Driving in Italy, in other words the types of roads you'll find, where you have to pay a toll, scenic routes to cover in Italy, what driving safely means and what to expect from the other drivers.
Driving in Italy is probably only advisable for those coming from neighboring European countries, for those who are spending a considerable amount of time in Italy, or for travellers who are concentrating their vacation in one particular region or relatively small geographical area, such as people renting villas in countryside. Ever-increasing fuel costs, tolls, high parking fees and other hassles make using public transport services or choosing tours a more viable option.
The system of roads is divided into autostrade (toll highways) which most people use when travelling long distances. For example, from Florence to Venice the toll would be around 20 EUR (approximately 29 USD), and would take about 3 hours with not to much traffic. The toll highways are well equipped with plenty of service areas where you can stop to eat and to purchase local speciality goods of that particular region you are going through. The toll highways are constantly patrolled by HELP cars that assist motorists.
The speed limit on the highways, unless otherwise signposted, is usually 130 km/hour (80 mph). Most of them have excellent driving surfaces, even if sometimes the road works could make some sections – see in this moment the section between Bologna and Florence – particularly dangerous. Also, note you can find bottlenecks around particular junctions where the highway's traffic joins local traffic, and the results can be horrendous.
You could find particularly bad areas in and around big cities like Milan, Bologna and Rome. Although, the A4 highway approaching Mestre-Venice, in both directions, can have lines of traffic several kilometres long. Try to avoid driving on the highways at peak hours, such as 8 - 10 a.m. and 6 - 8 p.m. Also, try to avoid driving in Italy in August altogether, when it seems the whole Italy is on the road taking their annual vacation.
Superstrade are like county roads, semi-highways and usually single-lane roads that were the old highways of Italy. Surfaces vary greatly, and on these routes you'll probably enjoy more scenery, but as they pass through communities, the speed limit is usually lower. These roads are free of charge and in some cases they may actually be quicker than the autostrada. From Pisa to Florence, it's actually quicker taking the superstrada (signposted with SS plus the specific number) than the Florence to Pisa highway.
Regular roads in Italy offer a varied mixture of challenges, from uneven and poorly maintained surfaces to hairpin bends along the shorelines and up in the mountains, as well as the challenges posed by the Italian drivers themselves. Italians do crazy things when they find themselves behind the steering wheel. They can certainly become aggressive and, if they all drive in that way it would make it a lot easier to drive in Italy. But, Italians are also superstitious people and some are completely the opposite, being over-cautious drivers, who might stop in the middle of a highway to make sure they have read a traffic sign correctly.
Scenic routes, such as wine roads and coastal routes, are well indicated, generally with brown coloured road signs. Signs in Italy do not automatically follow each other, so if you are following indications to a particular place and then you arrive at a junction with no indication at all, you have to continue straight ahead. (Something obvious for an Italian, but not for the rest of the world!)
Fuel costs are constantly increasing in Italy, one of the most expensive countries in Europe, after Holland. So, as you drive around check out the fuel prices. Sometimes they are considerably higher along the highways than on regular roads. A USA gallon of petrol costs around 6.68 EUR (9.28 USD). The cars might be more fuel efficient in Europe, but travelling by car is not cheaper than travelling by rail. In fact, two people travelling by high-speed trains from Florence to Venice would pay around 5EUR more than if they were travelling by car, and you also have to consider the parking expenses.
The concept of parking in Italy typifies the laws and regulations of the country. Some Italians follow these laws, others completely ignore them. In the meantime, Italian police seem to have nothing to do with it. In Rome – where parking just doesn't exist – it has become almost acceptable to park your car anywhere there is space off-road. If you do this in Milan, your car will be towed straightaway.
Always follow the rules when driving in Italy, because even though Italians might get away with this kind of things, as a foreigner you have no excuse. Remember, before arriving in a city, be sure to have your route planned ahead of time, including parking options. Regarding parking, you might not know that in small villages, and especially hilly towns, it's limited and the streets are narrow and confusing, and full of pedestrians.
When renting a car, unless you are planning to leave and arrive at the airport with the rented car, you can arrange to pick your vehicle up downtown to avoid extra expenses and time involved in returning to the airport to collect or deliver your vehicle.
Driving can be fun in Italy, you just need to be prepared with plenty of maps as well as patience. Many car rental companies offer GPS for an extra fee, which may make sense if you're planning on driving a lot. Avoid using the car horn as it's actually banned in many areas of towns and cities, and in certain areas of Italy it might create events of road rage.