One of the most common questions I get from first-time visitors to Italy is: ‘Should I be driving in Italy? Is it safe?’
As an Italian who learned how to drive in Rome, at the beginning I found this question unusual. What’s wrong with driving in Italy? But the more I read tourist materials about Italy the more I understood where the concern was coming from. If you were to base your ideas of Italy on what you read on the web, you would be more than justified to think we are a country of lunatics, who have no respect for the rules of the road and will run you over for even thinking of ever crossing the road. Some publication even labeled us as ‘the most dangerous drivers in the world’.
Honestly, it is not that bad.
Italy is a country that loves cars and in many cities the traffic is indeed pretty congested, but this gets blown up to ridiculous proportions to feed the national cliche’ that wants us loud, chaotic and non law-abiding (incidentally, I am 100% Italian and none of these things).
The truth is that diving in Italy, in the cities specifically, is not significantly different that driving in many other big metropolis. Any city you don’t know will pose challenges, by car, and Italian cities are no exception to it.
That said, if you do come from a part of the world that does not know a lot of traffic or that relies on motorways rather than small city roads, you might want to take certain elements into consideration before driving in Italy or anywhere busy.
Here is my list of things that are worth considering before driving abroad in general, and driving in Italy in particular.
DRIVING IN ITALY: TOP TIPS
1. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THE RIGHT DOCUMENTS
Don’t assume that Italian authorities will be lax and will not stop you/fine you should you be breaking the rules. There might be checks and they will follow it up, the fine getting steeper and steeper the longer it takes you to pay it. Before getting a car, check with the relevant authorities what documents you need and keep in mind that they may vary depending on your nationality (EU/non-EU/length of stay etc). American tourists may find official information here (but always double check for possible updates)
2. FAMILIARISE WITH ROAD SIGNS
and Italian phrases such as: zona traffico limitato, ztl, zona pedonale, eccetto residenti (these are all variations of the same concept: non permit holder cannot enter by car). Many Italian cities, big and small, have parts that are off limits to cars or only accessible by car if you are a resident, with a resident permit. It’s worth double checking the signs as again, the fine will not be worth being parked close to the Torre di Pisa!
3. Get GPS
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to rely on road signs: sometimes they are bent, hardly visible behind overgrown vegetation and unclear unless you are already familiar with the area. Gps is definitely the way to go! This object (phone holder for the car) quickly became our favourite gadget during our last trip around Italy: I never thought I’d get so fond of the metallic voice of the GPS system!
4. GET AN OLD SYLE PAPER MAP
And never trust google maps! I love technology and love google maps but in Italy they can get it really wrong: in Tuscany, they had us pretty much driving into a ditch (supposedly a road) and the poor wifi coverage does not agree with them. Good local paper maps are always a good idea as backup
5. CHECK THE RULES OF THE ROAD
As some might be different from back home: turning right on a red light is, for instance, illegal. This website is a good starting point but always check before travelling if in doubt
6. FIND YOUR ZEN
The roads are congested and gaps between cars will be filled! If you leave a distance between yourself and the car in front of you, another car WILL get in there. Just be aware of it and don’t get too surprised if other cars get very close to you: usually, it just means they want to get home fast!
7. REACT QUICKLY TO GREEN LIGHTS
Big cities, like everywhere in the world, have people who are in a hurry and have little patience for inexperienced drivers. Without getting too stressed about it, just be aware that they will beep at you and even shout at you if you don’t go as soon as the light turns green: just pay attention to the light but just let their rage go above your head. If you need extra time, just let them beep!
Random fact about me: I am very much an Italian driver and a slow reaction to a green light drives me up the proverbial wall! This is always reason for my husband to mock me, usually with a sentence along the lines of: ‘You are SO Italian’. I decided a long time ago I would take it as a compliment….
8. DON’T WORRY TOO MUCH
As I said, the more I travel the more I see that many many many cities have traffic that is, at least, comparable with Italy. On the road, the only real rule is: be aware, stay safe. If you are not comfortable with traffic, don’t chance it, in Italy or anywhere else, its’ just not worth it. If you think you are not up for driving in Italy, you might be happy to hear Italy has a good train system: I have a post about it written for families travelling with children, but it has some general information about travelling Italy by train you might find useful
What are your feelings about driving abroad: do you like driving or is the stress of the unknown roads too much? Do you have a driving related story, in Italy or anywhere else, you would like to share? I’d love to read it!