The Best Italian Festivals & Events in 2017
April 30, 2020
No matter what time of year you visit Italy, there’s always plenty to do! And while there are a ton of monuments, museums, and towns to see, participating in local Italian festivals is the single best way to truly experience authentic culture in Italy.
The great (and somewhat unique) thing about Italy is that there is almost always some sort of national or local event coinciding with your visit. With just a little planning, you can make sure that you are in situ to take advantage of the festivities. In order to help we’ve compiled a little cheat sheet of our favorite festivals in Italy, including public holidays in Italy. The only thing to remember is that festivals often mean that other establishments – stores, car rental places, etc. – are closed while restaurants and hotels are booked up. This is especially true of smaller towns. So if you are, say, visiting Tuscany during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, reserve early to make sure you can enjoy the Christmas markets and decorations that the hill towns have to offer.
January 1: Capodanno
Capodanno is what Italians call New Year’s Day. Ring in the New Year on December 31st in pubs, restaurants and even piazzas throughout Italy, where you’ll undoubtedly see fireworks. Although most stores and restaurants are closed on January 1, keep an eye out for special city events. In Venice, for example, there’s a traditional swim in the lagoon. Although we usually don’t recommend swimming in Venice, this is one fabulous exception, if you can stand the freezing water.
January 6: Epiphany
In Catholic tradition, the Epiphany is when the three wise men finally reached the baby Jesus to worship him and give him their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Today, it’s also an important Italian festival for children because of the arrival of La Befana, a friendly, if somewhat ugly, old lady who arrives on a broomstick and fills children’s shoes or stockings with candy. Most stores and markets will be closed on this day.
Though Venice’s world-famous carnival festival receives the most attention, it’s not the only carnival celebration in Italy. (Check out the best places to celebrate Carnival in Italy for a complete list.)
From February 11 – 28 you can celebrate Carnevale in Venice. Most of the major festivities for this quintessential Italian festival come alive on the weekends, especially the final weekend of the celebration. Farther south, Viareggio has wonderful Carnevale celebrations each Sunday during February with massive man-made floats. Themes range from nice scenes to satirical comments on politicians, but each is enormous and well worth seeing. Finally, on February 28th you can go to celebrate Carnevale in Ivrea, a small town in Piedmont whose carnival celebrations conclude with a massive food fight with – brace yourself – oranges. If you think oranges sound a little violent, keep in mind that the fight commemorates a medieval battle between the townsfolk and the nobility which resulted in the torching of the local castle. Today it’s just a messy, and very unique good time.
April 3: Ravello Concerts
Ravello is a popular destination for travelers year-round but it fills up even more during select dates in the spring and autumn for the annual Ravello Arts Concerts. Far from the throngs of summer tourists, this is a time when music lovers fill the gardens and banquet halls of the historic Villa Rufolo for concerts. Although it began as a chamber music festival, the event has expanded to include jazz. Today it boasts more than 1,750 concerts during the two concert seasons, meaning there is something to suit the taste of almost anyone.
April 6: Procession of Mysteries, Sicily
It’s common to find processions and pilgrimages filling streets across Sicily during the Easter Holy Week, but perhaps the most famous of all is the Procession of Mysteries in Trapani, Sicily. Held in Trapani since 1400, it’s one of the oldest Italian festivals and, at a staggering 24 hours, it’s also the longest. The mysteries are representations of the passion and death of Christ. They’re paraded through the city along with lights, sounds, and surprisingly emotional crowds. The procession begins at Anime Sante del Purgatorio Church at 2 p.m. on Good Friday and ends with a return to the church at 2 p.m. on Black Saturday. A cultural as well as religious event, this is quite a sight to see.
April 9 –12: Vinitaly, Verona
VinItaly is the largest wine exhibition in the world, and it’s held in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city of Verona. For four days visitors can study, taste, buy and share wine in a gathering that also celebrates food, art, and music. For wine aficionados and amateurs alike, this celebration of Italian wine is a can’t miss.
April 16: Easter Sunday and the Scoppio del Carro fireworks, Florence
Easter Sunday is celebrated with various parades and events throughout all of Italy, but one of the most memorable is surely the Scoppio del Carro in Florence. Literally, the “explosion of the cart”, it’s a folk tradition of Florence from the era of the First Crusade, when supposedly, a Florentine was the first man through the breach in the sacking of Jerusalem. When the hero returned, he used stone fragments from the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem to start a Sacred Fire that he then paraded through the city in a beautiful chariot. Today this Italian festival reenacts the scene in its entirety. On Easter Sunday a large wagon filled with fireworks departs from Porta al Prato, hauled by a team of white oxen with soldiers, musicians, and others following in 15th-century costumes. A fire is started from the historic stone and then used to light a string that leads to the cart outside, at the same moment Giotto’s belltower bells ring out. The entire firework show usually lasts about 20 minutes and is said to bring good luck!
