Guide to driving in Italy – touring by car made easy

Guide to driving in Italy – touring by car made easy

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Driving in Italy is fun.

And it is possibly the best way to explore its lesser known regions and towns.

If you have decided to rent a car for your trip to Italy it is a good idea to prepare yourself with information about how to drive in a country whose drivers and roads have a somewhat challenging reputation.

Over the past few years, we have done several Italy road trips using both rental cars and our own car.

We have had a few mishaps – including getting stuck and scraping our hire car on a recent trip to Sicily. But having a car has meant the freedom to explore and find exciting out-of-the-way places.

These are our tips for a driving holiday in Italy. Take note and enjoy your Italian road trip.

I can just see you winding along the Amalfi Coast road!

Click here to find the best car rental deals for Italy

Car rental in Italy

Car rental Italy

Renting a car in Italy is straightforward, and there are many options including the usual global car rental companies – Hertz, Avis and Europcar.

We use to find the best car rental deals in Italy and Europe. One way car rental is one of the key requirements we have on our trips and we find that finds several options to do this in a cost-effective way.

They also provide a handy 24-hour service hotline should you run into difficulties.

Click here to check latest car rental prices

How to choose a rental car in Italy

Sometimes it is the little details that can make a big difference to your trip. Here are our top tips for choosing cars to rent in Italy:

  • Choose the type and size of car wisely and avoid large cars. Getting stuck in small streets is almost a rite of passage for anyone driving in Italy but you can make things a little easier for yourself if you rent a smaller car.
  • Recent model Fiat 500s are common, surprisingly roomy and have lots of space in the boot/trunk to store luggage out of sight.

  • Automatic transmission cars will cost significantly more to rent as the majority of cars are manual or stick shift.
  • Prebook child seats as these may not be readily available. We also road tested these travel car booster seats and found them to be a reasonable alternative.
  • Build in lots of time for car pick up and drop off when planning your trip as this can take a little longer in Italy especially around lunch time and on weekends.

Legal requirements for driving in Italy

You must be 18 years or older and have held a valid driver’s licence for one year to drive a car in Italy. If you do not hold an EU passport, you will need an International Driver’s Licence as well as your standard issue licence. You can get these permits from your local automobile association.

Minimum insurance requirements apply – see below

Italian road rules

Italians drive on the right-hand side of the road.

All passengers in motor vehicles must wear seatbelts and those riding motorcycles or moped must wear helmets.

The legal blood alcohol limit for drivers is 0.05%.

Speed limits that apply under normal driving conditions.

Motorway/Autostrade – 130 km per hour
Outside built-up areas – 90 km per hour
Built up areas – 50 km per hour

Italian law requires that you carry the following items in your car:

  • Documents related to you- proof of identity, the car – proof of ownership/rental and your insurance documents
  • Reflective jackets – you must wear these if involved in a breakdown or an accident or on a road where stopping or parking is prohibited
  • A warning triangle
  • Headlamp beam deflectors

Note – the items should be provided by your car rental company. If you are driving your own car, make sure you have them to hand.

Limited Traffic Zones (ZTLs)

ZTL zone - driving in Italy

One of the quickest ways to accumulate fines in Italy is to enter historic centres in your car.

Most old cities have Limited Traffic Zones or ZTLs that allow only residents with permits to enter within certain hours.

They are policed by camera and Italian authorities have up to 12 months to collect fines on these infringements. If you have rented a car the charge will be passed on by the car rental company along with a hefty administration fee.

The best way to avoid the ZTLs is to park on the fringes of cities and walk or take public transport into the historical zone. This article has interactive maps of ZTLs in the major cities.

Insurance for your road trip in Italy

Italian law requires all drivers to have full insurance coverage for liability, theft, and collision. This insurance is generally covered in the cost of your car hire. It is designed to cover damage caused in a collision with another vehicle and not single-vehicle damage.

Always make sure you have personal travel insurance to cover injury and personal liability. We use World Nomads for travel insurance in Italy and  Europe – it’s quick and easy to organize cover online – click here for more info

Where drivers usually get stung is paying for excess charges – sometimes over €1,500 – as well as the car hire firms fees for administering the claim.

If you are worried about this and don’t want to be stung by the car hire companies high charges you can take out reasonably priced excess reimbursement insurance annually.

