Italy is a beautiful country, a fact typified by its glorious twisty mountain roads and lakeside drives.
However, like most countries, it's also full of motorways, parking restrictions and charges to use the public highways.
Before you go, here are a few things to remember to take with you:
- Full, valid Driving Licence
- Vehicle log book (V5C)
If taking your own car, you'll also need:
- Reflective jackets
- Warning triangle
- Headlamp beam deflectors
- Spare tyre
- Car insurance certificate
Whether you're planning on driving over there from the UK, or renting a car after flying over there, here are some useful tips to help you get started on Italian roads.
You drive on the right
For many of you this will be an obvious one, but if you've never driven in Europe you may not be aware that every European nation apart from Britain drives on the right.
That means cars have their steering wheel on the left, so if you're renting a car while you're over there, you'll be changing gears with your right hand and putting your seat belt on with your left hand, which can take some getting used to.
It also means that the right hand side of the motorway is the slow lane, overtaking is done on the left and when you come to a roundabout you need to give way to cars coming from the left-hand side.
Watch out for motorbikes and scooters
Towns and cities can be pretty busy places in Italy, and the roads are the same. For this reason, many locals (and some tourists) like to use motorbikes and scooters to get around.
They're able move quickly through the streets thanks to their ability to slip in between traffic, so keep an eye on both your wing mirrors. They dive in and out of lanes at will and aren't scared to undertake at any given opportunity.
You really need to keep your wits about you to avoid a collision.
Motorways can be confusing for first-timers
There are a few things to note about using motorways - known as Autostrada - in Italy. Firstly, the national speed limit for cars Italian motorways is 130 km/h, so you should aim to be going at or below that speed.
The overhead signs are little different too. In the UK, all lanes will clearly show that it's possible to either go to Place A or Place B, even if by following one of the lanes means you can head toward either Place.
On the Autostrada, you may be forgiven for thinking that the right-hand lane in the picture only goes to Saronno, but in actual fact all three lanes go to Milano. The sign is simply letting you know that you need to be in the right-hand lane if you are going to come off the motorway and head to Saronno.
Prepare for tolls
There are charges to use many of the main motorways, which vary depending on the length of the stretch of road. When you first approach a toll it can be quite daunting, but it's simple enough once you've successfully been through a couple.
Firstly, make sure you have your credit or debit card handy before you venture out onto the motorway. Some of the tolls accept cash, but it's easier to pay using card.
On approaching the row of toll booths, avoid the lanes with bright yellow and blue "TELEPASS" signs, these are for regular users who are signed up to the automated system - usually locals.
Head for the the blue-marked lanes with the "CARTE" sign, and choose a queue. When you get to the booth, you may need to take a ticket, which will automatically open the barrier, which you'll then insert at the next toll booth, followed by your payment card.
The amount due will flash on the screen and then the machine will spit your card back out. It's dead simple - you don't even need to enter your PIN.
Other tolls will simply take a payment card without the ticket.
Watch out for speed cameras
The Speed cameras in Italy take many different forms, but in general they look very different to ones you'll find in the UK.
Pictured is a small orange speed camera that you may not notice unless you've got a keen eye. Some are rectangular and some are more rounded, but they'll all land you with a fine if you go through them above the permitted speed.
Fortunately, just as in the UK, there are signs that warn you of upcoming cameras. They read "Controllo elettronico della velocita", meaning "Electronic speed control".
Italian parking restrictions signs
It can be hard enough to work out what UK parking signs mean, let alone ones that are written in another language.
Pictured is a typical Italian parking sign. The "Hammer" icon represents a working day, which in Italy is everyday apart from Sunday.
So, the sign is saying charges apply from "time" to "time" and therefore you must buy a ticket during those hours. Outside of those hours, you can park free of charge without a ticket.
You may also encounter signs which read "maximum ore", which lets you know the maximum amount of hours you are allowed to park in that place for without breaking the rules and running the risk of a parking fine.
Lots of mountains = lots of twisty roads and tunnels
The mountain roads in Italy can be a hoot to drive on, with lots of 2nd gear corners and acceleration zones. These bring their own dangers however, and you should always glance up above or down below yourself to see what's coming the other way. If it's a larger vehicle, such as a van or a lorry, then you'll want to back off and give them as much room as possible - they might venture into your lane in order to make the turn... and Italian drivers don't wait!
Tunnels are simple enough to navigate, just remember to turn your headlights on as you enter and turn them off when you exit. Follow the lane with the green arrow and stay out of the lane marked overhead with a red cross - that's for traffic heading in the other direction. Make sure you stick to the speed limit.
Don't use your phone while driving
UK law (quite rightly) prohibits the use of mobile devices while driving and could land you with six points on your licence. In 2019, fines for using a mobile device while driving in Italy were quadrupled.
Despite this, you'll regularly see people making calls, sending texts and even browsing social media behind the wheel, but that doesn't mean you should too.
It's still extremely dangerous and we strongly advise against it, and if caught you could be landed with a fine of up to almost £1700. You're only allowed to use one when connected to a hands-free device.
Flashing amber means go... sort of
Italian traffic lights are a funny old thing. They can be red, solid amber, flashing amber, and green. Clearly red means stop and green means go, but often you'll approach a set of traffic lights and they'll be flashing orange, so what should you do?
Simply put, flashing amber means proceed with caution. It's totally fine to go through the set of traffic lights but you may need to be aware that cars are approaching from other angles, and rules of priority must be respected.
A flashing red light means stop and may be used near a pedestrian crossing or ferry boarding point.
Traffic lights do go from green to amber to red when you're supposed to stop, but unlike UK traffic lights, when they go green again they skip the amber - blink and you'll miss it!
Make sure you have access to a sat nav system
It doesn't matter whether you're just travelling through the city or going further afield and up into the mountains, a GPS sat nav system is essential for tourists trying to make their way along Italian roads.
Many car hire companies will charge extra for the privilege of renting a vehicle with in-built sat nav, so we'd recommend either bringing a sat nav with you, but make sure it's loaded with European maps.
Alternatively, there are loads of smartphone apps that can get you where you need to go. Google Maps, Waze and Apple Maps will all work, but will use your data to find routes. Apps like Sygic and Navmii work just as well and you can download maps of entire countries before you go, which will ensure you won't use any data when navigating.
Driving in Italy can be a bit of a rude awakening if you're not prepared. Virtually no one sticks to the speed limit so don't feel bad if you get overtaken. General rules of courtesy that you (mostly) find in British drivers don't apply, and people will elbow their way into your lane on the motorway whether you like it or not.
Make sure you're checking your mirrors regularly and making absolutely sure it's safe to make every manoeuvre before you make it.
As long as you're extra sensible when other people are around, you can have some fun on the twisty mountain roads no matter the car you're in, whether it's a drop-top Mazda MX-5 or a simple rental-spec Fiat 500.