Read on: Easter in Italy, 5 Things You Need to Know
April 17: Pasquetta
The day after Easter – aka Pasquetta or “Little Easter” in Italian – is a national holiday, great for Italians who have the day off work! This is a classic day to meet up with friends post-Easter and head outside to enjoy the new spring weather. Most sites and museums will be open, but we suggest preparing a picnic and joining the rest of Italy in whatever park is nearest to you.
April 21: Rome’s Birthday Celebration
Rome celebrates its birthday in typical Roman fashion, with a party that lasts for days. To commemorate the legendary founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 BC there are traditional events such as the tracciato del solco, or trench-digging ritual, re-enactments of the Palilia ceremony honoring the agricultural goddess, mock gladiator battles and other nods to the Eternal City’s almost-eternal history. The celebration culminates in a costumed parade beginning and ending at the Circus Maximus. There’s no better way than this lighthearted Italian festival to truly partake in the city’s rich history. This year it celebrates its 2,770th birthday!
April 25: Italian Liberation Day (some closures), also St. Mark’s Day, Venice
April 25 is the Festa della Liberazione, celebrating the end of WWII in Italy, meaning the end of the Fascist regime (and with it Italian civil war) and Nazi occupation of Italy. You’ll see this date on many street signs throughout Italy, and today it stands as a national public holiday, meaning most stores will be closed.
It also happens to be the feast day of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. Venetians celebrate their beloved saint with a gondolier regatta (boat race) and a huge party in Saint Mark’s Square. The feast day also coincides with an ancient tradition called the Festa del Bocolo, or “blooming rose festa”, when men present the women in their lives with a red rosebud (bocolo). Whatever you’re there to do, expect crowds in Venice and bring a rose for your significant other.
May 1: Labor Day (closures)
Another national holiday, May 1st marks Italy’s national Labor Day. On this day, even more than the other secular national holidays, expect major museums to be closed and limited choices for public transportation. Italians are off work en masse and the weather is usually nice, meaning it’s a busy weekend for popular destinations throughout the country.
May 12: La Cavalcata Sarda, Sardinia
After nearly a month of various cultural events, Sardinia holds one of its biggest events in Sassari with the Cavalcata Sarda, or Sardinian Horse Race. Participants dressed in traditional costumes parade through town on horseback, before meeting on a race track at the edge of town for horse races and stunts. Today the two-day event is proof of the Sardinian’s pride in their history, culture, and island.
May 13–November 26: Venice Biennale
The Venice Biennale is an international art exhibition held in Venice every other summer. Art and music exhibitions are held in various locations throughout the city, in the main Biennale Garden pavilions and, most notably, in many of the astounding private buildings and villas in Venice. If you have visited the city before and want to peek inside all those beautiful mansions, this is probably the best way without knowing someone who owns one of said mansions. The 2017 artists haven’t been announced yet, but the festival itself allows you to enjoy world-renowned art while exploring enchanting Venice – we can’t recommend it enough.
May 15: Festa dei Ceri in Gubbio
One of the oldest Italian folklore events, the Festa dei Ceri in Gubbio is an annual race devoted to St. Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio starting from the year of his death in 1160. On the 15th of May every year, the people of Gubbio take part in a mystical, if somewhat outlandish, procession, where they carry enormous wooden “candles” from the town center all the way up Mount Ingino to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo. Each candle is crowned with a statue of a saint and the entire structure weighs around 700 lbs. It’s not a fast race, but it’s certainly a unique one, perfect for the Atlas Obscura crowd.
June 2: Anniversary of the Republic
The Festa della Repubblica celebrates the foundation of the Italian Republic. Depending on where you are, you may find parades, festivals or even concerts, but most major sites and museums remain open.
June – August: International Festival of Arts in Taormina, Sicily
Also known as Taormina Arte, the town’s reputable cultural festival runs through the entire summer and hosts concerts, exhibitions, and the Taormina Film Fest, bringing the best of film into a week of premieres and photo shoots akin to the film festival at Cannes. Head to Taormina in the summer and you’ll have your pick of plays, music, dances, cinemas and other events to choose from – including the opera!
June – September: Taormina Opera Festival
Coinciding with their art festival, Taormina’s Summer Opera Festival starts in June and runs through September, with performances of classics like Carmen and Don Giovanni at very decent prices. The shows are performed at the town’s Teatro Antico, a huge open-air Greek theater with views across to Mount Etna as well as Teatro Greco in Syracuse, farther down the coast. You can buy your tickets online (although the site is in Italian) or at the box office at Palazzo dei Congressi.
June 4: Vogalonga Regatta, Venice
The first Vogalonga Regatta took place in 1974, which is young for an Italian festival, but it brought out more than 500 boats and 1,500 rowers. The enormous gondola race was created to protest the use of motor traffic in Venice’s canals and renew a sense of pride in Venetian handicrafts and traditions. Today, approximately 1,550 boats with about 5,800 rowers participate every year for the 30-kilometer race through some of the most pleasant parts of the town’s canals and lagoons.
