When you think of Italy, what springs to mind?
Or maybe you think of pasta, pizza, and Paparazzi.
However, few people mention Christmas when thinking of Italy — this isn’t surprising when you consider that on the surface it would appear to be a non-traditional festive country.
Underneath, however, lies a wealth of different traditions and Christmas events that help make Italy an incredibly festive place at this time of year.
Christmas in Italy is a magical time.
The streets are decorated with lights, and there is a festive atmosphere in the air.
Families come together to celebrate, enjoying good food and company, and children anxiously await the arrival of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus).
And of course, there are the traditional Christmas markets, where you can find handmade gifts and treats.
If you’re lucky enough to spend Christmas in Italy, you’ll be treated to a truly magical experience.
If you’ve never experienced this festive side of Italy, or have done so but are looking for some new places to visit in Italy during Christmas, here’s my list of the best places to visit in Italy during Christmas.
For this list, I’ve hand-picked locations with rich Italian traditions and markets offering up traditional Italian foods.
Whether you’re in Rome, Florence, or Venice, these are some of the most interesting Christmas destinations to visit in Italy.
Christmas in Rome
Rome is a beautiful city to visit during the Christmas season.
The city comes alive with festive decorations, and the air is filled with the scent of roasting chestnuts and freshly baked delicacies.
Visitors from all over the world come to see the beautiful Christmas trees in St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican and to attend Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
There are also a number of festive markets to enjoy, where you can find traditional Christmas gifts and decorations.
If you’re looking for something truly unique, head to the Piazza Navona Christmas Market, where you can find all sorts of unique gifts and souvenirs.
There are also a number of special events and activities that take place during this time of year.
You can travel through space and time among scenic installations, markets, games, shows, and lights from around the world in Villa Borghese, where “Christmas World,” the capital’s Christmas village, is housed.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Rome during the holiday season, you’ll be treated to a truly magical experience.
Christmas in Venice
Venice is a beautiful city all year round, but it is especially magical during the Christmas season.
The Serenissima becomes even more romantic during the holiday season, and strolling through its calli and campielli is like walking into a fairytale.
The city is decorated with lights and festive decorations that reflect on the canals; even the gondolas are decorated, and there is a feeling of joy in the air with Venetian gastronomy and the authentic flavours of the local bacari.
There are also plenty of cultural events and concerts to enjoy.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Venice during Christmas, you should definitely take some time to explore the city and soak up the festive atmosphere.
Here are a few things to do:
- Go for a stroll through the streets and admire the Christmas lights.
- Visit the Piazza San Marco and see the iconic Venetian Christmas tree.
- Ride a gondola through the canals and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
- Enjoy Christmas markets
- Sample some of the traditional Venetian Christmas delicacies, like “pinza,” a traditional Venetian sweet from peasant tradition.
- Go ice skating in Campo San Polo.
- Attend a Christmas concert at La Fenice Theatre, or at Santa Maria della Visitazione.
- Take a day trip to one of the nearby islands, like Murano or Burano, to admire the floating nativity scene.
If you’re looking for a festive and romantic Christmas destination, Venice is the perfect place to be.
Popular Venice attraction to book ahead
The Luminous Nativity of Manarola
Manarola is home to the World’s Largest Presepe (the Italian word for Nativity scene), an annual event that takes place in this tiny, picturesque village in Cinque Terre, the beautiful string of five seaside villages on the Italian Riviera coastline.
The event is a celebration of the nativity, and it features a large, beautiful display of lights and decorations. More than 300 statues, made of twisted iron, are illuminated by more than seven kilometres of electric cables and 15,000 light bulbs, creating a beautiful and ethereal sight.
The event attracts tourists from all over the world, and it is a great way to experience Italian culture.
If you are planning on visiting Italy during the holiday season and visiting Manarola for the event, there are a few things you should know.
