Most travelers in Italy can get around to the places they want to see using a combination of Italian trains and, occasionally, regional buses. There are some situations and destinations in Italy for which a car is best suited, however.
But I’ll tell you right now that driving in Italy isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Oh, sure – heading out into the Tuscan countryside on a virtually empty rural road with plenty of curves and views for miles is fun. Driving in Italian cities, however, would probably be one of Dante’s levels of hell, if he were writing today.
(Okay, yes, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. But only a little.)
Driving in the cities and towns of Italy can be a huge headache if you aren’t familiar with Italy’s driving rules, if you don’t speak Italian, or if you’re not comfortable navigating a hunk of metal through tiny alleys. There are confusing parking regulations and city centers that don’t allow cars at all but don’t block off roads (so if you’re caught on camera driving in a prohibited area you’ll pay a fine). Some cities tack a “congestion charge” onto your rental car fee (it’s an effort to reduce traffic and, therefore, pollution).
All in all, I’d recommend sticking to public transportation until your itinerary necessitates getting a rental car. With a stay in Florence of a few days, for instance, you could consider getting a rental car for one day to explore the countryside. It’s an easy way to have the best of both worlds without stressing out overly much.
If your itinerary deviates from the main cities and towns, the ones served by trains and (as a back-up) regional buses, then a car is a great idea. (Note that this applies to much of southern Italy.) If you’re staying at an agriturismo or renting an apartment in a little out-of-the-way town in the countryside, you’ll probably need a car. If you’re traveling with a family or a group and you’d spend more on individual train tickets than you would on a car rental, then it can be really cost-effective to have a car (keeping in mind that gasoline is much more expensive than you might be expecting – more on that below).
Do your research before you get to Italy and you, too, can enjoy the experience of driving in Italy. Just take my advice and drop off the rental before you get into the city, okay?
This is a topic unto itself, which is why you’ll find all the information you need in my article on Italian driving laws and rules of the road.
Again, this is its own long article – complete with many, many photo and image examples. Learn about all the important road signs in Italy.
You may have heard of the “Autostrada,” which are Italy’s biggest highways. They’re easy to identify on maps – they’re usually colored red or red and yellow and are the A-roads (A1, A14, etc.). E-roads are also highways, and sometimes a stretch of road is both an A and an E. These big highways are nearly always toll roads, so factor that into your travel budget.
The middle ground of Italian roads is broken down into two general groupings – major roads and minor roads. Most major roads have a couple lanes for each direction, while most minor roads are simple two-lane affairs. Major roads are more or less straight shots, albeit without the tolls or higher speed limit of the Autostrada, so it’ll take you longer to get from place to place. The minor roads tend to be the really meandering ones. You won’t win any land speed records on the minor roads, but you’ll probably see some pretty scenery.
Some of the smallest rural roads in Italy are known as “white roads,” for the color used to designate them on maps produced by the Italian equivalent of AAA. These strade bianche are the epitome of “off the beaten track” – they’re rarely paved and often used by agricultural vehicles. Unless you’re really interested in an off-road adventure, you probably won’t (intentionally) spend any time driving on the strade bianche, but you’ll see them if you pick up a really detailed driving map of Italy.
The segue here is that yes, I think you should pick up a really good driving map if you’re planning to get behind the wheel in Italy. I recommend renting a car with GPS (or choosing to add that on at the rental car agency if you don’t have a portable device yourself), but I wouldn’t rely solely on the computer. You can’t do much route planning without having a map to spread out over the table, can you? Not only that, sometimes the computer is – let’s face it – wrong. One reassuring GPS voice tried to get me and my companions to drive the wrong way up a highway on-ramp.
We ignored her, and I suspect you would be sensible enough to do the same, but it just goes to show that the computer isn’t infallible. Bring a good driving map, or pick up an even more detailed map of a specific region once you’re in Italy.
Michelin maps are my favorites to get at home, and then once in Italy look for regional maps made by Italy’s version of AAA – called Touring Club Italiano. Here’s a link to the TCI store’s Italy maps (FYI, it’s all in Italian). You can break the selection down by region on the right-hand menu.
Before you set out, you can consult the Via Michelin site for suggested driving routes and approximations on things like tolls and fuel expenses. (I love that site for estimating travel time when I’m planning an Italy trip, but I still get a paper map to take with me.) Other useful websites for planning road trips in Italy include the Italian autostrade.it site (it’s partly in English; look for the trip planner, which is currently an orange box midway down the page that says “Your journey in a click”) and AutoEurope’s site with several specific road trips outlined.
Gas stations in Italy are mostly self-serve, and some of them have absolutely no humans monitoring them, so you sort of need to know what you’re looking for when you pull in. The word you think you want is “gasolio,” because it looks right, but unless you’ve rented a diesel car you’ll be wrong.
“Benzina” (ben|ZEE|nah) is unleaded gas, and “gasolio” (gah|ZOHL|yo) is diesel. Confirm with the rental car company what type of fuel your car takes before you leave with it. There are lots of diesel rental cars on the roads in Italy, so don’t assume that it’s a benzina car just because it’s small. Note that diesel fuel typically costs less than unleaded gas, so asking for a diesel car can save you some money when gassing up, but putting the wrong kind of fuel in your car will be an extremely costly mistake.
And about those fuel costs… You may look at the sign and think gas prices are comparable to what you pay back home. You’ll be wrong again, this time because the unit of measurement is different. In Italy, you buy gas by the liter, which is far smaller than a gallon. Check this site for updated prices – as of this writing, gas in Italy costs €1.447 per liter (diesel is €1.258 per liter), which amounts to roughly €5.48 per gallon (about $5.99 with today’s exchange rate).
Most gas stations are open from 7:00am until 7:00pm, with an extended midday break lasting from roughly 12:20-3:30pm. They’re also often closed on Sundays, although on major highways many gas stations are open 24/7.
The prices listed in this article are more than 10 years outdated, but it’s a great overview of what to expect at both self-serve and attended gas stations in Italy, including instructions for using the self-serve machines.
There are emergency call boxes positioned about every 2km along the Autostrade and other major highways, and they’re usually painted yellow. Smaller roads probably won’t have any emergency call boxes at all. If you need to call for emergency road service on your own phone, the number is 116. You’ll reach the Touring Club Italiano, but you don’t need to be a member to request a tow truck or other assistance (you will have to pay for it, though). Other emergency numbers are 113 or 112 for police, 118 for medical assistance, and 115 for the fire department.