Contrary to Popular Opinion . . . driving in Italy is not an extreme sport!
Although Italy has an excellent network of motorways (Autostrade), Americans generally find driving in Italy somewhat intimidating. They would rather be lulled into the complacency of a motorbus tour or buy a pass on the Trenitalia. Both have their place and for some may be the best way to travel but don't be overly concerned about driving in Italy.
Here are 5 things you must do before you drive in Italy
Have a well-planned itinerary and thoroughly familiarize yourself with it before you go. Don't be too ambitious. Pick a route and follow it and know where you're going. This is no time to improvise. Calculate your daily driving distance and remember that although the distance between Castellina in Chianti and Siena is only 10-12 miles (16.4km) because of the winding roads (Via Chiantigiana Road Highway Strada Regionale SR222 / Strada Statale SS222) it may take at least a half hour to get there.
Have a GPS, a good road atlas and regional touring books. They are mandatory. I have driven in Italy for over 19 years and now my Michelin Tourist and Motoring Atlas and TCI maps are dog eared and falling apart. Today there are many online options including your mobile phone. I choose several as I’ve heard the shrill “recalculating” on my GPS too many times to rely on only one set of directions.
Understand that everyone gets lost in Italy, even Italians! So be prepared with some common Italian phrases and vocabulary to get help. Sono perso (I am lost). Aiutami! (pronounced ay-yoo-tateh-mee) (Help me) and Ho bisogno di indicazioni (I need directions) and two more things semaforo is stoplight in Italian and girare is to turn ovest (west) ,est (east), sud (south) and nord (north).
At times it seems that directions want you to turn everywhere at once meaning that Italian road signs are different. Familiarize yourself with them before you go or you may end up on a Chevy Chase round about very confused.
Rent a car before you go so that terms and arrangements for pick up will be in place before you leave and you will understand what you will be getting and ask for one that is small. There is a reason Italians drive small cars and it isn't just because of the price of fuel. Think of where you will be driving and more importantly where you will be parking. For all practical purposes there is no parking in Italy. Your choice of car is pivotal to a pleasurable driving experience inItaly. I have driven a Fiat, Lancia, Peugeot, Opal, PT Cruiser and Jaguar in Italy. You want to have enough trunk space but you want the car to be small enough to negotiate the narrow streets of the towns and villages you want to visit, make a quick exit off the autostrada, get out of a roundabout and get on or off the tangenziale/bypass (beltway around the city). All terms and arrangements for pick up will be in place before you leave and you will understand what you will be getting.
Understand how Italian's drive. Italian's are confident drivers who feel they know what needs to be done in order to get from one place to another. They may follow too close (but then again they have a different system of measurement than we do), they are opportunistic and want to fill in the space between each car length (but then again their country is smaller than ours) and they drive faster than we do ((I call the left lane, the passing lane on the Autostrada, the Ferrari lane). But they are not foolhardy and contrary to popular opinion they do obey travel signals. They are very courteous drivers on the Autostrada, using the passing lane only to pass.