Driving in Italy

Fiat 500F

Italy has been called “God’s racetrack.”  Let’s take a break from the house hunt and address what driving in Italy is like as it isn’t a simple task for newbies.  Italian carmakers and driving have a long, glamorous history.  I mean this is the country that makes the likes of: Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati.

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Sadly, I know nothing about driving those cars in Italy.  So let me break this into sections and tackle everything I find interesting about driving in Italy.

Renting a Car: Italy is a country where a manual transmission is in the standard rental car and an automatic transmission is an upgrade and a little more expensive.  My first bit of advice would be reserve your car online and in advance of your arrival at the airport.  If you leave it to chance you will likely end up with a stick-shift transmission and a slightly older car.  My experience has taught me the rental agencies reward your preparation.  You will find all the usual rental agencies here: Hertz, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise and such.  It does get interesting when you add in the local Italian rental agencies like: Ace, Eurocar, Sixt, Maggiore and Gold Car.  We witnessed an Italian guy have a complete meltdown at the Gold Car counter when they started reviewing the fees.  Airport police was called to calm this angry customer but it made for great people watching as we waited in the Avis line.  Being a typical American I have limited my renting to Avis and Hertz.  Safe to say Hertz has secured my future business by always providing me a free upgrade and most recently from a compact car reservation up to a beautiful 4-door Jaguar.  On the other hand Avis charged me $900 for scratches on the front and rear bumpers that I did not do but also did not notice when I checked the car out.  My tips here: closely examine the car before your leave the lot and be sure they mark any damage on the checkout sheet.  Also, make sure your credit card’s car rental insurance is valid in Italy; turns out the car insurance offered by my American Express card is not valid in Italy.  Lesson learned and I now take CDW insurance until I find a credit card that include insurance in Italy.

IDP: Italy supposedly “requires” that US drivers acquire an International Driving Permit but I have rented 10+ cars without such a permit.  Apparently Thrifty car rental wants to see the permit and about 50% of the police officers in Italy will ask you for it.  To me it seems like nobody really cares but if you’d like to abide by the letter of the law, AAA offers the IDP here for $20.

Speed Limits:  It is safe to say Italy allows you to drive faster than you are used to in the US.  They don’t use highway patrol with radar guns or expert speed estimators; instead they use cameras and they even tell you when the cameras are approaching.

Speed Camera Ahead

I am told you once could drive as fast as you wanted until you were approaching the camera and slow down to avoid the speeding ticket but now they are keeping your average speed between the cameras.  I can attest the cameras work because Avis and Hertz have emailed me speeding tickets associated with my rental cars at least 4 times.  There are some folks that drive luxury cars (Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, BMW) and they drive as fast as they want, typically 100+ MPH appearing to have no fear of speeding tickets.  I’m not sure how they getaway with it, but I am envious.  Here are the posted speed limits:

  • 130 kmph (81 mph) is the speed limit on highways
  • 110 kmph (68 mph) is the speed limit on non-major highways outside of major urban areas
  • 90 kmph (56 mph) is the speed limit on local roads
  • 50 kmph (31 mph) is the speed limit in urban areas

The Autostrade:  The Autostrade in Italy is a tollbooth highway system that charges you for the distances you drive.  It covers about 4,200 miles and the Italians treat these roads with respect.  An autostrada is typically 3-4 lanes with the far right lane reserved for trucks, the middle lane is the travel lane for cars and sometimes trucks passing each other but the left lane is the respected passing lane.

Autostrada Sign

This is how it is supposed to be done.  You do NOT stay in the left lane.  You pass the car in front of you and you move back into the center lane.  If you happen to forget your responsibility of passing and moving back you will soon find one of those luxury cars in your rear view mirror you will wonder if the trailing car isn’t attached to your bumper and I promise you will soon be back in the middle lane.  If I could offer one tip to a tourist driving in Italy, respect the speed limits and observe how well the other drivers treat the rules of the road.  Oh yeah, green signs always indicate you are entering an autostrada.


