Our five days of exploring Tuscany are over, and we can safely say it was one of the most interesting experiences we've ever had. We got to see the sunflower fields Angie was desperately hoping for, toured medieval cities, and even spent a day driving through the vineyards of Chianti!
But while this all sounds exciting (and it was), we have come to realize that driving in Florence and the surrounding regions of Tuscany is quite possibly one of the worst tortures a traveler can subject themselves to.
From obscene driving laws to poorly marked signs and hundreds, if not thousands, of speed traps, the cards are stacked against you from the moment you place a reservation for your car.
All you have is the hope that you don't screw up, because your mistakes may cost you more than your entire trip to the city, and then some! But if you absolutely must drive in Tuscany, which is something we advise against, please keep the following tips in mind for a more enjoyable experience.
Enjoyable being a relative term, of course.
Your nightmare is about to begin.
1) Watch Out For Speed Traps While Driving in Tuscany
I'll start out big and say that the electronic cameras in and around Tuscany (and likely everywhere else in Europe) are nothing but traps to catch the unsuspecting driver going just a bit over the speed limit.
Locals know that these cameras are coming up and will slow down at the right spot, only to zoom off again at greater than allowed speeds a moment later.
The poor visitor who is trying to do good? Good luck.
While I am a big fan of using electronic cameras to catch people who are up to no good, such as those who run red lights or drive excessively over the speed limit, the cameras in Italy are nothing short of a nightmare (and in my opinion, would probably be illegal in the USA).
Lets start off with why, shall we?
The cameras are everywhere, and in most cases in greater frequency than the speed limit signs themselves. Many of the highways and routes we drove on in Tuscany would have a speed camera about once every kilometer or so but a speed limit sign once every three cameras!
Yes, it is more common to see a speed trap than a speed limit sign once you get off the main highway.
The only good news is that for the most part these cameras are marked with signs not only warning you that they are coming up, but also where they are placed. While this is true on the bigger roads, we saw many while traveling on the smaller routes that only had one warning sign and no visible indication of where they were placed shortly thereafter.
The second issue is that many of these roads vary their speed limits greatly as villages come and go, or even at odd placements we couldn't even understand.
One stretch of road may be 70 kph while the next would be 40 kph. A little down the road it'll be 70 kph again, and you'll have passed around six cameras at the same time frame.
Sometimes there will be signs on the road where the lower speed limit ends, but these are incredibly rare.
Using the general rules of thumb for Italian roads doesn't work either as the roads in Tuscany are almost always lower than what is published.
Add in the fact that there are ticket categories for less than 10 kph over and 10-40 kph over, and you could have one expensive lesson due to something simple as going downhill just a bit too fast.
As an engineer I can only wonder how often these machines are even calibrated. There are so many that my guess is hardly ever, making our driving concerns go up even more.
As I can't just rant about what is wrong about this setup, I need to provide a solution. Hey Italy, how about you post the speed limit with these traps?
You have a handful of signs telling everyone they're there and that you could be fined, but, I don't know, perhaps the speed limit may be useful too! I'd love to drive the speed limit, but maybe you should tell me what it is first so I can oblige.
2) The Infamous ZTL Zone
In most major cities in Tuscany there is a controlled zone known as the ‘ZTL' in which non-residents are not allowed to drive. Much like the above speed cameras, the ZTL zone makes sense to us in that not every tourist or out-of-towner sould be allowed to drive in the already small and congested streets of the cities.
But making a simple “no entry” zone would be far too easy, especially in Florence.
In applying logic to the scenario of a restricted zone, one would think that there would be a suitable alternative route that is easily marked for travelers to navigate.
Much like a construction zone provides a detour, one would think a forbidden zone would have a “cleared” path for drivers to go on. Most other cities are good with this one. In Florence, it often feels like you're on your own.
In a general sense, to avoid the ZTL in Florence you must go out to the hills that surround the city and go up, over, and back down if you want to get around.
Meanwhile there are hardly any signs, route markings, and very few warnings at where not to go if you are close to entering the restricted areas.
The most recognizable ones, of course, are arranged such that by the time you even see them you're already in the ZTL and breaking the law!
Add in a half-dozen or so speed cameras at the same time and you'll have a fun time trying to figure out how to get to your parking spot all while being within the law's good graces.
Oh, did I mention that the pick-up spot for most every car rental in Florence is practically inside the ZTL zone?
You have one route in, one route out.
That is not the thing you want to hear the moment you go to pick up your car the very first time you've ever driven in Europe.
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In other cities in Tuscany, like Siena and San Gimignano, the ZTL zones are much more obvious. They are much smaller towns and typically only have one entrance and one exit.
