Not everyone dreams of visiting Italy in the summer. If you’re among the rare breed of tourist who actually prefers traveling in the off-season, then let me tell you about December in Italy. It’s actually not as “off” an off-season as you might think, but it’s got some festivities that are pretty cool to see.
While most of winter in Italy is the low season in terms of tourism, the Christmas holidays drive a little spike in things like prices and crowds. But even if the holidays are responsible for a slight uptick in the cost of a trip, they’re also responsible for turning December into a month full of twinkling lights, brightly-wrapped packages, and festive moods. Here’s what you need to know about traveling in Italy in December, including what to expect from the weather and what’s on the calendar.
December isn’t always Italy’s coldest month, but it’s close. Snow is common in many parts of the country, particularly in the mountains and at higher elevations, and even sometimes at sea level (snow falling in Venice is one of the most beautiful winter scenes you’ll see in Italy). And where it’s not snowing, it’s likely to be raining.
Italy’s southern regions are almost always warmer than their northern counterparts, but December still brings cold temperatures to the south. The crowds that flocked to the beaches in August are headed into the mountains to go skiing or snowboarding by December. Whether you’re planning a ski trip or not, you might look into visiting a ski resort town in December – many are also natural hot springs, with spas that will warm you to the core no matter what the weather is outside.
The thing is, it might be sunny at one point and snowing the next. This sunny picture was snapped in Milan in early December of 2009, and this slushy one a few weeks later. No matter where your itinerary takes you, you’d be smart to bring clothing to keep you warm, a small umbrella, and water resistant shoes.
Some average temperature ranges for different parts of Italy are:
And, as always, check the current extended forecast for where you’re actually going just before you leave – when you’re packing is the perfect time – so you can find out in advance if it’s unseasonably cold or warm.
The first major holiday in Italy in December is the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, but December’s main holiday is Christmas. It’s one of the more important dates on the Italian holiday calendar, although the most important holiday of the Christmas season is actually Epiphany on January 6th. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many Italians spend time with family, but you can join in on Christmas Mass said in churches throughout the country. There are also often religious processions and bonfires, as well as Christmas markets set up in piazzas. Because Italians give gifts on January 6th as well as December 25th, those markets are also typically up and doing a brisk trade through the entire month of December. Learn more about the celebrations in my article about Christmas in Italy.
The day after Chrismas is St. Stephen’s Day in Italy, which is a less important (but still national) holiday. There are also regional festivals and holidays in December that might be extremely important in one town and not the next – such as Milan’s patron saint’s feast day on December 7th. Browse my (never-going-to-be-comprehensive) list of Italian holidays to get an idea of what might be going on where you’re traveling, and when you arrive in any town ask at the tourist information office if there are any festivals going on while you’re there.
December is an odd mix of not ideal (at least not to most travelers) weather without the usual perk of bargains and thin crowds. But then, of course, there’s Christmas. For many visitors, being in Italy – specifically Vatican City – for Christmas is a lifelong dream, and then no other month will do for a trip. Just remember that lots of people from all over the world have the same lifelong dream, so in order to get the best deal on a hotel room (or, heck, in order to get a room at all) you’d be clever to plan and book your trip many months in advance. Oh, and if you’ve got your heart set on seeing Christmas Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, then plan even further ahead – you can get tickets directly from the Vatican for free (learn more here), but just because you request one doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get one. People who don’t plan ahead (or who head for the Vatican on the spur of the moment) can watch the entire Mass broadcast live on giant screens in St. Peter’s Square.
If you’re not headed to Italy specifically for Christmas, should you skip it? Not necessarily. There are some great treats that only come out in cold weather, many of which are sold at Christmas markets. Vendors roast chestnuts at their carts and sell them in small paper bags. Holiday markets often have people selling vin brule, hot spiced wine. And cafes bring their cioccolata calda machines out to start churning that delectable pudding-like Italian hot chocolate. These are all tasty ways to warm yourself from the inside out. Just keep in mind that beach-centric destinations like the Amalfi Coast or hiking-centric spots like the Cinque Terre may not be the best places to go in the winter, even if you like solitude. Plenty of the locals shut down operations of restaurants, shops, and hotels when the weather gets cold, too.
And, truth be told, many of the attractions you’ve likely got on your must-see list in Italy are indoors – churches, museums, art galleries – so that it doesn’t much matter whether it’s sunny or snowing outside. Snow will change your experience at the Roman Forum or Pompeii, to be sure, but your photos will most certainly not look like everyone else’s.