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DRIVING

‘Expect the unexpected’: What you need to know about driving in Italy

What do you need to know about driving in Italy - and just how crazy is it really? The Local's readers share their experiences of navigating Italian roads.

'Expect the unexpected': What you need to know about driving in Italy
Photo by Daniel Hansen on Unsplash

Driving in Italy can be a daunting prospect. No doubt you’ve heard all about the ‘crazy’ Italian drivers already, but then there are new road rules to follow – and signs in a foreign language.

Add the extra challenge of driving on the other side of the road, if you’re coming from the UK, Ireland, Australia or other left-hand countries, and you might just decide not to bother driving in Italy at all.

READ ALSO: Italian roads ‘more dangerous in north than south’: study

But when you get out into the countryside, driving here is definitely worthwhile – and it’s essential if you want to explore rural areas.

And once you’ve got the hang of driving Italian style, you might even enjoy it.

Unwritten rules

Like many other aspects of life in Italy, Italian driving etiquette is dictated by unwritten rules which unlucky foreigners usually have to learn the hard way.

The written rules, meanwhile, don’t seem to hold as much sway as you might expect. For example, friends from Florence joke that road signs and markings are “just there for decoration”.

Flashing the headlights is often a warning: it can mean ‘get out of the way’ or ‘don’t pull out because I’m not stopping’. While if an approaching car flashes you, it’s likely warning you that there’s a police check ahead.

READ ALSO: How visitors to Italy can avoid driving penalties

And although you can’t expect them to use their indicators, you’ll quickly notice that Italian drivers love to blast the car horn at any opportunity.

It can mean anything from “get out of my way” or “use your indicator!” to “Ciao!’ or “Let’s celebrate, the light has turned green!”

And then there’s the unofficial third, middle lane on Italian two-lane roads.

“Using the broken white line in middle of the road to overtake, whether traffic is coming in the opposite direction or not, is very common,” says Sonya Boardman, who lives in Milan. “It’s not for the faint-hearted!”

So when someone roars up behind you at high speed, shift over to the right and let them pass in their imaginary “middle” passing lane. And don’t be surprised to see people trying to pass on turns, narrow stretches or bends. Just get out of the way.

(Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Hiring a car

“If you’re going to drive a hire car in Italy make sure you get the waiver insurance, then you’re not worried about bumping the car,” said Shelly Evans from Lancashire, England, who hired a car in Bari when she drove in Italy for the first time this year.

“Another thing to remember is how Italian roads are not really made for the bigger car, so getting the smallest car you can cope with may be an idea.”

READ ALSO: How to avoid car hire scams in Italy

And bear in mind that few Italians drive automatic cars. The majority of cars here are manual (stick-shift), not automatic. That means automatics aren’t always available to hire, and usually cost more.

Motorway driving

The autostrada is the name commonly given to any pedaggio or toll motorway or highway, designed for travelling more quickly than on the superstrada (non-toll motorway).

Autostrada motorways are marked with an A in front of a number, such as A1, the major artery connecting Milan and Rome.

When you’re entering the autostrada you’ll take a ticket at the gate, then follow signs for the direction you want to go, usually indicated by a major city. You pay when you exit the toll road, but make sure to have cash with you as, despite what the signs may say, foreign credit cards don’t always work.

British residents of Italy can use their driving licenses until the end of this year, the government has confirmed.

Photo by PACO SERINELLI / AFP

Not all of Italy’s toll roads are the same price, but you can use this Autostrada toll calculator to find out the cost of travelling between two points.

These toll roads are generally clean and free from traffic jams, and most stretches have plenty of rest stops with edible food, clean(ish) bathrooms, and even toilet paper. There are several rest stop companies; Autogrill is considered the best.

READ ALSO: Autogrill: Six essential things to know about Italy’s service stations

The maximum speed limit is 130 kilometres per hour but on some parts of the autostrada the maximum speed is 110, and can be as low as 60 on some stretches (more on speed limits later.)

Unless you’re planning to race in the fast lane, leave the left lane for passing.

“Motorway slip roads are much shorter in Italy than in the UK and you’ll need to accelerate sharply to join motorways,” points out Gill Furlong.

“And gaps between cars are much shorter, due to Italians’ tailgating habit, so be prepared to accelerate fast to get into the traffic flow. Don’t expect courtesy, concentration is needed… and develop eyes in the back of your head!”

Motorway driving in Italy was “an experience”, adds Shelly. “As cars don’t move over to let you in, you have to find your space and go for it. And when passing a junction where cars are joining, either speed up or slow down.”

“Stick to your decision and you’ll be fine.”

Speed limits

Italian drivers are well known for their apparent need to speed. You’ll see that many seem to view speed limits as more of a general guideline than a rule, and the tendency for the speed traffic is actually moving at to exceed anything written on nearby signs can be worrying to foreign drivers.

Shelly says she found that “going with the majority was the best way” while driving in Italy.

