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opinion please....drive or train/bus around central and northern Italy in summer?

I am hoping (Covid gods willing) to spend 10-12 weeks next summer traveling around north central Italy, Essentially, I'm thinking of a circuit roughly from Genoa, Pisa. Cinque Terre in the west, Tuscany, Florence, Lucca, Sienna, Orvieto, then east and north to Perugia, Ravenna, Verona and then perhaps a foray north toward Lake Como or Maggiore. I typically arrange house swaps in central-ish areas for stays of a week or more and take day trips from there. I have done similar trips in France, traveling by car from one stopping pointy to the next and have mixed feelings about repeating the experience in Italy. I don't mind the driving and enjoy the views as I meander from one place to another. And I love the freedom to make stops along the way and to easily drive to out of the way villages and points of interest from my lodging point. BUT, it can be tiring and, as I am a solo traveler, a bit isolating.

So, looking for advice on how much I'd gain...or lose...by relying on public transit. Thanks!

Posted by
3342 posts

Why limit it to one or the other? Your areas of interest are fairly close together, with numerous train lines, so train/bus is easier than dealing with all the 'no drive' zones of these locations. Those are the pains that come back and bite you in the butt in the form of fines, sometimes several years after returning home. Also, given that you want to go in the summer, high season, add pedistrian traffic and higher tourist road traffic, it's going to be even more exhausting. However, a car trip into the Piedmont, or wine country north of Verona could be done.

Posted by
1662 posts

Agree with response Number one, it is not an either/or proposition. Most places on your list are more easily connected by transit. Once the trip is fully fleshed out, you can decide if it is worthwhile to have a car for a bit.

Posted by
34 posts

I enjoy driving but I don't think I will ever rent a car in Italy again. We rented a car in Florence because we wanted to drive to Greve to tour the Verrazzano winery. Then continue on to Sienna and then return to Florence. The Verrazzano hilltop winery tour was definitely the high point of the day. Like a Tuscan dream! But sometime during the day a camera ticketed us for being on a car free street. Also, parking can be hard to find and expensive; and by the end of the day we were exhausted. We should have either broken up the day into 2 days or we should have hired a driver. I'm just sayin . . .

Bradley George Gold
Los Angeles CA

Posted by
139 posts

We have driven in that area many times and had a great experience. There pros and cons of driving versus bus or trains. Cars will be a pain in big cities, but invaluable in more rural areas. Parking can be a challenge. The advantage is the freedom to move around as you wish.

We have travelled by train. It has some challenges, You are constrained by the schedule of the train. Stations are not always located in a convenient place. While you may travel light suitcases need to be moved on and off trains. It may be difficult to find a seat on a train.

So there are pluses and minuses to each approach.

Enjoy your trip

Posted by
20833 posts

...It may be difficult to find a seat on a train..... That is only true if you are using the Regional trains. All other trains require a seat reservation so finding a seat is not a problem but that also locks you into a specific train, date, and time. Two advantages to Regional trains -- ticket are very cheap and you can use the any Regional train going in the correct direction within the time window of your ticket. Lot of last minute flexibility with Regional train but they are the slowest and stop a nearly every station.

Posted by
66 posts

the caveat being i travel solo so its not worth the money to rent a car by myself and i love driving. i can drive 10-12 hours straight if needed

ive been to italy a few times and have always used trains .
from your towns listed , i havent visited 3 of them
if you want to save money , book ahead . i dont do this as i like to keep my schedule flexible
usually lots of different train times so almost never NOT making your next destination
you dont have to worry about driving fines and parking tickets
i walk a city or take transit and assuming you do the same so the majority of the time your rental is parked

if the home you swap is way out of town , then it might be needed

Posted by
3785 posts

We’ve found having a car most helpful when renting a house, and/or traveling outside of urban centers, and when Bigger cities and historic old towns have presented traffic, navigation, and parking challenges, so either parking at the edge of town for the duration of the stay (expensive) or not having a car during that time have worked best.

Posted by
1833 posts

I agree with the above messages, there is no good reason to drive from Genoa to the CiNque Terre villages and from there to Pisa. But driving in the countryside around Siena and Lucca is a wonderful experience.

Keep in mind that You won't be forced to drive into the city centers: you can park in the outskirts and get on a tram (Florence) or just walk in.

You may surprised to hear that Tuscany is a big region where there are also industrialized not-so-nice areas and that Pisa, Florence, Lucca and Siena are cities in Tuscany. Trains from Genoa to Pisa pass through the Cinque Terre area and many* call at Monterosso.

It may be difficult to find a seat on a train.

I can't remember* the last time I had to stand on a Regional train, with the relevant exception of the Regionale stopping in all the Cinque Terre five villages in July.

