why visit italy in the winter

Why is Winter a Great Time to Visit Italy?

When you think of Italy, visions of Rome’s historic attractions, Tuscany’s vineyards, or maybe the iconic Venetian canals.  But, Italy is more than a fair-weather destination.  In the winter, the country takes on a distinctive charm of its own. So why is winter a great time to visit Italy? You can avoid the heat, the crowds, and go on relaxed breaks in its amazing cities and spend your evenings in cozy wine bars.

True, Italy in winter comes with a series of disadvantages, like short days and cold temperatures, but the rewards outweigh them, with quieter cities and sights, unique festivals, tasty comfort food, and great deals on hotels, transportation, and even shopping! In so many ways it is a superb time to visit. So why not seize the moment and book a holiday to Italy for Novmber, December, January, February or March? Just take a look at a few of the reasons why there is no better time to visit Italy than in the cooler winter months:

Winter Weather in Italy

Italy is 1185 km long from the Alps to the boot, so weather patterns do change from north to south. As a rough guideline, expect to find snow in the Alps and the Appenines, but not necessarily in the valleys, even in Northern Italy. In the rest of the country weather is changeable,  from grey, overcast days to bright and sunny days, with clear skies and clean air. Generally speaking, the further south you travel, the warmer and sunnier it will be. In Sicily, the temperatures rarely dip below 10°C, and it it is usually possible to swim until November. I’ve included what you can expect for each winter month in Italy:

How long does winter last in Italy?

Like in most European countries, winter officially starts in December and lasts until the end of February. At least that’s the official calendar, but with the current climate changes you never really know what to expect. In the past years, December hasn’t been so cold and it is not that common to see snowfalls during this month. On the other hand, that means that winters are even milder in Sicily or Sardinia, where you can enjoy some winter sun.Why is Winter a Great Time to Visit Italy?

Italy in December

Not everyone dreams of visiting Italy in the summer. If you’re among the rare group of travelers who actually prefer traveling in the off-season, then December in Italy is for you. December marks the season when cities and small villages throughout Italy shine brightly with Christmas lights. Locals flock to open air markets to buy holiday gifts and enjoy December nights with friends and family. Not only is it simply beautiful, it’s also a unique way to take part in the Italian experience of Christmas.

Sure, you might need to pack a winter coat and scarf, but Italy in December is actually quite moderate and for many preferable than the scorching summer for touring. Temperatures in the north range from 25 – 45 degrees Fahrenheit (though the mountains have their own microclimate) while the south easily enjoys an average of 50 degrees and in Sicily it may get as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit in December. January and February run colder and November rainier, but December is a sweet in-between. You’ll find many hotels outside the major cities are closed and hiking trails in the main areas like the Cinque Terre don’t open until Easter.

Average temperatures:

  • 26-45°F in the north
  • 42-57°F in central Italy
  • 54-61°F in the southWhy is Winter a Great Time to Visit Italy?

Italy in January

January is the coldest month all over Italy and in northern Italy, it snows most years. Days can be cold and clear or wet and windy, with snow falling in mountain areas. As it’s very much the off-season, some attractions will be closed or offer limited visiting hours, so it’s best to look this up in advance. Much of the Amalfi Coast, for instance, only gears up for visitors in the summer months, and most Tuscan properties are shut over the winter.

Average temperatures:

  • 25-45°F in the north
  • 40-55°F in central Italy
  • 50-60°F in the south

Why Winter is a great time to visit ItalyItaly in February

February’s weather is cold and often damp almost everywhere in Italy, but coldest in northern Italy. That dampness manifests itself as snow in the mountains, and snow can get down into the lower elevations, too. February is still part of Italy’s high season when it comes to ski destinations.

February is Carnival month in Italy! Prices tend to be cheaper in February, outside of carnival dates. Like January, visitors should be prepared for reduced opening hours and limited access to attractions in some areas, but you’ll benefit from much smaller crowds. The amount of rain you can expect depends on the region you visit. There is less rainfall in north Italy in February but it increases in the south, although temperatures there are warmer. You may even be lucky enough to experience some sunny spells as sunny days usually outnumber cloudy ones toward the end of the month. Central Italy is usually warmer, but still chilly. If you choose to travel to the South, a pleasant, temperate climate will welcome you: if you are looking for an escape from winter and its chills, southern Italy is the place for you.

