Spending Christmas in Italy is a recipe for a lovely festive season.
With authentic local traditions zealously preserved, lively Christmas markets taking over the historic centres of the Italian cities and towns, and whole communities setting up large Nativity Scenes, being in Italy at Christmas is to experience fully the season of joy and goodwill.
Plus, it’s all rounded off by the perfect Christmas delight – a slice of panettone and a cup of gooey hot chocolate!
So, if you are considering spending Christmas in Italy and want to know exactly what you can do there during the festivities, here is a very helpful list. It distils my six Christmases spent in Italy and gives you the best pointers you will need to organise your own Italian Christmas adventure.
Christmas concerts, Nativity Scenes, bagpipe music, Santa Runs, Christmas villages, Christmas illuminations… Everything is covered! Including a twirl on the ice rink to burn off all those lovely Italian Christmas cakes as well as a Christmas vocabulary to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside when you wish Buon Natale! to people in perfect Italian.
Now, without further ado, let’s start!
15 Best Things to Do for Christmas in Italy
1. Shop at Italy’s Christmas Markets
Italy’s Christmas markets are a lot of fun. Selling a selection of rustic arts and crafts in addition to having many food stalls, they take over the historic centres of the Italian cities and towns from the end of November all the way to Epiphany on the 6th January.
Here you can buy a selection of nice and thoughtful gifts, eat your weight in Christmas nougat and sweets, and just feel part of the festive hubbub.
For a long list with Christmas markets to see and shop at yourself, have a look here: Christmas Guide for Northern Italy – The Ultimate List of Christmas Markets, Events, and Happenings.
For some great ideas as to what to buy this festive season in Italy, have a look here: Christmas Markets – Best 5 Things to Buy.
Every year that I spent living in Italy, I looked forward to the Christmas markets. My favourite was the one in the historic centre of Verona. It was so easy to reach from my house in Vicenza and it had so many wonderful things to shop, eat, and browse. Often, I would take the train for the 40 minutes ride to Verona, spend a couple of hours at the Christmas market there and be back in time for school pick-up.
Then, on weekends, we would travel to small villages and towns a bit further afield to see their Christmas markets and drink in their Christmas atmosphere. The Christmas markets in the towns around Lake Garda were especially lovely. You can read more about them here: Christmas at Lake Garda – A Great Italian Day Trip.
2. Admire Italy’s Christmas Decorations and Illuminations
Italy goes out of its way to deck the halls for Christmas. Cities and towns get draped with festive decorations.
Turin, for example, is especially famous for its Luci d’Artista – a city-wide open-air art display with huge installations made of hundreds of lights by eminent Italian and foreign contemporary artists.
A huge shooting star gets attached to Arena di Verona – a Roman amphitheatre which is older than Rome’s Colosseum. It symbolises the star which led the Three Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. The metal star has been erected in Piazza Bra every year since 1984 and it has become an intrinsic part of the Christmas experience in Verona. The structure is 70 metres high and it weighs a staggering 78 tonnes.
The town of Como on Lake Como turns especially beautiful at Christmas thanks to its annual event Citta’ dei Balocchi. This is when the buildings in town are illuminated with stunning light projector displays.
In addition to the thousands of lights draped across streets and cascading down elegant facades, more and more Italian cities and towns embrace the light projector displays as a form of unique Christmas decoration. Projectors beam falling snowflakes, rolling festive greetings, and Christmas images on medieval castles and Renaissance buildings.
This mix of new technologies and old architecture creates a truly mesmerising effect. Walking through the historic centre of an Italian town decorated for Christmas, you feel a warm wave of Christmas magic spreading inside you.
I loved the Christmas lights that would be hung each year around the cities of the Veneto – the Northern Italian region I called home between 2014 and 2020. Come December, I would take the train for the quick journeys from Vicenza to Padua, Venice, and Verona to see how they were decorated for that particular Christmas and to enjoy their festive atmosphere.
Have a look at this blog post – Padua in the Run-Up to Christmas – to read about one such trip.
3. Do a Nativity Scenes Walk
Nativity scenes are the focal point of Italy’s Christmas decorations and spirit. Also known as a manger scene or a crib in English, they are called presepio or presepe in Italian and are carefully arranged in churches, city squares and private homes all over the country.
