There are many reasons to spend Christmas in Italy, including the festive traditions in popular cities, the vibrant markets, Christmas cuisine, and great weather.
The Christmas season is a celebration that lasts for weeks, turning one of Europe’s most enticing countries into an inspiring combination of lights and art. With piazzas from Milan to Rome and Naples to Palermo spreading the festivities, decorations fill cities and towns, while carolers and bagpipe players fill the air with song and nativity scenes decorate historic churches.
With style, glamor, and beauty, Italy celebrates Christmas like no other and this guide shares the top five reasons to spend Christmas there.
Winter in Italy is a wonderland of joy and beauty. Whether skiing in the alps or enjoying the warm Mediterranean light spreading across Puglia, you can find the perfect Christmas ambiance.
Each city, town, and village creates its own unique atmosphere that represents the local traditions, embodies the regional flavor, and immerses the streets in the intoxicating spirit of the holidays. With so many different ways to celebrate Christmas, you can find variety and charm across the country.
The Christmas celebrations in Italy begin on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, and continue to January 6, the 12th day of Christmas. During this time the cities are atmospheric and various festivities occur, from colorful markets to nativity scenes, musical performances to Christmas dinners.
Best Places to Celebrate Christmas in Italy: Milan • Naples • Venice • Rome • Florence • Sorrento
Milan is a wonderland of winter splendor, with the streets and buildings decorated with light. Shops fill their windows with Christmas displays, adding to the welcoming warmth of the season.
As one of the world’s most fashionable cities, Christmas shopping takes center stage in large department stores and small boutiques, while the delicate aromas of candied fruits and citrus fill bakeries as they stuff their shelves with panettone.
One of the best ways to enjoy the city is by viewing the artisan crafts on display in the 15th-century Castello Sforzesco.
As the birthplaces of elaborate nativity scenes, Naples exudes tradition around every corner of its historic city center.
With charm and warmth, the city makes art and intricate artisan crafts palpable with displays along San Gregorio Armeno, the aromas of cinnamon and candied citrus drifting through the cobblestone streets.
The city brims with culinary delights year-round, but even more so on Christmas Eve, during the Feast of the Seven Fishes, with each dish focusing on comforting seafood flavors, from salt cod to fried calamari.
Christmas in Venice is dazzling, the spirit of the season emerging from winding alleys and canals glinting with light.
Christmas market stalls overtake Campo Santo Stefano, guiding locals to the atmospheric midnight Mass at Saint Mark’s Basilica, when the ethereal sounds of traditional hymns join with the shimmer of candlelight.
Murano glass takes on a particular glow in the winter light and ice skaters take to the rink in San Polo.
Rome feels particularly religious and celebratory around Christmas, with more than 100 nativity scenes and festive Christmas markets.
The Pope leads midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and may even bless the piazza. Seasonal sweets like struffoli turn the air fragrant with aromas of fried dough and honey, while the outdoor ice rink by Castel Sant’Angelo combines winter charm and the city’s captivating history.
From unique artisan gifts to the mixture of ancient architecture draped in flickering lights, Rome feels majestic during the Christmas season.
As Christmas approaches, Florence embodies festivity and joy.
The bakeries fill with sweet aromas as the windows display seasonal treats like sugar cookies, yule logs, and pandoro. The life-size nativity scene at the Cathedral reflects the religious heart of the city, while the lights drape across medieval and Renaissance architecture, bringing a cozy radiance to the streets.
Whether visiting the sacred art, watching the Ponte Vecchio glow above the Arno River, or wandering the vibrant lanes of the Christmas market in Santa Croce, Florence has its own unique way of celebrating.
Most travelers are unaware of the Christmas charms of Sorrento. The coastal town remains a hidden gem for Christmas food and traditions.
The town is dressed in light shows during the season, with glimmering decorations veiling the musical tree in Piazza Tasso. Musicians and performers take to the stage to entertain eager visitors wandering the vibrant streets in search of Christmas eats.
The traditions of Sorrento come to life during the festive season as nativity scenes, gourmet dinners, and light shows reveal the spirit of Christmas to the select few who choose to visit this unique place in December.
Italian tradition celebrates history, family, and heritage that has been weaved into the tapestry of daily life. Christmas brings the customs of Italy and specific regions to the forefront as people immerse themselves in the festive season.
Cities and towns start to glow with light around December 8 and the traditions last until January 6, stringing together weeks of excitement, beauty, and activity, from the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception to the arrival of La Befana.
