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Merry Christmas, or should we say, Buon Natale! As the cold weather descends upon us and the festive season approaches, the allure of celebrating Christmas in Italy is hard to resist.
Imagine twinkling Christmas lights suspended above ancient alleyways, the rich scent of olive oil wafting from street vendors, and the harmonious serenade of melodious voices filling the winter air. This is Italy’s special time of year, and it beckons travelers with its unique traditions and festivities.
When one thinks of Italy and the holiday season, the towering Christmas trees at the Piazza Navona and St. Peter’s Square is, of course, a sight to behold. However, with their shimmering lights and impressive stature, these trees are just the tip of the Italian festive iceberg. When I visit Italy, here are the places I want to see at Christmas time.
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San Gregorio Armeno, Naples
Amidst the aromatic blend of freshly baked panettone and smoky chestnuts, the bustling San Gregorio Armeno in Naples comes alive with twinkling lights and the melodic hum of carolers. Every corner vibrates with festive fervor, making it an enchanting Christmas escape.
Often dubbed the world’s largest Christmas tree, this place is a haven for lovers of the nativity scene. With meticulous craftsmanship, artisans showcase the story of Baby Jesus, the Holy Family, and the Three Wise Men.
STAY: The most festive hotel, Grand Hotel Parker’s, welcomes guests with its opulent holiday decor.
The air in Vatican City is thick with the scent of frankincense, and bells chime like angels, echoing ancient Christmas traditions. St. Peter’s Square glows under a canopy of stars, promising a magical experience.
On December 8th (a fixed date), the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. And come Christmas Eve, the Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica is an experience that resonates deep within one’s soul.
STAY: Hotel Hassler Roma stands out as the most luxurious and festive, with its gold-trimmed wreaths and radiant yuletide ambiance.
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Northern Italy’s Cinque Terre and Cortina d’Ampezzo
The Italian Alps are not just about skiing. Here, you’ll find quaint villages lit up with beautiful Christmas lights, with local churches echoing with the sounds of harmonious Christmas carols.
Crisp mountain air mingles with the salty sea breeze in Northern Italy. Cinque Terre’s shimmering coast meets Cortina d’Ampezzo’s snowy peaks, creating a winter wonderland.
STAY: Candlelit Hotel Villa Alpina in Cortina d’Ampezzo envelops visitors with its warm, festive spirit and the scent of pine and roasted chestnuts.
This region takes the fruit cake when it comes to Italian Christmas traditions. On January 6th (12 days after Christmas), as the Day of the Epiphany approaches, Italian children eagerly await La Befana, the good witch (or, some say, old lady) who flies on her broomstick to deliver sweet treats.
Amidst the gentle hum of Southern Italy’s coastal waves, the scent of citrus groves mingles with wafts of roasting chestnuts during Christmas. Streets come alive with the soft glow of lanterns and melodic carolers echoing traditional tunes. Here, visitors are greeted with the rich flavors of traditional Italian Christmas foods, Minestra Maritata and Pignolata, and the comforting feel of Mediterranean breezes, making Southern Italy an enchanting yuletide escape.
STAY: Nestled in the heart of Southern Italy, Sextantio: Le Grotte della Civita is a unique yuletide experience. This ancient cave hotel, illuminated by candlelight, exudes a magical ambiance. With historic charm and luxurious comforts, it transports guests back in time, making Christmas celebrations both intimate and enchantingly unforgettable.
Feast of the Seven Fishes along the Coast
An Italian tradition that is not to be missed, La Vigilia di Natale, or Christmas Eve Dinner, is a lavish spread of delicious food, especially fish, shared amongst Italian families.
In Italy, particularly in coastal regions, many hotels and restaurants offer variations of this feast. Here is a short list of our favorite places to stay and feast.
Hotel Cipriani, Venice: Located in one of Italy’s most iconic seafood cities, the hotel often hosts traditional dinners that showcase the region’s bountiful seafood. This hotel features a free shuttle service, free childcare, multi-lingual employees, and last but definitely not least, slippers for children.
Hotel Santa Caterina, Amalfi Coast: This one-of-a-kind hotel is built into a cliff that hangs over the sea. With its unmatched seaside location, this hotel is known for serving delectable seafood dishes, especially during the festive season.
Borgo Egnazia, Puglia: Situated on the coast, this hotel offers culinary experiences that frequently incorporate fresh seafood, perfect for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. If the meal so inspires, cooking classes are available here.
Belmond Hotel Splendido, Portofino: This luxurious hotel, overlooking the harbor of Portofino, often incorporates seafood traditions into its festive menus. This location is also only a short drive to ski lifts, making it an ideal spot for a winter trip.
Sicily’s Santa Lucia Celebration
Come December 13th, the streets are filled with the melodies of Santa Lucia while children relish the delicious foods and recount the Christmas story of St. Francis of Assisi.
Amidst the cobbled streets of Sicily, the aroma of freshly baked cuccìa mingles with the crisp winter air. The Santa Lucia Celebration transforms the island into a vibrant spectacle. Locals sing melodic hymns honoring Saint Lucy, their voices tune with the distant church bells.
As the day darkens, candlelit processions illuminate the streets, casting a warm, golden hue. The tales of Santa Lucia, a beacon of light and hope, resonate deeply during this festive period.
STAY: For travelers seeking an immersive experience, the opulent Hotel Villa Athena in Agrigento provides a luxurious stay, echoing the island’s rich history and festive spirit.
As winter blankets the Amalfi Coast, the region casts a magical allure. The scent of citrus and salt meets the crisp sea air while twinkling lights reflect off the cerulean waves, creating a mesmerizing dance of luminosity. The narrow streets, lined with historic villas, resonate with festive carols and the laughter of joyful reunions. Local artisans showcase their craft, from intricate ceramics to sumptuous pastries.
STAY: Amidst this yuletide charm, the grand Hotel Santa Caterina, perched cliffside, stands as the epitome of festive luxury. Its rooms showcase unparalleled views, and its ambiance captures the very essence of a dreamy Amalfi Christmas.
Rome to Find Babbo Natale
Babbo Natale, Italy’s enchanting version of Santa Claus, spreads festive cheer with his rich red suit and heartwarming chuckles. As legend has it, he delivers gifts to the stockings of Italy’s children on Christmas Eve. During the yuletide season, one can often spot Babbo Natale figures and performances in Rome’s vibrant Piazza Navona. The aroma of roasted chestnuts and the soft glow of lights enhance the magical ambiance.
Whether it’s Father Christmas in the bustling Italian cities or the charming Santa Claus in a small town, Italy ensures that everyone, especially the good children, gets their share of festivities.
STAY: For those seeking a quintessential Roman holiday experience, Hotel de Russie offers an opulent stay with festive decorations and proximity to the city’s spirited Christmas markets and events.
Buon Natale a Tutti
Make sure not to miss other experiences like the grand Christmas celebrations in the heart of Rome, the ice rinks that pop up in the December period, and the beautiful nativity scenes crafted in Italian homes’ shop windows.
To truly understand how Christmas is celebrated in Italy, one must immerse themselves in the customs that have been passed down through generations. From the Feast of the Epiphany to the Catholic tradition of the manger scene, Italy offers a myriad of experiences that make it a top destination during the Christmas holidays.
So, wrap yourself in the warmth of Italian traditions, indulge in the best things the festive season has to offer, and say “Buon Natale” as you embark on your Italian Christmas journey.
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