Siena, for example, has a major parking garage at the inside of the city if you enter via Porta Tufi. If you are en-route to the garage you must go inside as the entrance street is one way and only continues on with a ZTL camera. As you exit the road is also one-way and leads out of the city.
One way in, one way out, and easy to read signs. Seems easy, right? Except that Florence is missing that last bit.
The solution to this is simple. Since so many drivers are trying to avoid getting around the ZTL, how about making a loop around the city that is designated as a safe zone unless you crossed into the ZTL? These are marked on the ZTL maps, but not on streets.
Since we're all trying to abide by the other dozen crazy rules in the city, making this one easier to follow would be incredibly helpful.
Or if this is not practical, give all rental cars a 60 minute grace period from when they pick-up their car and drop-off their car so they don't have to worry about a costly mistake when trying to find their way. (Again, this last paragraph is my idea, not what currently exists!)
3) Get a GPS
We made the mistake of not having a GPS booked for our car when we made arrangements online. For some reason I thought I had selected it, but I guess not. I suspect that the up to 15 Euro/day fee had something to do with it.
Unfortunately for us our rental agency told us they were completely out of GPS units as it was the middle of summer. For our drives around Tuscany, we were on our own.
I was fortunate enough to have my wife Angie as my navigator, and although we got lost several times, with many arguments, we made it out and back from all of our destinations without (I think) entering any forbidden zones.
The unfortunate side to this is that the laws of Italy are very much stacked against drivers in that it may be up to 1 year before the ticket is issued! So while I think we did fine, we may not find out for another 12 months.
I can only help but think that if an actual cop were to pull us over, either at home or abroad, and found out that we were lost and completely confused (likely either yelling at each other or about to breakdown), they would give us directions and that be that.
In Tuscany, we never saw a cop on the road. But we did see few hundred of those friendly camera traps. (Side note, they stink at giving directions).
4) Parking Issues
Driving near the cities is not the only issue we've come across, and parking is as big of nightmare as driving is.
Parking anywhere near downtown Florence is not an option as most of the city is covered under the ZTL zone that we mentioned above. Outside of this area most of the streets are labeled with white parking spots for residents only.
A few streets will have blue markings, available for visitors with rental cars, but have a pay machine at one end of the lot with pretty high rates (Be sure to save your receipt to argue any random ticket that may show up!).
Those who wish to park their car overnight must look to one of the lots on the outside of the city, with the Piazza Michelangelo being one of the closest.
Those who wish to park here must deal with hundreds of tourists coming up for the view, as well as a few of the unsavory sides of tourism like unregistered vendors and the like. Anywhere those are a slight danger is too, and many reports suggest not leaving your car overnight in this particular lot.
Of course, the 200+ steps down to the city is a downside, too.
We were lucky in that we were staying right at the bottom of this Piazza and found a side street that had a grassy area that residents and visitors have taken over as parking.
There are no lines, and no meters, and is generally considered to be free if you can find a spot. We received multiple confirmations it was free parking, and never got towed or a ticket, but I was always worried each morning to see if my car was still there. Luckily it was.
In this one instance I am not publishing this particular road because I do not want the city to find it and install meters like they've done everywhere else. If you'd like to know, please email me. But I can only make a claim based on our stay in July 2013 and do not claim to know the current status at any point after.
5) Don't Drive and Take a Tuscany Tour
The easiest solution to avoid all the headaches in Florence is to simply not drive. Book day tours to head out to see Siena and the other medevial cities or wine tours to go out to the vineyards. Unless you're staying out in the countryside, these tours will likely amount to the same cost of renting a car for a slightly longer period of time.
You don't have the flexibility of doing what you want, but you also don't have the fear of hundreds of Euros in fines.
If you do drive, we have the following tip: Don't stay in the city.
The full benefit of a car is to get you between places that are not within reach of public transit or cheap day trips. In Tuscany the best bang for your buck is to take your car to a B&B in the heart of wine region and use it as a base for your travels.
You still have to deal with the speed traps, but your worries on ZTL zones and other parking issues associated with staying in Florence becomes minimized. As an added benefit, rent your car from the airport to avoid the poor pickup and drop off locations downtown if you can manage it.
6) Don't Rent from “Auto Europa / Sicily By Car”
We were unfortunate enough to rent from Auto Europa / Sicily By Car on our trip as they had the best deal we could find on our booking site. Overall our experience with this company felt completely shady and is something we'd recommend all readers to avoid altogether.
While common issues, this vendor made all the mistakes you would expect a shady car renter to do. They forced us to sign our check-out card without seeing the car first (many places do this).
