Italy in December: all you need to know for a perfect Christmas trip

Italy at Christmas: St Peter square with christmas tree

Christmas in Italy: all you need to know to travel to Italy in the festive season. By an Italian!

Italy can be a wonderful Christmas travel destination.

The weather in December in Italy is likely to be cold, however the beautiful Italian festive traditions, its world class museums and its delicious winter foods will make for a wonderful stay.

Christmas is high tourism season in several parts of Italy and this, plus closures on national holidays, can impact on your Italy itinerary and travel plans.

In this article, we share all you need to know to plan your winter travels in Italy at best.

What is the weather like in Italy at Christmas

Christmas is cold in Italy. Temperatures vary widely between the North and South, the coast and the mountains but overall, Christmas in Italy calls for winter coats and winter shoes (find here a full packing list for Italy in winter).

The average temperatures in December in Italy are:

  • Milan: average 4C/ 39F
  • Venice: average 4C/ 39F
  • Cortina D’Ampezzo (Dolomites, mountains): -2C/28F
  • Florence: average 8C/46
  • Rome: 10C/49F
  • Palermo:14C/57F

Snow is frequent at higher elevations both on the Alps and the Appennines although the quantity of snow and the exact dates of its arrival can be erratic.

Is Christmas high tourism season in Italy?

How much tourism you will find in Italy at Christmas depends on the exact dates of your travels and destination.

In general yes, Christmas is high season in Italy, especially during the weeks 25th December – 6th January.

Usually the lead up to Christmas is reasonably quiet.

Big cities and mountain resorts get the lion share of tourism in December and Rome in particular can get exceptionally busy in December: you can find here our guide to Rome at Christmas.

Christmas in Italy photo collage landscape, Christmas lights and food

Special days and Christmas festivities in Italy

Christmas in Italy starts on the 8th of December and lasts until the 6th of January.

Dates of notice:

8th December (Immaculate Conception Day)

December 8th is National holiday in Italy and the day that marks the start of Christmas festivities.

This is the day when families traditionally decorate Christmas trees and it is also when lighting of the trees celebrations happen in public piazzas.

On this day, smaller businesses and shops are likely to be closed but attractions are usually open and become quite busy with both tourists and locals.

Advance booking of tours and entrance tickets is highly recommended.

24th December (Christmas eve)

Christmas eve is a big day in Italy, as families get ready for the traditional Christmas eve dinner.

Shops and attractions are open on the 24th of December but they do close early to allow for family time.

Some restaurants offer Christmas eve dinner but you need to research in advance and booking is usually mandatory.

25th December (Christmas Day/Natale)

Christmas day is National holiday in Italy and the day families gather for a traditional Christmas lunch.

This is one of the few days of the year when attractions are closed and so are most shops and restaurants.

However, this doesn’t mean Italy turns into a ghost town. While many attractions are closed, this is still an excellent day for sightseeing and especially church hopping.

26th December (St Stephen’s day/Santo Stefano)

The day after Christmas is a National holiday in Italy but has a different feel than Christmas days.

Many attractions open again on the 26th of December (the Vatican museums are an exception, see below) and tourism tends to be in full swing.

31st December (New Year’s eve)

The 31st of December is a standard working day in Italy and most attractions are open.

However, you may need to make plans for the evening as restaurants tend to have special set dinners for the night and may require advanced booking.

Many outdoor celebrations happen around midnight in big squares across different cities: make sure you plan in advance how to get home as taxis and public transport may be hard to come by at this time.

1st January (New Year’s Day)

New Years’ day is a National holiday and this affects the opening of several attractions.

6th of January (Epiphany)

January 6th, the Epiphany, is the last day of the Christmas holidays in Italy. This is when school holidays end and families traditionally take down the Christmas tree.

Most things are open on this day and it happens to be a very busy one for many main attractions so advance booking is, once again, highly recommended.

Notable closures in Italy at Christmas

  • Last supper, Milan: closed 25 December and 1st January
  • Uffizi Gallery, Florence: closed 25th December and 1st January
  • Colosseum, Rome: closed 25th December and 1st January
  • Borghese Gallery, Rome: closed 25th December and 1st January
  • Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Rome: closed 25 December, 26th December, 1st January.

Good to know: St Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City) is open over Christmas and sees the celebration of midday mass.

The Doges’ Palace in Venice is usually open on Christmas day and during festivities

Best places to go in Italy at Christmas

All main Italian cities are lovely at Christmas and can be easily visited during the festivities

Small towns on the mountains, both on the Dolomites and in regions such as Abruzzo, Umbria, Marche and Tuscany get a distinctive Christmas feel over the festivities and can be lovely destinations.

Coastal areas such as the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre experience their low season now and this means many tourism services shut down.

This is not a good time to visit these areas if you are hoping for traditional sightseeing.

