An edited version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.
The holiday season is a magical time of year in Italy and a great time to experience Italian traditions new and old. Over the years at Dream of Italy, we’ve written about various ways to celebrate Christmas, New Year’s and the Epiphany throughout Italy. To come up with some new and different ideas, we asked some of our favorite Italophiles for their favorite holiday experiences in Italy:
Cinque Terre: World’s Largest Presepe
The biggest presepe (nativity scene) in the world is in Manarola in the Cinque Terre, and was designed and built by Mario Andreoli, a retired railway worker. The presepe consists of 300 full-scale illuminated figures covering a hillside. It has been environmentally friendly since 2008, when a photovoltaic factory was built especially to supply electricity to it. To appreciate the nativity at its best, walk up toward the Church of San Lorenzo, which was built in the Gothic and Baroque style during the 14th century. The presepe opens with a lighting ceremony on December 8 at 5:30 p.m. and remains open through the end of January.
Recommended by Pietro Guerrera, Eattiamo, www.eattiamo.com
Dolomites: Christmas Village of Ortisei
Head to the village of Ortisei, in the valley of Val Gardena, for Christmas magic in the Dolomite mountains. Listen to Christmas carols, be guided to the doors of bakeries and stalls by the sweet smell of Christmas cookies wafting through the village, kneel and touch the carved wooden nativity scene figures, gaze in wonder at the advent decorations and the snow-covered landscape, and close your eyes when you sit back at the end of the day and enjoy a steaming mug of mulled wine. In the Christmas market, fairytale-like huts entice guests to taste regional products and scrumptious dishes. You’ll be spoilt for choice, with a wide range of original gifts, delicious biscuits and cakes, luxurious wines and grappas. The market is open December 12 to January 8. For more information, visit www.nadelurtijei.com (Pictured above.) Get a Christmas cookie recipe from the Dolomites.
Recommended by Klaus Kier, General Manager of the Adler Dolomiti, www.adler-dolomiti.com
Trentino-Alto Adige: Christmas Markets
I’m lucky to call Trentino-Alto Adige home. It is an off-the-beaten-path destination that can be visited all year round but that certainly offers its best around Christmas time. Trentini‘s favorite activity during this time of the year is having vin brulé, a hot and spicy mulled wine, and meeting up with friends at the Mercatini di Natale (Christmas Markets). There are characteristics Christmas markets in several cities of the region but my favorite are the ones in Trento and Bolzano. Every year we welcome tourists from all over Italy, Europe, and sometimes the world, and share with them our culture. You can find the mercatini in our main piazzas and from there you can explore the stands filled with artisanal products, traditional decorations and nativity scenes, as well as gourmet goodies and foodie journeys. Trento’s Christmas markets had 730,000 visitors in 2015. For more information, visit www.visittrentino.it.
Recommended by Beatrice Sartori, Select Italy, www.selectitaly.com
Venice: Rowing and Vin Brulé
There is nothing more Venetian than the voga, the rowing style made famous by the gondoliers, and Row Venice offers the chance to try it yourself. To further raise your spirits during this holiday season, book the ‘Vogata di Sera evening row in Canal Grande and enjoy another local holiday tradition: steaming hot vin brulé! No holiday gathering in Venice, especially an outdoor one, is complete without vin brulé. The 90-minute evening row lesson (180€ for one to four people) is offered daily at 5:30 p.m. from December 8 to January 6. For more information, visit www.rowvenice.org.
Recommended by Nan McElroy
Venice: Ice Skating
My family enjoys the charm of the outdoor ice rinks that pop up around Italy for the Christmas season. In Venice, there is a quaint ice rink set up in Campo San Polo from December 6 to around the end of January, accompanied by a Christmas market stalls with sweets, toys, and gifts. This is a great idea for traveling to Italy with kids!
Recommended by Shannon Kenny, Italia Kids, www.italiakids.com
Venice: Caffe Florian
The holidays are quite understated in Venice as compared to in the United States. While there are many apartment windows festively lit up all around town and numerous hanging Santas clinging to Venice’s balconies, my favorite part about the holidays is enjoying the lit-up arches surrounding Piazza San Marco. I think it’s magical the way the lights frame the gorgeous square during the season and I make a point of passing through every chance I get. Each year I bundle up and enjoy a special drink outside Caffè Florian so that I can soak in the festive atmosphere and enjoy the lovely decorations.
Recommended by Jill Weinreich, Freelance Writer and Event Planner in Venice