Average temperatures:

  • 25-45°F in the north
  • 39-55°F in central Italy (frequent precipitations)
  • 48-55°F in the south

And, as always, check the current extended forecast for where you’re actually going just before you leave – when you’re packing is the perfect time – so you can find out in advance if it’s unseasonably cold or warm.

Ponte del Diavolo in Cividale del Friuli

Italy in March

March is a month when many of us in the northern hemisphere are beginning to shed our winter layers, at least for a few days, and dreaming of sunny days to come. Italy is no different. And although Italy is a popular enough place that it’s never fully devoid of visitors, March is one of those so-called “shoulder season” months when tourism numbers aren’t nearly as high as they can get. In other words, it just might be one of the best times to visit Italy.

By March, temperatures will have risen considerably all over Italy, but this is probably the most unpredictable month of the year! The beginning of the month can be colder, wet and damp in places, but as the official start of spring approaches on March 21, the country really starts to come alive and temperatures begin to rise. During the first half of March, Italy sometimes experiences ‘Arctic blasts’ bringing the temperatures close to freezing again, and by the end of the month, sunny days with temperatures exceeding 68 Fahrenheit/20°C are not uncommon and longer days with the sun setting at around 8PM.

The biggest holidays in March aren’t always in March – Carnival and Easter. Both are moving targets with dates that follow the liturgical calendar, but sometimes each one falls in March. Carnival (Carnevale in Italian) sometimes begins in February and stretches into March, while Easter is sometimes in late March. Both Carnevale and Easter represent mini-high season spikes in tourism for Italy, so keep that in mind if you’re planning a March trip.

Other festivals that take place in March include International Women’s Day (Festa della Donna) on March 8, for which people give sprays of yellow mimosa flowers to the women in their lives; and Saint Joseph’s Day (Festa di San Giuseppe) on March 19, which is also the Italian Father’s Day.

Average temperatures:

  • 34-55°F in the north
  • 43-59°F in central Italy
  • 52-59°F in the south

8 Reasons to Visit Italy in Winter

1. Fewer Tourists

For one, if you’re heading to one of the major cities in Italy, you’ll find that the main tourist attractions will be far quieter. Imagine being able to visit the Vatican Museums without the need to stand in a long line for hours at a time. Or how about being able to wander around Siena’s Piazza del Campo undisturbed? Or maybe consider visiting the Uffizi Gallery in Florence without any need for queuing. All these are the norm in the quieter Winter months.

People do visit Italy year round, including winter, but generally speaking winter visitors are only a fraction of those coming in summer.  Crowds do increase over the Christmas and New Years school holidays, but even then visitors are still far from reaching summer numbers. Why Winter is a great time to visit Italy

2. More Affordable Prices

Winter in Italy is the perfect time for accommodation deals! Well, that goes without saying! Fewer people also means more affordable prices, and that is the case for everything – accommodation, tours, transport, flights, you name is. So, if you want a budget-friendly holiday, definitely visit Italy in winter! However, if you have a specific property in mind, make sure it is open for when you plan to visit. Hotels in coastal locations like the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre often close in winter for maintenance.

3. Perfect Time to visit Italy’s Best Cities

Winter is the perfect time to visit Italy’s best cities – personally, as a local, on my own vacations, I avoid visiting places like Rome, Venice and Florence in any other season, because I can’t deal with the crowds. Rome in winter is a really great place to visit. The weather is often warm and sunny, and it’s not overrun with tourists and no queues. A city worth visiting in the winter is Turin. It’s one of the closest major cities to the Alps, and it is home to great museums and palaces, from the time when it was Italy’s capital. It has a noble, genteel feel, which truly at its best in winter – and make sure you sit at one of Turin’s historic cafés and order a bicerin, a coffee and chocolate concoction that is probably the best winter drink ever.

guests enjoying a private cicchetti crawl with Audrey in Venice

Guests enjoying a private cicchetti crawl with Audrey in Venice

4. Mixing with the Locals

Rome, Florence, and Venice generally empty out of locals in the sweltering days of summer when the heat and crowds drive most of them to the coastline or countryside. The skeleton cities they leave behind are largely populated by tourists and those working in tourist-driven service industries, so the atmosphere changes dramatically. Come fall, locals return to shop in the neighborhood markets, dine at the landmark restaurants, and return to their daily lives, giving visitors a more authentic experience of the city and its people.

