Christmas is a stunning time of year to visit Europe. Think local festivals, Christmas markets, and mulled wine. Italy during Christmastime is particularly special; not only do you miss out on most of the high-season crowds, but you get to experience the special atmosphere and traditions of one of the most Catholic countries on Earth.
Here's what you need to know if you plan to spend your holidays in Italy:
Plan Your Visit
Although winter is traditionally low-season in Italy, the Christmas season experiences a minor uptick in tourism. If you are traveling during this time, make your hotel reservations with time to spare and expect to pay slightly more (particularly in Rome). Many trains and buses run on reduced holiday schedules during this time, so buy tickets ahead of time and prepare to deal with packed trains.
Most museums, restaurants and tourist attractions will be closed on Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Epiphany. Because most Italian Christmas celebrations are family-oriented, visitors may find those days exceptionally quiet. Christmas Eve will be more eventful with processions, church services, and sometimes even fireworks.
Not surprisingly, most Italian holiday traditions are rooted in the Catholic calendar. Known as natale, Christmas celebrations in Italy typically run from December 24 (Christmas Eve) to January 6 (Epiphany). Some markets and other festivities start December 8 (the Fest of Immaculate Conception).
Santa Claus, known as Babbo Natale, is present but not a popular figure in Italy. Stories instead revolve around La Befana, a witch with a broomstick who delivers presents to children on January 6, not December 25th.
Another popular tradition is the presepi, nativity scenes, which are displayed everywhere during the Christmas season. Many of the scenes are elaborate and handmade from local materials, like blown-glass in the artisan city of Murano.
Where to Go
Rome is the most obvious and popular Christmas destination, in large part for its proximity to Vatican City. Thousands flock to Saint Peter's Square on Christmas Eve to watch the Pope deliver his special Midnight Mass. Don't expect to get too close, however the service is shown on giant video screens so all can participate.
Also of interest in Rome: the enormous Christmas Market in Piazza Navona, nativity scenes in the city's many churches, ice skating near Castel Sant'Angelo, and Christmas tree photo opportunities in front of all the major monuments.
Venice, Milan, and Florence are festive during Christmas, if a bit damp, foggy and chilly. Some hot mulled wine will take the chill away as you browse a bustling Christmas market. There is also the opportunity to attend Midnight Mass in Florence's enormous Duomo or Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice.
For a more unique local experience, head further north or south. Sicily has mild weather and a plethora of local customs including nativity re-enactment and Christmas Eve bonfires. The Germanic regions up north have a unique set of alpine traditions, which include skiing down the mountains while setting off flares at midnight on Christmas Eve.
What to Eat
It is not surprising that a heavily food-centered culture like Italy would have plenty of season-specific treats to try.
There are a variety of special cookies and breads only baked during Christmas. These usually vary by region but some popular sweets include pannetone, a heavy circular loaf stuffed with raisins and candied fruit and panpepate a rich, spicy gingerbread cake. Italian Christmas cookies include struffoli, pizzelle, biscotti, and chestnut tortelli.
On Christmas Eve the tradition is to abstain from meat. Usually this means eating lean, but some Italians instead take the opportunity to indulge on fish, and the Feast of Seven Fishes is a common, although not ubiquitous, practice. On Christmas Day Italians feast on an opulent mid-day meal that might include baked pasta, turkey, and more.
Where would you base your Christmas season exploration of Italy?