When it comes to exploring Puglia, driving is a convenient and practical option for getting around the region, whether you’re hopping between towns or heading to the beautiful beaches. However, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a smooth driving experience.
In this article
Puglia’s highway infrastructure
Puglia boasts a diverse and well-connected highway and public road infrastructure. The region is served by several major highways, as well as a network of regional and provincial roads.
The main highway in Puglia is the SS16, which runs along the Adriatic coast and connects major cities such as Bari, Brindisi, Lecce, and Otranto. This highway offers convenient access to coastal towns and popular tourist destinations.
The SS16 branches off twice from the coastal highway, which continues as the SS379 between Monopoli and Brindisi and as the SS613 between Brindisi to Lecce. The SS16 connects once again running through the centre of Lecce before joining the Lecce ring road (the SS694 tangenziale ovest (west) and tangenziale est (east)) onward to Otranto.
Puglia’s highway system also includes the SS7 and SS603, which connects Brindisi to Taranto, the SS101, which runs from Lecce to Gallipoli, then continuing south towards Santa Maria di Leuca as the SS274. Travelling south from Lecce to Leuca will take you from the SS16 onto the SS275 (the SS16 continues to Otranto).
These highways provide efficient transportation links within the region.
In terms of public roads, Puglia has a comprehensive network of strade statali (state roads), strade regionali (regional roads), and strade provinciale (provincial roads). The strade statali, designated with the prefix “SS,” are major roads that connect various cities and towns in the region. They generally offer well-maintained routes and connect to the highway system. Usually they are dual carriageway (where the SS16 branches off from the Adriatic highway it no longer is).
The strade regionali, marked with the prefix “SR,” are regional roads that primarily serve transportation needs within specific regions of Puglia. These roads are often scenic and provide access to smaller towns and countryside areas. Usually they are one lane highway on either side which means getting stuck behind slower moving agricultural traffic is more likely!
The strade provinciale, identified with the prefix “SP,” are provincial roads maintained by local authorities. These roads mainly serve local traffic, connecting towns and villages within a specific province.
In terms of infrastructure quality, Puglia’s highways generally offer good conditions, with well-paved surfaces and appropriate signage. The regional and provincial roads may vary in quality, with some smaller roads in rural areas potentially experiencing less frequent maintenance.
It’s important to note that Puglia, like other regions in Italy, has its fair share of traffic congestion, particularly during peak travel times and in urban areas. Drivers should be prepared for potential delays and exercise caution while navigating through heavy traffic.
On the road | the driving experience
Italian drivers are known for their aggressive driving style and speed on the road. But they are generally competent drivers. Don’t be intimidated. Stay confident and you’ll blend in seamlessly with the local traffic flow.
While there is a highway code called the Codice della Strada in Italy, a more “relaxed” approach is often taken, particularly in smaller towns. It is not uncommon to encounter drivers who overlook certain rules and adopt their own driving habits.
Indicators | turn signals
One particular habit that stands out is the limited use of indicators, or turn signals. In Italy, the physical act of turning, changing lanes, or overtaking is often seen as sufficient indication of the driver’s intentions, making the use of indicators redundant. Many Italian drivers do not use their indicators whether on the highway, at junctions, or on roundabouts.
Roundabouts | traffic circles
Roundabouts can sometimes feel like a free-for-all. It is essential to approach them with caution, especially the smaller ones outside larger cities. Some Italian drivers learned to drive before roundabouts were commonplace in Italy, while others may have forgotten the rules or simply disregard them.
On Italian roads the default priority rule is to give way to traffic approaching from the right UNLESS there are road signs or markings indicating the contrary. But as with many rules and instructions independently-minded Italians take little notice.
According to the Italian Highway Code, roundabouts are considered intersections, and priority signs or road markings dictate the right of way. If there are no signs or markings, priority is given to traffic on the right, that is to vehicles coming onto the roundabout.
Most roundabouts in Italy follow the “European” style, where signs and road markings give priority to vehicles already on the roundabout.
Some older “Italian” roundabouts still exist, without any accompanying priority signs, which require traffic on the roundabout to yield to vehicles entering. In other words, the traditional priority rule of giving way to traffic on the right applies.
It is important to be aware of this distinction and ALWAYS be prepared for Italian drivers, especially older ones, who may assume they have priority when entering a roundabout without slowing down or glancing left.
When on a roundabout you might also experience drivers in front of you stopping to give way to approaching vehicles ahead of them, letting them enter the roundabout.
Since 2011, indicating entry and exit from roundabouts has been mandatory in Italy. It is considered good practice to indicate when going around the roundabout and exiting to the left. Not that you would know!
In cities like Lecce, the series of roundabouts along the main highway (SS613) from the north, particularly the first two near the bus station and just before the old town, can be chaotic during peak morning and afternoon/evening hours. It may require some courage and conviction to navigate these roundabouts, but don’t let the impatience of others behind you stress you out. Drivers in Ostuni generally manage roundabouts better, except for the busy SS16/via Papa Giovanni XXIII/SP22 roundabout.
Despite the occasional chaos, it is worth noting that accidents on roundabouts in Puglia are relatively rare.
