With the Feast of the Immaculate Conception only days away, the Christmas season in Italy opens December 8. Throughout the twenty regions of the country, normally, Mercato Natale wait until then begins to sell their wares, but with the pent up demand of travelers, many markets have already opened already!
During the Christmas season, Italy’s markets burst with food and gifts. Many of the most established Mercato Natale are in the northern regions such as Trentino Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta, but throughout the country you will find markets that each have their own special character and charm.
Aosta Valley in northwest Italy, hosts one of the most picturesque markets, the Marché Vert Noël. Over 50 chalets offer sweets and pastries from the region, as well as ideas for unique gifts. The Aosta Christmas Market is also famous for handmade candles and soap, Christmas decorations, ceramics and antique furniture. There are also vendors selling felt and wool clothing along with lace, which the region is famous for. The market takes place at the archaeological site of the Roman Theatre.
The town of Bolzano in Trentino-Alto Adige in South Tyrol, hosts one of the most famous Christmas markets in the country. With the picturesque snow-capped Dolomites surrounding the medieval town, it’s hard to imagine a better Christmas destination. The Bolzano Christmas Market is brightly decorated with traditional garlands and lights. The scents of pine, roasted chestnuts and spices fill the streets. It offers handmade wood and glass gifts, ceramics and seasonal treats. The rustic romance is enough to charm visitors of all ages, but children are especially impressed by the Children’s Market, complete with a miniature train, puppet theater and merry-go-round.
A few miles to the north in Merano, Saint Nicholas is their patron saint. Wearing his traditional bishop’s mitre instead of a red cap, every December he parades through the streets handing out gifts to children who have been good – but watch out for the Krampus, the masked demons who run after him, punishing those who have been naughty! Aside from the parade, visitors can ice skate or listen to live music in Merano’s central square as they shop for gifts in the market’s heated stalls.
The medieval town of Vipiteno, also in the northern region, has a living Advent Calendar in Piazza Città. Each day, a different window located somewhere in the city-center opens, to reveal an Advent surprise and treats for the little ones. There is also a traditional Saint Nicholas parade, brass bands, decoration-making workshops, carriage rides and cooking classes to enjoy, all watched over by Vipiteno’s handsome medieval clock tower.
The town of Trento is home to a magical Christmas Market with a cozy and festive atmosphere, unique gifts and traditional foods. This year, more than 100 wooden chalets cover two medieval squares of the city, Piazza Fiera and Piazza Cesare Battisti. Local craftsmanship is already showing its best products and gastronomy, with delicious local specialties such as treccia mochèna pastry, polenta brustolada, canederli and parampampoli.
A particularly good market for children is in Arco, a town surrounded on one side by sheer limestone cliffs jutting up like a wall protecting it. The lush 19th century gardens of Lake Garda turn into an enchanted place where tiny wooden huts are laden with stars, toys, dolls, books, chocolates and sweets. A special Christmas train takes families around the old town and children meet Santa and his reindeer. Even Arco’s walls become part of the festive atmosphere, as an Advent Calendar is projected on the façades of its ancient palazzos.
Pordenone in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region features a large Christmas market with concerts, shows and games during the whole season. Check out the life-size Nativity scene with hand-carved wooden statues and other attractions on Piazza XX Settembre and Corso Garibaldi.
One of the most spectacular events is open for only three short days in Santa Maria Maggiore in the Piedmont. One of the largest Christmas markets in Italy, it boasts upwards to 200 stalls selling crafts and homemade food specialties.
The capital of the region, Torino, has a reputation for some of Italy’s most cutting-edge Christmas displays. Local and international artists light the city with colorful installations, some simple, some surprising, but all of them impressive. Once you have finished admiring the lighting display, make your way to this covered courtyard in the Borgo Dora neighborhood to pick up handcrafted ceramics, glassware or embroidery made by local and international artisans.
Milan in Lombardia has numerous beautiful markets, with the setting of the Mercato Natale in Piazza Duomo as the most impressive. In the city’s Piazza Castello is a market known locally as “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (how beautiful). It dates back to the 16th century, when a Papal envoy came to Milan bearing gifts for all the city’s children, who couldn’t help but cry “oh bej!” at the sight.
