12+ Tips For Driving In Italy For The First Time

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.

Italy driving tips

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What To Know About Driving In Italy

We’ve been traveling to Italy for more than 20 years, having traveled to some of the best food cities in Italy. We’ve done a lot of it by train, but have taken our fair share of road trips through Italy.

Some of the best destinations in Italy are best explored by car, including some of the popular Italian Riviera towns where winding roads give way to stunning coastal vistas.

Some of our earliest trips with a rental car involved exploring adorable Tuscan towns and villages. We’ve also explored the region of Emilia Romagna more times than we can count to eat in top food destinations like Bologna, Modena, and Parma, Italy.

On some of our trips, we never step foot on a train. As much as I sometimes miss the idea of training through Europe, it’s often fun driving around Italy and exploring the smaller towns, villages, and wineries.

Before sharing our top driving tips, be careful about what to pack for Italy. Packing light for Italy is essential as a lot of the rental cars in Italy are small.

We share our tips for how to pack for Europe in a carry on, which are definitely applicable to Italy if renting a car.

How To Book Hotels In Italy

In the 20+ years of traveling to Italy, we’ve learned a thing or two about booking a hotel in Italy. We’ve stayed at some stunning hotels like the Westin Excelsior Rome and St. Regis in Florence. And we’ve stayed at some not-so-great hotels mainly around train stations in Italy. Do yourself a favor and avoid hotels near train stations at all costs.

When planning a trip to Italy, we use Booking.com for our accommodations. In addition to booking hotels, we’ve used them for booking apartments for longer stays or booking villas in Italy when we want something special. We’ve even found some charming and less expensive guest houses in Italy on Booking.com.

Our Italy Driving Experience

It was a few years back that I thought it would be a good idea to share our tips for Italy driving. It was during a trip to Emilia Romagna. 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 thirty minutes and had to get off, and pay a toll, just to get back on and drive in the right direction. We did not research driving tips for Italy before getting in that car. 

We drove in Italy during earlier trips but it had been a while. During this trip, we totally botched it. Since then, we’ve taken loads of road trips to Italy and continue to learn driving tips during each one.

To prevent others from suffering a similar fate, I thought I would share our 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 important things to know when driving in Italy. 

12 Tips For Driving In Italy

There are loads of things to know about Italy before traveling there, particularly for first time visitors.

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. Planning a trip to Italy can be tough, particularly when you consider whether to rent a car.

Touring Italy by car can be so rewarding, but these driving in Italy 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.

Tips For Driving In Italy For The First Time
Not exactly a Ferrari or Lamborghini but it got us around Italy

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 an e-sim card. 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 on a per day rate.

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. 

Tip 2: Have a Navigator To Provide Driving in Italy Advice

It was 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 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 if you are heading towards a large city or town. On the Autostrada we could 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.

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.

Tip 4: Traveling By Car In Italy On The Autostrada And Tangenziale

Although its best to explore the Italian countryside by car, it’s sometimes necessary to hop on the highways in order to reach some of the small towns in Italy. This includes some of the Amalfi Coast towns, that are best reached by rental car, but you have to take a highway to get there.

Italian Autostrada

Took us some time to figure this out. The Autostrada is the major highway 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 if 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)

Italian Tangenziale

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. 

tips for driving in Italy - how is driving in Italy

Tip 5: First Rule of Italian Driving – Watch out For Italian Drivers

When it comes to what Italy is famous for, people might say slow food and fast cars. Fast cars imply fast 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. Driving slow in Italy is a pleasure – enjoy the views and let the locals speed on by.

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.  

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: The Question Is: Not Can I Drive In Italy, But Can I Park?

driving in Italy

Inside the rental car, behind the rearview 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 Italy in an area 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

Regarding 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.

limited traffic zones in Italy

Tip 10: Driving In Restricted Areas – Limited Traffic Zones (ZTL)

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, once in Matera. There are street signs that say restricted, but they are hard to see and hard to understand where they begin and end. The restricted areas are called Limited Traffic Zones or ZTLs.

Google Maps also ignores these Italian traffic laws. With one hotel in Bologna 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. We’ve received numerous tickets over the years by accidentally driving through a ZTL in Italy.

Tip 11: Watch Your Speed – Traffic Cameras In Italy

Remeber those speedy Italians driving on the highways? Don’t be one of them. There are relatively hidden traffic cameras on roads throughout Italy. Sometimes Google Maps will flag them on your route. Other times, they won’t.

We’ve received multiple Italian speeding tickets months after returning from Italy. The price increases monthly when you haven’t paid. The Italian rental car company (even American companies) take forever to send the ticket to you and they sometimes charge for processing the speeding ticket.

Just avoid this hassle altogether by driving the speed limit in Italy. We’ve ended up with speeding tickets from Italy plus fees that cost more than the original rental price. I’d rather spend my money on Italian snack foods and wine rather than speeding tickets.

Tip 12: Book Unlimited Tolls For Your Rental Car In Italy.

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.

Many rental car companies offer automatic toll options, including unlimited tolls per day. It depends on how far you will drive and how many days you will drive as to whether this is worth it.

driving in Italy as a tourist

Exploring Italy By Car – FAQs

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 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. That said, it’s better to arrange for an international drivers license ahead of time.

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.

Renting A Car In Italy – Advice For Travelers

Tips for driving in Italy - can i drive in italy

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. 

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 like Sixt, which is a good option for Europe travel. Avoid discount brands like Firefly or Goldcar as the quality of the cars is borderline unsafe. We’ve had the best luck with Avis and Budget, although we’ve used a lot of other brands.

How to rent a car in Italy? 

The best option is to book your car hire in 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.

Culinary Travel To Italy

Food Traveler's Guide To Emilia Romagna

Our Italy Travel Experience

Check out Food & Drink Destinations original founder Amber Hoffman’s book, the Food Traveler’s Guide To Emilia Romagna, which is available on Amazon. In addition to being a culinary travel guide to the region, it walks through how many of the typical Italian food products are made, like mortadella, prosciutto, and Parmigiano Reggiano.

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