Do you need a car in Tuscany?
Do you need a car in Tuscany ?
Words by Amanda of Siena House, photography by Chris Borg, Malta.
I love the big Tuscan cities, but I love rural Tuscany even more. I am happy with a few hours in a historic city centre, but out on the open road in Tuscany ? I could do that all day! It amazes me that Tuscany is not apparently famed as a driver’s paradise. Clearly it’s not—and not only, some drivers are nervous that driving in Tuscany might be very uncomfortable. In ‘big’ city centre locations, like Florence, I agree, it can be stressful, and that’s where an insider tip or two about where to rent a car when departing from Florence makes the difference. And travelling on the motorway in Italy, that’s pretty confusing for anyone who comes from a place where there are no tolls on the roads. And the infamous ‘Z.T.L.’ zones—let’s talk about those further down. In this article I hope to reveal, however that having a car is not something to be timid of. Having a car is not only going to enable you to make the most of your time here—but driving in Tuscany is going to be a big part of the experience.
Having a car in Tuscany is not absolutely required in all locations, of course—but can improve the experience so much. Right here, where we have chosen to base ourselves, we are in a prime location for exploring with ease—by car. ‘Walkable’ distance in the countryside means a simple short and beautiful journey by car (we were assured only yesterday by two very knowledgeable Tuscans). Of course, no rural location out here offers real life services accessible by foot, but the new notion of walkable (we were assured) is having a choice of great visits, places to eat and places to get access to ‘real life needs’ at a short distance. Even when you choose a great touring location that offers a wide choice of visits in all directions, good train and airport connections etc, you’re still going to need a car. You just do, trust me. Taxis are few are far between and expensive. Other methods of transport consume too much time and force you to meet deadlines. That’s not my idea of the Tuscany vibe. You need a car in Tuscany to explore or stay in the countryside, to see the area in any depth and to get the most out of your time here. Even if you’ve booked resort style accommodation with breakfast lunch and dinner provided, you’re going to be tempted to get out to explore. Those hills look enticing, don’t they; well that’s Tuscany, out there!
Figuring out whether you need a car will depend upon where you want to stay, how adventurous, how busy or relaxed, how spontaneous and most of all how rural you want your home base location to be.
Believe me, driving in Tuscany is such a pleasure. In this part of Tuscany there are some sublimely beautiful journeys to take, along roads that travel glorious landscapes. If you’re used to sitting in hours of traffic at home going to and from work and don’t enjoy driving all that much as a consequence, get ready to experience a driving a car in Tuscany… In Tuscany, the journey to your destination is usually as much ‘the point’ as the destination itself. Parking is easy (and cheap) too. The biggest hazard when driving a car in Tuscany are the views .. It can be hard to keep your eyes on the road!
The roads in the Tuscan countryside are not busy. And I bet you could never guess that the busiest time of the week is Sunday afternoon when many are just out driving for the sheer pleasure of it.
You get the picture—taxi, train, bus, they just don’t compare to the freedom of having a car in Tuscany. If you want to see the countryside—at your own pace—stop as often as you like en route for photos, gelato, curiosity—you really need a car. Unless willing to book your days rigidly (in advance) and spend a lot of money on a driver or a lot of time waiting around for public transport, then you are going to need a car in Tuscany. If you like to play things by ear; to be able to and get out or stay in on a whim, you’re going to need a car. In fact, you’re going to miss out on so much of the experience of Tuscany and the romance of the area, if you don’t have your own transport.
We consider Tuscany absolutely a road trip destination – with some of the best roads and scenic routes in Europe.
Some tips on driving in Tuscany
The infamous ‘Z.T.L.’
A lot of people have heard of the fines you can so easily pick up in the bigger Italian cities—Rome or Florence for example, even in Siena downtown. Whilst it’s relatively easy to make mistakes when driving in the much heavier traffic and confusion of Rome or Florence, that’s not the case in the smaller towns, generally. Most will have a pedestrian zone or perhaps Local’s Only Streets or Zona Traffico Limitato (Z.T.L.). Stay aware and remember that you can’t drive in the pedestrian central streets. Most Tuscan Hill Towns have a pretty obvious city gate or wall and entrance, even without the ‘No Entry’ signs.
