If you’re planning a trip to Tuscany, I highly recommend driving in Italy! Generally speaking, I tell people that they don’t need a car on their first time visiting Italy. Most people will visit some variation of the “big 3,” which are incredibly well connected by train. Amy has a great one week itinerary for visiting three major Italian cities via train. Even if you do day trips to Siena or Pisa, you can get there by bus or train. Detouring to Cinque Terre does not require a car either. If you want to truly experience Tuscany or Umbria, however, I think you need a car. Buses are infrequent, trains are inconvenient, and my favorite time of day is when the day trippers go home. Driving in Italy is not as scary as it sounds, and I do recommend it as a way to get off the beaten path!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for tours and products I love at no additional cost to you. You can read my full disclosure policy here.
Before You Decide to Rent a Car
- Consider your itinerary options. I typically use Rome2Rio to get a sense of public transportation options vs. driving.
- Think about who you are traveling with – train tickets can add up for a group. On our second Christmas market trip with my mom, we realized that it would be much cheaper for us to drive between cities. We also were able to see more because we were not in a state of hurry up and wait for trains or planes.
- Head to AAA and purchase an international driving permit. This booklet translates your US drivers license into 10 languages. While we have never been asked to show it while driving Italy, we have been asked for it at the rental desk. You will need two passport photos to obtain it and the process takes less than 20 minutes. The permit is good for a year and we’ve renewed ours three times.
- Find out what your insurance covers. Ireland and Italy tend to be common exclusions.
- Determine your road trip essentials. I’ve used Alicia’s post to create my own packing and trip prep list.
Planning Your Itinerary
While I find spontaneous adventures part of the fun of driving in Italy, I think it’s important to carefully consider your itinerary. I am a big fan of open jaw flights to prevent backtracking and one-way car rentals for the same reason. The first time we rented a car, we picked it up at the Rome airport and immediately headed out of the city. We returned it while we stayed in Florence for a few days. At the end of our time in Florence, we picked up another one-way rental and returned it in Rome.
I am a fan of convenience, so we typically rent from Hertz. This means that we can generally return the car near where we are staying, even if we are staying within the ZTL (limited traffic zone) areas of a city. Most of the time, we will drop off our luggage at our hotel, return the car, and walk back to our hotel. Hertz is fairly ubiquitous throughout Italy, and if we’ve ever had a problem, they have been able to fix it. The weekly rates are generally pretty reasonable, especially if you book in advance.
A couple weeks before departure, I reach out to our hotels to inquire about parking options. Because of limited traffic zones in the city center, you might need to purchase a permit, arrive during a certain time, or have the hotel staff meet your car upon arrival. I print all instructions, maps, and contact information before we go. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to find that information on your phone when everyone in the car is stressed after being on tiny roads and missing street signs for three hours.
Preparing to Drive in Italy
Italians drive on the right side of the road, just like we do. Driving in Italy is not that different than driving in the United States (and it is far less intimidating than driving in Ireland). The roads are (sometimes) smaller, but they are very well maintained. (Make sure you have cash for the toll booths.) Italian drivers are aggressive in the cities (not unlike Dallas drivers), but they are not unsafe drivers. You won’t see people pulled over on the side of the road, but you do have to be wary of speed cameras. Speed is reported in kilometers per hour and it can change rapidly. (Italy is not the autobahn.) Your average rental car will be smaller than it is in the States and that’s a good thing (but be cognizant of how much luggage you bring). We’ve had a Fiat, a Jeep, and an Opel. The Fiat is my favorite thus far.
I love the Back Roads of Italy books. Not only do they include the practicalities of driving in Italy (including road signs, speed limits, etc.), but they also provide a number of suggested itineraries for different regions. It may even be where I first read about Acquacheta, which is one of my favorite restaurants in Montepulciano. I’ve never followed their itineraries to a T, but I have used it to get ideas about where I want to go and how to prioritize our time. Even if you plan to use public transportation between the cities and towns, it can give you an idea of how much time you want to spend in a particular place.
We travel with a TEP hotspot or a Skyroam (save 10% on yours with Skyroam promo code JOURNEYOFDOING) so we always have access to maps. This is helpful because we don’t always have cell service, but the hotspot generally works.
I think the biggest surprise to me when we first started driving in Italy is how long it takes to get anywhere. Short distances can be (will be?) long trips. It’s important to give yourself enough time. On our first trip to Tuscany, I booked a wine tasting near Arezzo. It was 30 miles away, so naturally, I thought it would take 30 minutes. Wrong. It took an hour. (Google maps did predict an hour, but I thought I knew better.) By the time we arrived (late), Tom and I were both frazzled and annoyed with each other. Not exactly the romantic sunset tour I had in mind. Renting a car in Italy forces you to slow down and it’s amazing.
We’ve learned how to pull off the side of the road to enjoy the scenery, stop for auto grills (still hoping to make our way through some of the best ones in Plotkin’s book), and venture off the well-worn paths between Rome, Florence, and Venice. Don’t let the idea of driving in Italy keep you on the beaten path (but don’t let the beaten path keep you from visiting those amazing cities multiple times either). I think there is a lot to be gained by pairing small towns with the big cities and you can get a more accurate idea of the culture. It’s also a great way to find delicious meals and great hotels like Borgo dei Conti. What do you have to lose??