** b.c19

Posted by
4496 posts

I love Italy and have been there several times. Also, we have a trip planned for a week in Umbria, probably staying In Perugia and taking the train to Umbrian towns and cities.

I have driven in Italy back in the 80s and 90s, but would not drive there now. Don't want to receive a $400 ticket a year later.

We plan to take the trains.

Posted by
1801 posts

As others have said - for connecting cities the train is the way to go. For getting around the Tuscan countryside nothing beats the freedom of a car.
On our own trip back in May of '19 we split the trip between two weeks exploring Tuscany & Umbria by car and the other two weeks in Florence. The two week driving tour was the highlight of the trip quite frankly. I do recommend studying up on the driving (and parking) rules in Italy but we never had any issues with ZTL's, parking or just driving on the roads, which were all excellent.
Regarding your proposed train travel: know that Trenitalia has a very handy smartphone App that is handy for researching timetables and booking trips - on both the Frecce's and the Regionale's. It really couldn't have been easier for us, and it sure beat standing in line at one of the stations to buy a paper ticket. It was especially helpful when booking one of the Regionale trains in that your tickets are delivered to you as an attachment to a confirmatory email. It's already time stamped so you don't have to worry about validating as you do with paper tickets. To access the platforms at the larger stations (SMN for example) you just show the electronic ticket on the phone and they wave you thru. Likewise if challenged on board the train by one of the security checkers you just show the ticket - no muss, no fuss, and no hassle. Recommend it highly.

Posted by
5789 posts

I would take trains for most of it but rent a car for a week or two to explore the area between Siena and Rome -- Tuscany and the area just north of Rome is filled with abbeys, beautiful towns, Etruscan tomb sites, hot springs -- just so many wonderful things that are mostly easily visited by car. Base in a small town -- we spent two weeks in Montepulciano 8 years ago and 15 years ago a week outside Lucignano and decades before that in a small hamlet outside Siena. Tuscany is marvelous and its small treasures are best visited by car. But many of the sites you listed are easily managed by train and having a car is a disadvantage. While the centers of Italian cities cannot be visited by car. (ZTLs), these are clearly marked and small tourist oriented towns have well marked parking lots for tourists so they can avoid those fine laden city centers.

Posted by
6058 posts

When we are not staying in cities in Italy, we always have a car. We do not like being restricted to schedules and limited locations.
I can’t imagine not having a car in either Tuscany or Umbria. I ten trips, we only had a ticket one time.

Posted by
39 posts

Take a train when it makes sense, rent a car when it makes sense. A car is great for Tuscany, Northern Italy, Pulia etc... Trains are great to get you hopping from one to the next when it comes to the bigger cities and towns. Almost impossible to rent a single car for 11-12 weeks anyway.

Posted by
50 posts

A few years back my husband and I rented a car in Turin and drove to Alba, in the Piedmont. There are so many great hilltowns that rival tuscany, every acre covered with vineyards, fantastic restaurants with distinct regional cuisines. We stayed 4 nights in Alba, parked just outside of the center, for free, and did many daytrips. We then drove to Genoa, dropped the car off and used trains from there. Genoa gets very little attention but I think it's a fabulous city with the largest centro in Italy (the carrugi are too narrow to retrofit for most vehicles). The port is amazing with tons to see and do, and the restaurants are fantastic. The hotels are inexpensive and the vibe is very diverse. Then easy train to Cinque Terre and on to Tuscany. You can also take a boat from Genoa to Cinque Terre, which is great fun. We did a half day trip from Genoa to Portofino and back. By train from 5T, I would skip Pisa and transfer to Lucca. We spent 4 nights in Lucca on one trip. You could do it in less, but we like slow travel. From Lucca, Florence by train is a skip. Bus or train to Siena. We took a bus to Siena from Bologna on one trip (the bus stopped in Florence), and rented a car in Siena. We stayed 5N at Agriturismo Marciano, one of the highlights of a fabulous trip. Day trips to so many places: Montepulciano, Montalcino, Pienza (we did 2 of these three in one day), San Gimignano, Volterra, and many others are possible from here. We also dined almost every night at the Agriturismo and met other travelers who had the same itinerary as we had, so we travelled together and are still friends to this day. I know I rambled on, but the point is a mix of methods works the best! Happy travels!

Posted by
507 posts

You should just take public transportation and avoid renting a car.

It takes more work and effort to rent a car versus just taking buses and/or trains - the work of driving such long distances, risk of getting stuck if slow moving traffic, costs of parking, difficulty of finding parking spaces, cost of gas, risk of tickets, risk of vandalism or theft of your rented car, difficulty communicating to the authorities if something bad happens to your rented car, risk of getting a car with manual transmission, and so on.

