While some people may be content to stick to Italy’s extensive rail network to get around the country, using Italian buses when the train isn’t an option, others prefer the independence that having their own car provides.

Renting a car in Italy is a particularly good idea if you’re planning the kind of vacation where taking wrong turns and getting really lost is considered a good day, but it’s also just a practical way to get around the country if you’re traveling in a group or as a family with your kids. It can be cost-effective if you can spread the costs among your group, and parents have an easier time of schlepping all the kids’ stuff around if they’ve got a trunk to do it in. Having your own car becomes more of a “must-have” than a luxury if you’re staying in a rented villa or an agriturismo that’s really out in the country.

But before you hit the road, there are some things you’ll need to know about driving in Italy. In this post, I’ll try to answer the big questions people have before they rent a car in Italy, and because there’s already some good information out there on the interwebs I’ll link to that for more details (no sense in recreating the wheel, right?).

Read on to find out the answers to these questions:

  • Do I need an international driver’s license in Italy?
  • What are the different kinds of roads in Italy?
  • Do I need a special map for driving in Italy?
  • What’s the speed limit in Italy?
  • What are the other driving laws in Italy?
  • What are the important road signs to know in Italy?
  • How do I get gas in Italy?
  • What do I need to know about parking in Italy?
  • What should I do in case of an emergency on the roads in Italy?
  • For fun: driving in Italy videos

Do I need an international driver’s license in Italy?

This is the first thing you need to know, because you’ll need to answer this question before you leave home. The short answer is yes, Italy does require foreign drivers to carry an international driver’s license when they’re driving in Italy. It’s officially called an “International Driving Permit,” and it’s a translated form of your actual driver’s license – so you’ve got to bring that along, too.

In reality, I’ve not always bothered to get the international driver’s license before renting a car in Italy, and I know several people who have never bothered. But even though the rental car agency isn’t going to ask you if you’ve got one (or refuse to rent you a car if you don’t), it’s a good idea to get it anyway. Should you get stopped by the police, you’ll be sweating fewer bullets if you’ve got your paperwork in order.

You can get an international driver’s license through the AAA in the United States for $15, and it’s valid for a year. Find out more from the AAA website here, where you can locate your nearest office and download the application for an international driver’s permit.

What are the different kinds of roads in Italy?

ust like everywhere else, there are different types of roads in Italy – from big multi-lane highways to small and winding gravel country roads. There are only a couple types of roads in Italy which have general names. The rest are going to be referred to by their number or individual name.

The one you’ve probably heard of is the biggest kind of road – the Autostrada (or Autostrade, in the plural). It’s akin to the biggest highway network in any country, and it’s probably going to be the fastest way to get between big cities in Italy. Almost all of the Autostrade are, however, toll roads – so it’s not necessarily the cheapest route. On Italian driving maps, you’ll see the Autostrade marked as A roads – A1, A14, A29, etc. Note that they sometimes overlap with E roads, so that one stretch of road will be labeled with both an A number and an E number.

Some of the smallest roads in Italy are shown on maps made by Touring Club Italiano (the Italian equivalent of the AAA) as white lines, so these are known in Italy as “white roads” or strade bianche. These white roads are really small, and very rarely paved. In fact, they’re known as great roads for walking on because of how few cars pass by! Unless you’re really taking some wrong turns (or your agriturismo is on a white road), you probably won’t drive on these.

Between these two extremes, there are two other general groups for roads – major roads and minor roads. Some major roads have more than one lane going in each direction, and most minor roads have only one lane going in each direction. Most major roads aren’t terribly windy and are still relatively good at getting you quickly from place to place. Most minor roads are going to be a bit more meandering and will give you what you could call the scenic route. You may very well drive from one to the other of these types and back again without realizing it.

>> The Via Michelin site is my favorite for getting driving directions in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. It’s all in English, and it helpfully points out roughly how much you’ll spend in both gas and tolls in addition to roughly how long it should take you (barring traffic) to get from place to place.

>> This website can help you plan your driving trips in Italy, so long as you’re around a computer when you’re doing your planning! It’s mostly in Italian, even if it says it’s in English, but “Partenza” is the place you’re leaving and “Arrivo” is the place you’re going.

Do I need a special map for driving in Italy?

A discussion of the different kinds of roads in Italy leads me to this point, and my answer is a resounding yes. That giant Michelin map you got to help you figure out what cities you were watching zoom by outside the train window is great for an overview of the country, but if you’re going to be doing more driving in Italy than just going from big city to big city I highly recommend buying a much more detailed map – and buying it in Italy.

The Touring Club Italiano makes some very nice driving maps, so if you can find one of those that’s a good option. But many towns sell really specific regional maps – and I’m talking about specificity on the scale of “this is a map of just the Chianti region, not all of Tuscany” – which are ideal for drivers. They’re so detailed they could be a bit daunting at first, but they have the benefit of being more precise so you stand a better chance of figuring out just where you are when you eventually get lost and stop to ask directions.

What’s the speed limit in Italy?

On the Autostrada, the maximum speed is 130km/h in most cases, although a law passed in 2003 changed it to 150km/h on some 3-lane highways that have emergency lanes. On other roads, the maximum speed can vary from 110km/h to 50km/h, so the best advice is to pay attention to the road signs and see what the posted speed limit is. You don’t want to get pulled over for speeding in Italy – the fines are hefty.