But always be on the lookout for speed cameras – and for the speeding drivers ahead of you suddenly slamming on the brakes when they spot one.

Photo by XAVIER LEOTY / AFP

Autovelox or sistema tutor speed cameras are found on the autostrade, superstrade, strade statali (state roads), and sometimes on smaller roads, too. You should see a warning sign in advance that says Polizia Stradale, controllo electronico della velocita’ (Road police, electronic speed check).

READ ALSO: Tiny Italian town issues 58,000 speeding fines in ten days

As well as the large black camera boxes you may also see a police car parked up by the side of the road. Or you may not notice anything at all.

You can receive a speeding ticket as much as a year later, and if you’re in a rental car additional costs of processing the fine can be deducted from your credit card.

Some drivers insist these speed traps must cause more accidents than they prevent in Italy, as drivers tend to brake suddenly a few feet before the camera or police car, then crawl through the speed trap before whizzing off at high speed.

Driving in cities

When asked for advice on driving in Italian cities, most people just said “don’t.”

And it’s easy to see why so many are averse to the idea. City driving, particularly in the south of Italy, involves confusing one-way systems, high speeds, blaring horns, scooters appearing out of nowhere, a severe shortage of parking spots, and narrow, bumpy streets better suited to horse-drawn chariots than modern cars. Not to mention Rome’s pothole problem.

Most of Italy’s major cities have adequate public transport systems, and the centres are largely walkable, meaning driving a car can feel like more hassle than it’s worth.

If you must attempt it, then to escape the worst city driving mayhem it’s better to drive in the early afternoons when traffic is lighter and parking is slightly easier.

Anyone who isn’t entirely confident about their ability to adopt an Italian driving style should avoid ring roads, in particular Rome’s GRA, or Grande Raccordo Annulare, and basically the whole of central Naples – especially the main route crossing the city, la tangenziale, which is known to resemble an unofficial race track.

Parking

Parking is a headache everywhere from major cities to small towns. Due to the heavy reliance on cars in Italy, there’s never enough of it. Plus, you’ll notice Italian parking wardens are surprisingly efficient.

Paid car parks tend to fill up quickly, as do white-line parking spaces, which are free.

If you park on a blue line, get a ticket from the nearest meter (coins only) and display it on your dashboard. Yellow lines can sometimes be parked on free of charge for short periods, but the rules vary from place to place.

READ ALSO: How do you dispute a parking ticket in Italy?

Usually, charges don’t apply overnight – for example between 8pm and 8am – but always check the signs to be sure.

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These signs can however be tiny, obscured or missing altogether. Parking on unfamiliar piazzas is a risk, even if they’re full of other cars – savvy locals will know if their cars need to be removed by 6am the next morning before the weekly market opens up, but you won’t, especially if the one and only sign telling you so is hidden behind a bush.

And if your car is somewhere it shouldn’t be, it gets towed and you’ll generally have to pay a fine of around €100 to get it back.

hoto by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

International Driving Permit

If your driving licence is from the US, UK or another country outside of the EU, you need one of these. It’s basically a translation of your existing licence.

When you rent a car, you probably won’t be asked for it. But if you’re stopped by the police for anything at all (including f you’re in an accident) you might be. Or you might not. There’s no way of knowing and experiences vary. But, technically, the rule is that you’re meant to have it (along with your normal licence) when you drive on Italian roads.

Important words and phrases

Unless you speak Italian, the road signs present another challenge when driving in Italy. Luckily, most are fairly obvious. But there are a few important things to be aware of.

Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL) means restricted traffic zone and you can get fined if you’re stopped or caught on camera driving around in one without a permit. You’ll find these zones everywhere from big cities to small villages, usually in the old town or centro storico.

Zona pedonale means pedestrian streets not open to cars.

READ ALSO: The traffic signs you need to know for driving in Italy

Some other useful words to know include destra (right), sinistra (left), dritto (straight), uscita (exit) and pedaggio (toll), and senso unico (one way).

And an inverted red and white triangle means that you do not have right of way at the junction.

Beware the GPS

While a GPS or Google Maps can come in useful, don’t rely on it exclusively. In Italy, it’s common to find two (or more) towns with the same name in different regions, so double-check the map to make sure you’re going the right way.

And navigators are notorious for directing drivers onto unsuitable roads – including dirt tracks or, in cities, into a ZTL (restricted traffic zone).

GPS systems might tell you to turn the wrong way on a one-way street or into an alley that ends in stairs. Or even, like these tourists, down the Grand Canal in Venice.

Driving style

Italians are fast and aggressive drivers, but they’re also very skilful.

“Be bold, fast acting, assertive and decisive. Don’t dither at junctions,” says Gill.

Instead, seize the moment. As soon as you see a gap, go for it. Italians are used to it. They expect the unexpected and they’ll react swiftly.

If you come from a country where things like indicating, slowing down and letting people out are seen as normal and considerate, it’s time to forget everything you know.