Lastly, it is quite common to find Italian drivers using roundabouts as a convenient parking.
A matter of priority
Understanding right-of-way is crucial at junctions. Vehicles must yield to those approaching from the right unless there are signs indicating a different priority.
A stop sign means you must give way to traffic approaching from both sides.
Take caution as faded road markings can make priority rules unclear. Some towns implement one-way systems, granting priority to left-side traffic.
But once again be prepared for Italian drivers to ignore the rules of the road!
Junctions also serve as impromptu social hubs for Italian drivers. Don’t be surprised if motorists stop in the middle of the road to chat, drop off passengers, or buy cigarettes and bread, regardless of traffic behind them. It is just another unique aspect of driving in southern Italian towns.
Give yourself bonus points when the driver in front of you and the car coming in the opposite direction both stop to chat to each other.
Tailgating and highway tips
When driving in Puglia, be prepared for Italian drivers to tailgate closely when they want to overtake. It is common on the highways for them to follow closely until an opportunity to pass arises.
Instead of waiting for a safe passing moment, Italian drivers often cut in front of vehicles in the overtaking lane without signaling, expecting or forcing them to slow down. They will then abruptly merge back into the lane they overtook. This pattern continues, creating a somewhat unpredictable driving experience.
If you’re flashed at night while being overtaken, don’t worry. Many drivers do this to alert you to their presence; it is not because your rear lights aren’t functioning properly (something else that doesn’t seem to concern drivers in the south).
During the day, if oncoming traffic flashes their lights, it is often to notify you of police presence further down the road, such as a mobile speed camera or a random police checkpoint to check documents.
The ZTL (Restricted Traffic Zone)
Historic old town centers in Puglia were not designed for vehicles, which becomes evident if you inadvertently find yourself driving into one. Driving within old towns can be impractical and challenging, and it is advisable to explore them on foot instead.
Most old towns have a Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL), which prohibits private vehicles from entering, except during specific hours usually in the early morning and late afternoon.
Look for a sign depicting a white circle with red borders, indicating the restricted hours. Navigating an unfamiliar area while keeping an eye on the road, following SatNav instructions, and dealing with impatient Italian drivers behind you can make it easy to miss these signs.
Enter or exit a ZTL, and cameras will capture your license plate. The photo is automatically sent to the Municipal Police computer. A fine will be issued and forwarded by the car hire company.
Even a simple mistake of entering a ZTL can result in receiving a fine from the car rental company months after your return, ranging from €81 to €326, with an average of €180 in Puglia. These fines are often enforced against foreign drivers.
Parking in Puglia can be a challenge, especially finding a suitable space and maneuvering into it.
Italians have perfected creative parking techniques. Parallel parking skills aren’t necessary when one can simply nose into a space, regardless of the car’s fit. Tail sticking out? No problem. Corner spots at junctions, pedestrian crossings, and roundabouts are fair game for resourceful Italian drivers.
Choosing a smaller rental car proves advantageous when it comes to parking.
On-street parking in towns and cities is usually marked on the road surface. Blue lines indicate “pay and display” parking. Check accompanying signs for details. Payment can be made with coins, many machines accept cards, and some can be paid for using parking apps.
Signs specify payment hours and rates. Keep an eye on the ticket expiration time as you are feeding in your coins, as machines account for free parking times in the afternoon and at night.
Sometimes you may need to input your car’s registration (license plate) number before purchasing a ticket. Look for the instruction “Digitare la targa del proprio veicolo.” Keeping a photo of your car’s registration number on your smartphone saves time (some hire car keys will have the registration number already attached). If you’ve already queued at the meter, you won’t have to join the line again.
Some parking ticket machines (in Bari for example) require you to enter only the numeric elements of the registration. Thus FB369IT would only need you to enter ‘369’.
Ensure your ticket is clearly displayed on the dashboard inside the car. The same rules apply to municipal car parks.
Free parking spaces are outlined in white. Watch for any adjacent signs indicating restrictions, such as maximum time limits. In these cases, display a parking disc on your dashboard indicating the arrival time. You can purchase these discs for a few euros at tobacconists or newspaper shops. Rental cars often come with these discs already attached to the windshield.
Yellow spaces are reserved for disabled badges, taxis, or official vehicles. You may encounter green zones with restricted parking during certain hours on working days for deliveries and similar activities.
Most petrol stations offer self-service, but you can opt for attendant service at a slightly higher cost (around €0.08 more per liter).
For self-service, you typically need to pay in advance and select the pump. Make sure you have cash notes as VISA debit/credit cards often don’t work well. Even Italian bank and credit cards can sometimes be challenging!
No change is given, so if you select €50 of fuel and your tank fills up after €30, the driver behind you will be pleased. Keep some twenties and tens on hand, as you can always add another €20 of fuel afterward.
Some stations on the autostrada and main highways allow you to fill up and pay afterward, where cards tend to work better. However, these stations are less common.
Be careful to choose the correct pump, it is an easy mistake to select the pump on the opposite side and have to stretch the hose across.
“Benzina” = petrol, unleaded = “senza Pb”.
