For people who don't mind cold weather, winter can be a great time to travel to Italy. Most of Italy has fewer tourists in winter, meaning less crowded museums and shorter or non-existent lines to get into major sights. During the winter, opera, symphony, and theater seasons are in full swing. For winter sports enthusiasts, Italy's mountains offer lots of opportunities.
There are several reasons it's worth making the trip to Italy in winter, during what is traditionally the off-season for tourism:
- It will be much less crowded at some of the popular and historic spots than it is during the summer months, particularly in major cities like Florence, Rome, and Milan.
- Other than the Christmas and New Year's holidays, you'll find bargain prices on airfares and hotels in most Italian destinations, apart from ski resorts.
- Italy has great places for winter sports and skiing, including the Piedmont venues used in the 2006 Winter Olympics, the Alps and Dolomites, and Mt. Etna in Sicily. Note that these are locations where winter hotel bargains might be scarce, other than towards the beginning and end of the ski season.
Winter weather in Italy ranges from relatively mild along the coasts of Sardinia, Sicily, and the southern mainland to very cold and snowy inland, especially in the northern mountains. Even popular tourist destinations like Venice, Florence, and the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria can get a dusting of snow in winter.
For most of Italy, the highest rainfall occurs during November and December, so winter may not be as rainy as fall. Although you'll probably encounter some rain or snow, you may also be rewarded with crisp, clear days where the only outerwear you need is a light jacket and a pair of sunglasses.
What to Pack
If you decide to visit Italy during the winter months, definitely pack layers of clothing, so that you can add or remove sweaters and jackets as the weather changes. While snow is always a possibility in most parts of Italy in winter, you're more likely to find chilly-to-cold, rainy weather. Be sure to pack a medium-weight waterproof jacket, sturdy shoes (or boots) that can be worn in rain or snow, gloves, a scarf, a warm hat, and a good umbrella.
The highlights of winter in Italy are, of course, the Christmas season, New Years, and Carnevale season. Italian national holidays during winter include Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Epiphany on January 6 (when La Befana brings gifts to the kids). On these days, most shops, tourist sites, and services will be closed, as will many restaurants. If you want to dine out, be sure to confirm with your hotel which restaurants are open on these holidays. Carnevale, the Italian Mardi Gras, is celebrated throughout Italy (starting ten days to two weeks before the actual date, which is 40 days before Easter). The most popular Carnevale celebration is in Venice, while Viareggio in Tuscany is known for its elaborate and humorous Carnevale floats.
Early winter sunsets mean more time to enjoy cities after dark. Many cities light their historic monuments at night, so strolling through a city after dark can be beautiful and romantic. From late November until early January, most cities and towns are decorated with Christmas lights, which often lend a wonderland effect to already picturesque streets and piazzas. Winter is also a good time for cultural events and performances in Italy's elegant historic theaters.
- Rome and Naples have the mildest winter climates of Italy's major cities. Naples is one of the top cities for Christmas nativities and many people visit Rome for the popular midnight mass on Christmas Eve in Vatican City.
- While you'll find smaller crowds and lower hotel prices during most of the winter, Christmas and New Year's are considered the high season in many cities, so bargains will be few and hotels will book up well in advance.
- Carnevale in Venice is also a huge tourist draw, so book early if you plan to join in the festivities.
- Many museums and attractions have earlier closing times during winter, but since the crowds are less dense, this shouldn't affect your sightseeing. Outside the cities, museums and other sites are often only open on weekends or may be closed for part of the winter.
- Hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and some restaurants may close for all or part of winter in seaside resort towns and popular summer countryside destinations. But a lot of hotels that are open will offer winter discounts (again, except in ski resorts).