Rarely peaceful, always exciting and oftentimes extraordinarily beautiful. Driving in Sicily is the very best way to explore every nook and cranny on the island, provide it you come prepared. Read on for practical do’s and don’ts to avoid any surprises along the way.
The Mediterranean island of Sicily in southern Italy is beloved by many for its architecture, pristine beaches, and delicious food. While it has many marvelous qualities, a high-functioning public transportation system is sadly not one of them.
In practice this means exploring Sicily will either mean spending a lot of pennies on tours or biting the bullet and driving around Sicily in your rental car. The former is great for your nerves, the latter a true time & budget saver.
After many trips to Sicily, plenty of which included yours truly behind the wheel, I decided it was time to share all my tips for driving in Sicily, including how to avoid being overcharged at the gas pump, navigate the chaotic capital Palermo & general safety tips. This article was written together with my partner, who is a born and bred Sicilian and staunchly proud of his Sicilian driving skills.
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A drive around Sicily: Wisdom or Folly?
“A beautiful land. The sun, the sea, prickly pears, Empedocles, Archimedes. […] Unfortunately, we are famous throughout the world for something negative, what you would call Plagues. […] The third, and most severe of these Plagues, which really shames Sicily and, even more so, Palermo, in front of the world… Eh, you must have already understood, it is useless for me to say it, I am ashamed to say it… The traffic”
The above conversation, taken from Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni’s movie “Johnny Stecchino”, is famous all-around Italy and plays with the Mafia’s concept “Omerta’” (silence), having a Mafioso complaining to Benigni about the problems that plague Sicily, emphasizing not the Mafia but something much worse: The ever-present traffic jams.
Although the scene presents an upside-down world for comic purposes, any Sicilian – and Palermitan in particular – would agree with the definition of traffic as a plague. Driving in Sicily won’t be as smooth as cruising around the quiet Belgian highways. Driving there reflects the character of this beautiful island: Rowdy, exciting, unpredictable, and even sometimes scary!
PLAN YOUR TRIP: WHERE TO STAY IN SICILY
Embarking on a road trip through Sicily but not sure where to stay? Read my in-depth review of 18 different areas and which type of traveler they are geared towards.
Includes areas to avoid, best beaches and plenty of juicy info to help the best trip to Sicily possible!
The 10 things to know before driving in Sicily
Alright, after having established the unavoidable truth that having a car to explore Sicily truly is the way to go, it is time to delve into a few survival techniques to get you on your merry way. To key is to be assertive while driving, courteous while parking and vigilant when leaving the car behind. Let me show you the ropes.
Roadtrip inspiration: 15 day trips from Palermo or 15 day trips from Catania
1. Road rules in Sicily – Obligations or suggestions?
The Sicilian approach: Rules are great suggestions, to be followed when they suit the driver
Practical implications: Charming chaos
If you spent any time at all in the south of Italy and Sicily in particular, you know that you should not take anything for granted, let alone rules and common sense. The Sicilian applies a very personal filter to decide whether something that is theoretically mandatory, actually applies to the present situation and to them in particular. Spoiler: The answer is often no.
This freedom of interpretation makes driving in Sicily an – shall we say interesting? – experience that requires a degree of caution which varies from a tad – if you cruising around in a small village in Sicily – to military-grade – if you are in the city center of Palermo.
It all boils down to a very specific fact: Always expect the unexpected in traffic. Vigilance is always required as blinkers are rarely used, 2 lanes magically become 4 and stop signs are considered a form of decoration. Oftentimes a healthy dose of patience was the only thing preventing me from simply getting out of my car and leaving it in the middle of the road.
Planning on renting a car in Sicily? AutoEurope has some of the cheapest rates and helps you to figure out exactly which insurance is needed for your roadtrip around Sicily.
2. Traffic lights & right of way
The Sicilian approach: Be proactive at all times
Practical implications: Red lights are often not respected, always double-check oncoming traffic.
Sicilians are a prideful people, and this shows in the way they drive. Giving the right of way or being told what to do by a machine only able to show three different colors does not sit well with their boiling temperament.
This results in a slight contempt for traffic lights (they are ignored whenever it is felt that no one is coming from the other direction – or if someone is late/it is deep at night/someone decides so) and a total disregard for the right of way: It is taken, not given.
This implies that more respectful drivers, who are either going to give it or take it will find themselves in an impossible conundrum, stuck between a horde of Sicilian honking their cars’ horns to tell the poor fellow to move or way too close to a crazy driver who decided that stopping was not required for them.
