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Christmas in italy

We just returned from a two week trip to Italy over the Holidays. Being in Italy over Christmas and New Year’s was a fantastic experience. If you are at all considering it, I highly recommend you do it. It could very well be the best trip you ever make.
When I was researching the trip, there were not a lot of sources of information on traveling in Italy over Christmas. Most bits of information I could find were sporadic trip reports of individual accounts on the internet. There was not a lot of coordinated information and certainly not anything like the organization in the Rick Steves books specific to the holidays. Hopefully this report can be a source of information and encouragement for anyone considering being in Italy at Christmas time. It really is a special time to be there.

It all began nine month earlier with the idea of spending Christmas in Italy. I didn't know what Christmas was like in Italy but just the idea of being in Europe and near the Vatican on Christmas seemed interesting. We have a friend whose family owns a Christmas decorations distributorship near Venice. When we visited a few years back, we were able to tour their displays and it was clear that the Italians go to great lengths to decorate and celebrate Christmas. As I researched further, I came to realize that there were a lot of activities unique to the holiday period in the different areas and towns but no single source of information that listed out all (or most) of the festivities or anything close to a how to guide. Over the next nine months, I researched as best I could to put together an itinerary that would let us experience Christmas the way Italians do in a number of different cities and towns.

While researching I had read that the town of Sorrento decorates itself quite well over the holidays. I had also come across a Christmas light display in Salerno that was supposed to be one of the best in southern Italy. These two facts along with my desire to see Paestum put the Naples area on my list. I had read about Rome and the precepe (nativity) scenes everywhere and of course Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican. I had also read about Florence and how it was a good location for New Years. With that information, I began to assemble my itinerary.

We would start in the south and end in the north, flying into Naples and out of Florence. We'd be south of Naples before Christmas, in Rome over Christmas, Siena in between and Florence for New Years.
Our trip began by flying into Naples, renting a car, and driving to Sorrento. We'd use Sorrento as a home base for the few days we were staying. We rented a car this time instead of using the Circumvesuviana because we needed the freedom of travel a car provides. We'd been to the Sorrento area before and visited Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. This time our itinerary would take us to places we hadn't been such as Ercolano, Salerno, Paestum and a small town where my great grandparents were from, San Potito Ultra.

We arrived in Naples airport around noon. Jet lagged but feeling better than expected. No matter how tired we are, we always try to stay awake until at least 8:00pm on the first day to help the body clock adjust. In this case, we rented a car and drove south stopping at Ercolano. We'd been to Pompeii a few years back and thought this would be a good follow on. It was smaller than Pompeii, better preserved and was nearly empty for our 2 hour visit in very comfortable 60 degree weather. I had read about how nice it was to visit Pompeii and Ercolano off season and I can say it is really nice. We were in Pompeii in June a few years back. It was 90 degrees and by noon, the site was quite crowded. Being in Ercolano and feeling like you have the place to yourself really gives you a different, more immersive experience. I also really dislike the flag bearing tour groups to the point it ruins the experience for me.

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As a side note, the weather for the entire trip was perfect. We had expected a good chance of rain with temperatures in the high 50's during the day and low 40's at night. The temperatures were a little warmer than expected throughout the trip (with the exception of Assisi, it was freezing) and it only rained once on Christmas Eve morning.

After our visit to Ercolano, we drove to Sorrento. For the most part, the drive is highway until the last five miles or so. In the past we had taken the Circumvesuviana from Naples. I was surprised by the last part of the drive. Once you pass Pompeii, the route veers to the right and enter a series of tunnels. You exit the tunnels in the charming town of Seiano. From there, the road twists and turns, almost like the Amalfi coast road. The last part of the drive, you pass through a few very charming towns (Piano di Sorrento and St Agnello) before reaching Sorrento. As it happened, it was a Sunday evening and all the locals were out celebrating. What should normally have taken about 20 minutes to drive took over an hour. When we finally reached Sorrento, there was a big celebration happening. Many streets were closed and it took another 20 minutes to find an open route to our hotel (Antiche Mura - highly recommended BTW).

I asked the concierge what was happening and he said it was a celebration following a marathon of some sort that happens the weekend before Christmas. I have to say, it was quite exciting. The entire town was full of people, all locals. It felt as though we were the only tourists. There was a huge Christmas tree in the town center and all the streets were adorned with lights and decorations. We had been to Sorrento during tourist season and the size of the crowds on this night were similar but the atmosphere was completely different. We walked among the crowd, watched the parade, ate pizza at Da Franco and enjoyed our first night in Italy. This was a weekend night and the concierge said that it is crowded on weekends but not weekdays. He was right. The next day was empty and most shops were closed by 9:00pm.

