08 Jun 2011

It depends on where you want to go and the type of traveller you are. Here are some thoughts on this popular questions.

To drive or not to drive in Tuscany? That is the question.

driving in tuscany

(Photo by Claudio Vaccaro)

Do we really need a car?

I would like to have a euro for every time that  I have answered this question in travel forums or email messages. My answer is always the same: it depends on where you want to go.

If you want to use northern Tuscany as a base and visit then major centers (Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Pistoia, the Versilia coast) no, you don’t need a car. Choosing Pisa as a base, for instance, public transportation is excellent to all those places. Pisa is a major transportation hub, with frequent trains to Florence, Lucca and the coast. Reaching the Cinque Terre from there is also very easy. Plus there are plenty of buses and taxis, in case you want to go to one of the smaller towns in the nearby area (Calci, Vicopisano, etc.).

If you want to use southern Tuscany as a base and visit “picture postcard Tuscany”, with the hilltop towns and the gentle rolling hills, yes, you absolutely do need to rent a car. Public transportation in the Siena area, in the Val d’Orcia and the Crete, is at best poor. Besides, the drives which get you from one place to the other make for 50% of the vacation itself. Driving on the slow winding roads through the countryside will allow you to really enjoy what this corner of Tuscany has to offer and to visit the many tiny medieval towns and villages which represent the main attraction in the area. See this post about a slow drive through countryside of Tuscany.

Slow driving in Tuscany

Another important factor in deciding whether you should rent a car or not is what type of traveller you are. If you are mainly “a city person”, then you might be perfectly happy sticking to the main centers with no car. If, on the other hand, you are a countryside person who enjoys visiting off-the-beaten-path destinations, quiet spots and getting lost on the small countryside lanes, then renting a car is a must.

driving in Tuscany

(Photo by Vathiman)

Renting a car is expensive

It can be. Gas is also quite expensive (€1,55 per liter at the moment). However there are many rentals that have good offers. We usually recommend Bravo Fly because that’s where we have always found the best deals. However, over the last couple of months we have found out that several of the agencies that advertise on the portal will ask to put 1000 euros on your credit card at the time of pick-up as a damage deposit, which seems quite a lot and can create problems with credit card usage limits. Make sure you ask about this new policy before committing to anything.

We hear Italian drivers are crazy

Well, Italians are a bit crazy to begin with. However, driving in Italy is only difficult in the cities. Avoid driving through Florence, Milan, Rome, Naples and the other large cities. You don’t need a car there.

Driving on highways and other extra-urban roads is no problem. In fact driving is much simpler than people say and the bad reputation of Italian drivers might partly depend on different expectations: just remember to do your own thing and ignore what other people are doing. If you want to go slow, go slow. If other drivers get impatient, it’s their own problem.

You might find that people do not respect safety distances between vehicles, so expect to have someone stuck to your bumper. Make sure you do keep a safety distance from the guy in front of you, and forget about the guy behind you.

Italian drivers

(Photo by -=PASqua=-)

Driving in a foreign country is scary for everybody. I never want to drive abroad. One thing you have to remember is that in no case is it acceptable to pass on the right, not even on the few three lane highways. So if you are used to large highways where you can move across lanes passing people on both sides, don’t.

Also, on multiple lane roads, signaling that you are about to move into another lane is not enough to make sure people in that lane will let you in. Make sure there is enough room before switching lanes, because people will expect for you to wait for them to pass you before you move.

We’re afraid we’ll get lost

You need to prepare. Road numbers marked on maps mean nothing most of the time: roads are rarely marked with the highway number but instead have signs indicating the names of destinations in the directions you want to head.

If you get lost, don’t panic. The next village or town won’t be more than 10 minutes away and there you can ask or figure out where you are.

Panic Street

(Photo by jovike)

What car size should we choose?

Most Italians drive small cars. You don’t need a SUV. Quite the opposite. Rent a small car: it will be cheaper, easier to park and to drive on small roads.

fiat 500 in Montalcino

(Photo by angerman)

We hear foreigners get fined all the time in cities

This is the new myth about the dangers of driving in Italy. Most city centers are closed to non-residential traffic: you will be fined if you drive past the cameras at the entrance of the ZTL (Limited Traffic Zones) . They are clearly marked, you have to know what to look for, so do your homework before coming to Italy.

ZTLs are not a scam to squeeze more money out of tourists: they are a fundamental survival tool for residents of city centers and fines are given out to local and foreign drivers alike.

Here is an excellent article about ZTL Zones and Traffic Cameras on Roadways and in Towns in Italy. Please make sure you read it before driving in Italy.