First, the event takes place on December 8th and will last until the end of January 2023 or the beginning of February 2023. (No dates have been set; in 2022, it was 2.02.2022), so make sure to plan your trip accordingly.
Second, the best way to see the Luminous Nativity is from the top of the hill that overlooks the town or by walking along the path leading to Volastra.
Either way, it’s a spectacular sight that you won’t want to miss.
The Fair of Oh bej oh bej in Milan
Christmas is a time of tradition, and Italian Christmas traditions are no different.
The Fair of Oh Bej! Oh Bej! is an annual event that takes place in Milan, Italy.
It’s a traditional Christmas market that has been running for over 600 years.
Oh Bej! Oh Bej! is the Milanese dialect for “Oh Belli! Oh Belli!” (Wow! Beautiful!) and the origins of this tradition can be traced back to the joy of Milanese children in 1510 when they saw the gifts brought to the city by Pope Pius IV’s envoy.
The market is known for its unique atmosphere and its wide range of Christmas-related products; here you can find everything from traditional Italian Christmas decorations to hand-crafted nativity scenes.
The fair lasts an average of four days and is a must if you’re looking for the perfect gift or simply the festive atmosphere and traditions of the most important weekend before Christmas.
It will be open from the 7th to the 10th of December this year, around the Castello Sforzesco and in Parco Sempione.
The Fair of Oh Bej Oh Bej is the place to go if you’re looking for unique gifts for your loved ones, and it’s also a great way to experience the festive atmosphere of Milan during the Christmas season.
The Christmas Markets of Trentino Alto Adige
The Christmas markets in Trentino and South Tyrol glow with the charm of the Alps, set in some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world.
The most well-known are in Bolzano, Merano, and Trento, but they can be found throughout the region.
They are typically held in the main town square, with small stalls selling handmade items, Christmas decorations, and traditional food.
Bolzano’s Christmas Market
Bolzano Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Italy, as well as one of the most charming.
It takes place every year in Piazza Walther, which becomes a huge market full of stalls selling typical regional products such as apple fritters, strudel, mulled wine, and much more.
The market also hosts some special events, such as a performance by musicians and dancers who take place on stage during the day or various attractions for children, such as pony rides, puppet theater, a children’s train, merry-go-rounds, and much more.
Merano’s Christmas market
Merano Christmas Market is held in the city centre, along the Passirio river, in Piazza Terme and Piazza della Rena, which are filled for the occasion with the typical little wooden houses (about 60 exhibitors), all surrounded by a romantic and evocative atmosphere.
A visit to the Merano market is an excellent way to learn more about this spa town while also finding the most unique handicraft creations and delicious gastronomic specialties (especially zelten and strudel).
Trento Christmas Market
Trento’s Market is held in two of the city’s main squares: Piazza Fiera, next to the mediaeval city walls, and Piazza Cesare Battisti.
There are approximately 90 stalls housed in traditional wooden houses, offering traditional decorations and nativity scenes made by local artisans, as well as gastronomic delicacies and a gastronomic journey through “The Flavours of Trentino,” allowing you to discover local delicacies.
The Christmas markets in Italy are meant to be an experience enjoyed by the whole family.
From the food and drinks to the games, these festive venues combine traditions with modern attractions.
Luci d’Artista in Turin and Salerno
Turin is an amazing city in the Piedmont region known for its automotive industry (it’s the birthplace of the Fiat industry), chocolate, and for being one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
It is especially beautiful at Christmas. Since 1997, the city of Turin has been home to Luci d’Artista, an annual event that sees the city’s streets and squares transformed into an open-air art gallery.
Luci d’Artista are installations of works of light art created by contemporary artists that adorn some of the city’s most important squares and major streets.
The event typically takes place in the months of October through January; this year, they’ll be on display from October 27th to January 8th. It attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world.
At this time of year, the city appears to be decked out in lights, and the effect during the winter evenings is truly enchanting.
The event has also been held in Salerno, a lovely town near the Amalfi Coast, since 2005. From the beginning of December to the end of January, there are light installations all over the city, just like in Turin.
