Christmas in Italy – Local Traditions, Food + What to Do!

If you are planning to spend Christmas in Italy, well done, December is a magical time to be here. You will find different Italian Christmas traditions wherever you are heading, whether it’s a specific dish, a local festival, or a concert.

Christmas time in Italy combines heartfelt religious services, Gargantuan meals, a shopping frenzy, and beautiful street decorations. Even though different places mean different weather and temperatures, rest assured that anywhere in Italy, be it a big city or a small town, there will be a Mass celebration on the night of December 24th and one on December 25th.

The same goes for street lights, colorful Christmas trees, and nativity scenes around the town churches and main public and private buildings from Council halls to hotels to restaurants.

Spending Christmas in Italy – Step-by-step guide

Weather and temperatures in Italy at Christmas

Temperatures around Christmas vary greatly depending on which Italian region you are traveling to. Valle D’Aosta will definitely be colder than Sicily, Friuli Venezia Giulia, colder than Sardinia. Christmas is around the beginning of winter in Italy so these are not the most extreme temperatures but you should arrive prepared for the chill.

Generally speaking, in northern Italy, you can expect temperatures ranging often below 0 degrees Celsius (around 32°F) and much lower in the mountains where you have more chances to enjoy a white Christmas in Italy.

On average, in northern Italy, the temperatures around Christmas go from a maximum of 10°C or less to a minimum of around 3°C. This is really in general because in the mountain will be definitely colder than in the city.

In central Italy, expect the highest temperatures to range between 9 and 15°C while the lowest between 0 and 5°C. Southern Italy has the warmest temperatures, even though some areas such as on the mountain and provinces such as Avellino in the Campania region can be quite freezing.

Weather-wise, you can expect some rain as December is quite of a wet month and snow in the highest peaks in all the mountain ranges from the Alps to the Dolomites to the Apennines.

Image: Christmas shop in Merano, Trentino-Alto Adige, to visit if you are spending Christmas in Italy

Important dates for Christmas in Italy

  • December 8th – Immacolata Concezione. This is still a bit far from Christmas but it’s the unofficial date when the cities start being lit up for the celebrations with lights, trees, and presepi (nativity scenes). Private homes, too, on this day dust off their Christmas trees and decoration and prepare for the holidays.
  • December 24th – Christmas Eve. This is not a holiday, in fact, everything will be open, from banks to public offices. Only schools are closed because the Christmas holidays for schoolchildren are usually from December 23rd to January 7th.
  • December 25th – Christmas Day. This is a holiday in Italy and everything is closed, including some food stores which might open some hours in the morning, some restaurants, and very few landmarks.
  • December 26th – Boxing Day (Santo Stefano). This is also a holiday but fewer places will be closed compared to Christmas Day. More landmarks will be open to the public and also more shops but banks and public offices will remain closed.
  • December 31st – New Year’s Eve. This day is probably the biggest party of the year but only at night because for the most part, it is a normal working day. Some shops might close a little earlier than usual as well as some landmarks. This night, there will be concerts, live shows, and giant dinners (cenone) to toast midnight and welcome the new year.
  • January 1st – New Year. The first day of the year is a holiday and banks and public offices will be closed. Some shops will be open, mainly those in the historic center of the towns and around tourist hubs, while the shops in residential areas will be closed.
  • January 6th – Epiphany. This is the day when the three wise men went to visit and bring gifts to infant Jesus.

Italian traditions for Christmas

There are so many Italian traditions for Christmas that even Italians don’t know them all. Each region, city, town, and village has its own local traditions so be sure that wherever you go, you will have fun and spend an unforgettable winter holiday.

In many towns, churches celebrate the midnight Mass on December 24th to welcome the birth of Jesus and another function also the morning of December 25th.

In some areas of Italy, especially in the south, there is the traditions of locals dressed with traditional costumes that go around town playing Christmas songs with traditional instruments. In some cities in northern Italy, sometimes they organize “presepi viventi”, meaning living nativity scenes where each character is represented by a person.

Santa places the gifts under the Christmas tree the night of December 24th and the morning after children unpack them.

The larger meals are Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas lunch. In many regions, these are mainly celebrated with family at home. In bigger cities, many restaurants plan Christmas meals usually in the form of fixed menus.