Read: Why you need travel insurance for Italy

Navigation and driving maps for Italy

Map of Italy

We use a combination of Google Maps, a GPS and physical maps when touring Italy by car.

I strongly recommend not relying solely on digital navigation options, particularly in the south of Italy and Sicily. The roads are very small and some have not been mapped correctly – we learnt that the hard way.

Recommended road maps of Italy

Michelin road atlas – click here to buy
Barthelomew road atlas – click here to buy

Plan your trip before arriving in Italy using major roads and logical routes as the smaller roads are prone to pot holes and other challenges. Our relatives in Italy showed us how to shave an hour off a trip that was supposedly the fastest route in Google.

You can download your maps and use them offline if needed onto the Google app on your smartphone.

Road signs and other markers are fine on major roads and motorways so use them as generally they show the most logical and direct route.

Driving on the Autostrade – Italian Highways

driving in italy tips

I think this is where visitors are most afraid of driving in Italy apart from driving in the central zones of the big cities. 

The key to driving on the Autostrade is to stay calm and in your lane. Yes cars will be zipping past you at alarming speeds but there is no need to join in. 

Just stay in your lane and move to the right well before your exit.

Autostrade tolls

Expect to pay tolls when using the autostrade or highways. You can either pay by cash or credit card. Debit cards are not accepted at some of the toll booths.

Estimate your toll costs by putting your destination into this toll calculator. Where possible pay your tolls in cash to avoid additional card charges.

Tolls in the north of Italy are significantly more than those in the south. We only encountered a few toll stations in Sicily.

Make sure you get in lane early for the toll booth if you want to speak to a person, not a machine.

Autostrade Italian highway rest stops

They may not look anything special but rest stops at service stations on Italian motorways and highways – known as autostrade – are very handy. You can always get a decent and tasty snack or meal, and the bathroom and toilet facilities are usually sparkling clean.

Signs on the autostrade let you know how far it is until the next service stop so you can plan breaks accordingly.

Unfortunately, unlike French highway stops we haven’t found many play areas for children or outdoor seating areas in Italian rest stops.

Parking in Italy: towns and cities

Driving in Italy -parking tips

Finding a secure car spot, in a central location for a reasonable rate can be difficult in Italian cities.

Having learnt my lesson the hard way in Lucca, I now make a point of researching the best places to park in each city we visit. There is nothing more frustrating than wasting time driving around trying to find a car park when you are travelling.

We look for secure, underground car parks where possible. A simple Google or TripAdvisor search will help find these tips. There seems to be a bit more decorum when parking in these facilities than on the street where anything goes.

Parking on the street is possible however you may be limited in terms of time. Look for blue zones where the car spaces are marked in blue. You pay for parking either at machines or a nearby tabaccaio or tobacco shop and then display the ticket on your dashboard.

Do not expect people to park neatly. Haphazard parking styles are one of the funniest things you will see in Italy. Well, they are funny until you are wedged into your spot.

Keep your coins for parking. We did not find many places that accepted cards in the south of Italy in particular.

Click to discover 35 cities to visit in Italy – from the obvious to hidden gems

What to do if you have an accident

Firstly check that everyone is ok and if necessary call the authorities using the emergency numbers below. Accidents must be reported to the police within 48 hours.

If there has been damage to your or another car you must complete a CID, also called CAI Constatazione Amichevole di Incidente.

You must carry this in the vehicle and it will be provided by your car hire company.

Emergency numbers

Police 113
Fire Brigade 115
Ambulance 118

Final common sense advice for your Italy road trip

How to drive in Italy

Listen to and follow instructions if given by hotels or tour companies. Take it from me, they know better than Google!

Ask for help if you get stuck. If you find yourself wedged in between stone walls with the only option looking like doing some severe damage to your hire car, do ask a local for help. Italians are kind and helpful and used to helping visitors resolve driving issues in their country.

Obey the road rules even if it seems like everyone else is not. Revenue raising by collecting fines is not restricted to your home country. You don’t want your lasting memories of Italy to be a €500 fine.

Keep an eye out for scooters and mopeds as they weave in and out of traffic

Fuel is either gasolio (diesel) or benzina (petrol)

Use the mirrors on winding roads to check for oncoming traffic

Slow down and enjoy the drive

Driving in Italy is an excellent way to get off the beaten track and explore new areas.

Without a car, I am sure we would never have discovered some of the pretty towns of the Italian Riviera, Lake Orta and our favourite parts of Sicily.