Italians celebrate Christmas in Italy with those travelers who explore during the festive season, welcoming everyone with opportunities to partake in the fascinating festive traditions.
Best Christmas Traditions in Italy to Discover: The Bagpipe-playing Shepherds, Zampognari • La Befana and the Italian Santa Claus, Babbo Natale • The Nativity Scene, Presepi • Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at the Vatican
The Bagpipe-playing Shepherds, Zampognari
While the sound of bagpipes may surprise you, many in Italy would feel the season incomplete without hearing the ethereal sounds crack through the piazzas. The tradition of bagpipe-playing shepherds, known as Zampognari, dates back to ancient Rome and continues today across remote villages, from Lazio to Abruzzo, Basilicata to Molise, Campania to Puglia.
Bagpipers wear garments representing the traditional dress of shepherds to celebrate the regional heritage and long lineage of sheep herding across central and southern Italy. The importance of the shepherd and bagpipes relates to the legend of Mary in Bethlehem. After giving birth, bagpipers played upon first gazing at the newborn.
To pay homage to the myth and to respect the tradition, when bagpipers reach a public nativity scene they stop playing and give themselves, as well as others, a moment of quiet contemplation. The bagpipers play traditional music, accompanied by an oboe player, as they wander through the cities, towns, and villages.
La Befana and the Italian Santa Claus, Babbo Natale
Much of the English-speaking world knows Santa Claus, but Father Christmas is known as Babbo Natale in Italy. While many know Santa Claus to be a gift-giver on December 25, Italian tradition celebrates Christmas with the gift-giver La Befana, an old woman who brings gifts on the Epiphany on January 6.
The traditional image features a woman with a crooked nose and broomstick, but instead of being a witch, she brings good Italian children sweets and naughty Italian children coal. Instead of milk and cookies, she drinks wine for her midnight treat. La Befana is a comforting and welcoming grandmother who not only delivers goodies, but also tidies up before she leaves on the Feast of the Epiphany.
Although Santa Claus or Babbo Natale is gaining popularity in Italy, La Befana is a legendary Christmas figure who remains at the center of Christmas gift-giving traditions in the country. Legend has it that every year she returns and celebrates the children of Italy, especially in her hometown of Urbania, where they dance, juggle, sing in the streets, and attract up to 50,000 people a year.
The Nativity Scene, Presepi
While Christmas trees may have made their way into the public piazzas around Italy, the authentic Italian tradition of a presepio fills the heart of a private home. The presepio is a nativity scene including Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a donkey, and an ox.
The home displays can be intimate or grand, but are generally made from wood, clay, or plaster. The churches and cathedrals across the country often bring the intimacy of a personal presepio to a grander scale, whether by featuring life-size figures or the intricate aesthetic of an artisan craftsman.
The source of the most intriguing presepi in Italy is Naples, where artists continue to hand make elaborate interpretations of the nativity, with entire streets devoted to the workshops.
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at the Vatican
Christmas Eve midnight Mass at the Vatican held by the Pope is a phenomenal religious experience that exemplifies Catholic tradition in Italy during the festive season.
If you are fortunate enough to plan an Italy Christmas trip, including the coveted celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica, you will embrace the essence of the season as it shines through hymns, sermons, and inspiring proceedings.
The exclusive experience is set within one of the most beautiful squares in the world, a historic place that elevates the meaning and traditional heritage of Catholic Christmas during the spiritual ceremony.
Tradition is not just found in the customary activities in Italy, but also in the dishes people enjoy across the country. Culinary feasts abound as restaurants, home cooks, and bakeries prepare for Christmas Eve, midnight Mass, and Christmas Day.
The season becomes a vibrant and lavish celebration in which you can indulge in typical flavors of savory and sweet. Lunch can last all day, with delicious dishes like pasta in brodo and panettone. Each reveals how tradition brings the wonders of Christmas to life in an authentic way.
Your Italy travel specialist can not only guide you to the best restaurants in a specific town or city to enjoy traditional food, but can also help organize other ways for you to indulge in seasonal flavors. A food tour with a private guide can uncover the variety of flavors of an Italian Christmas, while a cooking class in a private kitchen can reveal exceptional homemade comforts and long-held family secrets.
