Please stop reading those scary lines written by “unlocals” discouraging travelers from renting and driving the car in Sicily. Now listen to me, it’s a Sicilian tour guide writing this article: IF YOU REALLY WANT TO ENJOY SICILY, YOU MUST RENT A CAR! Only with a car at your total disposal you enjoy the most romantic sunsets and sunrises of Sicily, its best natural reserves away from the tourist crowd, its best restaurants, its most suggestive archeological sites. So, if you are now thinking “should I rent a car in Sicily or not?”, the answer is YES! Just do it, rent a car.
Of course, just like anywhere else in the world, you also need to know how to drive around and how to behave in the streets. We often have late check-ins on our Catania food tours or the Taormina Welcome Food tour because travelers miscalculate their driving distances or underestimate the traffic! And this to say that driving in Sicily can be fun, but it can also mess up your schedule if you don’t take the correct precautions.
Now sit back, relax, and read this!
ASK YOURSELF: DO I REALLY NEED A CAR FOR A WEEKEND BREAK?
Make your plans first. If you are coming to Palermo or Catania for a long weekend, you don’t need a car. You can simply walk around or use trains, buses and taxis. Drive in Sicily, but do it smart!
GET ON BOARD ONLY WHEN IT’S TIME TO GO
If you are planning to travel around Sicily for more than a week, get a car! However, you don’t want to rent the car upon the arrival if you are going to spend the first two days in your arrival city (Palermo or Catania). Just wait till the day you’ll leave the city. Doing so you will save money and stress.
GET A FULL COVERAGE CAR INSURANCE
Let me surprise you! Palermo and Naples, renowned for their crazy traffic, are actually among the cities with the least number of deadly car accidents in Italy! how come? because we drive like sh** 🙂 When we drive, we expect all other drivers to break the rules which convinces us to drive slowly and carefully. On the other hand, since most of the drivers do break the rules, there are many small bumps happening on a daily basis. You don’t need to panic mate! So far I have never heard of any travelers getting involved in a car accident, and trust me, I met thousands of travelers in the past years.
In conclusion, a full coverage insurance will give you an extra dose of relaxation.
GOOGLE? NOPE, LOCALS KNOW BETTER!
Ask your hotel receptionist or your car rental guy what’s the best and easiest way to reach your destination. I know, google knows this…maybe! Google isn’t always updated with latest work in progress in highways or bridges…especially in Sicily where the cities are constantly opening new pedestrian areas. I guess google’s satellites are quite intimidated by that undefined mass of colored points moving randomly in the island. So, this is a tip that I will keep repeating till the end of the article: ASK! ASK! ASK! ASK! This isn’t just about driving, even when you walk around the city centers, keep your cellphone in your pocket and interact. Sicilians will be more than happy to help you.
DO NOT UNDERSTIMATE THE TRAFFIC AND THE DISTANCES
Sicily is big, man! To visit Sicily properly you need at least 10 days and 5 different stops around. The distance between Palermo and Catania is 200 km (2/3 hours of driving). Not only the island is bigger than you think, but roads inland are worse than you expect! Many highways are interrupted by work in progress (Fyi: “in progress” in Sicily means “for ever”). You can’t see the entire island in a week! give it up! Enjoy driving around Sicily, take it easy. If you only have one week, just pick either the east coast or the north west coast.
Do not underestimate the traffic in the cities of Palermo and Catania. The traffic flow in the cities is slower than you expect. There are so many cars, scooter, traffic lights, cars parked on double line and buses that literally slow down the pace of city life. It isn’t easy to find a pubic parking space. If you have a street food tour in Palermo and your accommodation is somewhere out of the city, do not simply rely on google maps timing. If google says you will reach your destination in 1 hour, then consider 45 minutes of extra traffic. This way you will make sure to show up at the meeting point with no hurry! We get so many late check-ins on our tours because of time and distance miscalculations!