3. A drive around Sicily means getting well acquainted with your car horn
The Sicilian approach: Patience is not needed when I have a car horn that will solve my problem
Practical implications: A veritable car honking symphony
As you would know, in much of the rest of Europe honking is reserved for emergencies: Someone jumping in front of your car, a cat that does not want from the middle of the road while you are doing 50 km/h, a crazy motorcycle zigzagging in front of you.
In Sicily, however, things are slightly different. It seems that the island is privy to a secret law of physics that clearly states cars do not move unless they are honked at, profusely. Adding to that, the idea that traffic will definitely ease up if everyone honks, regardless of the space limitation imposed by the narrow roads.
As a consequence, honking is ever-present, and you will be honked at as soon as the traffic light turns to green, sometimes even before. You will notice that this is a treatment locals apply to each other, so do not be offended by this common practice. Relax and start driving.
4. Motorbikes and helmets (helm… what?)
The Sicilian approach: Motorbikes were made for getting me there fast, helmets optional
Practical implications: ALWAYS triple-check before turning to avoid colliding with an overzealous driver
Italy is the country that invented the iconic Vespa, so I bet you will not be surprised to see many motorbikes around. However, you might not know that zooming around on a 50cc motorbike is legal at 14 years old. In practice, this means that Sicily is probably the only place that can rival Thailand in terms of motorbike/population.
They are everywhere and – like you would see in Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok – often mounted by three people, of course without a helmet. As if this was not adventurous enough, Sicilian motorbike drivers must all have been skiers in a past life, as the way they drive resembles slalom ski much more closely than anything else.
This adds an extra layer of complexity to driving in Sicily. Make sure that whenever turning, left or right, to be extra vigilant, as it is very likely that a young man/woman is trying to overtake you in the most dangerous way you can imagine, without any regard for the clearly visible blinker you switched on.
5. The formal parking rules to know before embarking on a drive in Sicily
Parking in the cities is subject to a slew of formal and informal rules. Below are a few of the official rules to keep in mind.
WHITE LINES OR NO LINES: Parking is free of charge
BLUE LINES: Paid parking. Average cost €/$1 per hour. Paying for parking usually entails searching for a nearby parking machine, inputting your number plate and amount of hours you would like to park and finally payment (oftentimes the machines only accept coins). Place the ticket the machine gives you on the dashboard. Ensure it is clearly visible to avoid getting a fine.
PARKING GARAGES: Be aware that when you input “parking” into Google Maps it will not necessarily navigate you towards an actual parking garage. Certain stretches of road are officially designated as public parking (indicated with the above-mentioned lines or a blue sign with a big white P). Parking garages do exist in Sicily, although they are very few and far between.
6. The informal rules for parking in Sicily
Technically speaking parking spots are indicated by the various colored lines or the blue signs with a big white P. In practice, parking in larger cities is controlled by “illegal parking people” (parcheggiatori abusivi).
These are people loosely, or not so loosely, linked to the local Mafia.
What does this look like in practice? While driving around the city, you might spot a man/woman sitting in front of a row of parked cars. Oftentimes these cars are tightly packed together and parked in seemingly odd spots (on sidewalks, in front of garages). When you drive up looking for parking, this person will either be extremely helpful in getting you a parking spot in the vicinity or simply wave their hands and shake their head indicating there is no free spot available.
If you manage to find a spot, the person will ask for money to “look after” your car. As much as this practice is in fact illegal, it is better to pay up to avoid damages to the car.
How much to pay & what to watch out for: Pay €1 ($1). As a foreigner, I am often asked to pay up to €5. I always refuse and pay no more than €1. Be firm on this! Additionally be careful where you park, if the spot is clearly signaled as a no-parking area do not park there. Decline and move along, as police will still fine you if they find your car there (or tow you like they did for us).
You might also like: A (very) comprehensive guide to things to do in Palermo choc-a-bloc full of useful local tips & tricks. Or traditional Sicilian food you have to try when visiting!
7. ZTLs (Zone Traffico Limitato)
The beauty of many cities in Italy is the fact their Historical Centers are usually relatively car-free. Whether you are exploring northern Italy, embarking off in uncharted Umbria or driving around Sicily, it is highly likely you will spot a ZTL sign at the entrance of the Historical Center.
