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Driving in Tuscany

Hello fellow travelers. We recently returned from our vacation in Italy and spent the front end of it driving through Tuscany. I'm so glad we did it this way - so many people were so amazed we would try such a thing, but we had very few problems. Just to guage it, I am a veteran on NYC driving and currently deal with Connecticut traffic on a daily basis, but I'm not a maniac...

Our itinerary:
5/15-16 - JFK to FCO - pick up car at FCO and drive to Orvieto
5/16-18 - Orvieto
5/18 - Relais La Costa
5/19 - Drop off car in Florence airport
5/19-23 Florence
5/23-28 Venice - Depart for NYC
Picking up the car at FCO was a little bit of a challenge to find the Hertz desk, as the signs could be a bit more helpful. We rented a Ford Focus 6 speed manual diesel - plenty of room for the two of us and our bags. We brought our Garmin GPS with newly downloaded maps for Europe - this makes all the difference. No problems driving the Auto Strada as I had read up on Italian driving well in advance. There are several good sites on the web. Like the US, there are several "service areas" that have gas, food, and toilets along the way. The Auto Strada is a toll road, so it was helpful to know how that works too: This site was very helpful -
Orvieto is a typical hill town - it has areas that are closed to traffic - ZTL - Red circle with solid white center. Violate these and you get a hefty fine up to a year later. So here's where we played chicken... We got up to the top of Orvieto and stopped just before the ZTL sign and then called the owner of our B&B (Francesca at Michelangelini). She met us where we stopped and parked our car in her garage. This B&B is recommended by RS and we found it to be a great value, clean, and perfectly locate. Francesca was super helpful as well. Orvieto is charming and pretty laid back. A full day of visiting was perfect.
Our next destination was Civita Bagnoregio to the southwest (also a RS recommendation). This was a great start to driving through the countryside and a great start to the day. Trouble is, many other people had the same idea. It was Sunday after all. We did climb to the town (long foot bridge) and it was worth it, but we did not stick around for lunch.
We next headed towards lake Bolsena. After driving through the town of Bolsena and heading West, we stopped for lunch at the Eden Hotel on the shore of the lake. We had the place entirely to ourselves and ate on the veranda. Excellent!
Then we started north on SR2 with a stop in Montalcino. Another nice hill town, but by the time we got there, we were running short on time, so didn't do it justice.
Next stop, Relais La Costa near Monterriggioni (west of Siena) but truly in the middle of nowhere. Just what we were looking for. This is an inn/spa with a "restaurant". Actually, dinner was more like a home cooked Tuscan meal. And if you don't clean your plate... We took advantage of the spa and had massages in the morning. Pretty tough to get going again.
Next, off to San Gimignano. Funny thing happened on the way. As we followed the GPS, we encountered a dead end. On a sign in English - "Don't Follow GPS". Just backed down the street and followed the local signs and we were back on track. We parked outside the town and went in for lunch. As many others mentioned, this place was pretty touristy, but we had a nice lunch there.

Finally, off to Florence. Oh, we had to put gas in the car.. Hmmm. Just a little tricky here. Similar to our gas pumps, you can pump your own or get full service. If you pump your own, just push the button that says full fill and then find the attendant to give your credit card to. For some reason, I had to turn the pump nozzle all the way up to extract if from the car, but it all worked out.
I highly recommend getting out on your own. We got to experience the real Tuscany. Enjoy

Posted by
339 posts

Thank you for your excellent report. We are heading to Italy in the Fall and will be renting a car for Tuscany. Did you bring your own GPS? We don't have one but have been thinking about buying one before our trip. We will be renting several different cars since we will also be spending 10 days in Sicily. Thanks

Posted by
6 posts

Yes, we brought our own Garmin Nuvi. I had one with North American maps on it and downloaded the Europe maps before we left. Being the boy scout that I am, I also had some good paper maps. Google Maps / satellite is also invaluable. Since driving to Relais La Costa is a bit off the track (they give you GPS coordinates to find them), I used google to trace my expected route and printed some pix of turn locations. It was the perfect backup. I felt like I could almost have gotten there without the GPS! Enjoy!

Posted by
5 posts

This is indeed encouraging! My husband and I are going to the Florence/siena area in Sept and Oct and plan to rent a car. We are somewhat nervous about driving but are staying at a villa near Siena some of the time, and a car is necessary to see the countryside as we want to. We also have our own GPS and maps that we will download. Did you find the signage difficult? Also are the country roads very narrow? Would you recommend picking up the car inFlorence airport or taking a train to siena and getting one there?

