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Spending the festive season in Italy is a truly fantastic experience; and whether you’re visiting as a family, a couple or as a solo traveller or expat, there’s so much to see and do that you’ll really feel the special warmth of Christmas while making lifelong memories.
All over Italy the different Provinces and regions have their own unique customs and traditions, many of which have ancient roots in the past. Nowhere in the world celebrates Christmas quite like the Italians do; not only because the festivities last for a full month but also as a result of the genuine religious devotion that characterizes Italian culture.
Places To Celebrate Christmas In Italy
The following are my favorite places to visit during the Christmas season:
Visit Rome And The Vatican For Christmas.
The Vatican, and Rome, is the center of the Catholic world and the Christmas celebrations are monumental. The climax of the month of festivities is the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve when the Pope delivers a sermon to the gathered crowds in St Peter’s Square.
In pride of place in St Peter’s Square stands the impressive Christmas tree that towers above the life size nativity scene, or ‘presepi’ in Italian. Each year there is also an exhibition of 100 nativity scenes from designers around the world in the Colonnades of St Peter’s Square which includes religiously themed presepi as well as more quirky secular creations.
The city of Rome itself comes alive in December, with numerous street markets, beautiful lights draped over the streets and hundreds of presepi in the windows of shops and businesses. Street vendors sell pastries, hot snacks and sweet treats as the crowds meander through the friendly atmosphere. Even the Colosseum joins in the party with a huge Christmas tree and lights strewn around its impressive structure!
Of course you can also enjoy all the usual tourist attractions during the festive season except on the 24th and 25th of December when all museums and galleries are closed. There may well be other changes in the opening times for tourist attractions throughout the Christmas season so you should always check on the attraction’s website to double check before you set off to visit it.
It’s worth remembering that between the 8th of December and the 6th of January Rome is extremely busy so you should try to book your accommodation as soon as you can in order to avoid disappointment.
Experience The Lights In Venice.
Venice is a magical city of romance and allure at any time of year but during the Christmas season it really takes the biscuit! The festive lights of Venice are world famous and stretch from Saint Mark’s Square to the iconic Rialto Bridge as well as multiple projections and other special effects being employed throughout the city.
The Grand Canal is sparkling with lights, the Doge’s palace is ablaze with its own display and many households throughout the city get involved by hanging fairy lights from their balconies and windows. The shopping streets of Venice are draped with lights and stars as the tourists and locals take in the scene.
Overall, if you want to spend the festive season in a real life phantasmagoria, Christmas in Venice is the place to be. You’ll also frequently stumble across choirs and musicians in the streets and piazzas which add that extra element of enchantment to the whole proceedings.
The Feast Of The Seven Fishes In Naples.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a popular celebration in Southern Italy, including Sicily and, especially, in Naples. The feast is a variation of the widespread ‘la vigilia’ practise which Roman Catholics throughout Italy take part in.
La vigilia, or ‘the vigil’ in English, is the practise of fasting before a major religious day of celebration. For example, strict Roman Catholics will traditionally fast on Christmas Eve, avoiding meat and only eating a light dish of fish, soup or pasta in preparation for Christmas Day.
However, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is not a strict fast like the traditional La vigilia but it does still cut out the meat! The Feast of the Seven Fishes in Naples has actually spread to other parts of the world and is now practiced by many Italian-Americans in the United States each year!
The Feast of the Seven Fishes does not always include 7 fish dishes although it’s thought that the number 7 is either chosen because of its religious significance or because of the 7 hills in Rome. As well as the significance of the number 7, the concept of fish is a central symbol in Christianity; partly because Jesus fed the masses with fish after the Sermon on the Mount but also because in the early days of the religion it was a fish that represented the religion and not the symbol of the cross. Either way, the Feast is a time for families to get together before they go to Midnight Mass on the night before Christmas.
There’s a wide range of fish that can be incorporated into the Feast of Seven Fishes, some of the most popular include:
- Lobster and Lobster tails.
The feast can be eaten with just fish dishes but more often than not it’s accompanied by vegetables, pasta, bread and olive oil as well as sweets and Italian wine. However, there will be no cured meats or other types of meat products on the menu for the Feast of the Seven Fish in Naples, or elsewhere in Southern Italy.
Christmas Shopping In Milan.
Milan is one of the world’s capitals of fashion and is home to some of the most prestigious flagship brand stores and elegant boutiques in Italy. During the Christmas season the city is also packed with amazing street markets and stalls, food vendors and street performers.
The city does a great job with the lights and decorations which really come to life as the sun sets over the dramatic skyline, making the perfect backdrop for a shopping trip in Milan. The charming lights are swathed across the piazzas, shopping streets and all the major sites of interest and even, amazingly, the city’s trams!
While you’re exploring the city and doing some shopping you must make time to swing by the Piazza Duomo to see the giant Christmas tree, the highly decorated dome in the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II as well as the stunning Castello Sforzesco. For a spectacular view of the whole of Milan and its lights you can see it all from the Torre Brana in Parco Sempione.