The car was fine so we didn't make a big deal about it, but the driver next to us got a car with a huge dent in it already. Upon our car's return we were not given a copy of our check-in card (same paper as above) and when I returned to ask to get a photo they acted like they didn't have it anymore.
Whether or not it was completed properly when I signed it, I'll never know.
The most important issue I saw was that the manager at the garage parked the car illegally on the street after I dropped it off (manager and car pictured above).
In a fee happy city like Florence that is a ticket or tow waiting to happen. Do you think they'd pay it themselves or pass it on to me? After all, I do not have any documentation now that shows I returned the car.
Of course, after the initial hold on my credit card was removed I already saw a bill for about $50 US on my account. Considering the manager told me the car was good when we returned it after doing a check for gas level and damages, I already had to file one dispute with my credit card to get it removed (or at least a realistic explanation of why it is there).
In the end I am thankful that I was thinking fast enough to take a photo of the garage manager doing this, photos of the car after I returned it to show there was no damage, and we realized we went to a museum just 10 minutes later that we have a timestamped entry on where we were (in case of any “late return” excuses).
If Florence or the car agency comes calling on that one, we're ready with full ammunition. (They never did.)
Why My Ideal Fixes Won't Happen
As much as my solutions to Florence's stupid driving laws would be the logical thing to do, they will likely not happen any time soon.
Why? They're profiting. Big time.
Reports often state that Florence brings in anywhere from 50 to 80+ million Euro per year in traffic fines. With 370,000 inhabitants in Florence proper and over 1.5 million in the greater area, that would be equivalent to everyone in the region getting a traffic ticket at least once a year, or everyone in the city getting several.
But many residents, especially those in downtown Florence, do not drive. And those that do are very well acquainted with the traps setup for ticketing as we realized on our drives about Tuscany.
I have not found any published information on this, but my guess would be that a good percentage of those fines come not from the locals, but from tourists. People who travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to come to the region to stay, enjoy themselves, and most importantly, spend a lot of money at the local businesses.
These are travelers, like us, who thought it'd be fun to rent a car to explore Tuscany for a few days. Those who may not be familiar with every caveat of Italian driving law, but try their very best to abide at every step. And in many cases even going well out of their way to follow the laws (again, unlike the residents).
These are the people who get fined, and it is not uncommon for visitors to find out they have 300, 400, or 500+ Euro bills sent to them several months down the road. Tickets that often exceed the cost to rent the car, gas, and the amount spent enjoying the day(s) outside the city.
But in the end it is all about the money and a country that desperately needs it. Since Florence gets around 10,000,000 visitors a year, the amount of money that is made on insane fines seems like such a minor amount.
One that could be easily made up in any number of combinations. But instead they choose to alienate their visitors, and in turn take the memory of a great vacation and turn it into a nightmare several months down the road when it is all but history.
If the city and region keeps going at this pace, those who want to return and rent a car will choose not to, or perhaps not even return at all.
Seriously, Please Drive Somewhere Else
You should rent a car somewhere when you travel. We thoroughly enjoyed the freedom we had while driving over the Tuscany tours we could have been on, and is something we can easily recommend to all travelers.
The only unfortunate side to this is that we chose Florence as our place to do so; as although we had a great time, the headaches of driving in this city were some of the worst we've had on our entire trip.
Based on our experiences in driving in Tuscany our best recommendation for those who want to drive about in wine country is that you will be far happier doing it in another region. Perhaps Bordeaux in France or Napa in California. Regions who want visitors to come and spend money at their businesses. Not ones that want to fine them insane amounts of money at every corner.
In Florence, that phrase is actually fairly accurate.
But will we ever return to Florence? Definitely. It is one of our favorite cities in the world despite all of the misgivings we've mentioned in this article (and, sadly, many more we haven't). But we're never renting a car there again, nor likely anywhere else in Italy for that matter.
When we do return we'll be sure to scrutinize our purchases so much that we make up the difference to any fees we receive and then some.
Those expensive shoes Angie wanted? We bought cheaper leather gloves instead (100 Euro in our pockets- may have to pay for fines after all!). Those souvenirs we were eyeing up for our next trip when we want to decorate a house? I'll spend those thousands of dollars in Turkey or Greece instead. They tend to appreciate visitors better than Italy anyway.
So I hope those likely fines are worth it to the city, because Florence and it's businesses are going to lose far more from us in the long run because of it.
That we can guarantee.
Hopefully they'll lose a few more from you, too. If not, the only loser in this situation will be you. And that we can't take lightly.
Have you traveled to Florence and received a huge fine after your drive around Tuscany? Share your story and amount fined in the comments section below!
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