We have driven in The UK so I feel we can likely manage this (I hope) but have heard lots of horror stories.

Posted by
6 posts

I think you'll be so happy that you rented the car. We dropped our car at the Florence Airport and found it was "just on the edge" of the insane city driving, but very easy to get to the Autostrada. I guess it depends on if you are planning to visit Siena - we did not. Like most Tuscan cities, you won't be able to drive into town and will have to park on the perimeter somewhere. If you are staying over in Siena, then probably best to take the train and pick up your car later rather than paying for parking.
If you've driven in the UK then this will be a snap for you. Roads are not narrow like some in the UK and signage was very good everywhere we went. There are plenty of roundabouts and as in the UK, those in the circle have the right of way - most of the time. The GPS was a huge help! I've heard all the horror stories too, but honestly, it was no worse than driving here in New England. They do tend to tailgate a bit more, but we did not experience it as much out in the country. I had one time when I got flashed on the Autostrada - to be expected. Just remember to stay in the right lane unless you are passing. I also kept my left blinker on whenever I was passing (even on the Autostrada) so people knew I was just passing. Also, passing on the right (underpassing) is illegal, so if you're slow on the middle or left lane, you're holding up traffic on the right too. Bottom line, I drove the speed limit and enjoyed the scenery - I let the people behind me worry about passing. Don't forget about the ZTL around the cities - just park on the perimeter and walk in.

Have a great trip!

Posted by
3696 posts

Glad you decided to get a rental car.... I don't think there is any other way to really experience this area... drive where you want, when you want and stop to enjoy the view whenever the whim hits you. The people who freak out over driving in Europe must have never driven much in the US... or they just don't enjoy the freedom that a car gives you. Yes, there can be traffic jams and parking may take a few minutes... but again, no different then driving in any busy area in the US. For sure, take your own GPS, and always a map or follow signs if GPS doesn't know where she is going:)

Posted by
9197 posts

I agree with Terry kathryn... We've driven all over Tuscany several times and found it to be super easy and extremely enjoyable. We had no gps, only paper maps.... had zero problems and never got lost.

Glad you had a good trip! Tuscany is wonderful and everything I hoped it would be...

Posted by
12 posts

We drove through Tuscany and found that the Garmin GPS with the European maps we bought in the US before the trip worked perfectly. We picked up our car in downtown Milan, had no trouble getting out of the city and headed off to Lucca. The GPS got us right to the front door of the B&B in Lucca (Lucca in Centro which I would recommend ). There is so much to see and explore in Tuscany and to me, Tuscany by car is the way to go.

Posted by
21 posts

I need advice regarding Garmins. We're going to Tuscany in a couple weeks and I don't know which model to get. I thought their web site was not very helpful, so I went to Best Buy and they had no clue whatsoever.

Please let me know which specific Garmin model you used and how you got the European maps.

Thanks in advance,

Posted by
6 posts

I think any Garmin LMT will do the trick, especially one that shows lane change. I just checked Wal-Mart's website and they had a 5" model for $70. You'll still need to buy the European maps for about $100, but it's worth it. The lmt stands for life time US map updates - done by download, so a good high speed internet link is necessary.

Posted by
1 posts

I had traveled to Italy in 2012 and one of my most memorable experiences was driving in the Tuscany countryside. Here are some do's and don'ts:

I highly recommend getting the Garmin GPS with the latest download of the Italy region. Being a foreigner driving with different signs and languages, the GPS will soon be a best friend to you during your driving experience. I loved the flexibility of driving throughtout the region. We personally picked up the car in Pisa and slowly traveled our way inland toward Sienna. The beautiful thing is that you are traveling with minimal traffic. Take your time and enjoy the scenary. Stop when you want to and visit some small towns along your destination

I would not encourage you to drive in any of the major cities. Once we made it to Sienna, we had about a 6 hour drive from Sienna down to Amalfi coast. Big mistake, we should have just dropped the car off in Sienna and taken the train. 1st reason is that the drive along the freeway was long. 2nd is that when you drive on the freeway, you are charged a toll fee. and 3rd, driving through some of the large cities was extremely nerve-racking. So, I would encourge you to only keep the car in the Tuscany region

Oh yes, one more thing. Many times you are not allowed to take the car inside the city walls, so you may want to park the car just outside any city walls and walk in.