June 16 – 17: Festival of St. Ranieri, Pisa
A more ancient Italian festival, the Festa dei Ranieri, in Pisa, ends with a spectacular boat race on the Arno River on June 17th (the city’s feast day). Celebrations start the day before that, however, with a Luminara parade. Each of the churches and buildings lining the Arno, including the cathedral housing the saint’s remains, are lit up with over 70,000 lights and candles. The lights are amplified by their reflections in the water, making for a spectacular sight. The celebration also features fireworks, creating a magnificent spectacle.
June 23 – August 17: Verona Arena Summer Opera Season
Each summer marks the start of Verona’s incredible summer opera season. With affordable tickets and incredible operas, this is not only the perfect place to dip your toe into the opera world, it all happens in one of the world’s most jaw-dropping concert venues. The operas are held in the Verona Arena, an open-air Colosseum look-alike that’s more than 2,000 years old. Though it’s been used for countless purposes over the years, it regained a new life in 1913 when it began to host operas.
Verona is not the only city in Italy with a musical festival. Besides Taormina, you can also head to Lucca, in northwestern Tuscany, to hear some of the best pop and rock of the year. Past performers include John Legend, Bob Dylan, and Sting.
July 7–16: Umbria Jazz, Perugia
Each July, Perugia hosts a 10-day Jazz Festival. Hordes of music lovers fill the town’s beautiful piazzas, gardens, and wine bars to experience one of the world’s best-known jazz festivals (events are scattered throughout the city). A university town, Perugia hosts a fair number of international Italian festival events, such as the scrumptious Eurochocolate and the International Journalism Festival, but there are few things more relaxing than a spectacular jazz concert in an equally spectacular setting.
August 15: Ferragosto
The Feast of the Assumption is the day on the Catholic calendar when the Virgin Mary rose into heaven. This Italian festival is now popularly called Ferragosto and it marks the start of the country’s vacation period. From this date until the beginning of September you’ll find many signs on restaurants and shops in the big cities declaring chiuso per ferie, or closed for vacation. Italians typically celebrate Ferragosto by retreating to the coast or countryside with friends and family. Watch out, you might get caught up in the traffic of Italians or the crowds along the coast.
August 16: Palio dell’Assunta, Siena
This ancient horse race is held twice each year, on July 2 and August 16, but the 16th tends to be the more famous as it’s so near to a national holiday. It’s even been renamed the Palio dell’Assunta, in honor of the Assumption of Mary the day before. This medieval tradition pits the Siena’s different neighborhoods, or contrade, against each other in a hair-raising bareback horse race around the central Piazza del Campo, which is covered in dirt for the event. The winning jockey claims bragging rights for his contrada for the entire year.
September: Regata Storica Venice
Practiced for thousands of years, Venice’s Historical Regata is a huge event that includes a water pageant featuring costumes and boats from the 16th-century carrying the Doge, his family, and all the officers up the Grand Canal. After the event, four different races are held based on age and boat type, but everyone’s favorite is the “Campioni su Gondolini” race, with small, fast gondolas flying down the Grand Canal to victory.
October – November: Harvest Sagre
October and November are the prime months for some of the most beloved festivals in Italy – the delicious sagre, or food festivals. Typically based around a single, seasonal ingredient, these festivals celebrate a bountiful harvest and the changing of the season. Some of the most famous are the truffle festivals in Piedmont and Umbria, chestnut sagre in Tuscany, and olive sagre in Puglia.
October 13 – 22: Eurochocolate in Perugia.
Eurochocolate is the International Chocolate Exhibition of Europe. One of the largest chocolate festivals in all of Europe, visitors can discover different chocolate flavors and cultures from throughout the world, participate in cooking classes, performances, chocolate-sculpting displays, and of course, buy and eat all the chocolate they’d like!
November: 1 All Saint’s Day
Italians have not traditionally celebrated Halloween (though many do now), but they do celebrate All Saint’s Day. A catholic holiday, the day is celebrated with a mass to honor those who have passed before us. It’s also a day off work so expect some closures.
December 8: Immaculate Conception
A traditionally Catholic holiday celebrating the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception of Jesus, Italians use this date to mark the official start of the winter holiday season. This is the weekend when trees, lights, and decorations go up around Italy and Christmas markets spring up in cities and towns. Typically a long weekend throughout Italy, it’s a great time to soak in the Christmas atmosphere but beware of restaurants and hotels booking up.
December 25 – 26: Christmas Day and Santo Stefano
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day you can participate in a midnight mass in any town in Italy and enjoy the many different nativity scenes set up in seemingly every spare corner. In some places where the locals take specific pride in their nativity scenes, like Assisi, some of them may even feature real people and animals! On Christmas Day most things are closed, so if you want to eat out choose a restaurant beforehand and make reservations. (more info on this topic on our blog on How to Have a Christmas Meal in Italy.) The day after Christmas is known as St. Stephen’s Day, and it’s also a public holiday in Italy, with banks, museums and shops often staying closed, so plan accordingly.
Read more about Italy’s Christmas Traditions, including how to celebrate, where to celebrate and what will be opened or closed for the entire Christmas season (December 8 – January 6).
by Gina MussioView more by Gina ›
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