Winter is an ideal time to visit Italy. Not only are there fewer tourists and shorter wait times at the museums and monuments, but there are many festivities and traditions only found this time of year. The Christmas season is December 8th, the date of Immaculate Conception of Mary, to January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. For Italians, Christmas festivities focuses on the family; locals head to their hometowns and spend time at home catching up and eating with friends and family. Meanwhile, light displays and Christmas markets pop up throughout the country. While spending Christmas in the spiritual home of Catholicism (or just a more temperate country) sounds appealing, it can be a bit daunting to figure out where to spend Christmas in Italy. That’s why we’ve put together this guide of our favorite cities in Italy to spend the holiday season, and what do do when you’re there. But first, here are a few of the traditions we think are most important to experience:
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy: Traditions and Foods Not To Miss
The Presepi Tradition
The presepi is an Italian tradition of Christmas nativity displays, found in most cities in Italy. The word refers specifically to the crib, first created by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223 CE. In Rome, the annual 100 Presepi exhibition displays about 200 nativity scenes from artists across Italy and other countries. Rome also houses the Museo del Presepio “Angelo Stefanucci”, which displays over 3000 presepi, made from a wide range of materials including plaster, glass, and even eggshell, and a life-size nativity scene is displayed annually in Saint Peter’s Square. The presepe at Santa Maria Maggiore is said to be the oldest permanent nativity scene, carved in marble by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century. In Florence there is a life-size presepe outside the Duomo, made in terracotta by an artisan in Impruneta.
To prepare and purify their bodies for Christmas Day, Italians forgo meat for fish and vegetables on la Vigilia (Christmas Eve), before heading to midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, families host a large lunch which lasts all day featuring traditional dishes like pasta in brodo and panettone.
Traditional Hanukkah foods in Italy include pollo fritto (fried chicken marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and nutmeg), frittelle di patate (mashed potato pancakes), frittelle del Chanuka
(fried sweet dough with raisins, anise seeds, and topped with hot honey), and torta di ricotta (Ricotta pie with either sour cherries and/or chocolate).
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve coincides with Festa di San Silvestro in Italy, and is traditionally a time to both figuratively and literally throw out the past. At midnight people throw kitchenware, appliances, clothes, and furniture out of their windows onto the street, especially in the southern part of the country. The day is celebrated with a big dinner called cenone, featuring lentils right after midnight, since the money shaped food is thought to bring good luck. A slightly less expected tradition in Italy is the wearing of red underwear, referencing the medieval belief that red wards off sickness and bad luck. Italians are so passionate about this tradition that red underwear can be bought all across town, and if a friend hears you do not have any, they will likely gift you some! Of course, fireworks, music, dancing, spumante, prosecco, and festivities are equally important.
Families most often exchange gifts on the day of the Epiphany (though this varies by region), and also host another large dinner. Children are then visited by la befana, a woman with a hooked nose and broomstick. Despite her appearance, la befana is not a witch; she comes at night on broomstick, bringing along stockings filled with coals and candy for bad and good children respectively. She is not to be confused with Babbo Natale, the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus: la befana forgoes the milk and cookies, opting instead for a hearty cup or bottle of red wine!
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy: Rome
Most major tourist sites are still open daily except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. An outdoor ice-skating rink is constructed at Castel Sant’Angelo, and from late November to early January there is a large Christmas market in Piazza Navona, including a carousel. Have a walk through Piazza Barberini as well, where an enormous menorah stands during Hanukkah, and on Christmas day, be sure to head over to the Vatican to hear the pope’s Christmas message, while standing beside the massive Christmas tree erected there. In the evenings, relax with the Roman winter dishes of Pasta e Ceci (pasta and chickpeas) and Panettone, a cake made from dried fruit and chocolate.
Piazza Navona used to host the largest Christmas market in Rome, selling decorations, gifts, and treats amidst a myriad of street performers. Unfortunately, this market has now disappeared for political reasons, but there are also several other Christmas markets throughout the city, including the Mercatino in Piazza di Spagna and the Emergency Christmas Market, which gives all proceeds to charity.
Lit up streets and massive Christmas trees by Saint Peter’s, Piazza Venezia, the Spanish Steps, and the Colosseum help spread holiday cheer, and the internationally-renowned academy of Santa Cecilia host several Christmas choral concerts in December.
“Midnight Mass” at the Vatican is now at 10pm, at the request of the Pope a few years ago. There are also many other opportunities to see the pope during the holiday season.
