Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Driving in Italy is a great way to get around (once you’re away from the larger cities). It gives you flexibility to go where you want, the chance to connect with people and places away from the main tourist destinations, and also provides the opportunity to have heated conversations with the navigator in the seat beside you who really should have been offering directions instead of staring out the window at the rolling hills of Tuscany because that way you wouldn’t have missed the turnoff to Pienza and now find yourself stuck on the motorway for another 12 kilometres before you can find an exit…. Or is that just me?
In any case, I mostly love driving in Italy, but it can have its challenges for the newcomer; not the least of which is the dreaded ZTL.
ZTL sounds a little like something the doctor might treat with a prescription. I hadn’t heard of a ZTL the first time we went to Italy for one simple reason: I didn’t do my research. (To be fair, the internet then was a long way from what it is today, but I still should have done my due diligence and saved myself the pleasure of being on the receiving end of a fine for driving into one and then having to send 80 euro to assist and support the good people of Florence.)
ZTL stands for Zona Traffico Limitato. Pretty self-explanatory: Limited Traffic Zone in English. And it is an area usually located in the old historical centre of Italian towns and cities where you can only drive under certain conditions or you incur a fine.
While it might seem like just another great way for the local authorities to gouge the visiting tourist, they serve an important purpose in reducing traffic congestion and helping to preserve the old centres of just about every city and town across Italy. (But I’m sure the money from fines from witless tourists comes in handy…)
It’s not hard to find out where the ZTLs are. If you do an internet search for any Italian town you are planning to visit and add the letters ‘ZTL’, you should be able to find a map that shows where the ZTL will be. It will likely have multiple entry points, and these are usually armed with a camera conveniently placed to take a happy snap which will be used to identify you and start the process that will ultimately result in you receiving an 80-100 euro fine in the mail about 9 months after your visit – just about the time you’ll have finally paid off the credit card bill that you amassed during your trip. You’ll also be stung with a fee – probably about 25 euro – from the car hire company for providing your details to the relevant local authority. (I do wonder if the authorities have a wall covered with photos of clueless drivers with curious expressions snapped just at the moment they enter the ZTL, notice the sign and wonder what the heck it means.… Well, it won’t be you because you’ve read this article!)
So, what does a ZTL sign look like? Well, they vary. Sometimes there will just be a red circle, other times you will see the letters ‘ZTL’ or the words ‘Zona Traffico Limitato’. Sometimes there will be an indication of times when the ZTL is active – some are active all the time, others only operate for certain hours in the day, and these will be indicated by using the 24-hour clock. The sign might be big, bold and obvious, or small or hidden away behind a tree branch.
There may also be an indication of particular conditions for the ZTL, such as that cars with a pass can enter. That’s because in many places locals with a pass can happily ignore the ZTL as they are on a local register. This can be one of the traps for the novice driver – you can be happily rolling along behind another car looking for a car park and not even notice you’ve entered the zone.
It’s likely your GPS won’t help either – most aren’t programmed to identify ZTLs. Why? Well, every city and town determines their own ZTL rules and areas, and these can change over time - often towns vary their ZTL conditions with the seasons to manage increased traffic during the summer and the date for the changeover is decided annually. I assume the GPS makers just find it all a bit too hard and lob that one back to the user to worry about. In any case, your GPS is solely focussed on getting you to your destination by the shortest possible route so don’t rely on that technology to keep you safe from the cameras. (I still recall a diversion from the main road through a field of sunflowers for no other reason than Mr Tom-Tom decided we could shave a good 50 metres off our journey by going off-road, despite it adding five minutes to the journey. On the positive side, we were with the kids and it provided the opportunity for a toilet break so not all was lost.)
In any case, remember to do your research so you know what you’re looking for because often - due to traffic, narrow or one-way streets - once you’ve started approaching the ZTL area, it can be impossible to turn around.
But what if your hotel is within the ZTL? Well, in many places you will be able to enter the ZTL to drop off your bags, but you will need to firstly confirm this with your hotel before arriving, and then ensure they have your vehicle details so they can contact the local authorities and have you put on a whitelist and avoid the fine. (And then follow up with the hotel to make sure they’ve done that…)
Apart from that, avoiding a ZTL is mostly common sense: unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t drive in the historical centre of Italian cities and towns. In the smaller towns there will be car parks near the entry points to the ZTL and it won’t be a long walk from there. In the larger cities, park in the periphery and catch the local transport in.
Again, the main thing is to make sure you do your research and view a map of the ZTL area so that you don’t accidentally get caught. Then it's about keeping your wits about you when you are driving into town.
That’s unless you are feeling philanthropic and consider the idea of sending some of your hard-earned cash over to Italy as being a small way you can contribute to returning the country to a sound fiscal position. In that case, well done you! For me, I'll be going out of my way to avoid those nasty little red circles. Once bitten....
You can avoid the risk of a ZTL by coming with us on one of our guided tours of Italy, as you won't be needing a car!