You’ve got your rental car, you know what kind of fuel goes in it, and you’ve plotted a route for a road trip in Italy. Now all you have to do is make sense of all the road signs in Italy.
And yes, there are a lot of them.
For kicks and giggles, I looked at Wikipedia’s page on Italian road signs. I was immediately transported back to my 15th year, imagining how many times I would have flunked my driver’s permit test if I’d had to learn all of those signs. It’s a bit of an anxiety-inducing collection of colorful circles and squares, but I’m going to cover the main road signs you really need to know if you’re going to be driving in Italy. (You can consult the Wikipedia page if you want the rest.)
As overwhelming as that page is, it does a good job of breaking down Italy’s road signs into different shapes, and the shapes have meanings even before anything is printed on them. Circles mean something is forbidden, or an instruction that is compulsory. Rectangles or squares are informational signs. Triangles are warnings.
There are some colors that have meaning, too. Highway signs that are green are for the Autostrada, and indicate toll roads. Blue highway signs are non-toll roads. Brown signs point you toward historic or tourist attractions.
Now, let’s dive into some specifics.
Stop signs in Italy are just like stop signs in the United States and many other places – they even say “STOP” in English. Easy peasy, right? Sort of. Italians approach stop signs a bit like they’re yield signs, or yellow flashing lights. If there’s no one coming, or no one close enough (by their assessment), they may just slow down and not stop completely. In other words, don’t assume everyone is going to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.
The way Italy communicates the start or end of a particular rule on the road is by using the same sign twice – once to tell you a rule is starting, and again with a slash through the sign to tell you the rule is ending. In this picture, then, the signs are indicating that you’re leaving a town called Oropa (there’s a line through the sign you would have seen when you entered town) and that the in-town speed limit of 30kmph is now ending. As you can see, the color of the slash changes, but just remember that if you’ve seen a sign like that before without the slash, you’ll be looking for its mate at some point.
The signs for speed limit – maximum speed – are white circles with a red border, and the speed limit in black in the center.
Minimum speed is indicated by a circular blue sign with the minimum speed in white in the center.
Signs indicating that no vehicles are allowed past them are red circles with a white horizontal bar across the middle. This might be because it’s a one-way street and traffic is coming the other way, or because it’s a pedestrian zone.
An increasing number of Italian cities now have what are known as ZTL areas. It stands for “Zona Traffico Limitato,” which translates as Limited Traffic Zone, but really means no vehicles allowed. These signs are white circles with a red border. Sometimes they are blank, sometimes they actually say Zona Traffico Limitato on them. If only a particular kind of vehicle is prohibited, that’s what will be in the middle of the circle – no buses, no big delivery trucks, no motorcycles, no cars, etc. There are big fines associated with driving in a ZTL when you’re not supposed to be there, and you’ll likely get that fine without ever being pulled over (there are cameras in many city centers now). Check out maps of ZTL zones for some of Italy’s major cities on this AutoEurope page.
No parking signs are blue circles with a red border and a red slash through the middle. No stopping (which, one assumes, also means no parking) signs are blue with a red border and two red slashes through the middle like a red X.
No passing zone signs are white circles with a red border and two cars in the center of the circle. The one on the right is black, the one on the left – in the passing lane – is red. The red color is telling you that what the car is doing is a no-no. You may also see similar signs that have a car and a big truck, with the truck in red on the left. That’s telling you cars can pass, but trucks can’t.
Italian one-way signs used to say “SENSO UNICO” on them, but the new version of the sign has no words (you may still see some of the old ones, of course). Now, one-way signs are blue rectangles or squares with a white arrow telling you which way the traffic is supposed to go. Somewhat confusingly, there are circular blue signs with similar white arrows that just indicate that you’re to drive straight or left or whatever direction the arrow is pointing… These don’t mean it’s a one-way street, only that you’ll need to follow the arrows to avoid things like a pedestrian-only street. The end result is the same – you’ll turn in the direction of the arrow – so it’s not too much of a worry, but just be aware that the rectangles and squares in this case are the true one-way signs.
Right of way signs are yellow diamonds (a square on one corner, really) with a white border. The concept these signs are communicating may be a little confusing, so bear with me. Let’s say you’re driving along something other than a big highway and you see a right of way sign. That means any cars turning onto your street from any intersecting side streets would have to yield to you – you have the right of way, and they have to wait their turn. When you later see that same right of way sign with a black slash through the middle (remember the “end of zone” section above?), that now means you’ll have to do the waiting, because cars coming in from the side streets now have the right of way.
Another sign telling you that you’re the one who has to wait and give other cars the right of way is this one, an inverted white triangle with a red border.
Parking areas – including parking lots and garages – are indicated by a blue square with a white P in the middle. Keep an eye out for these, as sometimes parking garages are tough to spot (especially if they’re underground) and parking in historic city centers can be nightmarish.
When you’re driving in from the countryside and heading for the heart of a town, look for the white circular sign with black concentric circles inside it. It almost looks like a black and white bullseye, with a black dot at the center. Note that, again, parking in this part of a town or city can be problematic, but at least you’ll be able to take the right highway exit and then find a parking lot or garage that’s close to the town center once you’ve driven to it.
So many signs! You can see here green Autostrada signs for Trieste, Travisio, and Belluno, a city center sign for Mestre (plus an additional street in Mestre that doesn’t have the city center bullseye), non-toll highways for Venezia and Ravenna, and even a gas station sign on the lower right.
On this sign you can see a brown indication of a point of interest – in this case a national park – as well as the word “uscita,” which means “exit.”
This collection of signs is especially fun, since it’s in the north of Italy and therefore in a couple languages. There’s a non-toll highway toward Courmayeur, the city center for Aosta (or Aoste, in French), Autostrade toward Genova, Milano, and Torino, as well as toward Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc, in French). The last is a customs sign (the red-bordered circle with the word “dogana”).
Do not enter this street; instead, turn left.
No stopping pretty much anywhere along this street. They are serious about it.
Here’s one of those ZTL signs.
Sometimes signs will come with time limits – no stopping between certain hours, for instance. This no parking sign is amusing because the time limit sign has been added, but it’s a 24-hour prohibition. I’m not sure why the no parking sign on its own wasn’t sufficient.
It’s far too tempting to resist, so here are some Italian road signs with my own made-up meanings. (Their actual meanings are listed below, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.)
(No use of car horns)
(No carrying of explosives)
(End of “Home Zone;” these are usually neighborhoods with reduced speed limits)