Last updated on October 16th, 2023
Did you just book your rental car and now want to do a little prep work before you hit the road in Puglia?
Or, are you wondering how the driving in Puglia compares to other Italian regions you’ve driven in, like Tuscany or Sicily?
I first drove into Puglia in 2004 and I’ve happily returned many times, for both work and leisure travel. I always rent a car (or drive our family car) in Puglia and if you’re spending time in Puglia, you’ll want to have a car too (it’s the best way to explore the region). With a car, you can easily visit Puglia’s whitewashed towns, reach its splendid beaches, and stay in unique countryside accommodations.
I’m based in central Italy and have driven all over Italy, and I do notice a difference when I drive in Puglia compared to some other parts of the country.
I’m often asked if driving in Puglia is difficult.
Driving in Puglia is probably different from what you’re used to at home. But, I can assure you, if you’re assertive and do a little prep work (learn the Italian road signs, read about parking, etc), you’ll be fine on Puglia’s roads. The driving is ‘active,’ but not difficult.
Here are some things to know about that will help you feel at ease and make the most of your time driving in Puglia.
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Drivers Take Advantage of Any Space You Give
If you’re slowing down for stopped traffic ahead of you and you leave a little space between your car and the car in front of you, don’t be surprised if a car drives past you and squeezes into that space (even if there’s not enough room).
Likewise, if you’re driving and aren’t ‘on the bum’ of the car in front of you, the car behind you may pass you and move into that small space.
I’ve noticed this in Puglia more than other areas in Italy.
Don’t take it personally – it’s just the local style of driving. Keep your normal distances that you are comfortable with, and let the locals move around you as they see fit.
Sometimes You Have to Stop Before Entering a Traffic Circle
If you’ve already driven in Italy, you know the rule about roundabouts (traffic circles): when you’re entering, you must yield to cars already circulating in the roundabout.
While most traffic circles in Puglia are like that, I recently noticed some that require you to stop before entering the traffic circle (always giving precedence to cars already in the traffic circle).
I really have to pay attention to this one because I’m so used to the traditional traffic circle in Italy (yield vs stop).
Drivers Don’t Always Yield to Traffic in the Roundabout
As mentioned above, the general rule for traffic circles in Italy is that to enter, you yield to vehicles already in the traffic circle. In Puglia, drivers sometimes enter the traffic circle without yielding to traffic already in the circle.
As someone used to Italian roads and drivers, this is one of the biggest differences to me when I’m driving in Puglia (vs. where I live in central Italy).
Always be ready for a car to enter the traffic circle in front of you – you may need to brake.
Puglia Has Its Share of Bumpy and Littered Roads
Unless the Giro d’Italia has just come through (the race repaves road surfaces), you’ll likely come across potholes and bumpy roads. Not a big deal, but it’s good to be aware of their presence because you’ll often be on small roads and won’t be able to move out of the way – so watch your speed.
You’ll also sometimes see trash and debris on side of road. Be careful, as these are trash bags that people have left behind, and usually people who do this don’t recycle, so be careful not to drive onto metal or glass. It’s best to avoid pullouts with trash – keep driving until you find a clean area.
You’ll Appreciate Having a Small Car in Puglia
Rent as small of a car as you can. While you’ll need to have enough room for your passengers and luggage, baby gear, etc., you’ll appreciate a small ‘footprint’ when driving on narrow city roads, parking in tiny spaces, and driving on narrow roads between stone walls in the countryside.
I always say this for car rentals in Italy, but it’s especially valuable advice in Puglia!
Puglia’s Country Roads are Beautiful But Can Be Tricky
You’ll get some of your best photos on Puglia’s tiny countryside roads – spring poppies, majestic olive groves, farmers working in their fields.
But, you may also sweat through your nice shirt while:
- Navigating them – sometimes it feels like you’re in a labyrinth
- Meeting head to head with another car traveling in the opposite direction on a one-lane road bordered by stone walls (time to test out your car’s reverse gear)
- Driving behind a tractor on a narrow road
The best thing to do is give yourself more time than you need (don’t drive country roads if you’re in a hurry to get to your tour at the Grotte di Castellana). And, if you do get stuck behind a tractor, just take a deep breath and enjoy the views until you get to an intersection or area you can pass.
