33 tips for driving in Italy for the first time
Navigating Italy’s winding roads and bustling city streets is a unique experience, and these tips for driving in Italy for the first time can make your journey smooth and enjoyable.
As a first-timer, it’s essential to familiarise yourself with the country’s driving etiquette, traffic regulations, and peculiarities.
Whether you’re meandering through Tuscany’s vineyards or negotiating Rome’s hectic traffic, driving in Italy as a tourist will certainly provide an unforgettable adventure.
This article will give you plenty of practical and easy-to-follow tips that will boost your confidence behind the wheel, ensuring a safe and delightful Italian road trip.
33 tips for driving in Italy for the first time
1. Obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP)
While European Union driving licenses are accepted in Italy, non-EU drivers should obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP).
This is a translation of your driver’s license and, together with your original license, it’s required by Italian law for driving or car rental (always bring both of them with you)
The bad news for Brits is that after Brexit they also need an IDP to drive in Italy.
I have documented a detailed Step-by-Step process to obtain an International Driving Permit for Italy for the UK, USA, Australia and Canada. You can find on the same guide also links to the local Government website where you can request one.
The cost can go anywhere between USD 6 to USD 25 based on the country you live. Not a massive investment for great peace of mind.
Important: A few Car rentals may rent you the car even without the DPI, however, you can have later problems in case you need the insurance which may refuse to pay because your documentation is not following the Italian regulations.
2. Understand Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTL)
My tips for driving in Italy for the first time of course must include one of the most confusing things about Italy: The ZTL areas
These are restricted traffic areas in many Italian cities to limit congestion and pollution.
Typically these ZTL areas are in the Historic Centre where you don’t want to venture anyway with those narrow streets.
Be aware of these zones to avoid hefty fines. For example, if driving in Florence, study ZTL zones in advance or use GPS that recognises these areas (Google Maps is not 100% trustable but a good starting point).
I have written more on this subject and I have also organised a table with the ZTM Maps of Italy including a list of the major cities that you will possibly visit.
3. Renting the Right Car
Firstly, I always suggest renting a car in Italy online. Do not do it from the local rental down the road, it is so difficult to navigate through the terms in a shop.
Secondly, when you plan your Italian road trip, you should select the right type of vehicle to rent.
Given the country’s narrow city streets and hilly regions, it’s advisable to rent a smaller, compact car for easier manoeuvrability.
A Fiat 500, for instance, would be ideal for navigating the charming narrow lanes in most Italian medieval towns.
If travelling with a family, you may want a bigger size, like a compact SUV.
I have talked extensively about determining the best car size to rent in Italy with 10 case scenarios on 5 different parts of Italy, including renting a car in Sicily, one of my favourite regions of Italy.
I usually rent my cars on the DiscoverCars website, a rental aggregator that compares the prices of local and global operators providing the best deal around, with the possibility to add full insurance for just 7 Euros/day, such a great peace of mind.
4. Always Carry the Required Documents
Always keep your driver’s license, IDP, car rental agreement, and insurance documents in the vehicle when you drive.
Should you get stopped by police, for instance, outside Milan, these documents will be the first thing they ask for.
IMPORTANT: Do not leave these documents in the car when you park it. They could break into the car or even steal it and you would be left with an even bigger problem (all documents lost), besides not having the phone number of the rental agency (written ion the rental agreement).
5. Use of Seatbelts
Seatbelts are mandatory for all passengers. A short trip to the local supermarket in Naples doesn’t exclude you from this rule.
Make sure everyone buckles up before setting off.
6. Adhere to Speed Limits
Italian highways, or Autostrade, typically have a speed limit of 130km/h, main roads outside towns 90km/h, and built-up areas 50km/h or even 30km/h .
And, if you planning on renting a car in Tuscany, keep an eye on the posted speed limits, especially when driving through small towns in Tuscany known for speed cameras.
7. Be Prepared for an Aggressive Driving Style
Italians are known for their assertive driving.
Maintain a defensive driving posture, especially in big cities like Rome or Naples, where the traffic can be daunting for a first-time visitor.
I have been driving in Italy for 30 years and I can definitely see a huge difference between the cities (stressed traffic, especially at peak time) and the countryside (more relaxed and easy-going).
Once I leave the metropolis I have the best time of my life driving in Italy
8. Use Indicators Consistently
Always use your turn indicators. In Italy, indicating your intention on the road isn’t just good manners; it’s the law, especially important on winding country roads in places like the Amalfi Coast.
9. Overtaking and Lane Discipline
In Italy, overtaking is only on the left.
For example, if you’re driving on the Autostrada, slower traffic should keep to the right.