All it takes is some planning, and you will be on your way to an incredible Italian adventure. You can find more tips for travelling in Italy here.

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  1. 6th May 2017 / 12:37 PM

    Thank you for sharing all these useful information! Italian drivers don’t have great reputation (at least from a French point of view), so it made me smille to read “Obey the road rules even if it seems like everyone else is not.” 😉

    • Katy
      6th May 2017 / 4:28 PM

      Thanks Eloise – I really think the government is cracking down on poor driving there, if for no other reason than to make money! We have noticed a difference over the years and the driving seems to be improving

  2. Rajni.gandha
    6th May 2017 / 11:07 PM

    Thank you for sharing the details. I love your photos of the red car.

  3. Momma To Go
    6th May 2017 / 10:45 PM

    This is a great guide!! We did alot of driving on our recent Italy trip. I wasnt the driver though!

    • Katy
      7th May 2017 / 8:59 AM

      My husband does most of the driving too but I have driven the Genoa spaghetti junction and acquired a few grey hairs in the process!

    • Katy
      7th May 2017 / 8:58 AM

      thanks for stopping by Eryn – glad you found it useful

  4. 7th May 2017 / 8:47 AM

    Very useful article! I have had my share of driving around Italy and I know it can get complicated and a total mess and that’s why I alway think twice before renting a car and getting lost on the Italian roads (especially in small towns).

    • Katy
      7th May 2017 / 8:58 AM

      Thanks Ingrid. I think it also helps if there are 2 people so one can navigate. Driving solo would be very challenging I think

  5. 7th May 2017 / 10:00 AM

    Good one. We live in southern Germany and have been thinking of driving down to Italy for awhile. Many of the autobahn services stations have playgrounds for kids too, good to know the Italian ones generally do not.

  6. Katy
    7th May 2017 / 10:56 AM

    On the upside there are usually loads of toys for sale .. joke! The autostrade driving is very easy though so we hope to get our kids to take a nap and chill out playing games on the iPad

  7. 9th May 2017 / 11:28 AM

    Love this guide Katy! It’s similar to Greece, the smaller the car is the better as you can get stuck in small roads too. The ZTL thing is brilliant! I wish a lot more places have that. 🙂

    • Katy
      14th May 2017 / 5:08 PM

      Yes! Car free zones in historical areas for the win. Sadly I dont seem to learn from the narrow roads issue.. I’ve been stuck a few too many times! Oops

  8. 1st June 2017 / 8:10 AM

    Love all the practical detail you’ve packed into this post. Explore “off the beaten track” Italy by car is definitely a bucket list item for me, and I feel so much more prepared to give it a try after reading this. Pinning for later 🙂

    (Did you find other Italian drivers lived up to their challenging reputation, by the way? That’s one thing that would definitely make me anxious!)

  9. 1st June 2017 / 8:33 AM

    Love these tips. We’ve been to Rome once and it was pre-kids so we were fine without a car. This time I think we’d definitely need one….although I did find the roads a bit nuts last time we went!

  10. 1st June 2017 / 8:46 AM

    I have driven in Italy several times and I loved it! I also used Auto Europe and they were great. I would also add that if the fast driving scares you, make sure to stay in the right-hand lane. Italians will be aggressive if you are driving in the left lane slowly. #farawayfiles

    • Katy
      6th June 2017 / 12:33 PM

      Great point, thanks Tiffany. I am married to an Italian and somehow driving makes him slightly agitated so I know exactly what you mean 😉

  11. 1st June 2017 / 9:41 AM

    What a useful post for anyone not familiar with driving in Italy (or in Europe in general as most of these points apply across the continent). As you know we drive everywhere so totally agree that it’s the best way to see off the beaten track places. Love you photos of the fiats!

  12. 1st June 2017 / 9:42 AM

    Great guide – its really useful when all the info you need is in one place like this! Not sure if I’d be brave enough to drive in Italy though – my inlaws are italian and I always hear crazy stories about their road trips through small, winding old towns lol! #FarawayFiles

  13. 1st June 2017 / 12:37 PM

    These are great tips, Katy! I would love to go on an Italian road trip. Although if it is that scary, my husband will do all the driving and I’ll just enjoy the scenery. 😉 #FarawayFiles

  14. 1st June 2017 / 1:13 PM

    What a brilliant guide Katy! We’ve driven in Italy a fair bit and can confirm digital navigation systems aren’t always reliable! We’ve also never managed to find a big car to hire..despite wanting to which I guess is a good job. I’ll never forget travelling the windy roads around the northern Italian lakes and feeling like I was going to scrape the hire car. #farawayfiles

  15. 1st June 2017 / 4:33 PM

    What a great and comprehensive guide! Unfortunately I’m not old enough to rent a car yet (silly 25+ age restrictions) but a road trip through Italy would be a dream!