IT’S ALL ABOUT SHARING…LANES!
Can you see all those cars and scooters driving like crazy, well, in this situation you are the crazy one! So…when in Rome! Just do it! The principle of driving in southern Italian cities is very simple: you drive wherever you car fits in. There is not “my lane”, nor “your lane”, every lane is everybody’s lane. Lanes are imaginary, you only have RIGHT or LEFT in Sicily. Anytime you wanna turn right, just turn right, it doesn’t matter in which lane you’re driving in. Of course! Pay attention to cars behind, beside and in front of you. However, you don’t need to change lane 1 km before you take a turn. Just calculate the right space between cars to take the direction you want.
SELF CONFIDENCE IS ALL YOU NEED
Be a bit aggressive….wait…mmmmm…I don’t really like “aggressive” as a term, I would say…be confident! Take decisions, go for it. Sicilians hate slow drivers. We go furious in front of a car that slowly leans from side to side. You need to go straight? keep driving, move on! Do you want to turn left? turn left and get the hell off my way. You want to stop? then stop, whatever you wanna do it…just do it please, do not hesitate! What happens if you hesitate? You will get few angry horns!
HAVE FUN WITH THE HORN
I told you, driving in Sicily can be fun! add a little music! Just honk! Yes my friend, you can do it anytime you want. Have fun with it. The horn will make everything much easier. Honking is the language of cars. It’s the most effective tool to get the attention of other drivers. Use it properly. If you think a driver is proceeding distractedly, give him a short horn “pi!”, he will wake up and let you pass. If you hear a long persistent horn like “piiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”, well that doesn’t sound good! you have turned somebody’s patience into impatience. In these cases, just ignore it. Don’t take it personal, let them pass, breath deeply and keep going. During my first driving lesson, my father told me “ignore the horns. It’s just the fake Sicilian rush. They have nowhere to go”.
LOVE AT FIRST TRAFFIC LIGHT
When driving in Palermo or Catania, it is also very important to get eye contact with other drivers. Sicilians ignore signs and prefer to look at each other. We do this to check whether the other driver has seen our vehicle approaching the crossroad. Sometimes we do it to ask for the right of way. Some other times just to see if there is an attractive woman or man driving in the other car. Social interaction in south of Italy is constantly fed.
READ DRIVERS’ FACES
Here are the two standard faces. In the first picture on the left, you see the driver looking at you. Good sign. Those forehead wrinkles and the funny smile are saying “go first”. In the second pic you see the face of a driver who won’t let you pass. He does not search for an eye contact pretending not having seen you. This is also a way to communicate. Again, don’t take it personal, just let him go.
DRIVING IN PALERMO. JUST FOLLOW THE FLOW! YO!
Follow the flow. Once a British traveler told me “I do understand how traffic works in Palermo. Traffic works like a human body where cars are its blood cells. So, do not stop or you will give a heart attack to the city!”. And you don’t want that, do you? So just go with the flow, yo!
WATCH THE NOSE
I will give you a very useful tip. When driving, pay less attention to signs and more attention to the nose of the other cars. The nose will tell you how fast or how slow that car is driving. The faster vehicle goes first. This is how it works. Signs are useful but…maybe they are just a nice colored street decoration?
RED IS RED. GREEN IS GREEN
I read in some travel blog that you can cross with any colour coz locals don’t respect the green. Wrong. Let’s say that the traffic light is the only sign we normally respect. Some scooters might take the chance to skip the waiting and go, but cars don’t do that. Do not take this risk. Green, go. Red, stop!
WATCH OUT SCOOTERS
This is what cause most of heart attacks to foreign drivers in Palermo and Catania. Scooter are like flies, they swing in from any sides! As long as you drive straight you can simply ignore them. Scooter drivers are skillfull enough to fit in any free inch of the streets. Sometimes you may have the feeling they are gonna crash on your car, but no, they will always manage to skip obstacles at the very last moment.
