Is your dream to visit Tuscany but you're wondering how to get around to see the World Heritage sites and savor the local food and wine? You could take public transportation but buses and trains are limited in Tuscany. Of course there's private transport or various Tuscany tours, but while it's private and luxurious, that can also be pricey. It's a huge region and many travelers find themselves intimidated at the thought of driving Tuscany. You really don’t need a car in the cities, but if you truly want to immerse yourself in the sites, sounds, and local culture in the region's villages and small towns, do yourself a favor - rent a car in Italy!
Tip #1: Pick Up Your Rental at the Airport
We've driven in quite a few countries in our travels so as usual we reserved a vehicle on-line prior to our arrival in Italy. If there’s an airport near the place you’ll be visiting in Italy, pick up your rental there even if it means taking a cab or bus from your lodging to the rental agency at the airport. For us, it was the Florence Airport. This way you can avoid mistakenly driving into a ZTL (Restricted Traffic Zone) within the city you’re visiting and incurring a hefty fine. These zones are common in Italy and can be tricky to navigate. Best to avoid them altogether (see Tip #6).
Tip #2: A GPS is indispensable.
We'd originally reserved a Fiat 500 with no GPS, but ended up getting majorly upgraded to a hot sports car (Alfa Romeo Giulia) with a GPS. Seriously! We had armed ourselves with the usual guide books and road maps thinking we’d find our way on our own. But a GPS proved to be indispensable. It made getting around Tuscany so much easier. Not once did we have to wonder where the heck we were. Sure, the maps and guide books were great references, but the GPS allowed us to wander down secondary country roads and always return to where we wanted to go.
Tip #3: Roundabouts, Circles & Rotundas, oh my!
The drive from the Florence Airport to our hotel in Pancole, a small - and I mean small - village just a short distance from San Gimignano proved to be relatively simple. And this is from someone who gets turned around fairly easily. The roads and highways were well marked and smoothly paved if not narrow in places. If you're not familiar with roundabouts, traffic circles, or rotundas, they are traffic circles built into roadways to keep traffic moving (as in, no traffic lights). They're common in the northeast USA and they're all over Italy. But if you're unfamiliar with them, the dreaded roundabout can be intimidating. As you come into the circle, keep an eye out for which road you need to turn off of the circle and continue to your destination (another great reason to have a GPS). If you miss your turn, don’t panic. Just go around again until you get it right!
Tip #4: Watch Your Speed
As you enter and exit towns, or anywhere there is a change in the speed limit, be assured that there is also a fixed speeding camera or a roadside speed camera. And there are a lot of them. Do a search online and you’ll come up with literally thousands of posts expressing frustration at Italy’s form of speed enforcement. And you don’t have to be going a certain amount over the posted limit to be in violation. A few km over the posted limit will get you a ticket. I speak from personal experience. After driving in countries all over the world without issue, I received a notice from Hertz rental agency 5 months after we returned home that I'd be receiving a speeding ticket. Several months later I still hadn't received the ticket or fine and had no idea where we were when I busted the limit or by how much. This, however, won’t dissuade us from renting in Italy again. I missed something somewhere and will just need to watch even closer for the speed traps. For us, driving ourselves around is still well worth the experience.
Tip #5: Don't 'Keep Up With Traffic"
This is a biggie! Don’t assume that following along with speeding cars on the highway (keeping up with traffic) will keep you out of harm’s way if you go along with them, unlike driving in the US. Italy has another system on highways - the Tutor System - that will snap a photo of every car that passes the first camera (usually fixed on an overpass). Then about 10-20 kilometers later it snaps a photo again. The speed of the vehicles is then averaged, and if your average speed is over the limit, you're getting a ticket along with everyone else.
Tip #6: Avoid the ZTL!
Most if not all the small towns you may visit in Tuscany will have a historic district with a ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato, or Restricted Traffic Zone). We found these zones to be well-marked as we walked from parking. The sign is a white circle with a red border usually blank in the center but may sometimes have Zona Traffico Limitato spelled out. Park outside the ZTL in designated parking lots that don’t require a permit, and walk. Most all parking areas had a machine to pay the parking fee for whatever length of time you select. Some accept credit cards and all accepted Euros, then give you a receipt to place on your dashboard.
Tip #7: Know the Traffic & Road Signs
It seems like a basic tip to cover, but we know from experience that in your excitement to be driving yourself around Tuscany, you may have neglected to really familiarize yourself with basic traffic and road signs. We get it! :-) But the bottom line is that if you’re going to rent a car, get to know the basics. Most of these are shown in travel guides and maps but here are some good ones to start:
- Blue signs indicate main highways/roads, that are not the Autostrada.
- Green signs indicate the Autostrada, which is a toll road.
- A large sign with a policeman with one handless arm extended means you are entering a Speed Surveillance Area - so watch your speed.
- No Parking signs are blue circles with a red border and a red diagonal slash through the center.
- No Stopping signs (blue with a red border and have a red “X” instead of a single slash) so don’t park here either.
- Parking in designated parking lots. These are indicated by a solid blue square with a big white capital “P” as you might expect.
Have you driven in Tuscany - or other parts of Italy? What are we missing?