For many travelers to Italy, driving in Italy can be both a blessing and a curse. Exploring Italy by car is one of the best ways to see the countryside. Driving in Europe, though, and in Italy in particular, can be a challenge. This post includes our top driving tips for travelers to Italy. We also answer some frequently asked questions and Italy driving rules and provide advice on driving through Italy in a rental car.
Our Italy Driving Experience
One of the things I love about traveling through Europe is traveling by train. It has been our main way of traveling Europe during most of our visits. One thing we learned from all of our experience touring Emilia Romagna, Italy, is that many of our trips involved exploring the Italian countryside. Some of our trips we never step foot on a train. As much as sometimes I miss the idea of training through Europe, it’s often fun driving Italy and exploring the smaller towns, villages, and wineries.
At least it was fun to drive in Italy once we got the hang of things. The first hour was a little hellish. We tried to use the GPS on my iPhone, which stopped working pretty quickly without a local sim card. We got onto the Autostrada, or highway, and could not figure out how to get off. Eric drove in the wrong direction for a good thirty minutes, had to get off, pay a toll, just to get back on and drive in the right direction. Needless to say, we did not research driving tips for Italy before getting in that car. Eric was excited about driving in Italy for the first time. We totally botched it.
To prevent others from suffering a similar fate, I thought I would share our 10 Top Tips for Driving in Italy. Since that frustrating trip many years ago, we’ve learned so much about how to drive in Italy. Sure, even now when Eric gets behind the wheel he has to almost remind himself of how to drive in Italy. We at least feel a little better about some of the important things to know when driving in Italy.
10 Tips for Driving in Italy
Most of our Italy travel advice focuses on what to eat in Italy (pasta!) and what to drink in Italy (wine!). As an American driving in Italy, though, we thought it would be helpful to share our tips and experiences. Touring Italy by car can be so rewarding, but these driving in Europe tips might not be shared by the rental car company. And, they are important to know if your goal is to travel Italy by car.
Tip 1: Use a GPS for Driving Around Italy
Yeah, I know people used to be able to navigate using a map and a good sense of direction but trust me, use a GPS. It is possible to get them in most Italian rental cars, or rental car companies also advertise a WIFI device you can rent. I prefer to buy a local sim card to place in my unlocked phone, or you call your cell phone company to add an overseas data plan. For Americans driving in Italy, some US cell phone companies now offer international roaming. The important thing is to Trust me, you will want it. We rely mostly on Google Maps as a good guide to driving in Italy. Other apps work well too.
It was way easier for Eric to drive Italy while I worked the GPS to find our way around. I could tell him in advance which direction we were taking at an intersection. This communication saved us from a lot of turn arounds and re-dos, and a good number of potential fights! I know this is not always possible. If you are a solo tourist driving in Italy, try to use the voice command functions on your GPS to help guide you.
Tip 3: Follow the Signs For Driving Through Italy
As an American driving in Italy, Eric struggled the most will following the Italian road signs (hence the need for GPS). One of my best tips on driving in Italy is to take some of the directional Italian road signs with a grain of salt. Many of the Italian driving signs are directional, explaining that Milan is one way or another. The problem is, sometimes they say both.
Italy roads are fairly well signed, and it can be easy to follow along if you are heading towards a large city or town. On the Autostrada we were able to tell whether we were heading to Milan or Bologna. On the country roads, though, we would often come to an intersection that would tell us Modena was to the left AND to the right. Yeah, that can get a bit confusing and GPS becomes essential.
There is a cute scene in this video my friend told me about, that clearly explains driving in Italy, and does not exaggerate one bit on the signs. This is more Italian humor than Italy driving tips.
Tip 4: Traveling by Car in Italy on the Autostrada and Tangenziale
Took us some time to figure this out. The autostrada is the major highway that runs between large cities, like Milan, Bologna, and Florence. It includes the highways marked with the letter A. There are virtually NO EXITS. It is possible to get on, but like roaches in the roach motel, it is almost impossible to get off in between those large cities. I quickly developed a phobia where I tried to avoid the autostrada at all costs because I was afraid we would not be able to get off.