The Nativity scenes represent the Holy Family in the stable. They can be small with tiny figurines or human-size. Often, the whole town of Bethlehem is recreated in minute detail around the stable – from the houses to the marketplace with all sorts of stalls and craft workshops with figurines of people going about their daily life.
It is interesting to note that these Nativity scenes often reflect Italy’s local customs and traditions. Don’t be surprised if, for example, you see one with market stalls selling Italian cured meats and cheese or another with a bunch of Arlecchini with masks standing right next to the stable.
During the festive season, exhibitions of dozens and even hundreds of Nativity scenes take place all over Italy. One of the most famous ones is the International Exhibition of Nativity Scenes which has been held each December/January in Arena di Verona for more than three decades. It showcases over 400 cribs from all around the world arranged under the internal arches of the Roman amphitheatre.
Small villages and towns set up Nativity scenes in front yards, at roundabouts, on the shores of small streams, in churchyards, in the roots of trees, on top of centuries-old stone walls, in shop windows, inside the darkened rooms of abandoned houses, and even underwater. Going for a walk around a town in Italy or for a hike to a small Italian village in order to see its Nativity scenes is a lot of fun.
A famous Nativity scenes hike takes you to the small medieval village of Campo di Brenzone above Italy’s largest lake – Lago di Garda. Almost entirely abandoned, the village comes alive in the months of December and January each year when hundreds of people hike to it to see the many Nativity scenes positioned around the village. I had the chance to do this great Christmas hike myself and you can read all about it here: Campo di Brenzone – A Great Day Trip to a Medieval Village in the Hills Above Lake Garda, Italy.
For more such walks and hikes, please, check the heading Nativity Scene Displays and Exhibitions in this blog post. It will give you some great ideas for places to go to in Italy to admire beautiful handmade Nativity scenes in stunning settings.
4. See a Living Nativity Scene
Living Nativity scenes are one of Italy’s most curious and delightful things to experience at Christmas.
Groups of local volunteers stage elaborate representations of the Christmas story in caves, on town squares or as a procession along a city’s main streets. Often hundreds of people take part and recreate in minute detail the town of Bethlehem on the eve of Christ’s birth.
Dressed in full costume, they set up small scenes showing how people used to live over 2,000 years ago. There are bakers, blacksmiths, shepherds, washerwomen, merchants, noblemen, and Roman soldiers. Every social stratum of Bethlehem is represented. Some of the larger Nativity scenes even set up small ponds where fishermen catch fish and ovens where bakers prepare bread all day long. There are also animals like chickens, goats, sheep, and even newborn lambs for added authenticity.
People walk past the different scenes of the living Nativity until they reach the grotto where an infant standing in for Baby Jesus is in the arms of his doting mother dressed as the Virgin Mary and surrounded by Joseph, the Three Wise Kings and a cohort of shepherds. Often, the grotto is an actual cave or it has been built to represent a particularly famous Italian painting of the Nativity.
The world’s largest living Nativity Scene takes place outside of the small village of Genga in the Central Italian region of the Marche. Spreading over 30,000 sq m, over 300 people of all ages take part in it.
Anywhere you go in Italy, there will be a living Nativity scene taking place in the weekend or weekends right after Christmas Day. They are a wonderful celebration of the miracle of Christmas and a great way to experience Italy’s authentic community spirit.
Last year, I loved seeing the Living Nativity in the small town of Castelfranco Veneto in the Northern Italian region of the Veneto. A three-month-old baby girl blissfully slept in the manger while her proud mommy and daddy recreated the roles of the Virgin Mary and Joseph. Roman soldiers walked around Castelfranco Veneto’s historic centre while Bethlehem’s artisans had set up their workshops in the shadows of the town’s medieval defensive walls.
There was nothing more Christmassy than walking around, talking with the people in costume who were taking their roles very seriously, and drinking cups of lovely hot chocolate while thousands of lights cascading the town’s walls flickered and sparkled in the night.
5. Listen to a Zampognaro
Bagpipe players called zampognari can be seen performing on the streets of Italy’s cities and towns in the days before Christmas. With heavy cloaks around their shoulders, they play beautifully on their bagpipes extracting a myriad of musical emotions.