Don’t rely too much on your G.P.S. device, it can get you into trouble. Aim to park once you start seeing the blue ‘P’ signs, you’ll already be close in by the time you are seeing these, especially in the small and medium-sized towns such as Pienza or Cortona, for example. It’s true that the town only needs to be a bit bigger for things to feel less straightforward: In Siena historic centre, for example, we always tell guests not to focus in so much on following a GPS unit or a map that you are not following the road signs. That’s the secret. I’ve seen it written over and over that Italian road signs are ‘totally different’, but I think that’s really misleading. The signs are easy, and you will certainly recognize ‘No Entry’ and ‘One Way’ and ‘Car Park In This Direction’.
Rental car pick up
If you’re beginning your stay in Florence, and then moving on to a countryside location, renting a car will be the best way to reach a rural property. Whilst driving in Florence centre might be a bit of a hair-raising experience, not so far out of the centre (25 Euro taxi ride away) find Florence Airport. This is a good choice for car collection; well out of the city in driving terms and a better starting point for your first time driving in Tuscany, if that’s the case.
Driving on the motorway
Possibly the most difficult part of driving in Italy for the first time is using the motorway entrances and exits. The highways itself is not so bad, rarely very busy. Lanes can feel narrow for British and American drivers, and the Italians are somewhat notorious for tailgating.. But all in all it’s not too bad. As mentioned, the tricky part is entrance and exit. Motorways/highways are toll roads in Italy and you will need to collect a ticket from the correct booth as you enter. Examine the icons describing each entrance way carefully, and be sure to avoid the yellow TELEPASS lanes. Telepass is a direct debit payment system where you don’t need to stop like you would if you collected a ticket and paid in cash or by card. You won’t have one in your rental vehicle. The signs are pretty intuitive: Aim for the entrance marked Biglietto and or the icon for a ticket on the way onto the motorway or and a person, coin or card payment symbols when exiting. Avoid the exclusively Telepass lanes. If you mess up, rest assured that it’s not such a big deal: It happens a lot in the Summer and we are all used to seeing cars reversing out of the Telepass lanes!
It is perfectly normal to take a detour, whether intentionally or not, in this area. Often times a poorly planned journey finds a dirt track—addresses ‘don’t work’ around these parts. That’s not a problem when you are just meandering, but it will feel like a problem if you have made an appointment someplace. In addition, visits always take a lot longer than expected, believe me they just always do. My firm advice is to research your journey prior to starting out if you have to be somewhere. Whether its your next hotel, a restaurant booking or a winery visit, wherever, talk with the owner or staff about the journey: they’ll know if the place is not easy to find. Don’t expect to find signposting; signposting is costly in our area and signs are required to be quite small so as not to visually pollute the landscapes. Ideally, get the GPS coordinates. Check with the business if Google Maps ‘works’ for the destination. It doesn’t always. A big source of stress for holidaymakers is getting lost en route to somewhere, wherever. We see it often: You’re in an unfamiliar place, you might be tired, running late, it might be after dark, either way you’ll be wasting valuable relax time.
Print off maps or written instructions issued by your accommodation or winery and don’t rely totally on google maps and don’t expect to navigate reliably with addresses in rural Tuscany
Don’t expect to be able to ask where a place is—not only because not so many people speak English—but because you might not see anyone to ask. And then, they might not know; we’ve been open for a very long time and still most of the locals don’t know who or what/where we, and our place, Siena House, is.
Our favourite, local car rental locations are Chiusi-Chianciano Terme Railway Station: A half an hour drive from here, and great for train connections to Rome, and beyond, and Florence Airport for guests coming to us from Florence area. If you’ve been staying central in Florence, as you certainly should, you’ll need to get a taxi from the centre station to the airport. It’s a controlled price, and not too bad. At Florence airport, find several rental car companies and Sunday collection is possible. Arezzo Train Station is also worth considering if you are coming to Tuscany by train.
At Chiusi-Chianciano we suggest:
- Europcar (for good rates, collection / drop off on Sunday possible with advance booking and a supplement)
- AesseRent for Automatic transmission, which is not always easy to get in Tuscany. Aesserent is also open for collection and drop off on Sundays by appointment.
Words by Amanda of Siena House.
Siena House is a highly rated place to stay in Tuscany, with British owners.