5. Christmas Markets

Chestnuts roasting on a fire, Torrone tempts your taste buds, strings of lights blink overhead. Where are you? In a mercatino di Natale, one of Italy’s Christmas markets. Throughout late November and December, towns big and small are home to outdoor holiday markets. Bordering Switzerland and Austria, Trentino is a place where Italian and German traditions fuse. Trentino and Friuli are ideal winter destinations, offering snow-dusted vistas and age-old traditions. Wandering the city of Trento’s snow-dusted stalls, you might spot handmade nativity figurines carved from wood or taste the region’s rich milk chocolate. As you stroll the stalls, stay warm with a steaming cup of vin brûlé (mulled wine) or a pretzel. The best known Christmas markets in Italy are the ones in Trento, Tarvisio, Trieste and Bolzano.Bolzano Christmas Market

6. Christmas Traditions

Christmas in Italy is not all about the markets! It’s also the perfect time to see Italian cities and villages all decorated with sparkling lights, and marvel at the huge Christmas trees placed in major squares. Christmas trees and lights are found all over the world, but there’s another typically Italian Christmas tradition – presepi, meaning Nativity scenes. Most families display a Nativity scene in their own home, which could be as simple as a tiny wooden house with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, or an elaborate live set-up complete with mountains and streams.

Epiphany is also celebrated in Italy on January 6th, and marks the official end of the Christmas festivities. Families also exchange gifts on this day – all Italian children will tell you that their homes are visited by the Befana, a benevolent witch-like figure riding a broom. The Befana brings a stocking filled with sweets to good children, and charcoal to naughty ones.

7. Enjoy Italian Winter Food

Winter in Italy is also the ideal time to indulge in cold-weather comfort food, as well as a tasty array of Christmas sweets! Pizza and pasta can be enjoyed year round – in winter, make sure you also try some heartier dishes like polenta, boiled cornmeal served with stewed meat and/or mushrooms, and pizzoccheri, a Lombardia winter dish made with buckweat pasta and oodles of cheese.

If you’re visiting Milan in winter, some old-school restaurants may offer cassoeula, a stew including cabbage, sausages, and various pork pieces, delicious! In Piedmont, winter is also the time to enjoy bollito, a selection of meats cooked in broth with sauces and mustard-candied fruit served alongside.

As far as winter sweets go, every Italian region seems to have their own – but the two found on most family tables on Christmas day are definitely panettone and pandoro. Panettone is a Milanese raised cake with raisins and orange peel, while Pandoro is originally from Verona, and it’s a star-shaped raised cake with lots and lots of butter.

Costumes of the carnival in Venice

Carnival in Venice/Photo Audrey De Monte

8. Carnival time

Carnival season kicks off in early February!  Venice Carnival is probably the best known in Italy, and definitely worth a visit, despite the crowds. Carnival celebrations in Venice usually start with a floating parade down the Grand Canal and then continue onto the following Saturday with the traditional Festa delle Marie, a kind of pageant where 12 beautiful young ladies are dressed in period costume and parade around the city, before one of them is elected Maria dell’Anno (Maria of the Year). 

However, the official event to open Carnival will take place on the day after with the Volo dell’ Angelo, when the previous year’s Maria ‘flies’ on a zip line from the San Marco belfry all the way to Doge’s palace. This marks the beginning of a nine-day extravaganza of parades, balls, and private parties in the city’s most exclusive palazzos, taking Venice back to the decadence of Casanova’s time. You don’t need to attend any of the balls, as it is still a magical time to visit Venice, with locals and tourists alike in 18th century attire wandering around the city, making you feel as if you were dream.

9. Other Carnivals

Yes, Venice Carnival is beautiful, but it can get crowded. Luckily, if you happen to be in Italy in February, you can enjoy Carnival celebrations in a number of other locations. Carnival refers to the time of fun just before Lent, and so exact dates change every year depending on when Easter will be. The highlight of the celebrations usually takes place between the Saturday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and usually involves floats, street parties and dancing. One of the coolest places to be is Ivrea, a town in Piedmont home to the crazy Battle of the Oranges, where teams on foot or on the back of horse carts belt oranges at one another.  Viareggio in Tuscany also has a well-known Carnival, with huge marionette figures paraded through the streets.Why Winter is a great time to visit Italy

Unique Carnivals can be enjoyed in our home region of Friuli Venezia Giulia:

Carnival in Sauris

Sauris is a little village situated in the mountains of Carnia, known for its delicious ham (prosciutto crudo) that has a smoked aroma and its recent but good artisanal beer (Zahre beer). One of the main events in Sauris is ‘Carnevale saurano‘ or ‘zahrar Voschankh‘, as they call it in their local dialect. People get dressed with old traditional wooden masks notched by local artisans: there are different kind of masks for different characters.