“When in Italy drive like the Italians, but with a little more caution,” Shelly advises. “Don’t expect other road users to move over. Remember you’re the visitor who needs to fit in.”

But most of all, she says: “Have fun and enjoy, it really isn’t that bad!”

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MOVING TO ITALY

INTERVIEW: ‘Americans live to work, Italians know how to balance’

After gathering a huge online following and writing a book about her life in Italy, TikTok star Kacie Rose Burns tells The Local how the country drew her in and what she’s learned along the way.

INTERVIEW: ‘Americans live to work, Italians know how to balance’

Moving to Italy from the States was a no-brainer for Florence-based social media star Kacie Rose Burns. In 2018, aged 24, she dared to book a solo trip to the peninsula and has not looked back since.

“I was a dancer in New York and it was so demanding,” says Kacie, who is now a viral TikTokker with a million followers.

“I lived in a tough city, with a tough career and I was hustling for everything. It was all too grey for me.

“Growing up I had a strong urge to travel to Italy. I don’t know why, I’m only two percent Italian, but I just did.”

Kacie’s initial 10-day solo trip started in Florence, where she met her partner, Dario Nencetti. The pair hit it off immediately and there was an instant attraction that outlasted her 10-day visit: the two were long-distance for a year afterwards. Dario then moved to New York for a year after their long-distance period. Then Covid-19 struck.

“Basically my whole industry shut down during that period and I came to the conclusion I was no longer happy doing dance anymore,” Kacie shares. “Plus Dario’s visa was up.

“And I thought, yeah, let’s give Italy a six-month trial period, and here we are three years later. It sucks you in like that and I know so many people who have had the same experience as me.”

Photo: Kacie Rose Burns

The first six months of Kacie’s time in Italy were not easy. She defines it as one of the hardest periods in her life, due to the many differences in the everyday. 

“The biggest shocks are always the first shocks,” she says. “One of them is that I went to a pharmacy to get Dario a birthday card. I asked the pharmacist where I could get a card and granola bar and she looked at me like I had three heads and said “this is a pharmacy”.

“I had no idea where to get a card from because in the States you get lots from the pharmacy. It is the little things from your country and culture that you wouldn’t think about twice, but it’s the little things that are the biggest culture shock.”

The language barrier was another struggle. Although Kacie practised her Italian, she was not prepared for the country’s many different dialects. She recalls a time when she and Dario were in their apartment and he asked her for a Coca-Cola from the fridge.

“In Tuscan dialect, the letter c is removed,” she continues, before chuckling: “I thought he was calling me a rude name.”

READ ALSO:

As the months went on, Kacie felt her mindset changing to fit in with a slower pace of life, which she initially said made it harder for her to settle more so than any pharmacy or language barrier could have done.

“Besides the food, I have to say the thing I hated the most at the start is now the thing I love the most about Italy,” she says. “Italians are more embracing of life, they take hold of it. It is not to be taken for granted.

Kacie exploring ruins in Italy. Photo: Kacie Rose Burns

“Americans live to work and I used to thrive off chaos. Italians do way less so. They know how to balance. Having a full life means incorporating rest and coming from a culture that demonises rest, it was hard to grasp at first but now it’s my favourite thing.”

She sums up the lust-for-life attitude she finds more apparent in Italy than in her home country through something her Neapolitan friend said to her. 

“One day they turned to me and said ‘Kacie, we live next to a volcano that destroyed a city. We have to live life always’ and it just stuck,” she adds.

Shortly after in 2022, Kacie set up her own tour company, which she says is “the most rewarding” thing she has ever done.

“I can see the beauty through their eyes and it is so special,” she says. “We live in a gorgeous country and we are a little spoiled. It’s not bad at all.”

Kacie Rose Burns on Instagram

She details her trials and tribulations and the differences between the two countries she calls home in her upcoming book, You Deserve Good Gelato. 

“It’s been a long time coming and I’m so excited,” she says. “More often than not we are more capable than we think we are and it’s a message I wish I had known when I was younger. 

“If one person reads this and feels empowered I would be so happy. There are embarrassing mistakes, sad moments, cringey failures and happy moments. Failing is how we learn how to do life. I’ve failed a lot and it’s ok and normal.”

This book has been a year in the making and a few chapters explore adjusting to new countries. When asked what advice she would give Americans looking to make the leap to Italy, she swiftly responds: “Prepare yourselves for Italian bureaucracy.”

READ ALSO: 15 must-have apps to make your life in Italy easier in 2024

“You need time and patience,” she adds. “The biggest piece of advice is it’s not always going to be easy but it will be worth it. My first six months were tough as I had to adjust so much and I was lucky to have a support network in place.

“I have so much respect for people who have no support network in place and moved here alone. That takes guts.

“I guess be prepared for the first six months but know it’ll get easier.”

You Deserve Good Gelato is available to preorder on Amazon and comes out worldwide on May 28th.

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