If you are from a non-EU country road signs are different: make sure you learn them. Here is a useful guide to Italian road signs.

Road sign in Tuscany

There won’t be any signs in English: make sure you learn the Italian names of the cities you want to visit.

What about parking?

Ask the people at the hotel or vacation rental you will be staying at what the situation for parking is. If you plan to spend a few days in a city, you might consider dropping the car off and picking up a new car when it’s time to venture into the countryside again if your hotel doesn’t have parking space.

In most cities you will have to pay to park. The price per hour varies according to how central the parking lot is. Usually prices vary between 50 cents per hour and 3 euros per hour.

In terms of the places we know best: in Siena, go park at the stadium (follow the soccer ball symbol) or by the fortress nearby. Remember that on Wednesday most of the public parking spots are taken up by the market.If you park at the stadium you will have to get a ticket when you go in, pay at one of the machines before returning to your car and use the ticket to get out of the parking lot. If you park by the fortress, you will need coins to pay at one of the machines placed throughout the parking lot when you leave the car. Remember to leave the ticket well visible in the car.

In Pisa, most parking spaces are on the street and you need coins to pay at the machines.There are two large park and ride parking lots that are free of charge and you can reach the center by bus (every 10 minutes, 1 euro). They are located in Via Pietrasantina and Via del Brennero.

In general: white lines mean free parking space, blue lines mean pay parking space, yellow lines mean reserved parking space. If all you see around you is white lines, you are probably inside a ZTL. Watch out.

Happy driving!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

italy travel blog roundtableThis is the second post in a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Here you can find the posts of the other bloggers who participate in the roundtable and who, like me, talk about “driving in Italy“:

Alexandra (Arttrav) – It must be a sign: driving in Italy

Jessica (Italylogue) – 3 Dream Drives in Italy

Melanie (Italofile) -Some suggestions for driving in Italy

Rebecca (Brigolante) – Driving in Italy

Comments

  1. Driving in Tuscany: useful and lovingly written article, I am frequently travelling in Southern Tuscany and agree 100 % with you.

    Re. Italian drivers: reckless and dangerous – forget about it, this is a rather unfair myth. On the contrary, I find driving in Italy rather relaxing, ten minutes from the Italian border into Switzerland I am tempted to leave my car in the middle of the highway and have a screaming nervous breakdown!

    I wish all future travellers to Italy happy and safe driving (just avoid the toll stations outside Milano, sorry, there is no getting around them)!

  2. Great driving in Italy FAQ breakdown…and fab tip for car rental deals!

  3. Thank you Barbara and Rebecca! We always use Bravo Fly but this new 1000 euro deposit on your credit card is not a very wise policy I think. Especially if they don’t tell people beforehand.

  4. Excellent write-up on the benefits and hazards of renting a car while in Toscana, and it should help folks who are unfamiliar with the process.

    I am in Italy up to 8 times a year, and I pretty much always rent a car unless I know I’m staying put in a major city like Firenze, Milano, Roma, etc. Generally I have a hard time staying in one spot, as I like exploring the tiny towns and sparsely populated regions. When I’m on my wine-work, I need to be able to get to wine producers who often are in far flung places — a car is a must.

    A couple of comments:
    * Gas IS expensive by American standards (maybe not so much by English or other standards). Last time I was there in May, gas was the equivalent of 8 bucks a gallon — ouch. That said, you buy a lot of freedom with that $8 gas.
    * When renting a car, go with an all-included, prepaid rate. I usually get a decent, C-class car for $40-50/day all-inclusive, which is pretty much a steal in any country. Hertz often runs specials, but I also use the cheap car rental offered on ryanair.com — probably the cheapest around, if you can make the pickup and dropoff locations work. Helpful Hint: You can book pickup and dropoff locations at an airport served by Ryanair, then go to the Hertz website afterwards and change the pickup and dropoff locations for no charge or change fee.
    * If you’re spending any significant amount of time in a big city, park the car outside of town or get rid of it entirely. A good example for visiting Rome without dropping off your car is to park in Orvieto and take the train in. A car is a headache in nearly any big city.

    Ciao!
    Michael

  5. Hi Michael, thank you for your comment! Those are great tips!

  6. Carol Engmann

    I have just started reading this blog and find it very interesting. My family and I (husband and 3 kids-12, 16,18) are planning a trip to Italy next summer and wondering if I can pick your collective brains? Our trip will be about 10 days and I am thinking we would fly into Rome, spend 4-5 days there, make our way to Florence (maybe a side trip to Pisa) and then finish off in Venice and hopefully fly home from there. While I don’t want to make this a crazy, busy vacation, I am not sure when we will get back to Italy and want to see as much as we can. Can anyone give me some suggestions based on this itinerary?