Do not ignore this sign! It is put in place to avoid cars from non-residents driving inside and to protect both the historical monuments (from pollution) and the overall quality of life for the residents.
While the areas are not always very well demarked, they are usually fitted with a camera ready to catch any unsuspecting driver breaking the rules. The better approach is to check in advance with your hotel/Airbnb and ask where you can park – they will be able to direct you to an appropriate parking space.
8. Driving distances in Sicily are deceptive
The Island is not that large, in fact driving from Trapani (the tip of eastern Sicily) to Messina (the tip of western Sicily) is only 329 kilometers (204 miles) it will however take you 3h30 to cover the distance. Palermo to Taormina is a mere 266 kilometers (165 miles), yet takes the same amount of time.
The truth of the matter is Sicily has but a few highways, most of them link the main cities together: Trapani, Palermo, Messina, Catania, Siracusa, and Caltanissetta.
Take one closer look at the map of Sicily and it becomes abundantly clear that the Center-South of Sicily is not actually covered by highways but only by Strade Statali (SS) or Strade Provinciali (SP), which makes accessing this part of the Island a lot more time-consuming.
Tip for those who suffer from car sickness: Strade Statali (SS) and Strade Provinciali (SP) tend to get very windy when driving from the North to the South of Sicily. I tend to get really car sick so always make sure to take anti-motion sickness pills (or bring cold ginger tea with honey) to avoid the worst of it.
Read more on Sicily: The 14 prettiest churches in Palermo to visit or a mouthwatering guide to street food in Palermo (warning might cause hunger!)
9. Choose the right pump when filling up your car
At some point of your Sicilian road trip, you will find yourself with an empty tank and heading towards a gas station. When driving into the (larger) station you have the choice whether to fill up the car by yourself or alternatively have the clerk fill it up for you (and if you are lucky wipe down your windshield).
The service offered by the clerk is usually not free. The fee is taxed on the price/liter you pay for gas. Concretely you might be paying €1/liter to fill up the car yourself while having the car filled up by the clerk will set you back €1.5/liter. As a rule of thumb, the price per liter for gas will be €/$0,5 per liter more expensive if a clerk helps vs. if you fill the car up yourself.
Before picking a pump, check if different prices are indicated for the same type of gas (Benzina, Diesel). If there is a price difference, pick the lane with the lowest price (it’s a safe bet this is the DIY lane).
Payment can usually be done by card, larger gas stations will also accept European Fuel Cards. Smaller gas stations might not accept any form of card and request you pay in cash.
10. Never leave anything in the backseat of your car
I had to get used to my Palermitan partner always taking everything that was remotely visible on the backseat and stuffing it into the trunk of the car when we park. Be it for a quick trip to get an Arancina (5 minutes tops) or a full-day excursion, whenever the car is parked, the backseat gets cleaned out.
That includes plastic bottles, sweaters and anything that could catch the attention of someone looking to get into mischief. According to both my partner and plenty of local friends, car windows are routinely broken to gain access to anything that might seem remotely interesting inside the vehicle.
Do not leave any valuables in the car, not even in the trunk.
The various types of roads in Sicily
After having discussed the perils of driving in the Sicilian cities, tag along for an overview of what entails driving outside the bigger centers. First of all, let me give you a quick overview of the kind of streets you will find in Sicily (or really, in Italy):
- HIGHWAYS (Autostrade, normally signaled by green panels) – Best kept roads, normally with a toll, connecting the main cities throughout the country. Speed limit is 130 km/h (81 mph)
- STRADE STATELE (SS, normally signaled by blue panels) – Smaller but good roads, connecting all main cities and medium-size ones. Speed limit is 90 km/h (56 mph)
- STRADE PROVINCIALI (SP, normally signaled by blue panels) – Small roads whose conditions vary from very good to almost unserviceable, connecting the smaller villages to the main roads. Speed limit is 70 km/h (44 mph)
Driving around highways in Sicily
Driving on the highway, although not a completely stress-free experience, is easy peasy compared to navigating the city traffic.
Keep in mind certain erratic driving behavior is still present: Overuse of the blinker (keeping it on when you have no intention to turn), changing lanes without the use of a blinker, tailgating like your life depends on it and my personal favorite, driving in the middle of two lanes (i.e. having your left wheels in the left lane and the right wheels in the right lane effectively keeping the white line in the middle of the car).
