3 Favorite Places to Celebrate Christmas in Italy

Just in time for the holidays, here’s an opportunity to learn a little bit about Italian culture and perhaps win a gift suitable for your favorite Italophile, too. My friend Kathy McCabe is the force behind the Dream of Italy newsletter. In this guest article for WhyGo Italy, Kathy talks about three of her favorite places in Italy to spend Christmas.

christmas_topAs the editor and publisher of a subscription travel newsletter devoted to Italy, many people ask me when the best time of year is to travel to Italy. They often wonder whether they should really avoid Italy in the summer or debate the pros and cons of a spring visit versus a fall visit. But most haven’t even considered visiting Italy at Christmastime – one of my favorite times of year to experience authentic Italy. I’ve had the pleasure of spending the holidays in Italy and can’t wait to go return again during the Christmas season.

Here are some ideas for where and how to celebrate Christmas in Italy.


christmas_romeWhen you think of Christmas in Rome, you inevitably think about Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The image of the Pope celebrating Midnight Mass is relayed around the world via television. It is possible to get tickets to be inside the basilica for the mass but you have to plan way ahead. I helped travel planning clients get tickets to Midnight Mass, but made the request some eight months in advance in May. When my parents and I spent Christmas in Rome one year, we went to St. Peter’s Square just before midnight to watch the Pope on a big television screen and see the life-size nativity. Though we weren’t inside, it was still an incredible feeling to be there that night.

St. Peter’s isn’t the only game in town, so to speak, when it comes to Christmas Eve Mass. There’s a service at the Pantheon that features Gregorian chants. The 124 steps leading to Santa Maria in Ara Coeli at the top of Capitoline Hill are filled with candles on Christmas Eve. During the mass, the church’s venerated statue of Jesus is taken from the private chapel on a ceremonial throne before being unveiled and transported to a crèche (or presepio). You can even find a church where Midnight Mass is given in English.

Speaking of crèches, Italians – and Romans – are crazy for Nativity scenes (presepi). Between late November and the Epiphany (January 6), over a hundred go on display at Sale del Bramante in Piazza del Popolo. Some of the crèches date back to the 17th century and show the incredible craftsmanship of Neapolitan artists who carefully hand make the figures. Rome is also home to a museum devoted exclusively to the Nativity – Museo del Presepio. The museum, run by the Italian Association of Friends of the Nativity, contains over 3,000 Nativity figures from various regions of Italy and around the world.


And for a last Christmas in Rome tip, don’t miss the Christmas market in Piazza Navona – twinkling lights, candy and toys for sale and spotting of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus).


christmas_veniceI think the most romantic time to visit Venice is in the winter – with the summer tourists a long way gone, you have more of the city to yourself, the sunlight hits the city in a unique way and the holiday lights are up in the calli (passageways). Each year, there’s usually a Christmas market – Natale di Laguna – held in Campo Stefano, but my source for all things Venice, Nan McElroy, reports that due to technical difficulties, it has been cancelled for 2009.

Nan recommends visiting the holiday mercatini (merchants) who appear all around the city, at San Bartolomeo just off the Rialto and up the Strada Nova, just to name a few. There’s also a celebration on the island of Murano – famous for its glass making – called Natale di Vetro (Christmas of glass).

If you’re planning to attend Midnight Mass at Venice’s most famous church, St. Mark’s Basilica, keep in mind that the mass actually starts at 10:30 p.m. Nan advises, “Do arrive earlier, as it’s heavily attended. Enter at the north entrance off the Piazzetta, and dress warmly: the Basilica can be drafty on a winter’s eve.”


christmas_pugliaIf you find yourself in the southern region of Puglia in early December, you might want to head to the town of Gargano. That’s when the zampognari, men who play the zampogne, an instrument similar to the bagpipes, travel to the town from Abruzzo or Basilicata. They arrive in groups of two or three, clad in their typical capes and regional costumes. The two “mystic” shepherds, one old and one young, surround a group of celebrating children, playing their allegre novene (joyful songs), and at night they gather in the Grotta dell’Arcangelo (Cave of the Archangel) to play traditional shepherd melodies.

My colleague Sharon Sanders recently told me about Il Presepe Vivente di Tricase, a living nativity that takes place each year in Tricase, a town almost at the tip of the Italian heel. About 250 locals work to put on the nativity pageant that has earned the town the name “The Bethlehem of Italy.” This free event is usually scheduled for December 25, 26, 27 and January 1, 4 and 6.

kathy_smallKathy McCabe is the editor and publisher of the award-winning subscription, Dream of Italy. Dream of Italy has been recommended by USA TODAY, National Geographic Traveler, U.S. News and World Report, and more. For over seven years, McCabe has been bringing readers the best and most authentic experiences Italy has to offer, from cooking schools to villa rentals, walking tours to shopping for Italian crafts. McCabe, who has been to Italy more than two dozen times, and her contributors uncover the little-known that can’t be found in guidebooks.