    Graci!

    Caro

    • My family and I will be traveling to Italy June 2015 for 10 days to 2 weeks. We are 2 grandparents, and 18 year old grandson and his parents. We thought we would travel to the Tucana area and have this as our home base, then go to Rome, Florence each for a one day trip. Then go to Venice for 2 days and back to the home base to fly home. Do you have any suggestions for this tirp it is our very first time to Italy. Would love to have some advice.
      Toby McCarthy

      • Hi Toby, that is a lovely trip you have ahead of you! Florence is in Tuscany in fact. You mean the countryside of Tuscany? A one day trip in Rome is nothing. There is so much to see in Rome, that that is a trip in its own right. Florence has much to see too. My only suggestion would be to dedicate more time to Rome or skip it. Other than that, enjoy!

  7. Hi Carol,

    10 days is not a long time but if you only make three stops you can have a nice vacation. Consider that depending on when in the summer you are planning to come, part of the day is too hot to do anything, especially in Rome and Florence.

    Maybe churches and museums, that are cooler.

    If you spend 4 or 5 days in Rome, I wouldn’t do much else but then see Florence and Venice, both of which would deserve at least the same time.

    Maybe you could do 4 nights in Rome (considering the first day you will be tired from travelling), 4 nights in Florence and 2 in Venice? Not because Venice doesn’t deserve more, but because with 4 nights in Florence you might have time for a day trip to Pisa and one to Siena, which is really beautiful. That would leave you 2 full days in Florence and two in Venice. Not much but at least you can get the gist of the place.

    For this trip you can do without a car. Rome, Florence and Venice are easily reachable by train (fast line), Pisa is very easy from Florence by train and Siena is very easy from Florence by bus.

    I hope this helps.

  8. Gary

    Ciao Gloria!
    Thanks for your insightful article. I am planning a trip for next March through April and to this point intend on leasing a car from Australia. The French car companies: Renault, Citroen & Peugeot have lease deals where you get a new car, pay for it in Australia and pick it up in France (or Italy with a surcharge). However, so far I’ve not been able to get a travelling companion and so may have to ditch this plan due to the inability to share lease cost and petrol. But as I am planning to see Southern Tuscany, I agree with you that a car would be ideal, especially as I plan to visit many hilltop villages. I suppose I can rent when I get to Italy but I am wary of the cost.

    • You should take a look at the cost of renting a car through http://www.bravofly.com Be aware that some of the agencies which offer lower prices will ask to put 1000 euros on your credit card as a damage deposit. The prices are very competitive though.

  9. Robb

    What a useful article !
    I’ll add a few points of my own (from my own experience – I guess that’s what a blog is all about, right? :)….This is mainly for Americans, haha! Anyway, here goes:

    1) in July 2010, I rented my car on arrival at Pisa’s Gallileo Airport from Hertz. They spoke perfetct English, which was helpful. I had reserved a small manual transmission car, but the nice gentleman offered an automatic at no extra cost. My point is: increasing numbers of Americans don’t know how to drive a manual “stick shift”. But, they are widely used in Europe. So specify what you want. I grew up driving manuals, so it was no problem either way for me…

    2) Yes, I also had heard “Italian driving is crazy”. And No, it isn’t true! At first I thought “My God, they do everything but actually hit each other!” but that’s exactly the point – the entire two weeks, I saw only one ‘wreck’ and it was totally minor – one driver tapped another at a slow intersection…By contrast, I can expect to see on average a wreck per day in Charlotte NC, USA….
    My father was a GI (US soldier) in Europe in 1959-1964. He says that back then, every car in Europe was dented. The Europeans were TERRIBLE drivers, while drivers in the USA were much more experienced on the roads. (We also had a more highly developed traffic system, at that point). What has happened now is Europe has caught up with us, but without putting a stoplight every 50m in town. And Americans have become much more aggressive on the road (think our big SUVs), and dependent on ‘controls’ like stoplights and standardized signs. The Italian driving development over the years was different – people learned to drive “with the flow”. This disconcerts Americans – but it works! Today, I’d bet Americans actually have a significantly higher proportion of wrecks than Italians…

    3) Roundabouts: Americans don’t really know them. Again, we’re used to the stoplight intersection. But the roudabouts work very well – just don’t stop in one of them! If you think you missed your turn off, go around again until you identify it and then pull out…

    4) YES, rent a small car…an SUV is not needed…As far as parking, I never had any real problem. Maybe I just got lucky, but it didn’t seem much worse than looking for a space in an unfamiliar US city…

    — Robb

    • Thank you for your comment Robb! I am sure people will find your points very useful!

