While most travelers head for Italy during the summer to take advantage of the nice weather, there’s something to be said for spending Christmas in Italy. Any place is especially fun to visit when it’s decked out in its holiday finery, and the added bonus of experiencing Christmas traditions that may be new to you can make your trip even more exciting and memorable. Here are a few of the things to know about planning a trip to Italy during Christmastime.
Christmas, called “Natale” in Italian, looks in Italy quite a bit like you might expect. Christmas trees are a newer addition to the traditional Italian decor, but now you’ll see big trees erected in public squares all lit up. The most common Christmas decor in Italy, usually seen starting in early December, are Nativity scenes – called “presepi” in Italian. These are found in public squares, in churches, in shops and restaurants and in private homes. Some cities even have living Nativity scenes enacted daily by locals in costume throughout the season.
Santa Claus goes by the name “Babbo Natale” – which is Father Christmas to us – but he’s also a more modern addition. The gift-bearing character is actually La Befana, a witch who rides a broomstick into Italian homes and leaves presents for children the night before the Epiphany (January 6th).
You may be familiar with outdoor Christmas markets in countries like Austria and Germany, and in Italy there are some cities that have similar markets. Most of these are in the north, especially the Germanic Trentino-Alto Adige region. Otherwise look for markets in major public squares, where you’ll often find vendors selling roasted chestnuts and (sometimes) hot mulled wine.
Italians have a big family dinner on Christmas Eve, but what’s on the table will differ from region to region. Sweets play a prominent role almost regardless of where you go, however, and there are some desserts you’ll only see at this time of year: including panettone, a sweet bread from Milan, and struffoli, deep-fried balls of dough from Naples.
Italy is predominantly Catholic, and Midnight Mass is held in churches throughout the country on Christmas Eve. If you’re in Rome, you can head to Vatican City to see the Pope’s Christmas Eve address in St. Peter’s Square.
Although winter is typically part of Italy’s low tourist season, there’s a small spike around the holidays – Christmas and New Year’s – that can mean a jump in the cost of things like airfare and hotels. This is especially true in cities that are well-known for their holiday celebrations, so plan ahead and book flights and accommodation well in advance.
Depending on where you go, many things may be closed (or on shorter hours) over the holidays, too. Check official websites to find out whether museums and other attractions are closed (many are closed on December 24-25); and when you arrive you may need to scout out restaurants that will be open, too. You should be able to get some help in that regard from the concierge at your hotel – and be prepared with a back-up plan of a picnic in your hotel room after a trip to the local food market just in case.
The weather in December varies quite a bit depending on what part of Italy you’re in. In the north and in any mountainous areas it can be very cold and snowy. Along the coasts it’s more likely to be cold and rainy. Further south, you may get some rain but it’s less apt to be cold – the temperatures in the south are much milder in winter (again, except for in the mountains). Check the current weather reports right before you leave so you know how to pack.