Wait for your turn and when the left lane has a free spot, sneak in, overtake and move to the right lane after that.
Honestly, there are a few highways, like the one from Bologna to Florence, that can be so busy with trucks that is way too hard even to overtake. Just relax in that case. There is no point to stress.
10. Watch Out for Pedestrians
Italy has a high pedestrian right-of-way culture, particularly in marked pedestrian zones.
If you’re exploring the fashion district in Milan, be ready to stop frequently for pedestrians.
This pedestrian right-of-way culture may be a bit lacking in the centre-south of Italy. Just be aware of it when you walk, don’t expect that cars stop, even on pedestrian crossings.
In saying that, when driving give always priority to pedestrians.
11. Roundabouts Etiquette
Traffic in roundabouts flows counter-clockwise, and cars within the roundabout have the right of way.
When you encounter a roundabout, signal your intention well in advance.
You will actually notice how the roundabouts help the traffic to flow quicker than with traffic lights.
12. Refuelling Etiquette
Petrol stations in Italy offer servito (serviced) and self-service pumps.
If you do the petrol yourself you can save up to 10% or more of the cost of the petrol.
Important: the advertised price of petrol is typically the cheaper self-service, so expect to pay more if you go to the servito pump.
Many gas stations in Italy are fully self-service. I this case you need to pay before refuelling.
For example, on the main Autostrada A1, you can find 24/7 self-service terminals to pay before pumping.
13. Limited Use of Horns
In Italy, the use of car horns is generally reserved for imminent danger.
You don’t honk your horn in Rome at night or in populated areas, as it’s considered rude and disruptive.
Yes, in a few cities, the horn is more used than in others. Turin is one of them (I am not sure why) . But this means that you should join the party.
14. Respect Parking Rules
It’s important to respect parking rules to avoid fines.
Parking is usually paid within blue lines, free within white lines, and yellow lines are reserved.
In tourist-heavy cities like Venice, parking can be a challenge, but not impossible.
In fact, you can find where in my guide to parking a car in Italy. I visited Venice since I was a toddler, my father’s family is from there, and I know a couple of tricks about this beautiful city 😉
15. Handle Carabinieri Checks with Respect
Carabinieri, Italy’s national police force, may stop you for routine checks.
Always be respectful, have your documents ready, and follow their instructions.
If you are thinking of renting a car in Puglia, you will notice how car checks are not that unusual, from both the Carabinieri and the Police (they do similar checks).
16. Use Headlights Correctly
On highways and outside built-up areas during the day, you’re required to use low-beam headlights.
If you decide to rent a car in Sardinia, for example, make sure your headlights are on, doesn’t matter in you are driving in Cagliari, along the coast or through the unique countryside.
17. Respect Stop Signs
Unlike in some countries, stop signs in Italy mean you must come to a complete stop.
Do this, especially in Sicily, where stop signs at intersections are always there.
18. Alcohol and Driving
Italy has strict drunk-driving laws, with a blood-alcohol limit of 0.05%.
If you plan on wine tasting in Chianti, consider hiring a driver or staying nearby for the night.
19. Use of Mobile Phones
It’s illegal to drive and use a mobile phone in Italy unless you have a hands-free system.
So, save your call to the hotel at your destination until after you’ve parked.
20. Motorway Tolls
Most motorways (Autostrade) in Italy are tolled. Be prepared for this when driving long distances.
Paying the Autostrada is a simple process in most cases, however, there are a few things to consider that I described in my guide to Driving on the Italian Motorways which includes also a table of the busiest Hways and which one to avoid at what time of the day (usually close to the major cities).
Typically, you will save plenty of time when using the Autostrade, however, you will miss in most cases the amazing views of the countryside and the unique old villages of Italy.
21. Mandatory Car Equipment
Italian law requires cars to have a spare tyre, a warning triangle and a reflective vest.
Make sure your rental car includes these items before setting off to tour the Italian roads.
Important. The rental companies will check that this equipment is still there when you drop off the car, and if missing you will have to pay for it.
22. Child Safety in Cars
Children under 12 or shorter than 1.50m must use a child restraint system suitable for their age and size.
If you’re travelling with children in Italy, this is mandatory.
Here below is a hand table with all you need to know.
|Height Range (approx.)
|Car Seat Type
|Up to 10 kg (22 lbs)
|Birth to 1.5 years
|Rear-facing infant carrier
|Up to 13 kg (29 lbs)
|Birth to 2.5 years
|Rear-facing infant carrier
|9-18 kg (20-40 lbs)
|1.5 to 4 years
|Forward or rear-facing child seat with a harness
|15-25 kg (33-55 lbs)
|4 to 6 years
|High-backed booster seat with a seatbelt
|22-36 kg (48-79 lbs)
|6 to 12 years
|High-backed booster seat or a booster cushion with a seatbelt
23. Understand the Right of Way
In Italy, vehicles coming from the right have right of way unless otherwise indicated.