  10. cynthia

    today we were pulled over by the police. They were set up on the road just outside of greve. They had us pull into a parking lot, but they asked if we were tourists and when we said yes they send us on. Curious…is that how they check to see if locals have the proper paperwork?

    • They have to do a certain number of routine controls every day. I would say that this is the only case you get stopped. I have never seen anybody stopped for an infraction, in fact.

  11. Marco

    Hi everyone!
    I just came back from a 2 weeks trip to Italy and loved it!
    We mainly stayed in big cities but reserved 4 days for Tuscany, which was a great way to rest from the city-tourism we did in Venice and Florence (and later, Rome).

    As I said, we rented a car to visit Tuscany, and I can’t see how we could do it otherwise, especially in southern Tuscany: it’s wonderfull.

    The best experience we had was trying to get from Siena to Montalcino using nothing but printed roadmaps and asking people along the way. We got off course, unexpectingly travelling through small towns and seizing the beatifull october landscapes… Don’t be afraid to get lost: if you do get lost, use highways to get where you want (tolls aren’t that expensive, anyway) if it helps.

    Thank you Gloria.

    • thank you for the comment!

  12. Maureen Peterson

    I nearly got thrown in the slammer driving the wrong way for 3 sec at a bus station, not even on a real road…and fined a lot of money. And the idiot cop acted like he didnt know english…he did. Just watch it and plan your driving and parking. I would say parking is the hard part!

  13. ami kramer

    Planning on renting a place sept 22-29th in Florence. Have been told no car is necessary. Wish to go to the countryside but already paying for the apt in town. Help me plan please…

    • If you want to explore the countryside you will need a car. You can rent one just for the days on which you plan to venture south of Florence. In the city itself a car is not necessary nor recommendable because traffic is bad and driving is tricky.

  14. Giovanni

    Hi Gloria, I just discovered your blog as I am travelling through Italy for approximately 27 days with 6 days traveling through southern Tuscany . So this blog will be very helpful over the next few months and I hope you won’t mind me picking your brain….regards Giovanni

    • Hi Giovanni, not at all! Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Dear Gloria, I am finding your blog very useful to plan my family trip to Toscany. I like the way you describe everything. I am still hesitating what place we should select as a base. We are planning to go there on the last week of July and first week of August (2 weeks). We want to rent a car in order to have the flexibility and convinience to visit the most important places of Toscany. We are looking for a nice place, where we can really appreciate the italian culture (people, places and food). We will be like 6 adults ( or so). Also, is Jul/Aug peak season and therefore, would it be hard to find a place to rent?
    Well any advice from you will be highly appreciate.
    thank you

  16. Hi Gloria,
    Great blog! I wonder of you can help me..?

    I’m an artist planning to take my partner to Tuscany. We want to spend two weeks absent-mindedly driving around from village to village, with occasional visits to Pisa, Florence & Sienna… (when we’ll take your ‘park & ride’ advice).

    My reason for writing is that my partner’s really into gastronomy – and I was wondering if you have any ideas or recommendations for someone like her who is interested in cooking and loves to sample food (& wine) in foreign countries..?

    All the best,
    Glenn x.

    • Hi Glenn, you should take a cooking class and maybe a wine tour. Have you considered any of these things? Also a “different” activity might be either go visit a chocolate factory or the covered market in Florence! Besides the obvious going to eat in recommended restaurants.

  17. Silvia

    Hi Gloria,
    I’m so glad I came across your blog! I’m going to Italy with my family for the first time in a couple of weeks. I’m staying in Montecatini Terme for 9 nights and then going to Rome for 4 days. We are planning to visit Pisa and Siena each for a day, and then make 2-3 day trips to Florence from Montecatini before we head for Rome. My original plan was to make all these trips by train but I don’t know if it might be better to rent a car for our entireTuscany stay and then take the train to Rome, or just rent a car for the days we plan to make the trips to Florence or the countryside. Thanks in advance for your help!!!!

    • Hi Silvia, in Northern Tuscany you do not need a car. Montecatini is well connected to all those places. I wouldn’t rent a car. It is southern Tuscany that is quite remote.