The peak moment of the Carnival in Sauris is the Notte delle lanterne (i.e. Lantern Night) which is usually the Saturday before the Ash Wednesday. On that night a parade headed by Rölar, a mask covered with bells, and Kheirar, the king of the Carnival, goes around the village dancing by the sound of accordion. Then the masks and the public leave the city center and follow a path in the wood carrying lanterns reaching a special place where they stop to have an hot drink and keep on celebrating.

Carnival in Timau

In Timau is celebrated ‘Vosching Timau‘, the local Carnival that reaches its peak when ‘Jutalan‘ parade dancing by the sound of accordion. Jutalan are the traditional masks dressed with skirts and white shirts, colored ribbons around their belt line and  ‘scarpetz‘, the traditional shoes, at their feet. There are also other types of masks, a little bit scary, as the ‘Maschkar‘ covered of ashes.cultural vacations in northern italy

What to pack for a trip to Italy in the winter

Most of the Italy itineraries we create for clients are for spring and fall trips and the months between May and September are the most popular to explore Italy. That said, we’ve also seen clients express an interest in traveling during the winter months for carnival and Christmas experiences, looking to avoid the high-season crowds, heat of the summer and to enjoy the quieter, cooler and less expensive winter months. When packing for a vacation to Italy in the winter, you’ll need to take into account a few important factors when making your packing list. The weather, of course, but also your itinerary. Here are some packing suggestions that work for most Italy trips to get you started:

Since winter clothing is generally much bulkier than summer clothing, you may want to invest in a few pieces made of high-tech fabrics that protect you from freezing temperatures and rain but are also very lightweight and packable. Here are a few items that should make it in your suitcase no matter where you are headed in Italy:

  • A Warm, Water-Resistant Coat: Even if you’re not headed to the mountains, you’ll need a coat that is thermal enough to keep you warm and impervious enough to withstand a short shower. Coats with a removable lining and/or removable hood are a great option for taking on seasonal swings in temperature from day to day.
  • Waterproof Shoes: Once your shoes get soaked in a winter rainstorm, it can take days to dry them out (not to mention the discomfort of spending a day touring around with wet feet). When you pack for Italy in winter, choose shoes that are water-resistant enough to stay dry inside and out on wet winter days and avoid canvas or fabric athletic shoes that will get soaked the moment you walk out the door.
  • Scarf or Shawl: In addition to being a layering essential when the wind picks up (or when the sun comes out and you start sweating under your coat), a pashmina-like wrap is ideal for chilly indoor spaces like restaurants, churches, and museums. It can also double as a blanket for long flights.
  • Hat and Gloves: Italians are generally chic accessorizers, so pack those beautiful leather gloves and that stylish wool beret or fedora and you’ll both fit in and avoid catching a head cold while on the move.
  • Umbrella: Most of Italy gets its seasonal precipitation more in the form of rain than snow, and a collapsible travel umbrella will quickly become your best friend. Don’t bring an expensive, full-sized umbrella, as they are banned in most major museums and will likely get lost or left behind within your first few days of leaving it at restaurant umbrella stands.
  • Warm sleepwear and slippers:  Energy costs are quite high in Italy (and Europe in general), so most Italian hotels, B&Bs, and other accommodations maintain lower internal temperatures than you may be used to and turn down the heat during the nighttime hours. Make sure you pack snug sleepwear (or loungewear to relax in your hotel room after a day out and about) and a pair of toasty slippers.
  • Sunblock and Sunglasses: It may be winter, but it’s still a Mediterranean country so those sunny days will call for a bit of protection. Bring a light sunscreen for your face and a pair of shades.

Planning a trip to northern Italy? Audrey helps you make your vacation truly memorable by offering cultural vacations in Friuli and custom tours.

About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, to European native parents, and raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, and how I look at the world and travel continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish and English of course). I have spent a lifetime in several countries in Western Europe, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working. I grew up with the local customs and traditions of these countries.