The autostrada is the quickest way to travel between cities if you don’t mess up like we did our first trip to Bologna. We also get asked is driving in Italy safe on the Autostrada. Yes, it is. But, Italian drivers can drive very fast, so keep to the right lanes and let them zoom by. (Get more travel safety tips here)
The tangenziale is a ring road, like a beltway in the US. This runs around the larger cities to give you access not only to the cities but also to the smaller villages and towns that surround the cities. Know the difference so you don’t end up driving for thirty minutes in the wrong direction on the autostrada when you really want to be on the tangenziale. Many of the tangenziale motorways also start with the letter A, making it even more confusing.
Tip 5: First Rule of Italian Driving – Watch out For Italian Drivers
Italian driving laws are not all that complicated to follow. It’s the Italian drivers you need to watch out for. The Italians drive fast. It seems the Italy highway speed limit means nothing to them. It’s no accident that Ferrari and Maserati are both made in Emilia Romagna. Just let them pass, and stay to the right, both on the highways and the country roads.
Tip 6: Driving in Italy Roundabouts – Take Your Time
Remember that scene from National Lampoon’s European Vacation, when the Griswolds get caught in a rotary (or traffic circle as we call them in New Jersey or roundabout in the UK) and they can’t get off (“Big Ben, Parliament.”)? This does happen when on a driving holiday in Italy the same way it happened to them. This can often happen when there are two signs on the roundabout pointing to the same place, but in seemingly different directions.
The goal here when driving in Italy as a tourist is to take your time. It’s perfectly okay to continue around the rotary an extra time (or two). This is a better option than trying to change lanes last minute, cut someone off, and potentially get into an accident. Driving a car in Italy can be stressful, but when on a rotary, slow down and enjoy the ride.
Tip 7: When Driving a Car in Italy Know Your Left From Your Right (in Italian)
The Italians are super helpful when asked for directions, but many don’t speak English, particularly outside the larger cities and towns. Luckily, they often speak with their hands, so directions are easy to follow. Here’s one of my top driving tips for Italy. To make things even easier, know the words for right and left in Italian, or sinistra and destra, and be okay responding that you understand, “si, si, si, grazie!” Easy Peasy.
Tip 8: Maybe the Question is Not Can I Drive in Italy, But Can I Park?
Inside the rental car, behind the rear view mirror, there is often a nifty little plastic contraption with a clock on it – a disc orario. I called it a parking disc, but it translates more to time disc. When parking in an area that is restricted to two hours, for example, turn the disc to the time when you arrived so that the police can tell how long you have been parked there, and you can avoid fines. Nifty! Because no one wants to finish a drive to Italy on their holidays to return home to a parking ticket from Italy.
Tip 9: Italy Driving Guide Tip – Know How to Drive a Manual
When it comes to Italy car rental, the default rental car is a manual, or stick, transmission. It can be complicated and a little intimidating driving in Italy. If you are not comfortable driving a stick, this is not the time to learn. Most rental car companies also have automatic transmissions, at an extra cost. Splurge for the upgrade if you are not sure.
Tip 10: Be Careful Driving in Restricted Areas
It can be fun to travel around Italy by car, particularly when climbing into small hilltop towns, or even zooming along an Italian highway. My number one driving in Italy advice is about being careful when driving in larger Italian cities with restricted zones. This can also be one of the hardest things to deal with when driving in Italy as an American.
Many cities, including Rome, Milan, Bologna, etc. have a certain part of the city center where driving in Italy is restricted to residents only. We’ve been caught twice on this in Bologna. There are street signs that say restricted, but they are hard to see and hard to understand where they begin and end. Google Maps also ignores these Italian traffic laws. With one hotel in Bologna that is located inside the restricted zone, we were technically allowed to drive within that zone to park the car. Six months after our trip, we received a pricey ticket in the mail.
I don’t know what my Italian driving tip is here other than to confirm your route to your hotel ahead of time. If you have to pay for parking at your hotel, maybe ask for an alternative outside the historic center of town and walk a few blocks to your hotel to save any hassle and confusion.