Don’t miss Dream of Italy’s free 35-page guide to Christmas in Italy – it’s got travel tips, Italian holiday traditions, and Italian holiday recipes so you can incorporate a little bit of Italy into your seasonal celebrations.

photos, top to bottom, by: QXZ, Tony Ciabba, wenzday01, gengish

27 thoughts on “3 Favorite Places to Celebrate Christmas in Italy

  • Charlie

    I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be at Christmas than Rome. My husband and I have been talking about a trip to Italy for several years and never made the arrangements for various unimportant reasons. Now it has become a pilgrimage to Rome that’s on his bucket list as he is terminally ill with cancer. Perhaps we will still be able to go, but it will be difficult. To anyone who reads this: Don’t put off the things that are really important in your life if you can reasonably afford it. Sometimes it’s okay to eat dessert first–especially when you’re sharing it.

  • gilda rayburn

    i would start off in venice. that would be my first choice . i haven’t ever been but will be going to italy in 2010. i imagine that with the longer nights and shorter days of winter that all of the cities LIGHTS reflecting on the canals would create a magical embrace for the holidays.

  • Trina

    As much as I loved all of my travels in Italy, Rome would be my first choice as it was home for a short period!

  • MarcSeattle

    Our dream is to spend the holidays in Italy, travelling out from Florence as a starting point and home base. The food, the arts and culture, THE FOOD….My “Bucket List” is full of places in Italy I’d like to visit as well as experiences I want to share. Oh, and did I mention the food? 🙂

  • Lisa Bergren

    Funny, I’ve been dreaming of Roma at Christmastime…what a treat it’d be! I’d want to do the midnight mass at St. Pete’s…I think it would be magical! And I’ve long heard/read about Dream of Italy–would love to win the subscription! Lisa @TheWorldCalls

  • LuLu

    I would love to see Christmas in Rome. Although, if I had to choose one place I would love to be during Christmas time, it would be in Calabria with my family. I’m hoping that next Christmas that’s where I’ll be! And, I certainly won’t miss the snow!! 😛

  • Laurel

    I have not been on a vacation in 11 years so I am in desperate need of a holiday…if only in my dreams! I am a 3rd grade teacher and would love to escape to Venice for my first trip to Italy.
    I can close my eyes right now and envison myself on a gondola on Christmas morning. Ahhhhhhh…..

  • John

    I would like to spend Christmas in Gubio, at the church on top of the mountain. The pictures of the decorated mountain are fantastic and I would love to see it in person. My family and I were there this summer and it was one of our favorite places to visit

  • Rachel

    I’d like to spend Christmas in Venice, because I love that city more than any place in the world – it felt like home the very moment I arrived.

  • Kathy Gori

    I’d most like to visit Fiano outside of Florence. It’s where my family comes from I’d love to experience Christmas there and take a few lessons from Divina Cucina in Certaldo. I understand there are Goris all over the area, I’d like to get to know them and Christmas seems to be the perfect time to re connect with family.

  • Epiphanie

    I would love to spend Xmas in Sicily, because I haven’t been there yet. I love islands, and the reputation of the food in Palermo is quite encouraging! 😉 I would also like to explore the way different cultures and races interact with each other, as I’m curious about how African (and other) immigrants are getting along with the Sicilians and vice versa. Thanks for the article!

  • Kelli Trent

    I would love to spend Christmas in Siena!! I bet all those cute little apartments and shops are decorated as well as the square!

  • Amazing Jules Verne

    If only I could spend Christmas in Roma! Oh! The pastries! The Vatican! The Cat Sanctuary! How I love Roma!

  • Annie

    I think Rome would be pretty awesome. I am not religious, but I would love to attend Christmas mass at the Vatican. I already find Vatican City to be so beautiful, and with a holiday twist I bet it would be wonderful.

    Second to that, I think Florence would be awesome. Mainly because I just love Florence!

  • marisa

    I’ve spent Easter in Italy, but never Christmas. But when I get the chance, I would love to head down to Calabria to celebrate the holiday with my family. We live about an hour outside Reggio and I think it would be a great mix of tradition and not-so-cold weather. My cousins from the town are actually visiting us for the holidays and I can’t wait to see their reaction to a New York Christmas!

  • Laura from Ciao Amalfi

    Ciao! I’m spending my very first Christmas and New Year’s here in Italy this year, and I’m so excited! I’d have to say that for my first Christmas, I would choose to be right where I am very fortunate to live… the Amalfi Coast! Next year… Rome sounds lovely! Thank you to Kathy for this great article and for the chance to win a Dream of Italy subscription. Buon natale!!

  • anne

    I would love to spend christmas in Italy,.. I haven’t been to Rome yet!! I wouldn’t mind where it is though, maybe back to Liguria, or Lake Como…Or maybe Amalfi Coast, and meet up with Laura..!

    Wow Laura I never realised it is your first christmas and new year there…have a brilliant time, 🙂

  • Jessica Post author

    Using the random number generator on random.org this morning, I got number 21 – so the winner of the year’s subscription to the Dream of Italy newsletter is comment 21, Annie! Congratulations!


  • Mark

    Wow congratulations. I would love to go to Italy or France for Christmas, Italy has more of that old worldy feeling that I love and find so comfortable. The food is also amazing too!

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