However, I strongly recommend you to make sure scooters are not driving along your side when you need to turn. Sometimes scooters proceed in the space between your car and the sidewalk, so if you turn without looking, then you may hit them. Worried? You don’t have to. You just have to do what you normally do, just take an extra look on your side mirrors before changing directions!
Look at the pic below…
The grey car (orange arrow) fits into the space to cut off the main road and proceed. He does not even wait to have a proper space. Just fits in any inch to keep proceeding.
The black car has a scooter driving along on its right (yellow arrow). In this case it’s the scooter’s responsibility to find its way without hitting the car. However, polite cars always keep an eye at them trying to slow down to let the scooters sneak in and out.
It does seem like a mess, but this confused action flows very smoothly in real time.
ALL PARKINGS ARE SAFE
If you have any concerns about safety, just know that Sicilian cities have a very low crime rate compared to the average Italian reports. So when it comes to parking, keep in mind the following information.
BLUE LINES: on payment public parking. You need to buy a ticket from a tabac shop or a cafè. The average cost is 1 euro per hour.
WHITE LINES: free parking
NO LINES: look at standing signs
NO LINES AND NO SIGNS: unofficial free parking. It means you can park.
PRIVATE PARKING: Comfortable and affordable. Average price per day: 8 euro. If you have luggage or valuable items in your car, park in a private garage. Nothing to really worry about, Sicily is a very safe place to travel but this sh** happens everywhere.
ILLEGAL PARKERS: you may have heard of the so-called “posteggiatori abusivi”. These people are supposed to watch your car while you are away. They approach you as soon as you step off the car and ask for a small donation by saying “would you offer me a coffee?”. Usually they don’t cause any troubles, however, some of them might be insisting. In certain cases or areas this is more like a threat. The deal is: pay me or I will scratch your car, hole your wheels or break one of the side mirrors. As a Sicilian, I cannot suggest you pay them. I do not pay them and I think nobody should. However, many locals do it to avoid troubles. See? another good reason to get a full coverage insurance!
We don’t have as many illegal parkers as it used to be, so do not stress too much about it.
WHAT’S THAT BLINKING LIGHT IN THE HIGHWAY
We turn on the left turn signal everytime we are about to pass and we keep it on until the maneuver isn’t over. Some locals don’t keep the safety distances when driving on the left lane of the highway. Do not panic if you see a car stuck behind your back. It’s just an aggressive way to tell you they are on a rush. Just keep the same speed and anytime you can, turn on the right turn signal and move to the right lane. Don’t do any risky maneuver, just breath and keep driving. These guys are just frustrated machos let them have fun
SO, WHY RENTING A CAR IN SICILY?
My friend, you will never regret this. Sicily has so much to offer, in terms of natural reserves, archeological sites, quality restaurants, wineries, rivers, art attractions. Just drive to Selinunte, visit the most fascinating archeological greek site immerse in the wild hills facing the south sea. Then get a refreshing swim at the Riserva Naturale Foce Belice and finally a romantic fish dinner on the beach at Ristorante La Pineta. Or simply drive around the Mount Etna, try its best pistachios in Bronte, the hazelnut cookies in Linguaglossa and the wines…oh my god, the Etna wines! Read more about Etna wines (click here)
IN CONCLUSION, SICILY WITH A CAR IS PURE SICILY. SICILY WITHOUT A CAR IS JUST A BEAUTIFUL ISLAND.
5 MEMORABLE PLACES YOU CAN ONLY REACH BY CAR
Torresalsa – WWF Natural Reserve (one of the few beaches with no crowd)
Gole dell’Alcantara (Mount Etna) – river hike and swim
Selinunte greek archeological site and La Pineta restaurant (dine on the beach!)
Ristorante “I pupi” (Bagheria) 1 star Michelin
Mount Etna vineyards – visit wine cellars, hike around and get the best views on the Mar Ionio