Driving in Europe is great fun. Figuring out all of the little details can be the opposite, so I’ve compiled a little list of tips, tricks and signage that might be helpful to know ahead of time. I spend the majority of my time in Italy, so that’s the country I’m basing this on, other countries will have variations.
Limited Traffic Zones
While I find driving in Europe in the countryside to be fun, the cities can be tricky. One of the major headaches is that many cities have limited traffic, allowing only cars of local residents in the center. Signs at the streets on the edges of town will indicate this, usually with the indication of a limited traffic zone or ZTL in Italian. If you cross the border of a limited traffic zone…nothing will happen. Or so it will seem. However, there may be cameras taking note of all cars coming and going from the limited traffic area. If you cross that boundary, you may not know you’ve been caught until after you get home and find a ticket in your mailbox. The moral of the story is simple- park outside of the town walls and walk in. Almost every city will have a parking lot just outside of town with good signs leading to it.
If you are planning to stay at a hotel in the historical center of a town, ask ahead of time about how to get there and ask about the limited traffic zone. I recently stayed in the center of a Tuscan village. I parked outside of the city walls and walked to the hotel to get the local pass to drive in the center, then moved my car. If I’d have thought about it, I probably could have had them email the pass to me and saved time.
Road signs can be a little confusing in Europe, it’s a good idea to look them up and know before you go. They tend to be pretty standard across Europe but differ from the US.
Once you get the hang of these signs, it’s a snap. As an aside, I love the graphic design quality of the street signs, so this could be a fun scrapbook project, take pictures of all the different versions you find.
Navagating from city to city while driving in Europe is pretty easy. Even without GPS, you can navigate by using signs, knowing which cities are between you and your destination.
Do not fear the roundabout, they are your friend! They take some getting used to, but after you get the hang of it, you’ll wish we had them in the US, rather than traffic signals. Watch the signs, slow down before you get to the roundabout and study your options.
You will, by instinct, want to stop before entering a roundabout but don’t, it’s a yield, not a stop. If you’re taking the first or second exit, stay to the right. You should keep left initially if you’re going farther around, then merge for your exit. And here’s a little tip to save your sanity- it’s ok to go around and around the roundabout. If I’m not sure about the exit, I’ll go to the left lane and take another turn around. And another if I have to. It’s ok. The other drivers know you’re a tourist!
Parking is one of the biggest drawbacks to driving in Europe. We are so used to plentiful free parking in the US, it comes as a bit of a shock that it really doesn’t exist in Europe. You can’t simply park as you like when you find an empty space in the center of towns, some spots are reserved for locals.
The first clue is to look for colors of lines on the ground: white is free, orange/yellow is handicapped or locals only, blue is paid parking. The old system of paid parking involves going to the local tobacco shop and buying a parking ticket, which looks like a lotto ticket, then scratching off your return time. When I recently rented a car, I only encountered paid spots with automated pay stations. These work as they do in the US: you put in as much money as you need and a timed ticket is printed to go on your dashboard.
If you find a white spot, or one with no markings, you should be fine to park there for free. Check for signs that may indicate how long you can stay for.
If your rental car came with a paper disk attached to the the windshield, this is a time dial for parking spaces. When you park in a zone that is free but has limited time, you are supposed to set the paper clock to your arrival time.
Whenever you park anywhere, be sure that you have everything locked in the trunk. Seriously, leave nothing in the car. I leave all kinds of stuff in my car in the US, but I’ve been trained by my European friends to never ever do that, especially in Italy. Violent crime is rare in Europe but theft is not. Smashed windows are a bummer. Only thing I’ll leave in the car is stinky shoes or snotty tissues, you know, theft deterrent!
One other tip, if you plan to park overnight you may want to ask around for a secured parking lot, or a lot that typically has an attendant. It may cost a bit more to park, but the peace of mind is worth it.
For more great tips on driving in Europe, check out Rick Steves’ advice here.