The top Christmas markets in Milan include the ‘Oh Bej! O Bej’ market in the Piazza Castello, the Mercantino di Natale in the Piazza Duomo and the lovely Il Villaggio delle Meraviglie in the Indro Montanelli Gardens. However, there are many smaller markets to discover along the way, many of which have beautiful handmade souvenirs and Christmas gifts for sale.
Lastly, don’t forget that if you’re staying in Milan for the whole festive season it might be worth extending your trip by a week or two so you can catch the January sales which usually start in the 2nd week of January!
Visit Bolzano For Christmas In The Italian Alps.
This charming Alpine town is tucked away near the border of Austria in the German speaking part of Italy, in Trentino Alto Adige. High up in the mountains, you’re guaranteed snow in the Christmas season with nearby ski slopes, warm friendly taverns and fantastic restaurants to visit.
Bolzano hosts one of Italy’s largest Christmas markets each year, known as the ‘Mercatino di Natale’, where you can find unbeatable street food, lovely gifts, candles, souvenirs and much more besides! The streets of Bolzano are fantastically decorated with a hint of the Germanic traditions and roots of its population.
As you wander around the town between markets, shops, taverns and restaurants you’ll be stunned by the scenery as Christmas carols ring through the air. There’s a general feeling of enchantment and excitement in the air making Bolzano the perfect location for an unforgettable family holiday or a romantic retreat for a couple.
While you are in Bolzano don’t forget to try some of the beloved mulled wine which is served hot from large vats, with the strong spices warming your spirits, as well as tasting the regional strudels and sweets.
Chilly Tuscan Hill Town Christmas In Siena!
Siena, in central Tuscany, is a wonderful city to spend a perfect Christmas in Italy with your friends, family or loved ones. The city comes to life with a wide range of festive events on the calendar for the festive month that fill the medieval streets with beautiful lights, decorations and nativity scenes.
At the start of the season there is an official turning on of the Christmas lights, an event which takes place on the 1st of December and is sponsored by local businesses, hotels and stores.
Another fantastic tradition is the Medieval market in the lovely Piazza del Campo which takes on a middle ages theme with people in fancy dress! Half the market is dedicated to selling all types of handmade souvenirs and regional arts and crafts. The other half of the market sells local wines and food.
Although the market opens in the morning, it is best to arrive after sunset because you’ll really get to experience a better atmosphere with the lights illuminating the scene! There are also cooking demonstrations and plenty of nearby restaurants you can visit after you’ve done your shopping in the market.
Siena also puts on a great show with its nativity scenes that spring up around the city! There’s a huge mechanical nativity scene that’s set up in the main train station but you can also visit the Magazzino di Sale in the Palazzo Comunale where you can see an exhibition of nativity scenes from all over the world.
A Warmer Christmas In Sicily!
The Mediterranean is best known for being a summer vacation spot but if you want a warmer Christmas with far less tourists around then there’s nowhere better to visit than Sicily.
During the winter Sicily is nowhere near as hot as during the summer but instead it’s pleasantly cool with clear skies and a fresh sea breeze that washes over the island. Nonetheless, Sicily becomes home to nativity scenes, street lights and Christmas trees during the festive season and with all the unique regional specialities on offer its a place not to miss.
Christmas on the island is full of fun and bonding traditions that you can take part in while you’re there. Sicilians, on average, tend to be fairly devout Catholics and so religious celebrations and feasts play a major role in the festive season. However, there are still plenty of markets and festive merriment to partake in!
Festivities in Sicily begin on the 8th of December and start with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, or the ‘L’Immacolata Concezione’; a holiday which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, an important figure in the Catholic faith. It’s on this day that the towns and cities of Sicily put up their decorations, lights and the Christmas markets open their doors.
Later in the month, on the 16th of December, the island celebrates the Novena di Natale, which is dedicated to the children of Sicily. On this day the children sing carols, read scriptures and light small candles in the streets. As well as outdoor celebrations the churches of Italy celebrate the event with choral hymns, services and community gatherings.
The food in Sicily is unique in Italy and during the festive season you’ll see food stalls, tables and restaurants offering the delicious regional cuisine of the island to locals and tourists alike. Some of the items that you must try include bruschetta, arancini, canapes and the famous fried bread dough dumplings; as well as the delicious local wines and fresh seafood.
Celebrate The Authentic Magic Of Christmas In Italy.
Italy is one of the most beautiful and enchanting places in the world to spend your Christmas. Whether you’re visiting as a family, a group of friends, a couple or as a solo adventurer you’ll have the time of your life!
Not only is the food and wine amazing and hugely diverse but the unique celebrations, customs and traditions make Italy a truly wonderful place each year during December. So, whether you choose to spend your festive season in the chic streets of Milan, at the center of the Catholic faith in Rome or on the Southern island of Sicily, you’ll make shared Christmas memories that will last a lifetime.