In the past, the zampognari were shepherds that came down from the mountains during the Christmas period. They played music on their zampogna – a type of bagpipe – to celebrate the festive period with their families and the people of their village. Nowadays, their descendants continue in their steps. They may no longer be shepherds themselves but they preserve the old melodies and perform them at Christmas as a wonderful throwback to Italy’s rustic traditions.
You can usually see a zampognaro playing at a historic piazza, a Living Nativity scene or a Christmas market. They say that the tradition is stronger in the South of Italy but I have also seen zampognari in the Veneto in the North of the country.
I loved seeing the zampognaro who each year would come to Vicenza from the nearby mountain town of Asiago. He played beautifully on the city’s central square Piazza dei Signori, his music filling the large square and reverberating across the Palladian facades.
Last year, I listened in awe to the two zampognari who performed for the crowds waiting to see the Living Nativity in the Villaga Caves. It’s a precious memory of my Italian life.
6. Take Part in a Santa Run
Italians love things with a bit of sense of humour, so the worldwide famous Santa Runs have really taken deep roots in Italy.
A Santa Run is a non-competitive race where each participant wears a Santa suit and hat. Imagine hundreds of Santas running up and down Italy’s curving medieval streets and you get the idea of why these events are so popular all over Italy. In Italian, they call them La Corsa dei Babbi Natale and they are a lot of fun to watch and take part in.
Santa Runs are staged in many of the larger and smaller Italian cities – from Turin and Milan to Vicenza and Verona. You can read more about them in this blog post: La Corsa dei Babbi Natale – The Funtastic Santa Runs Taking Over Italy Every Christmas.
It has to be said that the Italians like to take things and make them better, so the simple Santa Run has evolved to some unique local events here. For example, each December in Venice, there is a Santa regatta with participants dressed as Santas rowing traditional Venetian boats on the Grand Canal.
In the town of Mirano in the Veneto, on the other hand, you can have fun at the MotoBabbo event. This is a Santa motorbike race where each biker is dressed as Santa and his or her motorcycle is adorned with baubles, tinsel and even whole Christmas trees.
There is nothing like seeing hundreds of Santas on hundreds of motorcycles of any size and brand roaring down the street. I took this little video of the event in 2018. Enjoy watching it!
7. Indulge in Hot Chocolate and Panettone
Hot chocolate and panettone is a marriage made in Italian Christmas heaven, so make sure that you enjoy it as often as you can when you spend a Christmas in Italy.
Panettone is one of Italy’s traditional Christmas cakes. Loved and devoured all over the world, you will find it in the Italian supermarkets and delis from around the start of September to the middle of January. Nowadays, panettone comes in many different flavours yet there is nothing as good as a slice of classic panettone with juicy raisins and sticky, chewy pieces of candied orange peel.
Hot chocolate in Italy is a whole different game. Incredibly thick and not overly sweet it is served in small cups and has a deeply satisfying flavour. I love it with a nice scoop of freshly whipped cream on top.
By the way, participants in the Santa Runs around Italy often get a piece of panettone and a cup of hot chocolate at the end of the race. It’s a great incentive to convince you to take part, isn’t it?! Otherwise, many Christmas events in Italy offer as a staple this delicious combination for a humble amount like three euros or so.
People attending the midnight mass on Christmas Eve in small churches in Italy often enjoy a piece of panettone and a cup of hot chocolate after the end of the service. Offered for a small donation by the scouts or other local organisation, it is a great way to keep the community spirit high.
8. Shop for Italian Christmas Food
Panettone and hot chocolate are not the only Christmas delights you can enjoy in Italy.
There is a large selection of traditional Christmas foods and drinks you can tuck in here. Some of the best are as follows:
- Stincotto – this is a confit-style slow-braised cut of pork leg. You will see it sold in vacuumed packs inside nicely designed cardboard boxes all throughout the festive season. Don’t be put off by its name. Stincotto is actually quite nice and very easy to warm up at home.
- Pandoro – invented in Verona, this is a tall, star-shaped bready cake which is served sliced and sprinkled with icing sugar so as to look like the snow-covered caps of the Dolomites. Newer varieties of pandoro are now being sold with chocolate and custard fillings.
