With the Feast of the Immaculate Conception only days away, the Christmas season in Italy is set to begin. Throughout the twenty regions of the country, normally, Mercato Natale wait until December 8th to begin to sell their wares, but with the official start of the holiday season beginning on Sunday, many markets have chosen December 7th to open.
We have selected one market from each region to spotlight, but it is very difficult to limit the list. Many of Italy’s most established Christmas markets are in the Trentino Alto Adige region, but throughout the country, there are markets that have their own special character.
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, Turin 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 at the popular Christmas market.
The northern region of Trentino – Alto Adige hosts three of Italy’s finest Christmas markets with the city of Bolzano having the largest and oldest in the region. In the shadow of the snow-covered Dolomites, the medieval city center hosts 80 stalls selling locally-made wares and traditional treats around a presepio set in a real wooden stable. 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 theatre and merry-go-round.
In Merano, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the northern Italian city. 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.
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.
Tiny 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. For 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 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.
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 has a carousel and a life-size nativity scene taking 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 so-called “Christmas Alley” west of the central train station. Among the usual characters, look out for astonishingly intricate butchers, bakers, fishermen and other figures that have made their way into 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 biggest 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 one, 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 none 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.