On New Year’s Eve, most restaurants organize the “cenone”, a huge dinner with midnight toast included.

The end of Christmas in Italy is celebrated on January 6th. Traditionally, this day we commemorate the three Magi (wise men) who visited the newborn Christ. In Italy, we celebrate this with a religious function and children receive the gifts of the “Befana”, an old witch who drops by the night of January 5th to bring candies and gifts to the good kids and charcoal to those who have been naughty. My son, for example, always receives some charcoal along with his gifts!

Image: Christmas shop in Merano, Trentino-Alto Adige, to visit in Italy at Christmas.

Best places to visit for Christmas in Italy

Trentino-Alto Adige and the Dolomites

If you are looking for the best place to spend a white Christmas in Italy, the northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige is likely to offer the sights and ambiance you are craving.

The whole region is very cold end December but wandering around the Christmas markets in Bolzano, the historic center of Trento, and under the porticoes of Merano conveys a typical Christmas vibe.

Rome

I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful is Rome at Christmas. Between festive street lights and decorations, themed amusement parks, and Christmas markets, Rome should be at the top of your list if you are looking for a city to spend Christmas in Italy.

Wander the streets of town and enjoy some cool shopping, live shows, and great food. If you like chestnuts, take a carton of freshly roasted ones for a boost of energy to keep you going!

Image: Santa's cottage in Italy at Christmas in Rome's themed park.

Florence and Tuscany

The beauty of Florence becomes even more charming when the city is all spruced up for the Christmas party. Like many major Italian cities, Florence, too is bright with lights, decorated trees, flashy shop windows, and plenty of festivals.

Whether you are renting a car or relying on public transport, you can plan a day trip from Florence to experience the Christmas spirit also in smaller towns and villages such as Siena and San Gimignano. Both Florence and its surroundings will host lively Christmas markets selling local specialties and handicrafts.

Lombardy’s Presolana

One of the most beautiful mountain areas in Lombardia is the Presolana peaks and slopes. Here, you can enjoy a lovely alpine atmosphere in a cabin hut surrounded by a snow-covered landscape and enjoying the local food.

Whether you are a ski lover or a trekking enthusiast, Lombardy’s Presolana is always a charming destination.

Milan

One of Italy’s most famous squares, Milan’s Piazza Duomo shines of wonderful lights for Christmas and the adjacent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is its perfect natural extension in elegance and charm.

While Christmas decorations, artisan markets, and aperitifs will be a great part of your trip, this time of the year, Milan is the destination for shopaholics. Especially if you can stay until the first week of January when the winter sales kick off.

Image: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan

Genoa

We loved Genoa. We have been in the fall so the weather wasn’t too cold, but even around Christmas time, you can find sunny days and maximum temps around 13 to 15°C (55/59°F).

If you happen in northern Italy at Christmas and can spend even only one day in Genoa, I suggest getting lost in its caruggi that will be lit up for the season festivities, stopping from time to time to enjoy a piece of farinata, and shopping at the local markets.

Image: Christmas tree in Genoa city center.

Manarola, Cinque Terre

From Genoa, it only takes a train to the coast, making it a trip worth embarking on. Manarola is one of the towns of the Cinque Terre, the most popular location on the Italian Riviera. While the Ligurian coastline is not recommended to visit in winter because of the harsh weather and most tourist establishments are closed.

For Christmas, however, Manarola is famous because of its scenic nativity scene made of colorful lights on the Tre Croci hill and inaugurated every year on December 8th.

Image: Manarola presepe to see in Italy at Christmas.

Valle d’Aosta

Skiing fans will love immersing in nature and discovering the mountains of the Valle d’Aosta region. Snow-capped for the most part of the year, this is one of the places where you can enjoy the typical white Christmas.

Along with skiing and taking in the breathtaking views of famous peaks such as Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso, and Cervino, don’t miss the magic spirit of the capital, Aosta. In the historic center where every year they create the spirit of an alpine village with a Christmas market sprawling over the main piazzas and the backstreets.

Verona

Verona is likely to be quite cold at the end of December and for the whole winter season.