- Panforte – a dry compact cake made of honey, spices, candied fruit and almonds, which is typical of the Tuscan city of Siena but it can found in other corners of Italy, too.
- Panpepato – typical for Central and Northern Italy, this is a cake/biscuit made with fruits, nuts, pepper, nutmeg and citrus zest. Sometimes, it’s also covered in chocolate.
- Torrone – traditional Italian nougat which can be either soft or hard and is enriched with nuts, chocolate, and candied fruit.
- Marron Glace’ – these are whole chestnuts that have been boiled in sugar syrup. They taste truly divine and are sold in elegant boxes or wrapped individually. In some patisseries, they also make their own.
- Vin brule’ – mulled wine is a staple at every self-respecting Christmas market in Italy. Smelling and tasting like Christmas in a cup, enjoy it responsibly!
With the exception of the vin brule’, you can easily buy and stash in your suitcase the rest of the above Italian Christmas products. They make for wonderful edible presents that you can share with others or keep for yourself as a little something to remind you for a few weeks of your time in Italy.
Traditional Italian Christmas products are sold everywhere and their price points vary according to the brand and its prestige. While you can easily find supermarket panettone for 3 to 5 euros a pack, an artisan panettone made by a small patisserie or a renowned artisan producer can cost as much as 20-25 euros.
For the best torrone, ask for Mandorlato Veneto (you can read more about it in this blog post) or Torrone di Cremona. The former is produced in the small town of Cologna Veneta in the region of the Veneto and the latter is a staple of the town of Cremona in the region of Lombardy. Both towns organise famous torrone markets during the festive Christmas season.
N.B. If you are planning to take a stincotto or two with you, please, make sure that the country you will be returning to after spending Christmas in Italy, allows you to bring in meat products!
9. Give a Twirl on the Ice Rink
Small ice rinks sprout like mushrooms in many of Italy’s cities and towns during the festive Christmas season.
They are a lot of fun!
Thanks to Italy’s ice rinks, skating became one of my family’s most beloved Christmas traditions. Even I who am not the world’s most athletic person and am afraid of falling down and making a spectacle of myself would look forward to our ice rink escapades.
Set in the historic centres of medieval and Renaissance towns, on the shores of Italy’s most beautiful lakes, and on some of Italy’s most famous piazzas, the ice rinks are not huge but provided you time your visit wisely (like during riposo hours or late in the evening), you can easily have the whole rink for yourself and skate surrounded by some of the world’s most gorgeous architecture.
You can rent ice skates and for less than ten euros spend up to two hours on the ice. Apart from the skates, I also always rented one of those penguin- or bear-shaped supports (no shame!) to lean on and had so much fun.
10. Go to a Garden Centre
It’s a bit of a strange suggestion, I hear you say, but trust me on this. Italy’s garden centres are truly one of the best places to visit during the holidays.
The Italians love flowers and plants and the whole country is dotted with huge garden centres which are heaven for any green-fingered and craft-loving person. Come October and these garden centres create veritable Winter Wonderlands by either transforming a large inside space into a Christmas shop or by turning the whole garden centre into one huge Christmas Village.
There are themed rooms, animatronic displays, a huge variety of Christmas decorations, hundreds of different pieces and settings for Nativity scenes. Anything Christmassy, you will find it here!
The largest garden centres may also have visiting artisans and craftsmen, Christmas theatre performances, an ice rink, an electric train, a North Pole workshop, and Santa’s House.
My Christmas season in Italy always started in October when the Viridea Garden Centre just outside Vicenza would open its Christmas Village. A visit or two were a must for that early Christmas spirit and to check the latest styles and designs in Christmas decorations.
Another must was a visit later in the season to Flover – a large garden centre between Verona and Lake Garda. Flover always had the most amazing displays and their Christmas panto would leave me roaring with laughter. Plus, Santa Claus would come on stage after each performance, meet each child in the audience, take his or her letter to Santa, and give him or her a small present.
Many garden centres all over Italy stage wonderful Christmas events. Even if you don’t plan to shop big, it pays to visit one or two of them for the Christmas spirit and buckets of fun. You can see the Christmas Villages in Garden Centres heading in this blog post for some recommendations.
