Make the most of Italy in the winter: bundle up, bring your umbrella and snow boots, and enjoy multiple hot chocolates!
Very few people need much prompting to want to travel to Italy. But the truth is that most of what travelers dream of doing or seeing in Italy involves warm, sunny weather. Lying on the beach, hiking through verdant hills, sipping wine at a sidewalk cafe – all of this requires a certain temperature to be a pleasant pastime, and winter doesn’t deliver on that front.
Still, an Italian winter vacation gives you a chance to see another side of this popular country. You’ll visit heavily-touristed places when it’s a bit more relaxed. You’ll experience activities that don’t even exist in the summer. You’ll celebrate holidays with Italians that make you feel like part of the family. You’ll need to bundle up a bit, sure, but that’s a small compromise to enjoy the benefits of a winter trip to Italy.
Here’s a guide to help you make the most of your winter vacation in Italy.
What to expect in winter in Italy, from north to south
Weather: Does it snow in Italy?
For such a small country, Italy has extremely variable weather conditions. This is due in large part to its changing terrain: the coast and mountains are not too distant as the crow flies, but they’re separated by plenty of meters of height. Southern Italy doesn’t get nearly as cold as the north, but you won’t be spreading your beach blanket on one of those gorgeous beaches in Puglia in January. Still, a restaurant table with a view of the beach while sipping a warming Primitivo sounds like a delightful way to spend a winter afternoon.
That said, winter in Italy is its coldest season, from the top to the toe of the boot and even on the islands. In most parts of the country, that means rain – sometimes quite a bit. In the mountains, that moisture takes the form of fat snowflakes. It occasionally snows in places like Venice or the Cinque Terre, but that’s relatively rare (and eminently photogenic).
November is traditionally the month that sees the most rainfall in Italy (and although it isn’t technically a “winter” month, that copious rainfall sure makes it feel like one). December is still quite wet, and January often has some of the coldest temperatures of the year. February generally means lots of rain, too. The bottom line is that while there are certainly days when you’ll be blessed with gorgeous sunshine on a chilly day, winter visitors to Italy should prepare for rain or even snow, depending on your destination.
Winter sightseeing in Italy
When you’re traveling, staying inside isn’t always an option – so it’s important to plan for activities that are fun in any kind of weather.
There are plenty of indoor attractions in Italy to keep visitors busy, from museums to art galleries, from churches to lingering over extra-long lunches. As a bonus, crowds are smaller during the slow winter months. Some popular sites that offer advance booking shut that feature down over the winter (St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, for instance), but it’s still a good idea to book ahead for places like the Vatican Museums or the Uffizi Gallery, if only to avoid waiting in a long line outdoors. And—need we remind you?—winery visits and wine tastings are just about the perfect any-weather activities.
Note that winter schedules means shorter hours for some attractions; though in larger cities, and particularly tourist centers, the difference in opening hours is not such a big difference (if they change hours at all). Smaller towns and villages, on the other hand, turn even more peaceful and quiet, with only a trickle of tourist influx.
If you’re planning a tour of Pompeii, the Roman Forum, or any other open air museum in the winter, be sure you’ve got waterproof shoes, good rain gear, and warm clothing. Few things can ruin a sightseeing day more quickly than cold, wet feet.
Winter-only activities in Italy
Weekend in bianco
Winter becomes much more appealing if you enjoy skiing or snowboarding. Italy is an incredibly mountainous country, and locals and visitors alike take to the slopes all winter long. When Italians take a weekend or full week to the slopes, they call it a “white” weekend, in bianco. Whereas prices in many parts of Italy drop during the slower winter season, the ski areas get pricier during this busy season. Book in advance for any skiing or snowboarding trips you want to take while you’re in Italy.
The Alps and Dolomites in Italy’s north are packed with famous ski resorts, many sharing a border with Switzerland, France, or Austria. If you stay in Turin, or even further north like in Alto Piemonte, great skiing locations are only an hour or two away in Aosta or near Susa. The Apennines run down the center of the country like a spine, and while those mountains don’t have the international recognition of their counterparts in northern Italy. They offer lower prices and fewer crowds than the famous resorts. Even the island of Sicily gets in on the game – you can ski on the largest active volcano in Europe: Mt. Etna.
Shopping in Italy is a year-round activity, but some shopping opportunities only pop up during the winter months. The weeks leading up to Christmas are the prime season for festive outdoor Christmas markets. These tend to have a Germanic flair and are best in northern Italy, but they can be fun and charming no matter where you are – not to mention a great chance to pick up an artsy souvenir or gift.
One of the best, country-wide sales seasons begins in early January every year and lasts about six weeks. Exact dates vary, but the sales usually begin right after the Epiphany on January 6.
Another indoors wintertime activity in Italy is the theater. Most theater companies shut down for the summer, with their seasonal debuts in November or December. Tickets for venues like La Scala in Milan aren’t cheap, but for theater aficionados seeing an opera at La Scala is a very big deal, indeed.
Winter Holidays in Italy
Christmas and the Epiphany
Very few holidays fall during the winter months in Italy. When they do, they shift what we think of as “winter in Italy” norms: crowds get bigger around the major holidays and prices go up.
Christmas isn’t the biggest religious holiday in winter for most Italians—that’s Epiphany, on January 6th—but it’s still a very big deal. One uniquely Italian Christmas feature to watch for is the abundance of nativity scenes, or presepi. Nativities appear in front of churches and in town squares, ranging in diversity from simple designs to elaborate town scenes, with figures both historic and modern. There are also “living nativity scenes” in some places for a limited time during the week before Christmas itself.
New Year’s Eve until the end of winter
While Christmas in Italy is about family, New Year’s Eve is about friends, fun, and fireworks. There are often outdoor concerts or other entertainment in public squares, followed by massive fireworks displays at midnight. The fireworks are an especially big deal in Naples and further south, where it seems every other street has its own smaller-scale fireworks show going on.
Carnival is the last big holiday before the weather starts to turn warm. Its dates change every year, but it can start as early as February. We hardly need to point out that Venice has the biggest and most famous Carnival celebrations, but other towns have their own unique celebrations, too, including the Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea and the enormous papier-mache floats in Viareggio’s parade.