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:
Basilicata: Italy’s Best Panettone
That most revered of Italian Christmas sweets, panettone, may have its origins in Milan, but it’s a baker in the southern Italian region of Basilicata who has taken the title for the country’s best panettone for a few years running. The accolades for his tasty treat have brought tourists to town to taste Italy’s most famous Christmas dolce directly from the king himself, and you can too. Visit the pasticceria Tiri 1957 in Acerenza to taste it for yourself, and meet the 33-year old principe in his pastry domain. Vincenzo Tiri bakes about 500 of the bread-like fruitcakes every day, rising in the middle of the night and working through the day to produce the cakes from quality ingredients. The baker’s secret recipe includes homemade candied fruit, sweet butter, raisins and Basilicata honey. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/Tiri1957.
Recommended by Valerie Schneider, My Bella Basilicata, www.mybellabasilicata.com
Photo by Susan Van Allen
Campania: Borgo Castellabate Christmas Market
Tucked inside the medieval streets of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Christmas market at Castellabate on the Cilento coast feels like walking around a living presepe. Food vendors, craftspeople and Christmas lights line the winding streets and lanes of one of Italy’s most beautiful historic towns. Market stalls sell all the of the typical Italian Christmas sweets as well as crafts such as ceramics, embroidery, paintings, and jewelry, and local schools set up stalls with children selling crafts and gifts that they have made during the school year.
Recommended by Danielle Oteri, Feast on History Tours, www.feastonhistory.com
Campania: Sorrento Celebrations
The historic center of Sorrento twinkles during the holidays. Beginning November 26 with the lighting of a huge tree in Piazza Tasso, celebrations continue with street performances on weekends; jazz, gospel, and classical music concerts in the churches; a Christmas treasure hunt; and a Villaggio di Babbo Natale (Santa’s Village for the bambini) at Villa Fiorentino. In addition to the usual Italian Christmas treats, you can also sample Neapolitan fried pizza, a popular local street food. After Christmas, stay in town for a big New Year’s Eve party with a DJ in Piazza Tasso, followed by fireworks at the port to ring in the new year. For more information, visit www.eventssorrento.com.
Recommended by Susan Van Allen, author of 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go, www.susanvanallen.com
Campania: Luci d’Artista in Salerno
The city of Salerno shines even brighter during Luci d’Artista, an exhibition of artistic light installations all over the city. The streets, squares and piazzas become a magical wonderland with cascading lights and intricate lighting displays. Take the little ones to the Enchanted Garden in the Villa Comunale to see light displays depicting characters and scenes from treasured fairytales. New this year is a ferris wheel in Sottopiazza della Concordia, nativities sculpted from sand at the Maritime Station of Salerno, and a 5€ tourist card that gives access to plenty of discounts. Salerno also has several Christmas markets opening on December 6. Luci d’Artista runs from November to the end of January. For more information, visit www.livesalerno.com.
Recommended by Cherrye Moore, My Bella Vita, www.mybellavita.com
Ischia: Living Nativity Scene
Visit the island of Ischia in the wintertime to bathe in its natural thermal springs. Enjoy the warm Mediterranean waters of the Baia di Sorgeto when temperatures are chilly. Visitors can also sign up for treatments at one of the island’s many therapeutic spas, visit the island’s castle or archaeological museum, or visit the living nativity scene which is held at Casamicciola Terme between December 21 and January 7.
Recommended by Madeline Jhawar, Italy Beyond The Obvious, www.italybeyondtheobvious.com
Naples: “Christmas” Street
Most Italian-Americans have their roots in Southern Italy, and the traditions from Naples are the base of holiday celebrations. The dinner of the seven fishes began in Naples. The creche sets — called presepe — of Naples are famous all over the world, and there is an entire neighborhood dedicated to the artisans making the clay figures. Via San Gregorio Armeno is easily reached walking down Via Tribunali. It is open all year long, as the artisans always are working, but for the holidays, starting in November, the workshops are in full swing and have their pieces filling the streets. Most of the serious clay pieces are expensive, they are made in pieces, and the figures are “dressed” in handmade clothing. But you can find some fun modern political pieces, famous sports figures as well as the traditional Italian people. Visit the streets in the Naples episode of Dream of Italy on PBS. Read more about this Naples Christmas Street.
Recommended by Judy Francini, Divina Cucina, www.divinacucina.com
Sicily: Custonaci Live Nativity
This living nativity Presepe Vivente di Custonaci is held in Custonaci, near Trapani, bringing together craftsmen and artists from all over Sicily for six days between Christmas and Epiphany. The living nativity is recreated annually within the Mangiapane Cave; leaning against the cave are tiny houses built by shepherds and farmers. The special feature of this nativity is the display of ancient trades and Sicilian scenes. The actors are not actors but real craftsmen who still own and carry out their professions in and around Custonaci. So you will find a cobbler repairing the shoes, the barber cutting hair, women spinning wool, etc. For more information, visit www.presepeviventedicustonaci.it.
Recommended by Margherita Bilenchi, Bravo Holidays, www.bravovillas.com