Be Aware of Unique Road Hazards in Puglia
Along with the potholes and trash I mentioned above, you’ll also need to be ready for a couple of obstacles that can scratch your car or be tough to avoid on narrow roads – olive trees and stone walls.
Drive slowly, and if you need to move over (to allow a car to pass in the other direction, or to pull over to park for a photo), make sure to check to see how far away the walls and trees are. If you’re renting a car, that’s where many of the scratches and scrapes came from!
Avoid ZTLs in Puglia’s Cities and Towns
It’s easiest to avoid city driving in Puglia. If you need to visit a city, park and walk in.
By doing so, you can avoid entering the ZTL – zona traffic limitato (limited traffic zone). And you won’t need to navigate small, often one-way streets with experienced (and creative, and sometimes in a hurry) local drivers.
If you’re staying in a hotel or apartment (or trullo) in a ZTL, make sure you check in with your hotel about getting permission for your vehicle to enter and/or park in the zone.
Good To Know: In Puglia, you may see a sign for a ZTL – don’t enter unless you have permission. I also tend to avoid entering any street with signs for centro storico (historic center) or area pedonale (pedestrian area), which are usually in the ZTL.
Read more about the ZTL in Italy.
Be Ready for Traffic and Closures on Coastal Roads in Puglia
Driving along the coast is in Puglia is a must, but if you’re in the area in the busy summer months, be ready for traffic. You’ll be sharing the road with vacationing locals, Italians, and Europeans and the coastal roads have one lane in each direction. Depending on how far you need to travel, you may want to drive part of it on the coastal road, and part of the highway (superstrada) that’s just a little ways inland.
Get familiar with Important Italian Road Signs.
You Probably Won’t Drive Much on the Autostrada in Puglia
You probably won’t spend a ton of time on the Autostrada in Puglia (on my last trip to the area, I never drove on it). Instead, you’ll drive on smaller (non-toll) highways, countryside roads, and coastal roads.
If you do drive on the Autostrada, it’s to cover large distances like from Bari to Taranto.
Interesting Fact: Puglia used to have part of the A17 Autostrada, which no longer exists. Puglia’s section was renamed as the A14. Apparently, the number was changed because it was deemed unlucky (17 is an unlucky number in Italy) due to the number of accidents.
Don’t Try to Drive All Over Puglia
This is more of an itinerary design issue, but I’d recommend focusing on one part of Puglia vs trying to drive all over the region.
For example, it takes about five hours (420 kilometers) of Autostrada driving to travel from Vieste in northern Puglia to Santa Maria di Leuca at the tip of the heel.
Instead of spending your time in the car, choose a smaller area to explore (I love the Itria Valley – Valle d’Itria). You’ll spend more time in towns, at the beach, and eating delicious food than sitting in your FIAT 500.
Know How to Get Gas in Puglia
In Puglia, you’ll find full-size gas stations on highways and the Autostrada and small pumps on city streets.
The most important thing to remember is to put the right fuel into your car:
- Benzina is gas or petrol and has a green handle at the pump and green marker on your car’s gas tank.
- Gasolio is diesel and has a black handle at the pump and black marker on your car’s gas tank.
Another tip for Puglia’s gas stations is to make sure you always have some small euro bills with you (10s and 20s) in case the gas station is closed and you need to use the self-service pump. Your credit card may not work, and sometimes the machines won’t give change (just a receipt for credit which you may not be in the area to use later).
You can read more about Italian Gas Stations and Getting Gas in Italy.
Parking Tips for Puglia
When looking for parking in the towns and cities, look for parking near the centro storico. Otherwise, you could find yourself quite far from the historic center and a long walk from what you want to see.
Expect to park far away from free beaches. If you have a large group, you can always drop people off and then go park. Beach clubs in Puglia usually have parking onsite or nearby.