The best places to go skiing in Italy at Christmas are on the Alps.

Popular destinations are Valle d’Aosta, Alto Adige, Lombardia and Veneto. Do check snow forecast as this affects the opening of ski resorts.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

Christmas in Italy: local traditions

Christmas in Italy is a big holiday and there are several traditions to mark the occasion.

Christmas trees

Italy does love a good Christmas tree and they do grace private homes and public squares over the Christmas period.

Italy Christmas markets

Christmas markets exist all over Italy but the most beautiful happen on the Alps and in particular in Alto Adige, where the influence from German culture is strongest.

Lovely ones to seek out are in Merano, Brunico, Vipiteno, Bolzano and Trento but many cities all over Italy now host some so you will also find them in Milan and Rome.

Find a list of the best Christmas markets in Italy here.

Nativity scenes

Maybe the most local of all Italian Christmas traditions are nativity scenes.

Figurines are a traditional Italian craft and they come in all shapes and sizes: the most incredible place to appreciate them in Naples (Via San Gregorio Armeno is world-famous for them) and nearby areas: these are one of the things to seek out if visiting the Amalfi Coast with kids in this season.

One more reason to add Naples to your Italy bucket list!

Nativity scenes can be more or less traditional, they can be indoor or outdoors and some towns even have living ones, that can be exceptionally atmospheric

Christmas eve dinner

This is a big feast for Italian families and often carries on until midnight for a Christmas toast or midnight mass.

Good to know: Christmas eve dinner in Italy is usually fish based (see below for some of the most traditional foods)

Christmas lunch

Big feast day, celebrated at lunchtime in private homes. Some restaurants stay open on Christmas day but it is not a traditional eating out day.

Santa (Father Christmas/Babbo Natale)

Father Christmas is popular in Italy. Families have different traditions: in some, the present opening happens at midnight on Christmas eve, while for many others this happens on the 25th of December

La Befana (The Christmas ‘witch’)

La Befana is maybe the most peculiar and, for many, sentimental Christmas tradition in Italy.

La Befana is an old woman that roams the sky on the night of the 6th of January to bring sweets to children, which she delivers in a long sock!

Her story ties in with that of the three wise men, also said to arrive to baby Jesus on this day. You can read all about her here, she is pretty special.

Italy Christmas food traditions

Christmas is a great time for foodies in Italy. Many specialties are traditional of this season and span from savory to sweet.

Fish

Fish is the food of choice for Christmas eve. In private homes and restaurants, for Christmas eve dinner you are likely to be served either a full fish/seafood meal or at least some fish-based starters.

Baccala’ (dried cod) and capitone (eel) are traditional.

Tortellini in brodo

Tortellini grace the Christmas lunch tables of the central regions of Italy.

Traditionally filled with meat and served in warming chicken stock, they look simple but are surprisingly delicious

Lasagne

Lasagne are not just for Christmas but hey are a popular choice for Christmas day especially, both at home and in restaurants.

Panettone and Pandoro

The most traditional of all Christmas foods in Italy, these are sweet brioche type cakes.

Pandoro is transitionally plain and served with a sprinkle of dusting sugar while Panettone has raisins and candied orange peel.

Italina Panettone, Christmas cake

In the last few years, both these cakes have seen creative incarnations so you now have them also filled with anything you can think of from chocolate to lemon cream and more

These are foods you buy, not bake yourself.

You can find them reasonably cheap in supermarkets although the best ones are in gourmet food shops – the difference is significant and worth the spend!

Torrone

Another quintessential Italian Christmas food is torrone.

This is a nougat confection that mixes chocolate, sugar, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios and often extra flavoring.

It can be hard or soft to the bite and you buy it in supermarkets or gourmet shops.

Cotechino con lenticchie

Cotechino (pork) is traditional for new year’s even feast and it is served with lentils.

Eat plenty as tradition says lentils equal money so the more you eat, the better your bank account will be in the new year!

Ricciarelli

These are traditional Christmas biscuits made of almonds, honey, sugar and a minimal amount of flour. Delicious!

How do you say Merry Christmas in Italian?

In Italian, Merry Christmas is ‘Buon Natale’ and happy new year is ‘Buon anno’ – you will hear it and read it extensively if you are in Italy this time of the year!

I hope you found this overview of Christmas in Italy useful and it helped you plan your Christmas travels to Italy. Buon Natale!

About the author: Marta Correale is an Italian mama of 2, born and bred in Rome. Avid traveler, Marta graduated in Classics at the University of Rome and married her love for history and travel in a career as a travel writer. She is the writer and editor behind Learning Escapes, a successful travel blog about cultural travel with kids, the creator of the successful Mama Loves Rome, an in-depth travel site about her native city of Rome and co-editor of the global family travel site Little City Trips.

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