Speed limit signs in Italy are round and white with a red circle around them and the speed – in kilometers per hour – in black in the center. An example is in the photo to the right.

Note that when it’s been raining heavily, the speed limit drops by 10-20km/h – which may or may not be posted. So if the roads are wet, slow down.

What are the other driving laws in Italy?

No matter what you’re used to doing at home, the idea of the left lane being used strictly for passing is much more adhered to in Italy. If you’re just cruising along, get into the right lane. Pass on the left, and then get back into the right lane. Additionally, in Italy they keep their directional signal on while they’re passing and don’t turn it off until they’re moving back into the right lane – this indicates that they’re just going to be using the left lane for passing, and won’t hang out there.

All cars are required to have their headlights on at all times while driving, day or night.

Seat belts must be worn at all times.

Mobile phones may only be used with a headset or hands-free device.

All cars must have “safety vests” in the car – those reflective vests – in case you need to pull over on the road and get out of the car. They’re mandatory in several European countries now, and if you’re renting a car make sure the vests are in the car before you drive away from the rental car agency. Also, put the vests in the car itself, not in the trunk – the idea is you put them on before you get out of the car in an emergency situation, so having them in the trunk may not be considered in compliance with the law.

Italy’s drunk-driving laws are very strict – don’t drink and drive!

Italy beefed up its drunk driving laws in the summer of 2010, along with a few other strict driving laws. Read all about the updated driving laws in Italy before you go.

What are the important road signs to know in Italy?

In addition to the speed limit signs discussed and pictured above, there are many Italian road signs which are self-explanatory. A stop sign is red, octagonal, and even says STOP – in English – in the center. Parking areas are indicated by a big blue square with a white P in the center.

But there are also some signs which require a bit of explanation. Here are some of the other road signs in Italy which you may see and not understand:

Do Not Enter – This is a red circle with a white horizontal bar through the middle.

No Vehicles Allowed – This one, counterintuitively to me, is white & round with a red circle around the border. If it’s specifically saying no cars can go in that way but other motorized vehicles can, there will be a picture of a car in the middle of the sign.

No Parking – This is circular with a red border and red slash through the middle (sometimes two), and a blue background.

One Way – This is a rectangular sign with an arrow pointing out the appropriate direction, and the words “SENSO UNICO” in the arrow.

No Passing Zone – On roads that only have one lane in each direction, the places where passing is prohibited are indicated by a round white sign with a red border and two cars in the center – the right car is black, and the left car is red. There’s no line through it, but by making the left car red they’re telling you that overtaking isn’t allowed in that area.

End of a Zone – In Italy, when a particular temporary restriction for an area has come to an end – like a slower speed limit through a town, or a no-passing area – the way they show you that the previous restriction is no longer in effect is using the same sign they used to tell you it was starting… Only this time it’s got a line through it. For instance, in the picture to the right you’ll see two examples of signs indicating the end of things. First, the speed limit of 50km/h is no longer the rule, so you can go back up to whatever it was before they lowered it to 50. Second, you’re now you are no longer prohibited from passing/overtaking other vehicles, so there’s a big line through the sign.

wikipedia has a great section on Italian road signs. The main page is here, and on the lower part of the page you’ll find different sections for different kinds of road signs (like Restriction, Warning, Necessity, Helpful, etc.). The list is quite comprehensive, and there are pictures so you can see what they each look like.

How do I get gas in Italy?

Getting gas in Italy is going to be just like getting gas anywhere else. The biggest thing to pay attention to is the type of gas you’re supposed to be putting in your rental car. The different kinds of gas in Italy are “benzina” (behn|ZEE|nah), which is unleaded gas, and “gasolio” (gahz|OHL|yoh), which is diesel.

It’s imperative that you find out from the rental car agency what type of fuel goes into the car you’re renting. Diesel cars are much more common in Italy than they are in, say, the U.S., so don’t assume that the little sedan you’ve rented takes normal gas just because it looks like it would take normal gas back home. Screwing up the type of fuel you put in a car is a costly mistake.

Note that diesel is almost always cheaper than unleaded, so if you’ve got a choice, rent a diesel car.

There are both self-service and attended gas stations in Italy; it’s pretty obvious when you’ve pulled into one of the former, as there’s no one there to help! The good thing about self-serve stations is that they’re less likely to close unexpectedly.

What do I need to know about parking in Italy?

Parking in Italy may be one of the biggest mysteries to visitors – although I’m not sure the Italians understand it much better. If they do, they almost make a game of ignoring the rules or just creatively skirting them.

Italian Notebook shared the story of a few residents of one street in Rome just repainting parking lines after the street painters had left to keep their parking situation as it had been. I photographed some of the creative parking in Milan, including someone using the middle of a pedestrian crossing in the middle of the street as a parking space. And in Liguria, Wandering Italy notes that the local superstition is that when you drive into town you should rub your own buttocks – “with sincerity” – and you’ll find a parking space.

What should I do in case of an emergency on the roads in Italy?

Along many of Italy’s roads, there are emergency call boxes strategically located – they’re about every 2km or so on the Autostrade, less frequent along other roads (if they exist at all). The emergency road service number to dial is 116.

And now, for a little fun…

Here are a couple of videos to give you a sense of what it’s like to drive in Italy.

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