If you’re staying in a city or town, ask your hotel or apartment for the nearest parking lot or garage. They’ll often say ‘it’s easy to park on the street,’ but sometimes the parking spaces are full so it’s nice to have a backup to quickly plug into your GPS. This happens to me often in Puglia.
Use the EasyPark app. It really is easy to use. You can pay directly from the app and add time from wherever you are. If you leave early, you can get credit for future parking. This app has made parking in Italy so much easier!
If you’re in a town or city on a one-way street and you pass your accommodation or destination or a road is closed, just keep driving and let Google Maps or your GPS redirect you. I recently had this happen in Matera (not technically Puglia, but nearby in Basilicata) and Google Maps just kept trying until it found an open road.
Good To Know: Sometimes, the most frustrating places to park in Puglia are the best places to visit. Why? Because the towns with poor parking (for example, no big lots or garages) aren’t set up for tourists, so you’ll likely get an authentic experience.
Read more about parking in my general guide to Parking in Italy.
Don’t Leave Your Luggage in Your Car
Unfortunately, Puglia has car theft just like other places in Italy and around the world. So, don’t tempt thieves by leaving your luggage in your car. I repeat – don’t leave your luggage in your car. It’s easy for locals to tell if a car is a rental (by the look of the car and the driver). If you need to, you can always drop luggage off at hotel.
What I Do: I get it, it’s not always possible to drop luggage at your hotel if you’re stopping somewhere on the way. I sometimes take the risk and leave a suitcase in the trunk, but I always bring anything of value with me (or anything else I’d be really sad to lose). I do know it’s a risk though, and we’ve had cars broken into while traveling (even without having anything visible).
Have Your International Driving Permit in Your Car
You may not be asked for your IDP (International Driving Permit) at the car rental desk (some companies don’t require it and some agents just don’t ask). But, you may need it and plenty of renters show up and aren’t able to pick up their rental car.
Also, you may also be asked to show it to a police officer (if you’re in an accident, are pulled over on a random stop, or if you are stopped for a traffic violation). Again, you may not be asked (I always ask policemen/women and some say they don’t ask for it), but you may be, and if you don’t have it you’ll be fined.
Read more about the International Driving Permit for Italy – Why You Need It and How to Get It.
I hope this info has helped you feel a little more prepared for driving in Puglia!
Helpful Tip: Does thinking about driving in Puglia still make you sweat? (Expensive) but stress-free alternatives are taking a guided tour or hiring a private driver – an NCC (noleggio con conducente).
Driving in Puglia FAQ
If you want to see all Puglia has to offer (whitewashed towns and gorgeous beaches) and stay in some of its unique accommodations (masserie or trulli), you’ll need to rent a car. If you absolutely do not want to rent a car and drive in Puglia, you can visit on a guided tour or hire a private driver to take you around the region. You’ll be limited if you decide to travel in Puglia exclusively by public transport.
Bari is a large city, and it’s not a ‘relaxed’ driving experience. Luckily, you don’t really need to drive in Bari. Park your car in a garage or lot and travel in the city on foot, by taxi, or public transportation. If you’re renting your car in the Bari city center, confirm the easiest way out of the city with your car rental agent.
Honestly, unless you’re sticking to one spot (like Bari), I’d avoid renting an electric car. That way you won’t have to spend time and energy looking for charging columns during the day and near your accommodation. If you do decide to rent a car, the Enel X site works well (search mappa Enel X colonnine di ricarica auto elettriche in your browser) for finding charging stations.
To emphasize how I feel about electric cars in Puglia – I recently showed up in Bari to pick up my rental car and had accidentally reserved an automatic electric car. I ended up having to pay extra to get a non-electric (manual) car.
If you’re visiting the Valle d’Itria, be sure to visit Monopoli, Polignano a Mare, Locorotondo, Cisternino, Ostuni, Alberobello, Martina Franca, the Grotte di Castellana, and the beaches on the Adriatic Sea coast.
Roads leaving Bari’s airport are well-marked, so you can look for signs for your destination, or just follow your GPS or Google Maps. There are a few traffic circles as you leave the airport – remember that local drivers in Puglia don’t always yield to cars already in the traffic circle.