Città dei Balocchi, the City of Toys, in Como has just opened up and for the next month, the city transforms into a fabulous nativity town entertaining both children and adults. Attractions include the Como Magic Light Festival, Christmas Market in Cavour Square and Plinio Street, Santa Claus’ Post Office and an the ice-skating rink. The grandest festivities traditionally begin on Christmas Eve with the arrival of Santa Claus in Piazza del Duomo. The last celebration takes place on Epiphany Day when La Befana descends from a rooftop.
The small village of Sant’Agata Feltria in the Le Marche region is straight out of a fairy tale any time of the year. But in December, the town becomes very special because it turns into a miniature Christmas village. Piazza del Mercato becomes home to Santa, his reindeer and his elves, drawing children from all over who flock to Sant’ Agata to hand Santa a list of Christmas wishes. For the adults, there are stalls crammed with trinkets, mistletoe wreaths and statuettes. The scent of candles and the music of the zampognari fill the air with their bagpipes.
The tiny town of Candelara, near Pesaro in the region of Le Marche, hosts what might just be Italy’s most unique Christmas market. Each December, the castle town celebrates the craft that gave it its name, candle making. Part of each evening, all electric street lights are switched off, leaving Candelara’s medieval walls, Christmas market and living nativity scene bathed in the glow of a thousand flickering flames.
There are larger Christmas markets in Italy, but few can boast a better backdrop than Florence’s gorgeous Duomo. Located in Piazza di Santa Croce, its 50 or so wooden huts house a mixture of exhibitors from all over Europe, but infused with a Tuscan sophistication that would make the Medici proud.
In the Veneto region, Venice’s Christmas markets rank as the best place to shop for handmade glass ornaments. Made on the city’s Island of Murano, these keepsake ornaments are prized possessions, passed down from generation to generation. Verona has a tradition of romance and most visitors fall in love with its dreamy Christmas market, located in Piazza Bra. Illuminated with thousands of lights and a giant Christmas star, it is truly a setting for a fairy-tale experience.
The Bussolengo Christmas Village in the province of Verona is known as Il Villaggio Di Natale Flover and is not to be missed. This tradition began in 1996 and now covers an indoor area of more than 75,000 square feet. The impressive village has lavish Christmas decorations, hand-crafted goods and seasonal foods. The most awaited of all events is the dinner with Santa Claus, held every Thursday and Friday until the week before Christmas.
At Christmas, Rome is a magical place to visit. Brimming with a wonderful festive atmosphere, the Eternal City’s iconic sights are beautifully illuminated for the season. In the city’s Christmas markets, a stroll through these festive bazaars is the perfect activity for any Christmas trip to Rome. In Piazza Navona, stalls are laden with sweet Christmas treats, decorations and gifts. The beautifully lit market also features a carousel and a life-size nativity scene which take center stage. Parco della Musica, Rome’s public music complex, is a treat for the senses, with huge ice rinks, beautiful artisan stalls and a musical program featuring orchestra and choir renditions.
For a more Mediterranean tradition, head south to Naples, where artisans are famous for their handmade nativity figurines, which you can find on sale in the workshops that line Via San Gregorio Armeno, also known “Christmas Alley.” Among the traditional Holy Family, shepherds, angels and wise men, you will find astonishingly intricate butchers, bakers, fishermen and other figures that have made their way into the Neapolitan Christmas tradition, not to mention film stars and politicians that craftsmen often create to add a bit of humor to the presepio.
Palermo, the largest city in Sicily, hosts many Christmas markets. Some of them are dedicated to food, others are devoted to hand-crafted and artisanal gifts, but all have activities for the little ones, with entertainment and usually a visit by Babbo Natale.
If you are in Catania, the Christmas markets often feature concerts, entertainment and even art exhibitions, but no market in Sicily is as large as Siracusa’s Natale in Fiera, which has over 300 vendors. The Christmas fair is so large that it takes over the city’s entire exhibition center. As impressive as the market is, a walk through the city under its twinkling lights is a marvelous way to welcome the joyous season.
After visiting so many markets in so many regions, it is clear that there is no place like Italy to get into the Christmas spirit.