Best Christmas Culinary Traditions in Italy: Feast of the Seven Fishes • Natale lunch with antipasto spread, pasta, and meat dishes • Santo Stefano leftovers
Feast of the Seven Fishes, Christmas Eve
Feast of the Seven Fishes refers to the Christmas Eve dinner that Italians celebrate during the festive season. As the name suggests, the dinner is a mix of seafood dishes and no meat is served.
Typical seafood to indulge in during a Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner includes swordfish, tuna, salmon, octopus, calamari, clams, and the famous Italian salted cod, baccalà. The feast can also include other dishes that do not contain seafood, as long as there is no meat in any of them.
Gnocchi is popular during Christmas in northern Italy, while buckwheat spaghetti is a classic in Veneto. Biscotti, pandoro, torrone, and panettone are typical sweet treats that follow the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Natale Lunch, Christmas Day
Christmas, or Natale, lunch is a feast that lasts several hours. The spread centers around meat and dishes that burst with hearty flavors. The courses typically include an antipasto spread, the first course, and a massive spread of meat for mains.
Antipasto during Christmas lunch usually consists of Italian cured meats, a selection of regional cheeses, olives, artichokes, and more. The charcuterie is followed with the first course of regional pasta favorites, such as baked pasta in central Italy or Lasagne Bolognese in the north.
Finally, an elaborate spread of meat dishes riddles the table for travelers to share the traditions with families or at an authentic restaurant. Roasted veal and lamb, braised beef, pork leg, sausages, and more are served during Natale lunch, then followed by classic Italian desserts.
Santo Stefano Leftovers, December 26
Italians celebrate Santo Stefano on December 26 with lunch using the remains of the Christmas Day feast. The tradition calls for home chefs to get creative and whip up interesting dishes with the leftover ingredients. Therefore, the lunch becomes a beautiful and inspiring time to appreciate authentic Italian cooking.
Insalata russa is a salad made with the leftovers of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, passatelli in brodo is a mouthwatering broth made from the poultry carcass from Christmas Day, and supplì and arancini rice balls are whipped up from leftover risotto.
The culinary tradition of Santo Stefano is all about Italian creativity and the magic ways to make leftovers delicious. It is also a great opportunity for travelers to visit Italian restaurants that welcome eager guests to enjoy the spoils of a day off from the kitchen.
The scent of cinnamon, the crisp winter air, and the faint sounds of a choir in the distance all contribute to the essential charisma of Christmas in Italy, but the markets bring the traditional ambiance alive by displaying local delicacies, artisan crafts, and specific regional customs.
From South Tyrol and the wooden advent cottages to Milan’s historic marketplace dating back to the 16th century, Florence’s wooden huts selling German and Italian delicacies to nativity scene makers in Naples, the Christmas Market is a quintessential way to celebrate the season in Italy.
While the streets may be washed with lights and decorations, the markets truly embody the festive spirit as people swirl through the lanes sampling chocolates, sipping drinks, or searching for the perfect holiday gift. Wherever you are in Italy, our Zicasso travel specialists can recommend the best Christmas markets for you to explore.
Whether you prefer the comforting cold of a winter wonderland or the cozy warmth of a Mediterranean dream, Italy can immerse you in the unique ambiance of Christmas. The distinctive regions have their own particular weather patterns and atmosphere that can change your perspective of what Christmas could and should be like.
Christmas Day in cities like Rome is warm and comfortable, a lovely change of pace for a festive season in the sunshine. But if you are looking for the true winter experience, you can find it in places like Milan on the alpine foothills or Bolzano in the Dolomite Mountains.
Beyond the weather, Christmas in Italy feels welcoming and open for exploration. Instead of contending with the large crowds and high, peak-season rates, winter offers fewer tourists, a festive atmosphere, and advantageous prices.
Learn more: Best Time to Visit Italy
Our travel specialists can bring the fantasy of Christmas in Italy to life for you on custom Italy Christmas Tours & Vacations or our timeless Italy Tours & Vacations. As destination experts, they are uniquely positioned to guide your plans by focusing on how you wish to experience the holiday season.
A travel specialist with local connections, knowledge, and creativity can help you personalize your trip with an itinerary that will make Christmas in Italy your best trip yet. You can embrace the spiced flavor of mulled wine or enjoy the enticing sounds of traditional bagpipes, visit elaborate nativity scenes or celebrate with midnight Mass at the Vatican.
Visiting Italy during the Christmas season will immerse you in an experience that few have the fortune of enjoying. For more ideas as you consider your holiday season, find inspiration with our Italy Travel Guide.