Italian for Travelers: Reading Road Signs

Jun 6, 2013

Road sign inferno

cartelli stradali

road signs

“What a lovely-sounding word!” I exclaimed to my husband the first time we came across “rallentare” on a road sign. I didn’t know that it meant “slow down” until Bob suddenly hit the brakes on a steep curve (svolta). I was similarly taken by the declaration “Caduta massi.” Fortunately, no stones fell on us in the time it took for me to look up the definition. And we had fastened our seat belts even before seeing the reminder "Allacciare la cintura" (buckle up).

Sometimes translation is easy. A stop sign looks the same in Chianti as in Kansas, and Italians even call it a "stop." The numerals indicating il limite di velocità (speed limit) also look familiar—but they indicate kilometers, not miles (there are 1.6 kilometers per mile).

An Italian traffic light (semaforo) blinks red and green just as in the States — although a driver in Naples explained to us that actually stopping at a red light is optional. (He opted not to.) A sign for a “diversione” isn’t pointing the way to a diverting site, but points to a detour (also translated as deviazione).

Some Italian road signs remind motorists to drive carefully, with admonitions such as “cautela!” (caution) and prudenza (prudence). Others warn of various pericoli (dangers): allagamento (flooding), salita ripida (steep hill), superficie irregolare or sdrucciolevole (irregular or slippery surface), superficie ghiacciata (icy surface) or strada interrotta (road blocked). Just as elsewhere, you may see signs for “lavori in corso” (road work ahead) but never spot any operai (workers).

Road signs such as “usare i fanali“ (use headlights), tenere la destra (keep right), dare la precedenza (yield) or tenere la corsia (keep in lane) tell you what to do. Others, such as senso vietato (no entry) or parcheggio vietato (no parking), make clear what not to do. Just keep in mind that anything divieto is forbidden. 

Even when you know the literal meaning of the Italian words, road signs can be confounding.  “Strada bianca” (white road) sounded so appealing that I suggested we try it—only to discover the very bumpy way that this phrase translates as “unpaved road.” I did better with “senso unico” and figured out that it meant “one way” just before we headed in the wrong direction.

Words and Expressions

entrata / uscita –- entrance/ exit

prossima uscita –- next exit

sosta autorizzata –- parking allowed

parcheggiare in doppia fila –- to double-park

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Click here for more information on her "writer's studio" in Capri this fall. 


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