Italy isn't a very big country, but a lot changes as you drive north. The economy picks up, for one thing. Northern Italy, many people say, is the tugboat that pulls Italy along, while southern Italy is the anchor.
Just like everywhere else, there are different types of roads in Italy - from big multi-lane highways to small and winding gravel country roads. There are only a couple types of roads in Italy which have general names.
The rest are going to be referred to by their number or individual name.
The one you’ve probably heard of is the biggest kind of road - the Autostrada (or Autostrade, in the plural). It’s akin to the biggest highway network in any country, and it’s probably going to be the fastest way to get between big cities in Italy. Almost all of the Autostrade are, however, toll roads - so it’s not necessarily the cheapest route. On Italian driving maps, you’ll see the Autostrade marked as A roads - A1, A14, A29, etc. Note that they sometimes overlap with E roads, so that one stretch of road will be labeled with both an A number and an E number.
Some of the smallest roads in Italy are shown on maps made by Touring Club Italiano (the Italian equivalent of the AAA) as white lines, so these are known in Italy as “white roads” or strade bianche. These white roads are really small, and very rarely paved. In fact, they’re known as great roads for walking on because of how few cars pass by! Unless you’re really taking some wrong turns (or your agriturismo is on a white road), you probably won’t drive on these.
Between these two extremes, there are two other general groups for roads - major roads and minor roads. Some major roads have more than one lane going in each direction, and most minor roads have only one lane going in each direction. Most major roads aren’t terribly windy and are still relatively good at getting you quickly from place to place. Most minor roads are going to be a bit more meandering and will give you what you could call the scenic route. You may very well drive from one to the other of these types and back again without realizing it.
The first thing you need to know- you need an international driver’s license. Italy does require foreign drivers to carry an international driving license when they’re driving in Italy. The International translation of Drivers License is printed in 8 languages: the five United Nations official languages (English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese) as well as German and Sweden or Italian. It is also easy to apply for and does not require taking a driving test. The translation of your native drivers license as well as international driver's license or international driving permit also can't be used in place of a suspended or revoked driving licence.You are not allowed to present your International Drivers License ( or international driving licence ) as the main document because it is only a translation of your original driver's license.
A discussion of the different kinds of roads in Italy leads me to this point, and my answer is a resounding yes. That giant Michelin map you got to help you figure out what cities you were watching zoom by outside the train window is great for an overview of the country, but if you’re going to be doing more driving in Italy than just going from big city to big city I highly recommend buying a much more detailed map - and buying it in Italy.
The Touring Club Italiano makes some very nice driving maps, so if you can find one of those that’s a good option. But many towns sell really specific regional maps - and I’m talking about specificity on the scale of “this is a map of just the Chianti region, not all of Tuscany” - which are ideal for drivers. They’re so detailed they could be a bit daunting at first, but they have the benefit of being more precise so you stand a better chance of figuring out just where you are when you eventually get lost and stop to ask directions.
On the Autostrada, the maximum speed is 130km/h in most cases, although a law passed in 2003 changed it to 150km/h on some 3-lane highways that have emergency lanes. On other roads, the maximum speed can vary from 110km/h to 50km/h, so the best advice is to pay attention to the road signs and see what the posted speed limit is. You don’t want to get pulled over for speeding in Italy - the fines are hefty. Speed limit signs in Italy are round and white with a red circle around them and the speed - in kilometers per hour - in black in the center. An example is in the photo to the right.Note that when it’s been raining heavily, the speed limit drops by 10-20km/h - which may or may not be posted. So if the roads are wet, slow down.
No matter what you’re used to doing at home, the idea of the left lane being used strictly for passing is much more adhered to in Italy. If you’re just cruising along, get into the right lane. Pass on the left, and then get back into the right lane. Additionally, in Italy they keep their directional signal on while they’re passing and don’t turn it off until they’re moving back into the right lane - this indicates that they’re just going to be using the left lane for passing, and won’t hang out there.
All cars are required to have their headlights on at all times while driving, day or night.
Seat belts must be worn at all times.
Mobile phones may only be used with a headset or hands-free device.
All cars must have “safety vests” in the car - those reflective vests - in case you need to pull over on the road and get out of the car. They’re mandatory in several European countries now, and if you’re renting a car make sure the vests are in the car before you drive away from the rental car agency. Also, put the vests in the car itself, not in the trunk - the idea is you put them on before you get out of the car in an emergency situation, so having them in the trunk may not be considered in compliance with the law.
Italy’s drunk-driving laws are very strict - don’t drink and drive!