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now.
Check out our Video about Driving in Italy
Learn more about traveling in Italy for food with our Emilia Romagna Food Travel Guide
Exploring Italy By Car – FAQs
- Will I be able to understand Italian road signs? Great question. It’s important to understand that even as a tourist you are expected to follow all driving in Italy rules. Some of the Italian street signs and Italian traffic signs are different than what might be common at home. Overall, we’ve learned to just take our time and to observe what others are doing. Italian road rules are not as complicated as they might seem.
- What is the speed limit in Italy? The Italy autostrada speed limit is 130km/h, or around 80 mph, although Italian drivers do a very good job of ignoring the Italy highway limits on speed. If you don’t see Italian police offers you may think it’s okay to do the same. But, there are Italian speed cameras and they do a good job of tracking you down through your rental car company. They can charge your credit card for the fees as well. Stay to the right, let the Italian drivers pass you by, and enjoy your Italian holiday.
- What are Italy toll roads like? The toll roads in Italy are long and fast. There are no frequent exits, so once you are on, you are on. The Italian tolls can be paid by cash or by a credit card, although some US cards might not work. It’s best to have cash on hand. Drivers take a ticket on entering the Italian toll roads and pay on exit. As to how much are toll roads in Italy, it depends on the distance traveled. Price ranges can be as little as €2 for a short distance or €15 or more for a longer journey.
- What side of the road does Italy drive on? The Italy driving side has to be the most frequently asked question. They drive on the right side of the road, similar to the US and unlike the UK.
- Do I need an international driver’s license in Italy? Can I drive in Italy with a US driver’s license? The recovering lawyer in me provides a disclaimer here: this is not legal advice. Renting a car in Italy as an American is pretty easy and can be booked with a valid US driver’s license. We’ve never used an international drivers license in Italy. Driving in Italy with a US license has always been sufficient for us.
- Should I rent a car in Italy? Yes, definitely! Don’t be afraid. The driving in Italy requirements are not strict and you can really enjoy your holiday driving around Italy. That said, driving in Italy for tourists is not for everyone. If you are not a confident driver at home, this might not be the way to go. There are so many great cities and towns explorable by train or day trip that you can have a wonderful holiday without learning how to drive in Italy at the same time.
For Mor Tips on Driving in Europe See: The Essential Guide to Driving Abroad
Renting a Car in Italy – Advice
We’ve rented cars in Italy more times than we can count, particularly when traveling in Emilia Romagna. It’s the best way to visit Italian wineries, to stay at an agriturismo, and really to explore. Here are our top Italy car rental tips and answers to FAQs.
What is the best car rental Italy option? All major international rental car companies offer car rental in Italy. Which car hire company you choose can make or break your driving holiday in Italy. When choosing an Italy car hire, go small. It can be difficult to navigate small towns and villages. Try to pick the smallest car you can while considering the number of travelers and luggage. We recommend renting through AutoEurope because they offer cars from various Italy car rental companies to get you the best price. Avoid discount brands like Firefly or Goldcar as the quality of the cars is borderline unsafe. We’ve had the best luck with Hertz and Budget, although we’ve used a lot of other brands. Renting through AutoEurope makes the selection process a lot easier.
How to rent a car in Italy? The best option is to book your car hire Italy ahead of time. You can pick up an Italian car hire at every airport and even many train stations in Italy. You can also book a car hire for just a few days of a trip, rather than for your entire Italy trip. If this is the case, choose the Italy car hire location near a train station for easier access. When you pick up your rental car, you will need to show your driver’s license, international driving permit if you have it, passport, and a credit card. Choose a credit card that offers rental car insurance for extra protection.
What is the car rental age in Italy? The driving age in Italy can be as low as 16, but those are the rules for Italian drivers. Although the minimum car rental age in Italy is 18, many car rental companies will charge a young driver surcharge until turning 25.
Book Your Italy Car Hire With AutoEurope Now
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Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.