I am a solo man traveler. So far I have only traveled to Italy once. I only went Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Pompeii. I took the trains. I did not rent a car. I have not rented a car for any part of the 4 solo trips to Europe I took. I am not a fan of driving long distances. I am open minded to changing my mind in case I find a destination that I really want to see that cannot be reached by public transportation. My budget is low yet cost for me probably isn't my top reason against renting a car but maybe would be a secondary reason in favor of buses and/or trains in the unlikely case that the cost of renting a car would be close to the cost of bus and/or train trips.

Posted by
2039 posts

You are probably new on the RS forum. The traffic situation in Italy is completely nuts. The Italy forum is the one where most comments are received about "ticket after 5 years" "I got 3 traffic tickets after returning home". There are 3 such topics right now on the first page of the Italy forum, and I have probably seen 20 in the last 5 years.

There are these ZTL zones which are not clear (or so I deduce from the frequency of comments about this). There are parking issues. I've rented in Germany, Austria, France, Slovenia, Croatia, GB, and several other countries. I would never rent in Italy. Plus, since you are EU, you will be on the hook for any tickets.

Posted by
5789 posts

Mike -- your itinerary was smart by public transport -- a car would have added nothing. The OP is looking at exploring Tuscany and Umbria for considerable time which cannot be done without a car. Buses that exist are designed for students and workers -- to get to the garden, or abbey, or small hilltown, you need a car. To travel to Pisa, and Florence, and Rome and Pompeii and Venice a car would be a hinderance.

Paul -- we have driven a total of about two months in Italy over 35 or so years -- most of our travels there used public transport, but we used cars for rural visits. We have never had a ticket in Italy; had one in France. The ZTLs are easy to manage and well marked. And in our experience roads are well signed and drivers tend to miss you if you don't do anything unexpected. Driving in Italy in our experience was a lot less 'crazy' than driving on the French Riviera or Dordogne.

Posted by
24386 posts

You are probably new on the RS forum.

nope, Melissa has been here since 2012. Others are much more new than she, though just short of the writer.

Posted by
24386 posts

The traffic situation in Italy is completely nuts. ... I think only a completely crazy person, or an Italian (is there a difference?) would drive in Italy. ... Plus, since you are EU, you will be on the hook for any tickets.

How rude do you need to be?

Seems uncalled for to me.

Surely wherever you are from if you get a ticket you pay it. Or drive carefully like me, many times in Italy, even with my steering wheel in the "wrong" side for Italy. North, south, and in the middle... thousands of km over the years. Not a single ticket for anything in Italy.

How do you know how bad, or not it is? According to your profile you've never been in Italy.

To insult all Italians is absolutely rude. Having a bad day, Paul?

Posted by
45 posts

Our second trip to Italy I obtained an International Driver's License, but we didn't use it. The longest journey we had was from Varenna to Florence. The Varenna to Milan segment was on a regional train (slow but gorgeous views), however, the highspeed train from Milan to Florence hit 186 mph to Bologna, and then about half that from Bologna to Florence. I'll wager it would have taken me considerably longer to rent a car, drive the speed limit and then return the car in Florence.

We do like mass transit, and so far our favorite must be the Vaporettos in Venice. Hoping for Malta to Sicily to mainland up and out from Naples next year. I understand we may "need" to rent something in Sicily; but truly, I'm reluctant to do so.

Posted by
1833 posts

Having a bad day, Paul?

Odds are he had a bad month, I guess it's November that drove him nuts.

Posted by
302 posts

This is all subjective, weighing on personal preferences. When I plan now I make major journeys via transit - typically train. If I am staying in a location for several days and want to see the surrounding area then I rent a car for the day. Otherwise I would rather not be bothered with driving as I end up missing too much. It also avoids the stress of traffic, limited local knowledge and fatigue in general. And train hopping in different towns in Italy is a breeze. We even once managed a day trip via train from Varenna to Sacra di San Michele, with enough time to lunch in Turin and roam around there a bit.

Posted by
2039 posts

Paul -- we have driven a total of about two months in Italy over 35 or so years -- most of our travels there used public transport, but we used cars for rural visits. We have never had a ticket in Italy; had one in France. The ZTLs are easy to manage and well marked. And in our experience roads are well signed and drivers tend to miss you if you don't do anything unexpected. Driving in Italy in our experience was a lot less 'crazy' than driving on the French Riviera or Dordogne.

That may be true in the past. It appears that there is a new approach in Italy to mine the tourists and non-residents with tickets. There's even an admission on-line that Italy is particularly predatory:

There are thousands of places where people discuss Italy traffic tickets. Many cities (Florence in particular) seem to support the city by traffic tickets. Fines are very large, and it's clear that the ability of a foreign driver to understand when you have violated rules is low.

Another one they warn you about is restricted lanes. I ran into that myself in Rennes (France), where I somehow ended up in a bus-only lane going the wrong way. No consequence, but it could have been bad - in Italy, I would have gotten a huge fine.

