Public transportation is often a great way to see Italy but on the island of Sicily, we believe that driving a car is the best way to explore this Mediterranean gem. Driving a car in a foreign country can be a little nerve-wracking for some but we’re here to calm your fears by sharing our experience plus some helpful things to know about driving in Sicily.
There are a lot of stories out there that portray driving in Sicily as a terrible idea. Everyone’s travel experience is different but we think following the road on our own is what truly made Sicily special. Plus, when you find a rental car for $12 USD for two days then it’s hard to say no!
Material Things You Need to Drive in Sicily
IDP stands for “International Driver’s Permit” and you’re going to want one for Italy. We’ve driven in Czechia (Czech Republic), France and the UK; we’ve never needed our IDP. However, when we picked up our rental car from the Palermo Airport, sure enough, we were asked for a copy of our IDP. Turns out, it’s the law for travelers to have one in Italy.
Yes, there are some out there who weren’t asked by the rental company but we advise you to not risk it and spend the $20 USD on an IDP. It’s not government-issued but you can find it at your local AAA. Find more info on the AAA website.
Just like renting a car at home or abroad, be sure and have your driver’s license in addition to your IDP!
Another no-brainer, have your passport when you pick up your car.
Be mindful of how much the limit is on your credit card! The rental car company will charge a holding fee to ensure you return the car and in case of damage to the rental.
In Sicily, this holding fee was only a few hundred euros. That’s much nicer than the almost 1200 USD that got held by our company in Czechia (Czech Republic).
Tips for Driving in Sicily
Rent at the Airport
Major cities are always a good place to start your trip because there’s an airport. Besides the obvious benefit of conveniently flying in and out of your destination, there’s also the benefit of rental cars. Rentals are typically cheaper when hired at the airport and you can bring it back before you fly out, saving you money on that one-way drop off fee that most rental companies will charge.
We found a sweet deal on our car through Kayak.com and only paid $12 USD through a budget rental called Green Motion. You’ll find plenty of budget rentals as well as the world-known names at Palermo’s airport.
The nice thing about Palermo’s airport is it’s pretty far out of the city so you won’t have to deal with that chaotic Palermo traffic. It’s easily reachable by train from Palermo Centrale.
Rent a Small or Mini Car
Driving a small or mini car is always a good idea when driving in Italy but it’s especially the case in Sicily. Main highways aside, the roads are quite narrow, especially in smaller towns. Being able to quickly maneuver on city streets is a big bonus of a small or mini car.
The other huge perk of driving a tiny car in Sicily is parking! Parallel parking is never that fun but it’s definitely not fun in Sicily! However, parking was a breeze with our mini VW car.
On top of all that, mini/small cars get great gas mileage, saving you money at the pump!
Should You Rent a Manual or Automatic Car?
It’s worth noting that rental cars in Europe are typically manual so if you’re comfortable driving a stick then save money and do that! If you’re not confident with a manual then make absolutely sure that the car you’re renting is an automatic. Even after you’ve booked it, be sure and ask when picking it up.
You usually have to pay more for an automatic. We still got an amazing deal on an automatic but just be advised that automatics usually come with a higher price tag. That said, you’ll probably find a pretty good deal at Palermo Airport.
Beware of the Big Cities
Palermo, Catania, and Messina are major cities in Sicily and ones you’ll want to avoid if possible. Even cities like Syracuse or Marsala can get very hectic. Palermo, the largest city on the island, was very stressful for us and we only drove in it for about 30 minutes. Lanes weren’t really respected, stoplights were ignored, it was pretty much chaos. However, we’re safe and sound and it was all part of the exciting Palermo experience.
When we say it’s the closest to Southeast Asia that we’ve witnessed in Europe and if you’ve been there then maybe that will give you an idea of what it can be like.
All that said, just a few minutes past Palermo we were able to spread out and relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery that is Sicily. Most importantly, just avoid driving the streets near the city center and you’ll be fine!
Don’t Always Trust Google Maps
Google Maps is how most of us get around nowadays. Honestly, we prefer paper maps for a true adventure, but we don’t have space in our bag for all these countries’ maps so Google Maps is a great alternative.
That said, Google tried to lead us down a pitch-black side road at night. It recommended this road because it was faster (or so it said) than the highway due to construction. We decided to drive the “slower” route on the highway because there are lights and back roads in Sicily can be very iffy. More on that next.
It’s also a good idea to study your route ahead of time. Trying to figure our way around Palermo we actually ended up right in the middle of the chaos. Google had us taking a mind-boggling four leaf clover highway intersection instead of just exiting the highway directly. 20 minutes later after being in hectic traffic on the streets, we found ourselves going the right way, which Google said was incorrect. Trust yourself!
There are alternatives to Google Maps like Waze, which we also really like but can’t speak for how good it is at navigating Sicily.
Take the Back Road but Watch Out
We encourage you to take back roads whenever possible, especially in Sicily, as you’ll see more of the true countryside and be able to drive at your own pace. Some roads though aren’t maintained and you need to be prepared.
While driving into Corleone, for example, we encountered tons of potholes, really deep potholes. Sometimes the road just wasn’t there. It was still worth the bumpy ride into town because the countryside was so scenic but we want to throw some words of caution at you to take it slow! You never know what’s around the corner or if there’s even a road!
During the hotter months, even into early October (when we visited) you can expect quite a few wildfires in Sicily. Obviously, don’t drive into smoke!
Even though taking the less-traveled roads is very scenic, taking the highway in Sicily is actually gorgeous (duh, it’s Sicily) but pulling off to appreciate the view for a moment is harder and more dangerous on the highway. We liked to use both types of roads depending on our timing!
Yes, we recommend driving in Sicily but we won’t sugarcoat it. It got really stressful at times, like when we got lost in the middle of a town and were going the wrong direction on a one way street.
If (or when) this happens don’t panic! Thankfully you have a mini/small car (we hope) and can easily maneuver your way to some calm driving.
The Benefits of Driving Through Sicily
The benefits to driving in Sicily greatly outweigh the cons, if you ask us. Yes, the drive can be stressful but what you’re seeing is worth it! Whether you’re driving through some small village you’ve never heard of before or you’re gallivanting around the alluring coast, you’re going to remember this island forever.
If you’re on a train or bus and see a gorgeous hill and atop that hill is a small village and church, you may wonder what’s up there. However, being confined to public transport, you don’t have the means to go exploring the road less-travelled for yourself. This is why renting a car and driving through Sicily is the way to go!
We hope you “brave” the Sicilian roads and drive your way around the island and experience Sicily for yourself. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact us or drop a comment below. For a couple ideas on what to see on your drive in Sicily, check out our post on a short stop in Corleone plus some tips on visiting the Valley of the Temples.