New Year’s Eve coincides with Festa di San Silvestro, and there is a large public celebration in Piazza del Popolo with music, dancing, and fireworks. There are also live music performances and fireworks on Via dei Fori Imperiali by the Colosseum, and on several bridges in Rome, there are outdoor dance parties.
On Epiphany the Santo Bambino is paraded down the church stairs, after having been in the presepe at Santa Maria Aracoeli since Christmas Eve.
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy: Florence
The holiday season in Florence is packed with festivities. You can sit back and relax while watching a Christmas choir perform the Nutcracker, or head over to Piazza Santa Croce to get some last-minute shopping done at the German Christmas Market. Be sure to try a slice of Panforte, the tuscan version of the Italian holiday treat Panettone.
There are several other markets and fairs including the British Institute Christmas Fair, the Emergency Christmas Shop, and the Immaculate Conception. Or, see the Lighting of the Menorah at the synagogue Tempio Maggiore.
New Year’s in Florence is marked by public concerts in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica, and Epiphany is celebrated with the Cavalcade of the Magi through the historical center, evoking the journey of the Magi to baby Jesus, with participants dressed in traditional costume.
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy: Milan
Milan doesn’t often cross many minds when thinking where to spend Christmas in Italy. It can get quite cold during the winter months, so much so that the Duomo roof can be closed to the public due to ice; however, there is still lots to see and do this time of year. In early December the city celebrates its Patron Saint in the Festa di Sant’Ambrogio, and local food, drink, arts, and crafts can be found near the Duomo. Teatro alla Scala’s opening night and Christmas season include ballet, opera, and symphony events fit for the festive time of year, and Milan’s luxurious shopping district is perfect for holiday shopping. The city’s proximity to the Alps make it an ideal ski and snowboard location as well, with hills for a range of abilities.
There is a large Christmas tree in Piazza Duomo, and O Bej, O Bej market near Castello Sforzesco. The name derives from the Milanese dialect and translated to “how nice, how nice.” There’s also the traditional lighting of a large menorah in Piazza San Carlo.
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy: Naples
Naples, along with Rome, is one of the mildest cities during the Italian winter, with temperatures around 10 degrees C (50 degrees F). That being said, it does rain quite often, so indoor activities such as the museums and royal palaces are ideal attractions for this time of year. If you are up to braving the rain, a trip to Pompeii is while worth it, as the crowds have thinned enormously from their summer peak. Naples is famous for its presepi (nativity scenes), with hundreds erected across the city. The Museo Nazionale di San Martino has a collection of presepi dating back to the 1800s, and Via San Gregorio Armeno hosts a market dedicated to presepi. The street is so crowded during the holiday season that it becomes a one-way pedestrian street.
Neapolitan holidays would not be complete without specific food for the season, such as struffoli (cooked dough coated in honey and sprinkles) and roccocò (hard biscuits).
New Year’s Eve fireworks are preceded by a huge outdoor music event in Piazza del Plebiscito, and groups of amateur musicians and children sing from house to house in a tradition called Lo Sciascio.
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy: Venice
Christmas in Venice is a beautiful affair—during the holiday season, the customary fog makes the buildings look as though they are are floating on clouds. There are several Christmas markets in Venice, such as Natale in Laguna at Campo Santo Stefano. Santa Claus can at times be seen running around on stilts, alongside a companion in Carnevale dress. Another highlight is Natale di Vetro (Christmas of Glass) on Murano Island.
Campo San Polo houses a skating rink and small Christmas market, of course including carnival masks.
The Ghetto Square hosts many Hanukkah celebratings including the lighting of the Menorah, music, dancing, and food.
New Year’s in Venice has music, fireworks, Bellini Brindisi (a toast), and a giant group kiss at midnight. On New Year’s Day the Italian version of the “polar bear swim” takes place, with locals jumping into the water at Lido Beach.
On Epiphany, La befana arrives by boat.
From January 27-February 13 2018, Venice comes alive for Carnevale. The entire of the city is bustling during these days with boat parades, dancing, music, and countless costumed and masked participants. The Flight of the Angel is the signature event, striking in both its cultural and historical significance, and in its wow-factor. The other two main highlights of the event are the Official Dinner Show and Ball, costing 500 euros, and the costume contest in Piazza San Marco.
For more, see our guide to holiday eating in Italy.