Being in the Veneto region, along with enjoy the events and activities in Verona city itself, you can also take some day trips to the surrounding Dolomites, to Venice, and to the region of Trentino-Alto Adige.

Image: Christmas tree of lights in Rome, Italy.

Palermo

If you are not looking for snow and would rather spend a warmer Christmas in Italy, Palermo is a wonderful destination.

While it won’t be beach season, the capital of Sicily has so much culture, history, and food to offer that swimming will be your last thought.

L’Aquila and Gran Sasso National Park

We’ve been to L’Aquila in June and it was quite cold (albeit it was an unusual June all across Italy), so I’m guessing December will be quite freezing.

Visit the capital of the beautiful Abruzzo region and enjoy the local ski resorts such as Campo Imperatore and Roccaraso.

Image: The view and road to Campo Imperatore ski resort near L'Aquila in Italy.

Bologna

Elegant and aristocratic, Bologna La Dotta is always a great destination. Given its reputation in the culinary scene, especially so if you are foodie. A classy city center surrounded by notable palaces and important landmarks, Bologna is also famous for its restaurants serving regional delicacies.

If Bologna is one of the stops in your trip to Italy at Christmas, indulge in charming activities such as wandering the stalls of its seasonal markets, attending local concerts, joining a food tour, and exploring its surroundings such as Parma, Ravenna, and Rimini.

Check our tips if you are staying in Bologna for a day only.

Turin

Turin is a magical city all year round and for Christmas it reeks of royalty and majesty around every corner. Despite the temperatures freezing at times, Turin offers a wide range of activities and things to do during the winter holidays.

Christmas markets, local festivals, colorful lights decorating the city, and a large ice skating rink in Piazza Solferino are sure to give you a magical time. The city’s main Christmas tree is set up in the Piazzetta Reale in front of the Royal Museums and it consists of a large tree in the middle surrounded by smaller trees, creating the effect of a glowing forest.

What to eat in Italy at Christmas

One of the favorite Italian Christmas traditions couldn’t overlook the rich seasonal gastronomy. While there are many winter dishes are typical of the Christmas holidays, some of the most famous recipe involve cakes and desserts.

If you are spending Christmas in Italy, don’t miss a slice of a good-quality, artisan panettone, a piece of spiced panpepato from Rome, and a glass of vin brulé mulled wine to keep you warm. Even though originating from Milan, also in Rome they make great panettone.

For New Year’s Eve, expect cotechino and lentils in most places as they bring luck, according to tradition.

Image: Panpepato is a cake used during Christmas in Italy.

What to wear in Italy at Christmas

  • Winter jacket. Necessary any region you are going but in the northern regions it should better be padded and very warm.
  • Jumpers/sweaters.
  • Warm trousers. Either warm cotton or wool, better if loose and comfortable.
  • Wool socks/warm tights.
  • Thermals. In colder regions, thermic underwear will help you keep warmer.
  • Ankle boots/walking shoes. Any type of shoes that are comfortable to walk around. If you are planning trips in nature or mountainous areas, a pair of trekking shoes will be needed.
  • Long skirt/fancy trousers. A fancier outfit might be worth packing if you are planning on attending some party or private dinner.
  • Coat. A coat is usually a better option as an outer garment for fancier attire.
  • Hat, scarf, and gloves. Probably in southern Italy, you won’t be wearing gloves during the day, but in the evening it’s quite likely, especially if you are staying out late. A winter hat and scarf are mandatory for me so I always suggest packing them if you are to spend Christmas in Italy.

What to pack for Christmas in Italy

  • Umbrella.
  • Travel backpack. This is perfect for outings and trips out of the city.
  • Crossbody/sling bag. Inside the city, a sling bag might be safer and handier, especially if entering landmarks where backpacks are not allowed such as when visiting the Colosseum.
  • Reusable travel bottle. Always handy to save time and money.
  • Toiletries/moisturizers. Cream, toners, face cleaners, makeup, and makeup removal. These are hardly included in hotels’ complimentary toiletries so it’s a good idea to pack them. Make sure you check if you can bring makeup on a plane.
  • Jewelry. If you are going to some parties, you might want to wear some!
  • Nightwear/slippers/pajamas.

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