The Christmas season in Italy starts on December 8th (Immaculate Conception) and ends on January 6th (Ephiphany). Christmas in Italy is festive, with markets, lights, Christmas trees, and music in the streets. And the best part is that the Christmas season lasts an entire month!
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Christmas Markets in Italy
When: Some Christmas markets start as early as the last few days of November, but most are up and running by the first week of December and last 3 – 8 weeks.
What to buy: Get your Christmas shopping done, and try local and traditional foods. You’ll find stands with vendors selling artisanal goods, tree decorations, and local specialties. Many markets have a “nordic” feel, which is more traditional and more international.
Some of our favorite Italy Christmas Markets
Dolomites Mountains: Travelers who want to experience the quintessential Christmas Market should visit the “Big Three”, in towns that are close to each other: Bolzano, Trento, and Merano. (Some would argue that it’s the Big Five, and include Bressanone and Rovereto in this list.) Bolzano’s Christmas market recently became eco-friendly, with wooden stands and local products only.
Rome: The already-famous Piazza Navona becomes even more magical in December and January when it hosts a Christmas market.
Perugia: This Christmas market is held in the city’s castle, the Rocca Paolina.
Florence: Piazza Santa Croce is home to a wonderful Christmas market, with a nordic theme and gastronomic specialties from around the world.
Turin: the Piazza Borgo Dora hosts food stands, merchant stalls, and a huge Christmas tree. There’s a play area for kids, and restaurants around the square offer special Christmas menus.
Genoa: Piazza Piccapietra turns into a Christmas Market for the month of December. Adding to the magical atmosphere, the buildings are transformed to look as they did during the Renaissance.
Christmas in Italy: Food Traditions
Christmas Eve dinner is important in Italy. Traditionally, people want to eat a light dinner that does not include meat, saving the heavier meal for the following day. Therefore, Italians tend to eat fish on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day’s main meal is in the middle of the day, and is a feast that goes on for hours. Another way for the traveler to Italy to make the Christmas meal unique is to book it in a historic location like a medieval castle or palace.
New Year’s Eve is another big meal, with parties in the streets and late night fireworks displays in many places across the country.
Christmas Foods to Taste
- Panettone (photo above) is a sweet and fluffy bread with raisins that signals the start of the holiday season. A must for Christmas in Italy!
- Pandoro is more cake-like, and is star-shaped. It’s also typically dusted with powdered sugar and sometimes cut horizontally into layers, which are then rotated to create a Christmas tree effect.
- Panforte, from Siena, is also cake-like, but is denser and very sweet. I love my Panforte paired with a glass of local dessert wine, vin santo.
Nativity Scenes in Italy
Also referred to as a creche, a manger scene, or a crib, nativity scenes have figurines set up to represent the birth of Jesus. Usually set up around the end of November or early December, they are taken down on January 6th, Epiphany. Seeing a nativity scene is a must for any Christmas in Italy!
Some of our favorites:
Naples: The street of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples is THE place to go in Italy for Nativity Scenes. Furthermore, this is the only one of the list that visitors can see year-round.
Rome: The Sala del Bramante in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo houses 100 or more nativity scenes, from centuries-old to contemporary.
Cinque Terre: The town of Manarola decorates an entire hillside with a very unique nativity scene, and is particularly beautiful at night when lit up.
Verona: The 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater, the Arena of Verona (which hosts an amazing opera festival in the summertime), displays hundreds of nativity scenes every year. It’s an international event, with works on loan from museums, private collections, and craftsmen. In addition, Piazza Bra, which is just outside the Arena, hosts a Christmas market.
Venice: The town of Jesolo creates a Nativity Scene completely out of sand.
Living Nativity Scenes in Italy
Living nativity scenes area a separate thing. Nativity scenes are composed of small figurines, but in a living nativity scene, real people dress up in a setting. These living nativity scenes – presepi viventi in Italian – are essentially performances. Therefore they are usually on a very limited number of days, for just a few hours at a time. There are too many living nativity scenes in Italy for me to list here, but I have a couple to recommend.
Matera hosts a living nativity scene in the Sassi cave dwellings, already a magical atmosphere. Even though the city has started putting this on in recent years, the event receives national newspaper coverage every year.
In northeastern Sicily, the town of Castanea delle Furie recreates the village of Bethlehem. Visitors can walk down streets that appear as they would have 2,000 years ago. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are portrayed, of course, but artisans also create the items that they would have made at the time. The actual nativity scene is housed in a 1-acre park.
Christmas Destinations in Italy
To soak up all the special things that Christmas in Italy has to offer, here are seven Italian destinations we recommend.
Rome: It’s where the Pope spends Christmas. Enough said? Furthermore, the city has great nativity scenes, a wonderful Christmas market in Piazza Navona, and lots of culinary highlights. Throw in its regular amazing sights, making Rome at Christmas is a great destination.
Naples: If you want a festive atmosphere but with fewer tourists, go to Naples. Known for its nativity scenes, the city is also near some of Italy’s most amazing archaeological sites. And, the iconic Amalfi Coast is an easy day trip.
Florence: Worth visiting at any time of year, in December the city hosts a great Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce. In addition, a gorgeous light festival, Firenze F-light illuminates the city (video below). And finally, on January 6th, the city puts on a reenactment of the Gift of the Magi.
Gubbio, Umbria: Home to the world’s largest Christmas tree, this gorgeous city in the region of Umbria also has a pretty Nativity scene. Gubbio is one of my favorite Umbrian cities at any time of year.
Perugia, Umbria: In addition to a great Christmas market held in the castle (the Rocca Paolina), Perugia has an ice skating rink and a panoramic Ferris wheel at this time of year. In addition, gorgeous lights decorate the city. It also hosts the “street of Nativity scenes” in Borgo Sant’Antonio.
Montecatini Terme, Tuscany: This one’s for the kids! The town has a great Christmas market, and the Castle turns in to Santa Claus’ house, complete with an Elf Village. In addition, performances, storytellers, and magic shows entertain children. Families can ride an electric train to explore the Christmas City.
Sant’Agata Feltria: This town is actually called the “Christmas town”. Located about an hour from Rimini in northern Italy, there are nativity scenes, many small Christmas markets. In addition, children can drop off their wish lists at Santa’s House.
Five Tips for Planning Christmas in Italy
- Be aware that most museums, monuments, and shops close on Christmas Day, December 25th. Many also close on Christmas Eve, December 24th. Some restaurants are open (big hotels are a good option), but meals on these days require some advance planning.
- Christmas in Italy is magical but can be cold. Plan for chilly and humid weather in general. In the north, plan for snow and sleet and fog. In the south, plan for rain.
- Be aware that sunset in Italy in December is before 5 pm.
- In many places in Italy, December is low season, so travelers can get great rates. However, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is often considered to be high season.
- Winter in Italy is a special time of year – specialty foods are everywhere, operas and symphonies are running their programs, and there are fewer crowds. It’s a great opportunity for the traveler to participate in local traditions with Italians during a very important holiday.