  18. keerthana

    Hi Gloria. Grt tips on drive in in tuscsny.
    My husband and I with our 2 daughters aged 5 & 8 are planning on driving from rome into the tuscany area for 2-3 days. Currently then plan is :
    We lv from rome on 6th Aug morning and reach seina by mid day (debating abt stopping at orveito enroute). See seina and then drive down to San gimigiano for the night. Or wld seina be better?
    Then nxt day drive to pisa and then from there to lucca. Spend the night there.
    Day 3 eve bk to Florence..

    How and when dominated or can I fit I chianti wine yards? Or wldmunrecomend a different route from day 2 Nd then dompisa lucca by train from florence later.

    any help would be welcome.
    Thanks,
    keerthana

  19. Dia

    Wow. So glad I found this incredibly helpful article. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it!

  20. Kelly

    Hello Gloria,

    These tips are all so helpful. I am making my first trip to Italy in August for a much delayed honeymoon and overwhelmed with figuring out the cheapest transportation options outside large cities. We are spending 5 days in Rome then staying in a Villa for several days about 35 minutes west of Orvieto. Would you recommend a train from Rome to Orvieto then renting a car or taking a taxi? The transfer fee associated with the villa we are staying at is $148 to and from Orvieto station. Is it worth renting a car as opposed to the above fee? I would love to see the countryside but trying to figure out where to rent a car and weighing the costs. Thank you so much!

    • I would definitely rent a car in Rome and keep it for the entire time you are in Umbria. Just like in Tuscany, the journeys and the scenic drives themselves make half the vacation.

  21. Claudio

    Hello Gloria,
    very interesting article thanks.
    I myself run a car rental website in Tuscany and have to point out that most of the customers rarely read thoroughly the “terms and conditions” when renting a car so most of them have no clue when we talk about the “deposit requirements”. Generally, when collecting the car you will be required to leave a deposit to the value of the excess between €1000 and €2000 (depending on the size/type of car rented). Most people do not know this and most of the time the booking cannot be completed resulting in a cancellation.

    Thanks for reading and have a nice day.
    Claudio

  22. Atiqah

    Hi,

    I’m planning to visit the Val d’orcia region in early december this year. Probably renting a car from Siena and driving down (thinking of returning it at Grosseto before we take the train to Rome). I was wondering what will be the road conditions like? Do you recommend renting a car and driving around the region during that time of the year? Or should i forgo the whole idea of visiting the region in the december. I’m pretty nervous about driving in Italy because where i come from (Singapore), it’s right-hand driving and we have no ‘winter’ road conditions. I would love to see the countryside though. Thanks!

    • Hi, it is hard to say. you might find very nice winter days or very cold and wet days. It is very unpredictable. the only thing that is certain is that days are very short, and it gets dark around 4pm.

  23. Hi Gloria,
    I am planning to visit Tuscany with my husband and 2 teenage daughters end of august starting from florence 2 days then san giminiano, sienne, pienze all the way to montepulciano to sleep there.
    Then go to saturnia and pitigliano.
    Safety is my main concern… Are the roads safe? Is it safe to leave luggage in car while visiting all these towns? Can we park the car easily to visit the towns?

    Thank you

    • You will be fine. The roads are relatively safe, if you are careful. No problem for leaving luggage in the car in Saturnia and Pitigliano, not sure about San Gimignano. The more touristy the area, the less safe it is.

  24. Hi! We will be in Tuscany next month. Would you please explain how the toll roads work? How do you get on and off of them, and when and how do you pay? Also, if we decide to park outside of the towns for free and walk in, do we just park on the side of the road? Thanks so much. I’ve been a little nervous about the driving!

    • You will get at a booth at the beginning of the toll road and you have to press a button to get a ticket. When you exit you will have to stop at another booth where you hand in the ticket and pay the amount due. To get on and off you follow green signs. You can park where there are white parking lines or no signs which means no parking…

  25. Hi Gloria,
    Great article – thank you for all the advice!
    My mom and I are headed to Italy next month and after 4 days in Rome and before a week in Florence, we have a 5 night stay near Tuscany; in Citta della Pieve. I have read a lot about NOT driving in Rome, therefore our thought was to take a train north of the city and rent a car from a smaller town. After 5 days, we would return the car there and then take train up to Florence – is this a good idea? If so, do you have any suggestions about smaller towns to rent a car from?
    Thanks!

    • You could rent in Orvieto.

  26. Fantastic blog.
    I was born and and live in Greece and the 2nd place on earth I would like to live is Tuscany.
    Hope and plan to be there next year.
    Keep doing this great work with the blog !!!

    Evangelia

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