Both cities will be filled with dazzling light displays for about two months, allowing you to enjoy the unique atmosphere while exploring Turin’s historic centre and the beautiful Amalfi Coast.
It’s a hugely popular event that draws people from all over Italy, so if you don’t mind crowds, it’s a fantastic experience!
The Living Nativity Scenes in Assisi
The living nativity scenes in Assisi, Italy, are a beautiful and unique tradition.
Every year, around Christmas time, the town of Assisi comes alive with the sound of singing and the sight of beautiful Nativity scenes.
Assisi is the city of St. Francis, inventor of the first Nativity scene, and here you’ll find amateur nativity scenes in every corner.
A nativity scene is set up in every shop window or church in the city centre and surrounding area, and a nativity scene with human-sized terracotta figures is set up on the lawn of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.
The squares host traditional Christmas markets with stalls selling traditional Christmas goods where you can pick up last-minute gifts or be tempted by the delicacies on display.
But the most special part of Christmas in Assisi is the Living Nativity Scene; this is when people dress up as Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus and reenact the nativity scene.
The majority of them are genuine theatrical, amateur performances put on by the residents of the Assisi countryside’s former mediaeval castles.
It’s worth noting the one held inside the Castle of San Gregorio, a small municipality in the Assisi hamlet.
Since 1999, there has been a living nativity scene with no acting scenes, but there are real master craftsmen working in the ancient workshops set in the alleys of this ancient Umbrian village.
There are frequently refreshment points within the scenery where you can enjoy the excellent dishes of traditional Umbrian cuisine.
I think this is a wonderful tradition that celebrates the true meaning of Christmas.
If you are ever in Italy during the holidays, be sure to check out the Living Nativity Scenes in Assisi.
The Christmas of Gubbio
Gubbio, Italy, is a beautiful place to visit during Christmas time.
The small, mediaeval town is located in the Umbria region of central Italy and is known for its stunning scenery and friendly people.
Christmas in Gubbio is a special time when the town comes alive with lights, music, and festive decorations, including the lighting of the world’s largest Christmas tree.
It was built in 1981 to honour Sant’Ubaldo, the city’s patron saint.
It’s a coloured light tree created on the slopes of Monte Ingino, behind the magnificent mediaeval town of Gubbio.
The roots go deep into the mediaeval village walls, while the star is at the top, where the Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo, Gubbio’s patron saint, is located.
It’s made up of various multicoloured lights that create an absolutely unique and special chromatic effect: over 250 green lights outline the shape of the Christmas tree, with over 300 multicoloured lights scattered throughout the central body, and the star is over 1,000 square metres wide and made up of over 200 lights.
Gubbio’s Christmas tree also entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest Christmas tree.
It is traditionally lit on December 7th, and this year it remains lit until January 8th.
The Neapolitan Nativity Scenes in Via San Gregorio Armeno
I’m sure you’ve realised by now that we take the art of arranging nativity scenes very seriously in Italy, don’t you?
Many families also decorate their homes with a nativity scene, but this is a custom I’ve noticed more in the country’s central and southern regions than in the north.
I grew up in Naples, where many families still set up a nativity scene in their home, more out of passion than tradition, placing great emphasis on the statues they select and the setting they wish to recreate.
Maybe this is why there is an entire street in Naples dedicated to statues and everything you need to make the perfect crib (presepe).
The street is called Via San Gregorio Armeno, also known as the “street of cribs.”
It’s a street running through Naples’ historic center; it’s closed off from traffic and is full of designer cribs.
It’s one of the oldest streets in Naples and one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas in Italy.
It is open all year round, but it is most enjoyable during the Christmas season.
You can see master craftsmen at work and admire the thousand faces of the Neapolitan nativity scene, which has been enriched over the centuries with popular figures, some traditional and others that change depending on the historical and social context.
