There’s Christmas and then there’s Christmas in Italy. With its long Roman Catholic tradition, it’s no surprise that the holiday takes on a particular (read: effusive) flare here, where vibrant light displays, bustling markets, and indulgent seasonal treats come standard. Whether you’re looking to spot Babbo Natale (Italian for Santa Claus) or even the Pope himself, Italy is a Christmas lover’s playland.
As if Venice, with its winding alleyways and narrow canals, wasn’t magical enough, Christmastime cranks the spellbinding scenery up to 11. With the height of tourist season tapering off, city denizens decorate the streets with near-absurd numbers of lights, and mercatini di natale (Christmas markets) pop up everywhere — with the largest taking over Campo Santo Stefano.
Head to Saint Mark’s Basilica on Christmas Eve for a midnight mass that sprawls into the street. The sound of traditional hymns and a copious use of candlelight cast a festive, sacred glow upon one of the city’s most iconic places. Venice is also known for its Hanukkah lights, particularly in the Cannaregio district, which was once a Jewish ghetto. There you’ll find a menorah in the square and delicious fritelle di zucca barruca — pumpkin fritters that are a traditional Italian Hanukkah treat.
Panettone in Milan
Sorry, Paris, but I’d argue that Milan is the best European city for Christmas shopping. Large department stores and small boutique shops deck out their windows in displays that make even frenzied, last-minute gift buying totally enjoyable. But more importantly, there is panettone, which has its origins in Milan. The delicate sweet bread (laced with candied fruits and raisins) is found throughout the city, but if you head to the square in front of Castello Sfrozesco (a 15th-century castle), you can enjoy your treat while checking out locally made crafts. And if you plan to stick around for the turn of the new year, you’re in luck — Milan’s bars offer apertivi hours that make ringing in the new year nothing but delightful.
The Manarola Nativity Scene
Liguria’s Cinque Terre, the five coastal towns known for their colorful cliff-side buildings, gets sleepy after the summer crowds leave — until Christmas time, when the area experiences a boost of activity. Every year on December 8 in Manarola (one of the five towns) the hills that line the shore are adorned with an elaborate nativity scene. It all started in 1961 when Mario Andreoli placed a single cross atop a hill. Each year his collection of glowing figures grew, and today it has become a spectacle of some 15,000 lights and 250 different figures (everything from angels to camels) made of recycled materials. The best part? It lasts well into February
Naples and the Feast of Seven Fishes
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Italian-American tradition the “feast of the seven fishes” — a Christmas Eve dinner where the menu revolves around (you guessed it) seafood. The much awaited gustatory indulgence comes from southern Italy; every year people in Naples, residents host la vigilia (the vigil) the night before Christmas. Roman Catholics abstained from consuming meat on Christmas Eve, instead opting for dishes like baccalà (salt cod) or lightly fried calamari. Should you find yourself in Naples on this night, enter any trattoria for a hearty seafood meal. (This is best done after spending the day perusing the shops along Via San Gregorio Armeno, where you’ll find locally made figurines and artists themselves at work.)
Ice Skating and Pope-Watching in Rome
And of course there’s Rome. Because the Pope lives not too far away, many try to spot him during the Christmas Eve midnight mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica. But aside from the that, Rome is known for its mostra dei 100 presepi, or 100 Nativity scenes. There’s also the well regarded Christmas market in Piazza Navona, where you’ll find intricately painted tree ornaments and seasonal sweets like struffoli (marble-sized fried dough balls covered in honey and rainbow sprinkles). And if skating is your seasonal activity of choice, lace up at the outdoor ice rink nearby Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Zampognari of Central Italy
In the central Italy, Christmas is not only seen, it is heard. At the start of every December, a group of bagpipe players called the zampognari herald in the holiday season. As with many folk traditions, the origins of the scene are unknown, though many claim the zampognari were shepherds who came down from the hills to celebrate Christmas season with townspeople. When the Christmas season rolls around, they gather in the city squares of Abruzzo, Molise, and even Lazio, entertaining passersby and handing out treats to children (who often flock to their side).