In all fairness, the latter is usually only on display when there are not many cars around. If you do happen to cross a driver who is adamantly sticking to the middle, simply flash your lights at them to indicate you want to pass (flashing your lights is perfectly acceptable driving behavior in Sicily).
Cruising on the scenic route i.e. provincial roads
Strade Statali and Strade Provinciali, especially the latter, are a real hit-or-miss: Some of them will be very well kept while others will test your rented car to the limit.
However, your willingness to drive through the road less taken will often be rewarded with amazing vistas and lovely winding roads – just don’t stress if you find yourself amid a flock of sheep, they will cross eventually.
Toll Roads in Sicily
Unlike taking a road trip through France, road tripping in Sicily will not break the bank. At the time of writing, there are two toll roads in Sicily: The A20 Palermo-Messina and the A18 Messina – Catania. All the other highways are toll-free.
Note that albeit you pay for the use of the A20, for the last 3 years (possibly more), the road has been subject to continuous works which in practice means it becomes a 1-lane highway for long stretches.
When entering the toll highway you will receive a paper ticket. Keep this ticket as you will need to present it again upon exiting the highway.
COST TOLL: Total cost from Palermo to Messina €9 ($9) for 225 km (140 mi)
PAYING TOLL: There are three options for payment of tolls on Italian highways. The yellow signs indicating “TELEPASS” are only applicable if you bought a Telepass vignette in advance. The blue signs with white “CARTE” lettering are for payment with a card (Maestro, Visa, and Mastercard are all accepted) and the gray signs depicting an icon of a hand holding notes & coins indicate payment with cash is possible.
Renting a car in Sicily
Unless you plan on driving to this beautiful European island, renting a car in Sicily is unavoidable. My golden rules for car rental in Sicily are a. Go small, b. triple check for prior damages and c. make sure the rental policy includes the legally mandatory CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance.
CHECK OUT PRICES AND RENT A CAR IN ADVANCE
Legal requirements car rental Sicily
- Driver must be at least 18 years old
- Driver must be in possession of a valid drivers license + an international drivers license (IDP) if you have a non-European drivers license
- Driver must be in possession of a drivers license that is at least one year old
- Car must be covered by a CDW insurance
- A young drivers fee for drivers under 25 is often times applied
What type of car is best for driving around in Sicily?
Driving in Sicily is best done with a small, automatic car. The reason is simple, you want to be as nimble as possible when manoeuvering through little streets in the villages, and as proactive as possible when driving in the cities (remember right of way is taken, not given!).
It is also noteworthy that parking in larger cities is a heck of a lot easier with a small car. The combination of small streets and unofficial “parking officers” squeezing in as many cars into their lot as possible make parking a large car a veritable pipe dream.
Where to pick up a rental car in Sicily
The cheapest and most time-efficient option is to pick up your car straight from the airport. Both in Palermo and Catania the car rental desks are located in the arrival hall.
In Palermo, you simply walk up to the desk, provide your details to the clerk, and then pick up the car which is parked in the parking lot directly opposite the exit (50 meters from the exit).
Always make sure to double-check all the details on the pick-up form and triple-check for any damage prior to getting in. I usually make it a point to create a video of the outside of my rental car in Sicily because it is not uncommon to receive a car with a fair amount of dents.
Rental car insurance in Italy
When renting a car in Sicily (and anywhere else in Italy for that matter), you are legally obliged to have a basic CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) car rental insurance. This entails the rental company cannot claim a large sum from you if the car is damaged and covers most of the expenses if you are in an accident.
Recommended car rental service: AutoEurope has some of the cheapest rates and helps you to figure out exactly which insurance is needed for your road trip around Sicily.
Final tips for driving in Sicily
Driving in Sicily can be a bit challenging as drivers tend to be very proactive and bend rules to suit their needs. That being said, it is still the best budget option way to explore the beauty of the island.
Read up on the local rules, be very vigilant of motorbikes and never leave anything on the backseat when parking the car. If you are planning on renting a car in Sicily, go for a smaller model and make sure you have a CDW in place when booking.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR TRAVEL TO SICILY
Sicily – The best areas to stay in Sicily, and which ones to avoid!
Sicily – Quaint little villages to explore while visiting Sicily
Sicily – A local guide to the best Palermitan street food
Sicily – 20 things to do in Palermo
Sicily – 15 Day trips from Palermo
Sicily – 14 Beautiful churches in Palermo
Sicily – 15 day trips from Catania
Italy – Comprehensive guide to being a vegetarian in Italy including regional specialties