My very first trip to Italy was during the summer, which is when most people visit Italy. Almost every subsequent trip, however, has been in another season.
I’ve come to really love spring in Italy, but one of the best trips I ever had in the country was in February. So when the Italy Roundtable decided upon the topic of WINTER for this month, I wanted to highlight the reasons why traveling in Italy during the winter can be a great idea – even though it seems at first blush to be something people might want to avoid.
Have you visited Italy in the winter? What did you like (or dislike!) about traveling during that time of year?
Let’s face it – the majority of photographs of Italy that make us go all dreamy-eyed are pictures taken in summer. And yeah, some are in spring or fall, sure. Cypress shadows on green hills, sunlight on grape vines, colorful umbrellas on beaches next to turquoise waters.
The point is, people like to plan Italy trips when the weather is reliably nice.
Believe me, I get it.
Those sun-dappled hills and grape vines are gorgeous. Those Italian beaches require sun to be appealing. I know. I’m not going to try to convince you not to travel in Italy in the spring, summer, or fall – I’m not a lunatic.
I am, however, hoping that some of you are intrigued enough about Italy in winter by the end of this article that I can sway you into shifting your vacation dates.
Because winter in Italy can be pretty magical.
For the purposes of this article, and to line up with other seasonal information I’ve written, I’m calling December, January, and February “winter” in Italy. These months are typically the coldest, almost no matter where you go in the country, though November has the reputation for the most rainfall.
Toward the end of February, on the other hand, the weather in some areas can start warming noticeably, so that by March you’d swear it was May.
Climate change is happening in Italy, too, so it’s always a good idea to consult the current weather conditions in the cities you’ll be visiting before you pack your bags. And really, if you’re properly attired, most weather conditions are easy to deal with.
Winter is, for the most part, low season in Italy. What’s a low season? It’s when tourist influx is lowest, and what that means for travelers who brave the chilly winter weather is that the crowds are smaller. Lines to get into top attractions like the Vatican Museums are short (or non-existent), you won’t have to fight for space to see Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” and moving through popular cities like Venice doesn’t make you feel like you’re a cow in a herd. Low season can also mean lower prices on things like airfare and hotel rooms, which is a big perk if you’re on a budget.
Another slightly less tangible perk of traveling to Italy in winter is the lack of “tourist fatigue.” You can probably imagine that someone working in the tourism industry in Italy gets the same (often silly) questions on a near-constant basis for roughly nine months out of every year. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that might get really old really fast, so that by September those folks are perhaps a little more curt in their replies. Visiting in, say, January or February means the locals have had a break from the tourist onslaught and might be especially friendly or helpful.
Now, there are some winter holidays around which crowds and prices swell a bit (namely Christmas, New Year’s, and Carnevale), but otherwise the low season perks apply. Also note that in some areas the true low season starts in late November, largely because of the rainy weather.
As mentioned, there are a few major holidays during the winter months. For travelers who want to avoid crowds and price spikes, those would be dates to skip. For travelers who love seeing a foreign country put on its “Sunday best,” so to speak, and to celebrate right along with the locals, those holidays are exactly the reason to visit Italy in winter.
Christmas is a big deal in Italy, although it’s less of a public holiday than one centered around family. Even if you’re celebrating on your own, however, cities are decked out in their Christmas finery – including a nativity scene (or 12) in every town – and colorful Christmas markets in many cities and towns in the north. (Other cities have Christmas markets, but since the tradition comes primarily from German cultures, it’s the regions in the north that are closer to Austria that have the best-known markets.) There are holiday treats that are only made at this time of year, and churches throughout the country hold special services – St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is an especially popular place to be on Christmas Eve.
New Year’s Eve in Italy tends to be all about the fireworks. Some cities have outdoor concerts with fireworks as a grand finale, and in some places (especially Naples and further south) the fireworks are pretty much all over the city – everyone has their own stash – in addition to the “official” show. In other words, if you like fireworks, you want to be in southern Italy on New Year’s Eve.
Although the dates change every year, Carnival in Italy often falls (or at least begins) in February, making it one of the last big winter holidays in Italy. In Venice, it’s one of the peak tourist seasons – the crowds are thick everywhere in the city and hotels are booked well in advance – and some other cities have major festivities that draw big crowds, too.
Shoppers, take note – Italy has two official sales seasons during which basically every store around the country has discounts on its merchandise. One of those is in the summer. The other is – you guessed it – in the winter.
The winter sales season in Italy is a bit like an after-Christmas sale, but since Italy’s Christmas season isn’t really over until Epiphany on January 6th, the winter sales start in early January. Sales periods last for about six weeks, though every city or region can set their own specific dates. Discounts typically get bigger as the end date of the sale nears, but of course selection dwindles as the sale goes on. So if, for instance, you have an unpopular shoe size you may score big by waiting. Conversely, if you have a popular shoe size your discounts won’t be as big but you’ll need to go earlier in the sale before your size is all gone.
Telling someone to schlep all the way to Italy in winter because of the hot chocolate sounds ludicrous, I know. But trust me. If you haven’t had real Italian hot chocolate, or European drinking chocolate as it’s sometimes called in other countries, you’re missing out.
Italian hot chocolate, called “cioccolata calda,” is so thick it might feel more appropriate to call it pudding than a drink. I’ve had cioccolata calda so thick a spoon stood upright in my cup for a moment. It’s a rare thing when I’ve been able to actually tip a cup and drink it – it’s usually something I eat with a spoon. It sometimes even requires chewing.
Gelato might seem like a warm weather treat, but gelato is sold year-round. Cioccolata calda, on the other hand, is not sold in warm weather. The machines that churn it constantly on a bar’s counter are only pulled out during the winter, so it’s very much a winter treat.
Oh, and to double your “winter treat” goodies, pick up a bag of freshly-roasted chestnuts somewhere during the day, too.
Want to warm up your toes on a chilly winter evening? Pour yourself a cup of something warm (or warming!) and click along with me through to the following links to read each of my Italy Roundtable cohorts’ posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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Oooh some good points there. The SALDI is def. a reason to come here in January!!!
We’re visiting Italy this winter because there were plane ticket sales that were impossible to resist! Looking forward to gelato AND cioccolata calda! Thanks for your ideas.
Yay! Have a wonderful trip!
Thank you for your tips! The hot chocolate was quite good! Interestingly enough, the only cup I had that was super thick like pudding was in Bologna. Other than that they were much thicker than other hot chocolates, but still super liquidy and thinner than expected. Delicious all around though!
Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it, even if it wasn’t all pudding-like! 🙂
Fabulous roundup! I love January in Florence for the precise reasons you suggest :). Bring on that hot chocolate girl!
Right? The hot chocolate alone is enough for me, which sounds insane, but it’s true.
I’m a big fan of off-season travel for a couple of reasons you mention – I like to avoid crowds and I try to save money.
More people should do it, but not too many. We wouldn’t want to ruin it for ourselves.
We are going to the Amalfi coast from mid January until mid February… best area to stay in for one month? Small town is fine too but will need good markets for fresh food and a few restaurants? Will get an apartment self catering??? Your comments and suggestions would be so appreciated! Kind thanks
The Amalfi Coast can get very, very quiet in January-February (some of the hotels and restaurants shut down for a good chunk of that time, and the boats to the islands don’t run), but the town of Amalfi has year-round residents so at least some things will be open. If you’re not opposed to not being on the Amalfi Coast proper, you might also consider Sorrento – it’s on the train line (which the Amalfi Coast is not) and is a bit larger. Here’s my Amalfi Coast guide and my article about traveling in Italy in the winter for your reference, too.