11. Enjoy a Christmas Concert
Hundreds of concerts take place all over Italy during the Christmas season. Held both in centuries-old churches and lavish opera houses, they fill the soul with cheer.
If you are spending Christmas in Italy, check at the local churches or ask at the local tourist centre for information about Christmas concerts taking place near you. Some will be free to attend (a donation may be appreciated), whereas others will be paid for.
Attending a Christmas concert in Italy is a wonderful way to embrace the spirit of the season. With the focus very much on the miracle of birth and love among people, Christmas music makes the heart soar, especially when you are listening to it in the splendid surroundings of a historical church or a sumptuous theatre.
The memory of my most favourite Christmas concert in Italy still brings a little tear of emotion to my eyes when I think about it. The concert was organised by the school where my child used to study. It was held in the Chiesa della Santa Corona – a 13th-century church built to house a thorn from Christ’s Holy Crown and nowadays, one of the most important sights in Vicenza.
Standing next to a huge painting by Giovanni Bellini, I watched the children’s choir burst into a heartfelt rendition of Gli Angeli delle Campagne (Gloria in Excelsis Deo) and the church, full to the brim with parents and grandparents, listened with bated breath.
It was beautiful!
12. Go to Church
Christmas in Italy is still very much about celebrating the miracle of Christ’s birth. The focus is not on consumerism and the number of presents bought but on being together and finding hope in the simplest of things.
Churches in Italy are always a wonderful destination, especially if you are interested in architecture, art, and history. At Christmas, they are a must-see for this is where you can feel the community spirit and understand a bit better how Italian families work.
In each church, you will find a beautiful presepe – a Nativity Scene. Often, churches and monasteries organise whole exhibitions of Nativity scenes in addition to a rich programme of Christmas events. Concerts, festive religious services, charitable functions are the order of the day.
For me, I always loved visiting the churches in Vicenza and around the Veneto as soon as the Christmas season started. I loved seeing their Nativity scenes. I loved looking at the works of art in the flickering light of the candles lit by the people who had come to say a prayer.
I am not religious in the traditional sense of the word and visiting a church in Italy during the Christmas season allowed me to observe a community that gets together in its faith. It gave me many things to think about, it made me see the beauty of the smallest things and even gave me some answers to certain questions I had playing on my mind at the time.
Seeing the Christmas season develop in the context of the Church and the different religious rites also gave me a better understanding of the iconography of the many Nativity scenes painted by the Italian masters. It was, in a way, seeing history, art, and humanity come together through the traditions and rituals that Italy has managed to preserve through the centuries.
13. Embrace Italy’s Five Christmas Gift Bearers
Did you know that there are five personalities bringing presents during the Christmas season in Italy? Yes! They are: San Nicolo’, Santa Lucia, Bambino Gesu’, Babbo Natale, and Befana.
You can read all about them in this blog post here: Italy’s Five Christmas Gift Bearers. Their stories are very interesting and their traditions are zealously kept in the different corners of Italy.
When you are in Italy during the festive season, put some time aside to attend local events dedicated to one of these five Christmas gift bearers. It could be the traditional market – I Banchetti di Santa Lucia – which is held in Verona around the 13th December. Or it could be the Befana race in Venice (pictured above).
These local events add a beautiful touch of authenticity and a bit of whimsicality to the Italian Christmas experience.
During my six years in Italy, I grew particularly fond of Befana. Now that we live in England, I will try to keep the tradition of a small gift of sweets and new books for my child each Epiphany. The traditions related to Santa Lucia (or St. Lucy as she is known in English) is another topic that interests me. I remember visiting the Church of St. Geremia in Venice where Santa Lucia’s body is kept in a glass coffin and I wrote this little piece about her and her day – 13th December.
14. Learn Christmas Italian
If you are in Italy for Christmas, embrace the spirit of the holidays fully and feel closer to the people by learning some Christmas Italian. Here is a useful selection of the most used festive words, phrases, and greetings in Italy:
La Vigilia – Christmas Eve
Natale – Christmas
Babbo Natale – Father Christmas
Santo Stefano – Boxing Day
Capodanno – New Year’s Eve festivities and New Year’s Day
Epifania – Epiphany
Buon Natale! – Merry Christmas!
