Visiting Italy during the Christmas season offers two bonuses – you’ll avoid the high summer season tourist crowds plus get to see the country decked out in all its holiday finery.
December 25th isn’t the biggest holiday of the winter season in Italy (that would be Epiphany, in early January), but it’s still a great time to go – and you’ll find a festive atmosphere in every corner of the country. There are a few areas, however, that take the holidays to another level.
Here are a few suggestions for where to spend Christmas in Italy.
Rome & Vatican City
Heading for Rome over Christmas is probably the most obvious choice, and with good reason. In addition to the festivities in Rome itself, you also have Vatican City’s celebrations – you get two cities’ worth of holiday in one spot.
At the Vatican, the Pope delivers a Christmas Eve midnight mass (book tickets well in advance if you want to sit in St. Peter’s), and there’s a huge Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square and a life-sized Nativity scene in front of the basilica. In Rome, the Piazza del Popolo fills with over 100 Nativities, the Piazza Navona turns into a Christmas market, and Christmas Eve mass is held in historic churches throughout the city – including the Pantheon, where you’ll hear Gregorian chants.
While winter in Venice can be cold and damp, Christmas can also be a magical time to visit.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to witness snow falling on the canals and gondolas, Venetians know how to ward off the chill with hot spiced wine and other holiday treats, sold in the Christmas markets. No matter your age, you’re bound to be charmed by the figure of Father Christmas arriving by gondola to distribute goodies, and Christmas Eve mass held in St. Mark’s Basilica is enough to make any trip to Venice worth it.
Keep in mind that many restaurants and hotels do close in the winter, so do your homework beforehand to find out what will be open.
Read more about having a Venetian Christmas.
Naples is home to a street rightfully called “Christmas Alley.” This city is the epicenter of Italy’s Nativity scene tradition, and the shops along Via San Gregorio Armeno that make both the detailed structures and the myriad figurines that inhabit them work (and sell) all year long.
The figurines range from the expected (holy family and shepherds) to the regional (pizza makers) to the topical (current political or sports personalities). They come in all different sizes, including some more than a foot tall for larger Nativity scenes in shop windows and churches. The street makes an interesting stop in any season, but when it kicks into high gear over the Christmas holidays it all makes a little more sense.
For a location with loads of Italian Christmas traditions but (likely) much milder weather, head south to Sicily.
Second only to the Neapolitans in terms of their affection for the Nativity scene, Sicilians erect elaborate Nativities everywhere (from public squares to churches to private homes), including a living Nativity in a cave near Trapani – in other words, locals dress up and re-enact the Nativity daily from Christmas Eve through the Epiphany.
On Christmas Eve, you’ll see big bonfires in many towns, and this is also the night that marks the start of the holiday feasting. It won’t be balmy enough to hang out on Sicily’s gorgeous beaches, but you’ll get all of the festive atmosphere and avoid most of the cold, damp weather found on the mainland.
Germany is known worldwide for its fabulous Christmas markets, so it stands to reason the heavily Germanic regions in northeast Italy would inherit some of those traditions – and they have.
Spend Christmas in the Trentino-Alto Adige and you’ll enjoy snowy winter scenery straight out of a postcard (the nearby Dolomites provide a pretty stunning backdrop) while you sip mulled wine in the market squares.
This area is also a good base if you want to take day trips into Venice or Verona without staying in either one the whole time, or if your idea of the perfect Christmas vacation includes access to world-class skiing.
Read more about Christmas markets in Italy.
Abruzzo & Molise
Along with the Christmas markets and feasts to go along with the holidays throughout Italy, the Abruzzo and Molise regions are home to an older tradition you won’t find in the main tourist centers.
Nine days before Christmas, the bagpipe-playing zampognari come down from the hills into the towns (dressed in period costumes), symbolizing the shepherds who visited Jesus upon his birth. The added bonus of heading for these rural regions of central Italy is that you’re more likely to be sharing the holiday with other Italians rather than foreign visitors.
– Contributed by Jessica Spiegel