Winter can be a good time to visit Italy if you don’t mind the cold, and possibly snowy, weather. You can often find lower air fares and get off-season hotel prices (except Christmas through January 6 in Rome, on New Year’s Eve, or Carnevale season in Venice) and there are fewer tourists so most sites and museums are less crowded. Of course if you’re looking for a skiing or winter sports vacation in the mountains, winter is the time to go.
See Christmas Markets and Nativities
Christmas markets can be found in many parts of Italy, usually staring around December 8 and continuing through January 6, Epiphany. Markets range from small, village markets held on weekends to big daily markets with children’s activities, special events, and even visits with Saint Nick or Babbo Natale. Some of the best are in the northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige and the city of Trieste where there’s a big Austrian and German influence.
Another thing to look for during the holiday season is presepe, nativity displays. Presepe are the most traditional Christmas decorations and they can be quite elaborate. You’ll find them in many churches and sometimes in squares, such as the big one set up each year in Saint Peter’s Square.
One of the best cities for presepe is Naples where they have developed to include scenes from everyday life as well as the Christmas crib. Via San Gregorio Armeno is known as the street of nativities for its workshops making figurines for presepe. On this street you’ll find everything from inexpensive figures to high-quality artisan products. Although you can visit any time of year, it’s a fun place to go during the holiday season.
Visit Italian Museums
Winter is a great time to visit museums as they are generally less crowded and ticket lines are not so long. However we still recommend that you at least buy these 5 Italian Museum tickets in advance to avoid lines or disappointment.
Less-visited museums, especially in small towns or rural areas, may have shorter winter hours and some are only open on weekends. Even major museums in big cities may close a little earlier in winter so check schedules in advance.
Head to the Big Cities
While travel in the countryside can be difficult because of the weather and sites and museums may be closed in smaller towns, larger Italian cities are still bustling and offer many things to do even in the rain.
Christmas season, December through January 6, is a good time to visit many cities as there will be special sights and things going on. Rome is one of the top places to go. See Rome Christmas season sights.
Italian Cities are also great places to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Go to a Carnevale Festival
Carnevale, Italian mardi gras or carnival, is celebrated 40 days before Easter but many events start a week or two before that. While the most famous carnevale is held in Venice, throughout Italy there are many interesting events and it can be a festive time to visit. Viareggio Carnival, on the Tuscany coast, is the top place to go for big parades with giant paper mache floats. One of my favorite festivals is Sa Sartiglia, an unusual event held on horseback in Oristano, Sardinia.
- See my picks for 5 places to celebrate carnevale
Go To a Historic Theater or Opera House
Italy has many beautiful historic opera houses and theaters. Three of the most famous are Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, and Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Winter is performance season for operas, classical music, and ballet so it’s an excellent time to attend a performance and see the inside of a theater.
Tips for Visiting Italy in Winter
- Don’t plan your schedule too tightly as you may encounter bad weather during your trip. If you’re traveling on regional trains, you can buy your tickets at the station, there is no discount for buying in advance. Just be sure to validate your ticket. Tickets for fast trains (frecce) between cities often cost less if booked in advance, however.
- During winter, you’re required to carry snow chains so if you rent a car, be sure to rent chains too. See more tips for driving in Italy.
- These dates are holidays in Italy. Many stores and some sites and museums may be closed or have shorter hours so check in advance but there may be special events and festivities. December 8, 25, and 26. January 1 and 6.
- Winter weather is milder along the coasts, especially in the south and on the island of Sicily. Inland places, especially in the north and center, usually get some snow. Many places experience the highest rainfall during November and December. See Italy Climate and Weather for more details.
- In resort towns along the coast, many places close during winter. If you’re heading to the coast choose larger towns like Sanremo on the Italian Riviera or Trani on the Puglia coast.
- Smaller museums and sites, especially outside major tourist areas, may be open only on weekends or have shorter winter hours. Winter can be a good time to visit big southern cities like Naples, Rome, Palermo, or Cagliari.
- January is a great time for shopping. Many stores, especially in cities, have big sales starting after the January 6 holiday, and often running through early February. It’s a good chance to pick up some fashion bargains.
- Find a hotel in Italy.
Photo by Orna O’Reilly: Traveling Italy, used by permission.
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