An enchanting, vibrant atmosphere fills holiday celebrations in Italy. Festivities begin on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and flow along until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. In every small town and large city across Italy, you’ll see some of the same holiday traditions.
Although Italians have adopted Babbo Natale (their version of Santa Claus), you’ll see lots of La Befana, the traditional old crone who rides around on her broom to deliver goodies to children.
Churches are filled with nativity scenes (presepe) and you’ll see zampognari (bagpipe players) serenade piazza visitors. You can try holiday sweets, such as panettone (plain cake flavored with dry fruits) and torrone (nougat candy). At the New Year, you’ll toast with prosecco and celebrate with a traditional good luck dish of lentils to bring on prosperity.
Wherever you are, aim to get to a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, where beautiful music and ritual will surround you. And traveler s should be aware that most museums are closed for the holidays (including Saint Stephen’s Day December 26, and the January 6 Epiphany). It’s also a good idea to make reservations well in advance for Christmas and New Year’s dinners. Many restaurants offer fixed price feasts for these delicious events; I’ve suggested a few below.
Here are some top spots for delicious holiday fun in Italy:
In Rome, Piazza Navona comes alive with the Christmas Fair, that’s been going on here for over a hundred years. Stalls are set up selling toys, ornaments, zeppole, and roasted pork sandwiches. If you can take the crowds on Christmas Eve, go to St. Peter’s Square to see the Pope’s Midnight Mass on Jumbotrons, or get there Christmas Day when he appears outside on his balcony at noon for his “Urbi et Orbi” (of the city of Rome and the world) blessing.
On New Year’s Eve, you have many choices for free music. You can either join the crowds at Piazza del Popolo, head towards the Roman Forum (Via Fori Imperiali) for rock music and midnight fireworks, or the Piazza Quirinale for a classical concert. As for restaurants, if you’re up for a luxurious splurge, reserve at the Michelin-starred Le Jardin at Hotel de Russie — or at least stop by their fabulous Secret Garden for a cocktail. For more informal, go to Flavio al Velavevodetto in Testaccio for excellently prepared Roman classics. The Tavole Romane Food bloggers offer a great list of restaurants to choose from, and they are also leading wonderful food tours during the holiday break.
In Florence, a traditional German Christmas market (can you say Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt?) takes over Piazza Santa Croce, with wooden booths selling handicrafts, along with bratwurst, beer, and strudel. Along with beautiful items from Germany, there are also booths with goodies from countries such as Thailand, India, Spain, and Austria. For family fun, there’s Florence Noel, set up at Stazione Leopolda, with games and a Christmas Village for the kiddies to enjoy. Reserve for an elegant holiday brunch or dinner at the Hotel Savoy, or for the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes at Fellini Ristorante.
On New Year’s Eve, Florence piazzas come alive with free music. For rock music and dancing, head to Piazza della Stazione at the Santa Maria Novella train station, or if you’d like a Classical concert by the Ukraine Philharmonic Symphony (and polka!), you’ll find it at Piazza della Signoria. There’s also Gospel music at Piazza della SS Anunziata, and swing and ethnic music at Piazza della Repubblica, home to Florence’s grand, beautiful Christmas tree.
Venice at holiday time is extra magical, with twinkling lights reflected in the canals and dramatic winter fog. It’s also not overcrowded with tourists, so an extra lovely time to visit, relax, and celebrate with the natives. There are concerts in churches to take you back to Baroque times, including the wonderful Interpreti Veneziani that plays Vivaldi at the Chiesa di San Vidal, and a free concert at The Frari in San Polo around 4pm on December 26. Or treat yourself to a New Year’s concert at the spectacular La Fenice Opera House. A Christmas lunch splurge at Caffe Florian or Christmas Eve dinner in the Hotel Bauer’s De Pisis restaurant can be divine. For New Year’s Eve, if you can get a reservation at Trattoria Antiche Carampane, you’ll be treated to an out-of-this-world fish feast. Piazza San Marco fills with crowds at midnight for a traditional New Year’s group kiss. Stick around until January 6, when you can stand on the Rialto Bridge and watch oarsmen dressed up as La Befanas (in skirts and kerchiefs) as they race their boats along the Grand Canal for the Feast of the Epiphany celebration.
In Naples, head to Via San Gregorio Armeno in the historic center, an amazing spot that is home to the craft of traditional presepe makers. You’ll be wowed by displays of gorgeous angels and holy figures, and also soccer stars, celebrities, and international political figures, such as the Obamas. Churches go all out with their presepe displays–one of the most impressive is to be found in San Nicola alla Carita. Also, don’t miss the Albero dei Desideri, a huge Christmas Tree in Galleria Umberto I, where you can post your wishes, and enjoy the bakeries, such as Scaturchio in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, that sell colorful struffoli (tiny balls of fried dough covered in honey and dried fruit)–a regional sweet for the season. I’ll always fondly remember a Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo, where a figure of the baby Jesus was passed around to congregants to welcome with a kiss, a delicious Christmas Day dinner on the rooftop at
Grand Hotel Vesuvio, and a New Year’s lunch at the harborside restaurant, La Bersagliera — a classic spot for seafood and beautiful view of the sparkling bay. Also, Naples, being the dramatic spot that it is, has one of the most impressive New Year’s Eve fireworks displays in all of Italy.
Susan Van Allen is the Italian American author of 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go, Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice, and the Golden Days in Italy blog.