Look up "germany traffic tickets" or "france traffic tickets". Few hits. Fines are low. That's not true in Italy.

I would just bet that many defending the right of Italian cities to fine tourists have not been there of late. The ZTL system is seemingly quite difficult to work with, and is relatively new - I don't remember hearing about it until about 5-6 years ago. So if you drove ticket-free in Italy in 2005, that's completely irrelevant to what is going on now.

Italy is a crazy place to drive. I do know some who drove there, but not in cities, or near cities.

Posted by
24386 posts

I have driven ticket free in Italy many years between 2005 (my first time) and 2019 (my last time so far). Does that fit?

Posted by
2039 posts

Nigel: Do you speak Italian?

It's clear you are a frequent traveler there. You've learned the rules. Those who are not frequent drivers are far more likely to break the rules.

Direct me to discussion in other sub-fora about traffic fines and traffic violations? This is an issue in the Italy forum only. There are a ton of discussions in the wider web about how Italy is the part of Europe with the most tickets. It's not my opinion - it's a general consensus.

Posted by
1833 posts

A few worlds of wisdom from the Great Sioux Falls Festival of Assumptions

It appears
seem
it could have been
seemingly quite difficult

Followed by an old classic, opinions and lies sold as self-explanatory truths

to mine the tourists
There's even an admission on-line that Italy is particularly predatory:
Fines are very large
I would have gotten a huge fine.
and is relatively new
it's a general consensus
Italy is a crazy place to drive.

Finally, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others:

the right of Italian cities to fine tourists

as if it wasn't a given right. Is there a single country who throws away the photos of tourists caught breaking the rules while driving around? Which one, Freedonia?

To Compare Italy and countries with no ZTL areas makes no sense. Especially when one writes from a country who does not use international signs (for no logical reason).
Saying there are no camera controlled bus lanes in France while implying there are only camera controlled bus lanes in Italy is both silly and untrue.

Posted by
2039 posts

Saying there are no camera controlled bus lanes in France while implying there are only camera controlled bus lanes in Italy is both silly and untrue.

Except nobody said that.

Italy is developing a reputation as a predatory country which balances city books on ZTL based fines. This is not my opinion. This is a consensus based on much on the internet critical of Italy. Since you are Italian, I understand why you defend it. I defend the USA. But facts are facts.

In the USA, there are many small towns that use aggressive speed control tickets to balance the budget. Eventually people figure it out and stop going to the towns. That's going to happen to Italy as well.

Not only are tickets in Italy especially annoying due to the ZTL situation (where you often get multiple tickets for one intrusion), but the fines are much much higher than in other countries.

There are multiple discussions of the traffic ticket situation in Italy, but very few for Germany, France, whatever. Florence gets the most mentions for predatory ticketing, but other Italian cities are similarly out to get the tourist.

In the USA, many small towns used to use traffic tickets to fund the city budget. In some states, this got so bad that the use of excessive traffic tickets was ruled out, and cities who did this were fined huge amounts.

On the RS forum, the Italy forum gets frequent comments about tickets. There are 4 comments in Pages 1-2. In the France, Germany, BiH fora, there are no comments about traffic tickets. If you enter "traffic ticket" into the general search for the RS site, you get 14 hits - 11 from Italy, and 1 each from Spain, France, Switzerland.

Another place I won't drive is B-H. Apparently, rental cars are pulled over and hit up for bribes.

Internet comments on this issue:

https://www.bella-toscana.com/traffic-violations-in-italy/

Posted by
1801 posts

In May of 2019 my wife and I explored Tuscany & Umbria by car for two weeks without incident. One of the main reasons why our driving adventure was largely without drama was because I had read every horror story and cautionary tale on this and other forums about driving in Northern Italy and, demonstrating that fear is a great motivator, I had previewed our daily routes down to the last detail using the street view feature on Google Maps in order to identify well in advance traffic patterns and parking near the various hilltop villages in order to avoid running afoul of the dreaded ZTL's, as well as studying up on signage and rules of the road by watching every YouTube video ever made regarding driving in Italy. I confess that I prepared for the trip more than I had any other.

About the only uncomfortable aspect was the time spent on the the Autostrada, where it quickly became apparent that I was the only person in all of Northern Italy going remotely close to the posted speed limit - the Italians do like to drive fast.

Bottom line? We thought that driving the rural roads in Tuscany and Umbria was a pleasure - the highlight of our trip in fact. Driving on the Autostrada ... not so much. After a couple of much-regretted forays into the "Tuscan 500" we made it a point to stick to the rural roads as much as possible. We generally found that the terrors of driving in Northern Italy were dramatically overstated. That's not to say that there aren't pitfalls in store for the unwary, but with a bit of advance preparation I wouldn't hesitate to do it again and would advise anyone who is a competent driver at home to do so as well.