If you are thinking of renting a car in Sicily, this is especially important to remember when navigating the confusing streets of Palermo.
24. Care in Driving in Rural Areas
Many rural roads in Italy are narrow and winding.
Be particularly cautious on these roads, like when visiting hill towns in Umbria.
I have actually a small place between Umbria and Tuscany, right on top of the hill in a medieval village. I eventually got used to the narrow streets, but I fully understand the claustrophobic fear 🙂
My best tip: Avoid venturing into small medieval villages. Park your car outside and walk in.
25. Understanding Road Signage
Familiarise yourself with Italian road signs before your journey.
This is particularly important when driving in regions like South Tyrol, where signs might be in German.
The Italian signs are like anywhere in the world with a few exceptions that is not even worth mentioning. Just don’t be surprised to discover that Italian is not the first language in a few areas of the country.
26. Use of Car Alarms
Car alarms must not be used in inhabited areas.
If you’re staying overnight in a city like Florence, be sure to disable your car alarm to avoid disturbing the peace and possibly alarming the police with probable consequences.
27. Understanding Car Rental Insurance
Make sure you fully understand your rental car insurance coverage, including any excess or deductible.
Having this clear before setting off on your journey can save you a lot of trouble.
Make sure to take photos of the car from multiple corners before starting the trip.
In saying that, unfortunately, it is not unusual to scratch or dent a car in the tiny streets and parking spaces in Italy. This is why I usually suggest taking No-Excess Insurance that covers 100% of any damage.
Also in this case I wrote a full guide on rental car insurance in Italy and how to avoid possible scams and high-pressure selling.
My best suggestion: take Full Insurance (no excess). I do it every time now that I found out that it costs just 7 Euro/day when I rent my car on the DiscoverCars website, which by the way provides the best deals on the internet. A win-win situation.
28. Handling Road Emergencies
In case of an emergency breakdown, pull over safely and use your hazard lights.
Use the reflective safety vest when exiting the vehicle. Always better to be prepared for these situations.
The Rental Agency will give you a phone number to call in case of emergencies or incidents.
Here’s a handy table with all the most common emergency numbers in Italy (in case you cannot find anyone at the Rental Company, your primary contact) :
|Roadside Assistance (ACI)
29. Winter Driving and Equipment
Between 15 November and 15 April, or when there’s snow or ice, winter tyres or snow chains are mandatory in many parts of Italy.
So, if you’re planning to drive in the Dolomites during this period, or any mountain above 500 metres, ensure your car is appropriately equipped.
My suggestion: Ask the rental company if in doubt. You may have snow also in the cities on freezing days in the north and centre of Italy.
30. Bus Lanes
Only buses and taxis are allowed in bus lanes unless signs indicate otherwise.
If you’re driving in Rome, avoid the bus lanes to steer clear of fines otherwise you may be fined.
31. Use of Hazard Lights
In Italy, hazard lights are used when you’re coming to a sudden stop on a motorway or if there’s a queue ahead.
Also, use them if you stop for just a few seconds in city streets (to load/unload something from the car). Technically you should always ark your car for that, but it is sort of widely acceptable to use the hazard lights.
32. Watch for Motorcycles
Italy has many motorcycles, especially in the cities.
Keep an eye out for motorcycles overtaking you on either side when you’re stuck in traffic.
In cities like Rome in summer, the traffic light becomes the starting light of a MotoGP, with so many scooters sprinting left and right.
My suggestion: Although you may have precedence on them, just wait your turn. No point to cause an accident just because they do not follow the rules.
33. Watch for Cyclists
Italy is a cyclist’s paradise, particularly in regions like Lombardy. Always give them plenty of room on the road, especially on hilly or winding roads.
I will always remember the road up to Stelvio Peak, after Sondrio.
This is one of the best roads that I have experienced in Italy, however, it is so busy with cyclists.
My suggestion: Pay attention whenever you want to stop at a viewpoint. Moreover, pay extra attention to the descends with the crazy cyclists overtaking at impossible speeds.
Driving in Italy can be a wonderful experience, whether you’re exploring rolling vineyards or charming coastal roads.
With these tips in mind, you’ll be better prepared for Italian driving etiquette, ensuring a smoother and more enjoyable journey.