I love driving in Italy.
After living in Italy for a while and having a solid three years of urban and highway driving under my belt, I have come to love — and hate — a lot of the quirks of driving in this country.
Sure, driving is not always the best way for getting around Italy. It is not the most sustainable form of transportation, and it may not save you very much money. Some travel websites will also tell you that driving in Italy is scary and that you shouldn’t do it.
But I know that many travelers will opt to drive in Italy, out of convenience or necessity. So I wanted to tell you everything I know about what it’s like to drive here, the good and the bad.
Things That Make Driving In Italy Difficult
There are so many reasons to dislike driving in Italy. So I’ll start with a few reasons why driving in Italy can be challenging.
Gas is Expensive
If you are European, you can skip this part. But if you are an American driver, you may be shocked to learn that a liter of gas (benzina) costs about the same as a gallon of gas in the U.S. There are 3.79 liters in a gallon of gas, so you can do the math on that one.
I should add here that I don’t think that high gas prices/taxes are necessarily a bad thing, especially when they help to offset the price of more environmentally-friendly mass transit system.
Parking is Often Difficult
Gone are the days when drivers in Rome could park in historic squares like Piazza Navona — and thank God for that.
Limited parking in Italy’s cities has made them more pedestrian-friendly and picturesque. But it has also meant more competition for spaces to park on the street. So if you are a driver coming from a place that has plentiful parking lots and ample on-street parking, you may feel frustrated when trying to park in Italy.
There are, of course, parking garages. And one thing you will encounter in some historic towns is that the garages will be just beyond the historic center. For example, the Umbrian town of Orvieto requires you to park on the edge of town and then walk to your destination.
This is no problem if you need the exercise. But it can be confusing and exhausting for drivers arriving with luggage or strollers or for travelers who are physically challenged. This is especially true if your destination within the historic center is some distance from the garage. (If this is the case, contact your hotel and let you know that you are arriving by car. They may be willing to send someone to meet you.)
ZTL Zones in Cities
Italy has one of the highest numbers of cars per capita in Europe. Italy also has the world’s largest concentration of UNESCO heritage sites. Put these facts together and the answer is obvious — you have to limit the cars where you can and when you can.
ZTL stands for “zona traffico limitato” or limited traffic zone. Many cities and historic villages in Italy, including Rome and Florence, maintain ZTLs in historically significant areas either full-time or during certain parts of the day. This means that only cars with a special waiver (e.g., taxis, zone residents, medical vehicles) are allowed to drive in these areas. In areas where ZTLs are active during certain times of day, you will see the timetable posted either on a sign or on a digital display with the words “Varco Attivo” or “Varco Non Attivo.” “Attivo” means that the restrictions are in effect, whereas “non attivo” means you may enter, whether you have a permit or not.
I am a big fan of ZTLs as they are essential to sustainable living and tourism in Italy. But they can be difficult to navigate or understand if you don’t know about them. Getting caught driving in a ZTL without the proper permit can also land you a hefty fine, ranging from 84 to 335 euro.
Like so many traffic fines these days, ZTL fines are usually determined by traffic camera. So if you violate a ZTL zone while driving in Italy, you may not know about it until months later when a bill arrives in the mail. And yes, the rental car company, credit card company, and/or local traffic authority will work together to find you and bill you long after you have left Italy.
AutoEurope has a comprehensive post about ZTLs in Italy if you want to read more.
Highways Have Two Speeds: Formula 1 and Fiat Panda
One frustration of driving in Italy that is actually quite comical is the speed profiles of its drivers. When driving on the autostrada in Italy, you will invariably encounter two different types of speeds, either Formula 1 driving or Fiat Panda driving.
Formula 1 drivers will speed up behind you, aggressively flashing their lights to urge you to change lanes so that they can pass. Meanwhile, you may be stuck behind a Fiat Panda driver — or the driver of any type of older, slower car that can barely muster 40mph (65km) on the highway.
Why Driving in Italy Can Be Pretty Cool
One the other hand, driving in Italy can be an utter joy.
That has nothing to do with being able to go as fast as you want on the autostrada. It is a myth that there is no speed limit on the autostrada. But you can go pretty fast. The highway speed limit in Italy ranges from 110 to 130km, about 68-80mph.
Here are some other reasons why it can be fun to drive in Italy.
Sometimes You Get to Drive Through Ruins
Driving through or adjacent to ancient ruins is a joy that is particular to Rome, but not exclusive. On days when I drive to work in Rome, I must pass through a cut-out section of the Aurelian Walls and it gives me a thrill every time.
It’s sad when I ponder how much was lost when some of these openings were cut into the third century Roman walls. Then again, it’s also a relief that Romans had the foresight to preserve these ruins rather than do away with them completely.
It’s Easier to Access Italian Villages, Beaches, and Mountains
While much of the country can be accessed by train, there are many places and views that you just can’t get from a train. Don’t get me wrong! I love train travel in Italy and I know that with a bit of pluck and grit you can get anywhere in Italy using its train and bus network.
But there is something very liberating about packing up the car, turning on the GPS, and heading out for a road trip. You can pack up as much as your car can handle. You can take your time getting to your destination. And driving can give you a chance to see back-roads, secret beaches, and rural mountain passes, as well as those famous winding routes in places like the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany.
Roadside Stands Are Awesome
Summer brings peaches and watermelons. Fall brings funghi porcini. In winter, there’s chestnuts. And in spring, you can find artichokes, wild asparagus, and fava beans.
Many roadside vendors, particularly of the food truck variety, also offer the chance to eat on-site. Among the many snacks I have enjoyed while driving with my family through Italy are porchetta sandwiches in Umbria and fried trout sandwiches in Abruzzo.
Happening upon a roadside vendor on the way back from the beach or a Sunday drive in the country is a delicious way to learn more about Italy’s seasonal produce. If you are staying in a self-catering apartment, this is an easy way for you to stock up on fruits and vegetables for your trip.
Driving in Italy is not for everybody. But it can be a fun and practical way to get around the country.
Note that Americans will need an International Driver’s Permit. The U.S. Embassy in Rome has more information about the IDP and how to get it.
If you are going to rent a car, or have other questions about getting around Italy, have a look at this post on transportation in Italy.