Unless otherwise specified:
- In cities and towns (urban areas), the speed limit is 50 km/h. Beware that these limits often extend to the stretch of highway passing around the towns, so watch for signs indicating lowered speed limits, even on highways.
- On other roads, the maximum speeds are: 90 km/h on local roads, 110 km/h on non-major highways outside major urban areas, and 130 km/h on highways.
On the Adriatic highway (subject to any contra-indication signage) the speed is limited to 90 km/h for most of the Bari – Ostuni section, increasing to 110 km/h just before Ostuni. On the toll roads the limit is 130 km/h.
Highway vs. Local Routes
Driving through Puglia’s countryside is breathtaking, particularly in areas like Valle d’Itria or our personal favorite, the coastal road from Santa Cesarea Terme to Santa Maria di Leuca.
Once you venture into the countryside, you’ll encounter many single-lane roads, even on main routes. Some roads are narrow and can accommodate only one vehicle at a time.
Expect slow-moving agricultural vehicles as soon as you leave the highway. Getting stuck behind a tractor or “ape” (a three-wheeled utility vehicle) can be frustrating, especially when there’s already a long line of traffic behind them on a winding road filled with curves and bends.
Italy’s road classification system includes:
- Strade comunali (municipal roads)
- Strade provinciali (provincial roads)
- Strade regionali (regional roads)
- Strade statali (state roads)
- Autostrade (highways)
The traffic volume on strade statali (SS) varies from place to place. Some are busy roads, but they can also be quiet and scenic, particularly in remote parts of Puglia.
The SS16 is the main highway around Bari but diverts from the highway to Fasano, Ostuni, and San Vito dei Normanni before rejoining the highway at Brindisi.
There are also instances where a new, faster road (superstrada or strada scorrevole) has been built alongside certain strade statali, leaving the old road with the same classification. (Strade regionali, by the way, are essentially strade statali where maintenance responsibility has been transferred to the regional government.)
This situation occurs with the SS16 as well. It separates from the highway heading south around Brindisi, where the highway becomes the SS379 and the SS16 runs parallel to the west of the highway.
For local routes, strade provinciali (SP) and strade comunale are usually a reliable choice. However, keep in mind that a strada provinciale between two towns may still have significant local traffic.
The SS16 Bari “tangenziale”
The ring road around Bari is designated as the SS16 ring road (tangenziale). It features freeway-like characteristics, with separate lanes expanding from two to three around junction 4 before reducing back to two near junction 14. You will navigate it driving south from Bari airport, or heading north to Bari airport.
As the Bari tangenziale is the busiest stretch of road in Puglia, it might feel like a baptism of fire, but fear not! Things can only get better.
There are two challenging sections to watch out for that demand extra attention. The initial stretch of highway after leaving Bari airport heading south, curving around Palese, is a busy section with a minimal or non-existent shoulder. Acoustic screens are erected. It feels narrower as a result.
Between junctions 13 and 14 there are a couple of challenging curves. Exercise caution, as some vehicles may drive too fast and cut across lanes while taking the bend. Re-alignment works have been taking place for over 4 years now, but the new road section is still being built.
Update December 2023: Northbound (towards the airport), the realigned lane has now opened. The curve has gone. Southbound still has the nasty curve.
Apart from that, the road is generally unproblematic. Traffic usually flows freely, except during peak times around Bari. Traffic is noticeably busier over the summer months building up from July to its busiest around the ferragosto holiday (15 August) and the last weekend in August.
In the south because of la pausa (the year round afternoon siesta) which means a split working day, we have a morning rush hour (from 8am – 9.30 am), a lunch time rush hour, a mid-afternoon rush hour (around 4pm – 5pm) and an evening rush hour (from 7.30pm)!
There is also heavier traffic entering/exiting and around Lecce, and to a lesser extent, around Brindisi, which may cause congestion during peak hours.
Toll booths are located at the entrances of the autostrade (highways). Autostrade are identified by the letter A followed by a number, such as A1, and a green octagonal sign.
Upon entering the toll road, a ticket is issued by an automated machine. Unless you have a Telepass, do not use the TELEPASS lane.
Keep the ticket you receive as you will need it to exit the toll road. At the exit, you pay the toll at the toll booths. If you fail to present the ticket at the exit, you will be charged the maximum toll fee. When approaching the toll road exit, ensure you are in the correct lane based on your chosen method of payment.
The white lane with the coins symbol is for self-service cash payment.
The blue lane with the cards symbol is for payment using credit cards, ATMs, or bancomat cards.
The yellow TELEPASS lane is reserved for vehicles equipped with an electronic scanner that automatically calculates the toll and debits the user’s account.
The toll you pay is calculated based on factors such as distance, vehicle type, and road characteristics (e.g., plain or mountainous). You can use an online tool to calculate your journey’s toll fees.
Trunk (SS), regional (SR), and provincial (SP) roads do not require any toll payment. They are indicated by a blue rectangular sign.
If you are using GPS or a SatNav device, note that your settings might default to exclude pay/toll roads, which could explain why the estimated journey time appears to be two or three times longer than expected. Double-check your settings to ensure toll roads are included if you intend to use them.
Navigating Puglia | A guide to public transport in Puglia.