This year has also seen the installation of a beautiful full-size nativity scene in the beautiful Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, located at the beginning of Via San Gregorio Armeno, a stupendous monumental complex that is an incredible example of the stratification of architecture from different eras.
The floating nativity scene of Cesenatico (Il presepe galleggiante di Cesenatico)
Cesenatico, in the Emilia Romagna region, has another one-of-a-kind nativity scene.
The floating crib of Cesenatico is set up on the boats of the Maritime Museum’s Floating Section and is the world’s only floating nativity scene.
It was conceived in 1986 and houses numerous man-sized statues; the first to be built, after the Holy Family and the Three Wise Men, was that of St. James, Cesenatico’s patron saint, and new ones are added every year.
It’s an evocative sight, especially in the evening, when all of the Marineria’s illuminated lights are reflected in the water: about fifty artist statues on the Porto Canale’s ancient boats.
It will be lit on December 4, as will the illuminations throughout the Borgo, kicking off the Christmas season with a show of live music and lights.
Everything will remain illuminated until January 15, 2023.
Bonus: The traditional Italian Christmas dinner
Christmas in Italy is a time for sharing, giving, and spending quality time with family.
It’s also a time for delicious food!
The Italians are known for their love of food, and their Christmas meals are no exception.
For most people around the world, the smell of cinnamon and cloves wafting from the kitchen makes them think of Christmas.
But for Italians, Christmas is a time for seafood, pasta dishes, and meat dishes. And you can’t forget dessert!
Each part of Italy has its own Christmas traditions and recipes, and it’s almost impossible to find foods that are eaten nationwide.
However, the Christmas meal is always structured the same throughout Italy:
The appetiser is always composed of cured meats and cheeses, fried finger foods, and other tasty nibbles.
The first course is always pasta: either spaghetti with clams on Christmas Eve, tortellini, or lasagna.
The main course is usually meat—and fish on Christmas Eve—though it may also be vegetarian or vegan.
Desserts are always the highlight of Christmas dinner in Italy.
Milanese panettone, with raisins and candied fruit
The soft and fluffy pandoro from Verona
Here are some of the most iconic Italian Christmas foods:
Seafood is a common choice for Italian Christmas Eve meals, with baccalà (salted cod), spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), spaghetti al nero di seppia (spaghetti with squid ink), orata al forno (baked sea bass), and capitone in umido (braised large eel) all making appearances.
First courses range from the traditional dish of tortellini in capon broth typical of the Romagna tradition, to Lasagne alla Bolognese rich with meat sauce, béchamel, and cheese, to risottos with fish for Christmas Eve, to cannelloni filled with many ingredients such as ricotta and spinach, salmon, radicchio, and prawns.
The main course for Christmas lunch varies according to tradition and geographical area, but meat dishes like vitello o pollo arrosto (roasted veal or chicken) and brodo di cappone (capon broth) are also common choices for Italian families at this time of year.
Desserts like the soft and fluffy pandoro from Verona and the Milanese panettone, with raisins and candied fruit, are the traditional festive sweets eaten throughout Italy during the holidays.
Other typical sweets of this period are nougat, struffoli—small balls of dough fried in oil, dipped in honey, and decorated with coloured confetti and candied fruit—and panforte, a typical Tuscan Christmas cake with almonds and spices.
These delicious meals are accompanied by festive wines such as Asti Spumante or Prosecco.
It’s time to get your Italian Christmas on!
This list of the 10 best places to visit during Christmas in Italy should give you a pretty good idea of where to go—but they’re only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Almost every small village in Italy has its own Christmas events and markets these days, so it may be advisable to do some research into your intended location beforehand. Feel free to get in touch with me if you need any suggestions; I will be happy to help!
Christmas in Italy is a great way to bring together not just friends but also family members who might not see each other often.
After all, there’s nothing quite like enjoying a meal with loved ones and taking part in this Italian tradition.
Wish you a great one, ciao and safe travel!