Everyone comes to Italy in summer. Mediterranean climate, Mediterranean sea, Mediterranean men. Summer has its benefits, but it’s not the only time worth visiting.
Of course the shoulder seasons (fall and spring) are great for lower prices but they also have unpredictable weather (fall in Northern Italy tends to be rainy) and the winter should, in general, be avoided for the cold, shortened opening times and general closings of restaurants and other tourist places. December, however, falls into that sweet spot in-between.
It’s just cold enough that you can still occasionally find discounted prices but still popular enough to find wide openings and a ton to do.
Plus, it’s just plain beautiful. December marks the start of the Christmas season and the lights, decorations and markets to go with it.
What to Expect
I won’t lie, you should expect cold weather. It’s definitely colder than November, but usually a bit less rainy.In the North you can get snow, with temperatures anywhere from 25 – 45°F. Temperatures are milder in the South, with Sicily able to get up to 60°F. It’s not unheard of to see a Sicilian or two taking a Christmas day dip in the chilly (but not freezing) waters.
Also, expect just slightly fewer services in winter than summer. For example, ferries either don’t run at all or run on a very limited basis along the Italian coast, both for the downturn in tourists and the choppy winter seas. Often museums and churches keep shorter hours in the winter, so plan accordingly.
You’ll want to choose your destinations with care. While the sunny coastlines and islands can sometimes completely shut down during the winter off-season, the mountains and hiking spots boom with the start of the ski season and the cities light up with Christmas festivities. Though all of winter has most of these benefits, only December has the sparkle and glam of the Christmas season thrown in. Sure, the weather isn’t for everyone, but overall you’ll find fewer crowds, happier locals and still have a ton to do.
What to Do
With a long history of artisans, top-quality Made in Italy products, and world-famous fashion industry, Italy is a great place to do your Christmas shopping. Head to fashion capital Milan or seek out specific artisanal crafts, such as nativity scene pieces in Napoli or woodwork in Trentino Alto-Adige. Not only that, but this time of year you’ll find a Christmas market in every city, complete with warm booths, fried desserts, bratwursts and hot chocolate or mulled wine to keep you warm.
Go skiing, even in Sicily!
December marks the start of the ski season throughout Italy. The Alps are a safer bet for snow cover, especially the higher you go, but by Mid to late December you might just be able to ski down Sicily’s Mount Etna. At over 9,000 feet, the altitude brings great snow cover and offers a totally unique place to ski.
Go to the spa
Though typically a treat after a long day of skiing, even non-skiiers can enjoy the beauty and relax of Italy’s thermal baths. Try the gorgeous Bagni Vecchi di Bormio Spa in Lombardia, north of Milan, where you can sit outside in a steaming hot bath with a view of the snow covered peaks extending across the valley below you.
Go to the opera…or a jazz festival
Opera season in Milan’s La Scala Theater opens December 7th and runs through the winter. Those who can’t afford it can usually catch a scene or two on a big screen near the Christmas tree in the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, or head south to the Umbria Jazz Festival. It’s winter edition is hel December 28 – January 1 in beautiful Orvieto.
Celebrate New Year’s Eve in the piazza
Think you won’t have anything to do on New Year’s far from your home? Think again. As always, Italians fill the piazze for planned concerts, fireworks and celebrations on New Year’s Eve. Research ahead to find one that attracts you, but don’t worry, celebrations abound.
What to Eat
Truth be told, winter is the prime season to enjoy many of Italy’s most traditional meals. Hearty, caloric and hot, Italy’s classic dishes are the perfect comfort food after a day sightseeing in the cold. Try ossobuco and risotto in Lombardia, polenta with cheese in the Alps, a hearty ribollita vegetable soup in Tuscany, steaming fried arancini in Sicily. Warm, gooey eggplant parmesan, diet-busting lasagna, hot chocolate made with pure, melted chocolate. mmmm!
Then of course you have your traditional Christmas desserts. Like pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, Italians have panettone and pandoro for Christmas.
As you stroll, follow your nose to the vendors with roasted chestnuts, smell the rich spices of vin brule, or hot spiced wine, to warm yourself up or dip into a café for that cioccolata calda I told you about.
What to Wear
Invest in a super comfortable, super warm (and waterproof!) pair of boots. Dress like the Italians, which means an undershirt snug against the body and tucked into your pants, a long sleeve shirt over that and a warm, possibly wool sweatshirt. Then of course a scarf, long thermal jacket, gloves and hat.
In the Midwest winter for me meant rushing from the house to the car, the car to the school and so on, only really enjoying the outdoors on very specific occasions like a sledding outing or a night bar-hopping (depending on your age). Here in Italy, Italians stroll outside year round, and it’s largely because they know how to dress. With the right clothes, and strategic tea breaks to warm up, you can enjoy the sights no matter the weather.
So whether you’re enjoying the snow in the north or the mild temperatures in the south, don’t write December in Italy off your list!