Anyone who has read enough travel writing – on this site or otherwise – has likely seen phrases like “high season” and “low season” before. The words “high” and “low” refer to tourist numbers, when a place is most popular with visitors (and therefore most crowded). Tourist seasons often correspond roughly to the calendar seasons of spring, summer, winter, and fall, but in Italy it’s a little more complicated than that.
As mentioned, there are “high” and “low” tourist seasons in Italy, but in between those are what are referred to as “shoulder seasons.” These are transitory seasons, meaning the weather can be iffy, but there are some definite perks to traveling during the shoulder seasons. I’ll go into more detail below about the boundaries of the various tourist seasons in Italy.
Keep in mind that unlike calendar seasons, tourist seasons are a bit more fluid. There are months today that are firmly in the high season category that were once really shoulder seasons. Tourist seasons also vary depending on where you go in the country – less-visited places won’t necessarily be as crowded or expensive during the high season as cities like Rome or Florence are even during the shoulder seasons. In a country as popular as Italy, however, even the low seasons aren’t completely devoid of tourists.
The main high season in Italy is summer, but it’s not as simple as June-August. These days, the summer high season begins in May, covers June and July, skips August, and finishes around the end of September.
There are other brief spikes into high season territory during otherwise non-high seasons. These center around major events and holidays in Italy, for which lots of people travel to see – both Italian and foreign.
Easter is a big one, particularly in Rome because of the events in and around Vatican City, as well as in Florence with its explosive Easter traditions. The Carnevale celebrations in Venice are another mini-high season that’s localized to Venice. Easter and Carnival are on the liturgical calendar, so their dates change every year. Even if you’re not planning a trip specifically around one of those holidays, it’s a good idea to consult the calendar to see if you’ll benefit from adjusting travel plans to avoid (or seek out) those festivities.
Christmas isn’t as big of a deal in Italy as you might think – the Epiphany on January 6th is the more important religious holiday – but there is a mini-spike into a bit of a high tourist season around Christmas and into the new year.
You’ll find a host of smaller local festivals and events that bring about high season prices and crowds no matter when they occur – EuroChocolate in Perugia, the White Truffle Festival in Alba, and the Palio in Siena all being prime examples. Again, consulting the calendar as you’re planning your Italy trip is always a good idea.
Italy’s low tourist season is the one that most closely resembles a calendar season – it’s basically winter. I’d even suggest it begins in late November, continuing more or less through February, except for the high season spikes noted above.
The big exception to winter being the low tourist season is, of course, any mountain area known for winter sports. Skiing, snowboarding, winter mountain hiking – all of that means that in the mountains where there is snow, winter is the high tourist season.
Shoulder seasons are usually my favorite seasons in which to travel, and that’s true in Italy, too. The shoulder seasons used to essentially be spring and autumn, but Italy’s popularity has meant the expansion of the high season into its neighboring shoulder seasons. Consequently, finding the shoulder season sweet spots is a little more tricky than it used to be.
I contend that spring is really the last true shoulder season in Italy, but it’s only two months long – March and April. Fall has become increasingly popular over the years, so that not only has September been absorbed into the high season, but early October as well. In some areas, high season prices don’t come down until the very end of October. The autumn shoulder season is, therefore, really only late October and most of November.
August, as mentioned earlier, isn’t included in the high summer season mainly because it’s when most Italians high-tail it out of the cities to escape the worst of the summer heat and humidity. Prices on things like airfare and hotel rooms may still be at high season levels, but crowds in the cities are noticeably smaller. At the beaches, however, crowds are at their peak – since that’s where all the Italians go to cool off.