ZTL: I can attest that I learned this one the hard way.  The ZTL stands for “Zona Traffico Limitato” or Zone of Limited Traffic and are used in congested, historic areztl.jpga in major cities like Florence and Rome.  I learned my lesson because I never saw this sign and certainly had no idea that the city of Florence would send me a $130 Euro bill by mail, thanks for ratting me our Avis. I have read up on these signs and it seems they take photos of every car entering the ZTL and if you aren’t a truck or a local resident with a sticker on your car then you can expect an invoice in the mail.  Thanks Florence.

Gas: Italy does a spectacular job of placing huge service areas on all major roadways with easy off and easy on ramps.  Not only will you have the privilege of paying $6 per gallon, you will have the ability to order penne all’arrabbiata, linguine al pesto, cheese plate and a red wine or cappuccino at the AutoGrille.  I just read an article revealing that AutoGrille and upscale Italian grocer, Eataly, are partnering to further elevate their food offerings.

Toll Booth

Tolls:  I have to confess the tollbooth moments create anxiety.  When entering an autostrada you will be greeted by this sign.  It is telling you to grab a toll ticket, but for some dumb reason I continue to think it’s time to pay.  When will I learn?  So upon entering the highway simply grab a ticket and when you exit the autostrada it is time to pay.  Tolls can be paid one of three ways: 1. Have a Telepass (you know the transponder in your car that auto-deducts the $$$ from your bank account).  2. Credit card, I have found this one to be the easiest and least stressful.  3. Cash, this one gets crazy because their coins (50 cents, $1 and $2) look similar and these toll charges can surprise you with amounts like $18 -$25 Euros.  So there I am all ready with my handful of $1 coins only to be thwarted by a double digit fee.  I’d recommend the credit card option if you’re asking.  This website provides a helpful toll calculator if you wish to be prepared.


Signs: This one is a bit odd to me as signs in Italy do not utilize North, South, East and West like we do.  Instead they offer directions of other towns, check it out in this sign.

North? South?

This method of navigation assumes you have some sort of knowledge of the areas you are driving.  I would suggest you check a map before venturing on a drive just to get a sense of the towns you will encounter along the way.  However, I completely recommend you use some sort of GPS device.  I bought a shiny new Garmin GPS device and gave up on it after it suggested we drive through a farmer’s dirt roads to get to Cinque Terre.  I have found Waze to be the most accurate and it warns about speed limit cameras ahead but it requires a data connection.  A great app that does not require a data connection is Maps.me , just be sure to download maps in advance of your drive.  If you forgo the GPS recommendation then I wish you luck because you’ll need it.



Cities:  You can read a bunch of blogs that will tell you to avoid driving in the major cities (especially Rome) at all costs but being a San Francisco city driver I am unfazed by the madness most others fear.  Italy loves to use roundabouts or rotaries to manage complex intersections to keep the cars in motion.  Again, if you follow the rules these are easy but if you go rogue you can expect terrifying results.  This video will give you a fair depiction of an Italian roundabout.  Pro tip here is to wait your turn to enter the roundabout and once you have entered now you have the right away to exit and others will defer to you.

Conclusion: I now understand why Italy is called “God’s highway” and it is because they simply respect each other and the rules of the road.  Their highway system (Autostrade) is immaculate and they are constantly cutting grass and trimming bushes as if it’s their newest work of art.  You can drive fast but within reason.  My singular complaint would be the frequent tollbooths, but with a little practice these feel like Nascar pitstops.  I would recommend you get an automatic car with some horsepower from a familiar rental company because those Ferrari drivers won’t show you any mercy and they will quickly be in your rearview mirror.    Otherwise, enjoy the beauty of Italy will touring around.  Aleth wants one of these old Fiat’s, what do you think?

Aleth with her dream Fiat in Florence




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