Auguri! or Tanti(ssimi) auguri! – Best Wishes!
Buone feste! – Happy Holidays! / Season’s Greetings!
Felice Anno Nuovo! – Happy New Year!
Obviously, don’t forget the most important one:
Un’altra fetta di panettone, per favore! – Another slice of panettone, please!
15. Simply Relax and Enjoy the Festivities with an Open Heart
Christmas in Italy is still very much a family holiday. It’s a time of relaxation, of enjoyment, of getting together with the people you love and cherish the most.
The frenzied pre-Christmas shopping that dominates the months of October, November, and December in the UK, for example, is still quite unheard of in Italy.
Instead, the focus of Italy’s Christmas holidays is on being close to one another and on spending time together. Italy’s Christmas season lasts a month – from the 8th December when Italians traditionally decorate their Nativity scene at home to the 6th January with Epiphany and Befana celebrations taking place all over the country.
Many Italian businesses close for the full Twelve Days of Christmas leaving people free to celebrate and enjoy the season. Thus, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are just the start of the festivities rather than manic 24 hours of eating and opening presents before everyone goes back to work.
There are many opportunities to feel the Christmas magic in Italy even outside the traditional Christmas period. The Christmas markets there often open from mid-November onwards and exhibitions of Nativity Scenes stay on until the end of January. The ice rinks also usually close around the end of January/beginning of February.
So, you have a long period of time to enjoy Christmas in Italy, to see its many different facets, to celebrate it the Italian way.
If you are planning to spend time at Christmas in Italy and it doesn’t matter if you are going to be there for a few days, a couple of weeks or longer, my advice is to do it with an open heart. To relax into the festivities and to savour them fully. By all means, try to tick off as many sights and museums as you may want to see but at the same time, use this unique opportunity to experience the spirit of the Italian Christmas in the most joyous way.
The Christmas season is a wonderful time of the year to be in Italy.
The country preserves a host of centuries-old Christmas traditions and fully opens itself to enjoying the holidays with the focus on being together and finding hope in the simplest of things.
If you are planning to spend some time in Italy at Christmas, I hope that the above blog post will give you lots of ideas about many wonderful things you can do and see there during the festive season. From concerts of Christmas music to scrumptious Christmas food, from having fun at Christmas Villages to discovering the miracle of Christmas in authentic rites, there are many experiences you can have in Italy at this most special time of the year.
All of the above information is based on my six years spent in Italy and the wonderful Christmas memories I built during this time, many of which I shared with you above.
I hope that this blog post will inspire you to seek to experience Italy at Christmas first-hand and that will bring a little bit of Christmas joy to your heart.
Merry Christmas wherever you are!
More Helpful Links:
- Christmas in Italy – 50 Fun Facts About the Italian Holiday Season
- Christmas Guide for Northern Italy – The Ultimate List of Christmas Markets, Events and Happenings
- Italy’s Five Christmas Gift Bearers
- Mandorlato Veneto – The Taste of Italian Christmas
- Christmas at Lake Garda – A Great Italian Day Trip
- Christmas Markets – Best 5 Things to Buy This Festive Season
- La Corsa dei Babbi Natale – The Funtastic Santa Runs Taking Over Italy Every Christmas
- 18 of the Best Cities to Visit in Northern Italy (With Travel Tips and Nearest Airports)
- Top 15 Places to Visit in the Veneto, Italy – The Ultimate Guide
- Photos from the Christmas market in the town of Garda on Lake Garda
- Video of MotoBabbo – a Santa motorbiking event in Mirano, the Veneto
- Video of the underwater Nativity scene in Garda Town on Lake Garda
- Video of the switching of the Christmas lights in Vicenza, Northern Italy
- Video of the Christmas lights in Vicenza, Northern Italy
- Video of the Nativity scene in the Convent on Mount Berico in Vicenza, Northern Italy
- Video of putting up the Christmas lights in Vicenza, Northern Italy
- Video of the ice rink in Cittadella,Veneto, Northern Italy
Thank you for reading! Please, leave me a comment, pin the image below or use the buttons right at the top and at the end of this blog post to share it on social media.