Venice can be quite cold and damp in the winter, which is what leads people to make summer vacation plans and to avoid it otherwise. What they’re missing, however, is the magic of a Venetian Christmas.
Yes, it’s still cold and damp – but provided you’ve got the right clothing and footwear, that shouldn’t matter in the least. Your reward is a quiet city without the throngs of summer tourists.
There are Christmas markets in different parts of Venice, but the main one is in the Campo San Stefano. It runs from early December through Christmas Eve, and you can enjoy music performances, shopping for Italian crafts, and indulging in seasonal food treats. There’s hot spiced wine for the grown-ups and sweets for the kids, souvenirs and ornaments to buy, and when Santa Claus makes an apperance he’s often accompanied by people dressed in their Carnevale finery.
Venice is a very musical city, and there are often free (or inexpensive) concerts going on throughout the city during the holidays. Many of these are in churches and historic palazzos, and if you really want to splurge on a special musical experience at Christmas then consult the schedule at La Fenice – Venice’s famous opera house. Check with the tourist information office when you arrive to see what’s playing while you’re in the city, and inquire about how to get tickets.
In a city like Venice, it’s only natural that Santa Claus arrives by water. Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) brings candy to children on a gondola near the Rialto Bridge, usually a couple days before Christmas. Even if you’re not traveling with your kids, seeing Santa step out of a gondola in Venice will make anyone smile with childlike delight.
On Christmas Eve, you can attend the mass at St. Mark’s Basilica (it’s free, but get there early for a seat), and on the day after Christmas there’s usually a free concert at the Frari Church in San Polo in the afternoon. There are concerts held in churches throughout the city during the Christmas season, some of which are free, so keep an eye out for posters advertising performances – or just wander and follow the music.
Keep in mind that many restaurants in Venice close for the winter, including over Christmas, and the ones that remain open tend to fill up fast. Make your dinner reservations well in advance. Most of the main attractions in Venice will be closed on December 25th, too, so make your Christmas to-do lists accordingly.
And if you’re staying through the holidays into early January, note that January 6th is officially the end of the Christmas season in Italy – it’s the date of the Epiphany, and it’s when La Befana (a witch-like character) flies through Italy on her broomstick, delivering gifts to children. To honor this occasion, Venice holds the annual Regata delle Befana on the morning of January 6th, when participants – all of whom are men – don La Befana costumes and race their gondolas from San Tomà to the Rialto Bridge.