  16. 1st June 2017 / 7:12 PM

    We did a trip round the lakes pre baby in a s,art car and loved it #farawayfiles

  17. 1st June 2017 / 9:13 PM

    What a great post, love the small car tip. #FarawayFiles

  18. 1st June 2017 / 9:21 PM

    These are great tips! We’ve loved driving and cruising around in Italy. I’ll never forget the time we were driving for a while at the same speed – possibly cruise control – and a cappuccino button lit up telling the driver (my husband) to make sure he didn’t fall asleep! True story! Only in Italy!!! #farawayfiles

  19. 2nd June 2017 / 2:28 AM

    Great post, very informative. Interesting to hear that the Fiat 500s have space inside because they look so tiny!

  20. 2nd June 2017 / 11:14 AM

    VERY helpful post. Too often these days it’s easy to say, Oh it will be OK, and not do any advance prep for a driving trip. I’ll keeping this to hand when we rent in Italy. Also, LOVE those little Fiats #farawayfiles

    • Katy
      6th June 2017 / 12:31 PM

      Thanks Jen. I fall into the over prepared bucket although I did wish we had a better map in Sicily.

  21. 3rd June 2017 / 11:56 AM

    I think I would find driving in Italy quite scary due to all those speedy scooters! But then again, compared to Norwegian mountain roads where there’s no traffic at all, anything is scary 😀

    • Katy
      6th June 2017 / 12:29 PM

      It’s all in the context it’s true. Being stuck in London traffic can be scary too but in the end, it’s all doable if you want it to be. And if you don’t there’s always the train which is a great way to travel if you ask me

  22. 3rd June 2017 / 7:36 PM

    Sometimes a car would have come in handy, but not driving much back home, I am not about to take on a foreign country 🙂

    • Katy
      6th June 2017 / 12:28 PM

      Haha! Trains are good too

  23. 5th June 2017 / 4:56 AM

    Such a helpful post! I was too afraid to drive when I visited Italy (the roads are so narrow compared to in North America!) but if I ever go back, I’d love to try getting around in a cute Fiat 500!

    • Katy
      6th June 2017 / 12:27 PM

      They are my absolute favourite car Bryna – especially the vintage ones!

  24. 5th June 2017 / 9:44 AM

    You’ve included some really useful advice here. I could not imagine travelling around anywhere in Europe by car without having a physical map to assist when the digital version lets us down. Because Google Maps and other navigation devices ALWAYS let us down. The arguments that have ensued in our car thanks to digital failure tells me that real road maps are king. I love your point about asking the locals for help if you get stuck. People are super helpful, many travellers just get too shy to ask! #FarawayFiles

  25. 6th June 2017 / 10:08 PM

    We had a ball on the back roads from Rome through Umbria to Orvieto! We like to do a mix of car travel and city exploring after we turn it back in – great tips to navigate Italia! #FarawayFiles

  26. 6th June 2017 / 10:11 PM

    I’m scratching my head, but I don’t think Daisy the bus has ever been to Italy. Whilst I am sure we would love it, I am not so sure that Daisy would appreciate the tiny streets, weaving vespas and haphazard parking ;o) Very informative post – grazie!

  27. Julie
    28th October 2017 / 7:56 PM

    Thank you for this useful info. We’re planning a European road trip in our motorhome including exploring Italy so this will be very useful!

    • Katy
      1st November 2017 / 3:27 PM

      How exciting Julie. Let me know if any other questions pop up. Have a great time

  28. 20th February 2018 / 8:34 PM

    That’s very informative and useful post Katy. I would only add, be careful not to leave any valuables in the parked car even if you leave it in the secured parking house. The break-ins are very common. It happened to my hubby in Milan and my friends in Milan and Livorno.

    • 24th February 2018 / 2:40 PM

      Absolutely – that is so important Urska. Nothing like a burglary to ruin your trip