyone was supposed to yield but one guy was going about 100 mph as we poked out to look.

Types of Roads

There are four types of roads in Italy:

  • Autostrada - Comparable to the US interstate system. Shown on the Touring Club Italiano (TCI) road maps as black.

  • Major roads - Roads that may have more than one lane in each direction or if only one lane in each direction are still fast moving, good roads. Shown on the TCI road maps as red. I call these "red roads".

  • Minor roads - Roads that can be narrow, slow and winding. They are usually one lane in each direction. Shown on the TCI road maps as yellow. I call these "yellow roads".

  • White roads - Narrow, dirt roads going through the countryside. Shown on the TCI road maps as white lines. The Italians call these strade bianche (plural of strada bianca), which translates to white roads. The strade bianche are actually white - they are made of a light colored gravel. White roads are often good for hiking because they usually have little traffic.
    Be careful on white roads. Some are in good shape, but some are barely drivable. Look carefully at the map. White roads are shown in white, outlined in black. If the black line is a dotted line, this means the road is not in good shape. These dirt roads can be very dusty in summer and muddy in winter.

We have found that it is difficult to make your way east or west across Tuscany and Umbria. It seems like all good roads lead to Rome!! It is because of the geography - when you go across the country you are driving over small mountain ranges.

Photos of Major Roads (Red Roads)

After the Autostrada, the red roads are the main roads. This photo is of the SS2 red road south of Siena; the SS2 is the main road north and south through the center of Tuscany. On this road you pass by Pienza to the east, Montalcino to the west, San Quirico d'Orcia, Buonconvento and up to Siena. Like most main roads other than the Autostrada, it is one lane in each direction. This photo was taken from our car while driving. You can see a road sign ahead indicating a turnoff to another town.

No. 2 red road south of Siena, 10/01

In this picture on the same road, we are stuck behind a truck. The road is busy and winding, so sometimes you are stuck behind a slow moving vehicle for a long time.

See more photos of this drive on the SS2 from southern Tuscany to Siena on Slow Travel Photos - Italy - Instructions - Driving Roads.

Setting the Ground Rules

Our early driving experiences in Italy gave rise to the following ground rules for us. Each of these rules were made after a bad experience. Of course, we frequently break these rules, and so will you, but it is good to know what to watch out for.

Do not drive into the small villages. Always park outside the walls.

On our first trip, we were looking at a vacation rental on a farm in western Tuscany. To leave we had to take a long dirt road that ended at a small town. It looked like the only way you could proceed was in through the town walls. (After this was all over, we walked back to that point and saw that there was a dirt road that went around the walls. We just hadn't noticed it.)

We drove into the town on very narrow cobblestone streets. We followed the road (which was sign posted as one-way) as it went through the town and ended, or so we thought, in a parking area surrounded by buildings. We backed up, but could find no other roads. We asked some people and they said to just drive straight through. At the end of the parking area was what looked like a narrow walkway, but this was the street. We pulled in the side mirrors and drove down the street with Pauline out in front watching and Steve driving. We were driving just an inch or so from the windows of people's houses. We could hear them having lunch.

Montecastelli, Tuscany. A very narrow village road. 09/96

It was after this that we made the rule "Do not drive into the small villages". We obeyed this rule for the rest of that trip and the next, but now we happily drive into the villages knowing that it usually works out!

Never take a white road (unless you have to)

The Italian countryside is crisscrossed with white roads. Some are dirt roads, so you can't go very fast. Some are paved but narrow, so you should not go too fast! This picture shows a white road just outside Cortona in Tuscany. This was the road we had to take to reach our vacation rental. It was paved, but very narrow and you could not see what was coming because of the walls along the road. In the two weeks we stayed there, we never met an oncoming car, but we were always apprehensive! If you do meet an oncoming car, everyone squeals to a halt and someone finally backs up to a wider part of the road.

A paved, but narrow, white road near Cortona. 06/97

Park at the first parking lot

We made this rule driving to Assisi. As you are on the main road heading to the town you see many parking lots. We thought we should just keep driving to find a good spot. We didn't and we ended up wasting a lot of time driving all the way up and around the town and back down again. Just stop at the first lot you see and park.

You are not Mario Andretti

I added this rule in 2007 after reading several posts about this on the message board.

Don't go to Italy to drive fast. Since the speed limits changed in 2003, people have slowed down on the Italian roads. If you speed, a hidden speed camera may record it, and you will get a speeding ticket months later. They are paid by the car rental agency (if you were driving a rental car) and then put on your credit card.

Pre 2003, the passing lanes on the Autostrada were a blur of Italian and German Mercedes and BMWs going faster than I believed possible. This has changed because now speeding tickets are sent between countries in the EU; previously these non Italian fast drivers were not fined. The Italian drivers have also slowed down (mostly) because of the increased surveillance.

Even if others are speeding, I recommend that you not go over the speed limit because of the risk of fines and the danger to yourself and others.

Amusing Flash Movie about Driving in Italy

Bruno Bozzetto is an Italian film maker. He created some very funny Flash movies about Italy. Yes & No: Driving in Italy is a "must see":

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