For anyone thinking of visiting Sorrento over Christmas, be aware that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is very popular among locals. As such the hotel availability is tight and rates are high. The days before Christmas are a different story however, with rates less than half of the week following. Another note. We stayed in Sorrento because we love Sorrento but as a base to visit Salerno and Paestum, it wasn't the perfect location. The small roads in and out and constant traffic made getting off the peninsula a little more time consuming than we anticipated. It wasn't bad and I would do it again. If your objective is to drive to Naples, Paestum, Salerno, Pompeii, Vesuvius and/or Amalfi, there may be more convenient (albeit less interesting) places to stay.

The next day we took a drive from Sorrento to my ancestor's hometown of San Potito Ultra and stopped in Salerno on the way home. I had researched that Salerno had a great Christmas light display (Luci d' Artista) and a Christmas market along the shoreline. Rick doesn't give much time to Salerno in his book so I wasn't sure what to expect. It turned out to be a great stop. There was a line of Christmas market stalls that line Lungomare Trieste along the shoreline that spans about 15 blocks. Two blocks in from the shoreline is the main drag. It is lined with shops and at this time of year, is full of decorations, a huge Christmas tree and people everywhere. At the east end of the shoreline is a very convenient parking lot. At the west end a few block in is the Villa Comunale di Salerno Park where the Luci d' Artista Christmas lights display is. Walking around the town with the Christmas decorations was magical. We toured the Christmas market stalls, walked the main drag, and had trouble but finally found the Luci d' Artista Christmas lights display then drove back to Sorrento for dinner.

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For anyone thinking of visiting Salerno during the holidays, a few tips. We arrived in Salerno around 3:00pm and this was a little early. We ended up waiting a bit for the town to come alive. It gets dark around 5:00pm and that's when all the shops, people and lights come out. If I were visiting again, I would plan to arrive at 5:00pm and spend 3 hours just walking around. Maybe have dinner. Perhaps even stay the night. The parking is very convenient. Just follow the main highway into the center of town and keep driving until you’re near the water. Look for signs for Piazza Concordia. Nearby there is a large controlled parking lot that puts you right at the start of the Christmas market.

Sorrento was much less crowded the second night and most shops closed by 9:00pm. There were a few local activities happening that we stumbled onto. The church on the main drag was building their outdoor nativity scene and celebrating with some food and wine. We stopped in and joined them for a few minutes. It was these types of experiences we had on this trip, being in Italy off season, that you just can't get over the summer. We had a fun late night dinner in a small local restaurant where the owner was also the waiter, chef and dish washer. The food was good but his personality really made the night.

The next day we left Sorrento headed for Paestum. In retrospect it would have been nice to spend another day in Sorrento but we had a limited amount of time and Paestum was a stop I didn't want to miss. On the way, we stopped at one of the many Bufalo Mozzarella farms. Rick gives brief mention to these but I would say if you have time, definitely schedule a trip. We stopped at Tenuta Vannulo, the one where they supposedly massage the cows and have them sleep on mattresses. I say supposedly because when we arrived, I found out that we needed to make an appointment to tour the farm and that the tours end at 11:00am. We were still able to walk around. If you are visiting Paestum and can wake up early enough, I would try the tour. Google the name for information.

We arrived at Paestum around noon and went immediately to the museum. Like Rick say's it's worth an hour. The highlight is the Tomb of the Diver. Unfortunately, the cover (there are four sides and a cover) was in Milan. They had a life size photo in its place. We then proceeded to walk the site. Like Ercolano, it felt like we were the only ones there. Having just been to Greece, I can say in comparison the ruins are far better preserved. If you have been to Olympia, it is a similar experience except the ruins are in better shape but the Olympia museum is more informative. I can't stress enough how much better the experience is walking an uncrowded site in 60 degree weather. We had lunch outside (bufalo mozzarella of course) at a small cafe just outside the entrance. We relaxed, people watched the locals and then headed for our train in Naples.

A tip for anyone visiting Paestum. We followed the GPS in the car and ended up on the south side of the main strip where the entrance and museum are located. The road is closed to traffic. We had to drive around the site to the west. The drive hugs the outer walls of Paestum and gives you an idea of just how big the site is. Only 20% has been excavated.

We caught the Frecciarossa to Rome, arriving around 8:30pm. We stayed in an apartment a block off the Piazza Navona which was a perfect location. We took an Uber from the station (and all around Rome for that matter) and the drive to the apartment was full of sights and sounds of Christmas. We had dinner and a fantastic little restaurant a few blocks away that I had made a reservation at (Al Duello). I can't recommend this place enough. Excellent food, very reasonable prices. Possibly the best meal I had in Italy.

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We woke up the next morning and took in Rome. I had booked the Vatican scavi tour (the tour under the Vatican where you see the bones of St Peter) for 3:30pm and I also needed to pick up tickets for Christmas Eve mass. Rome was alive but not crowded and like Sorrento, reasonably empty of tourists.

A note about the Scavi tour. This is the tour run by the Excavations Office of the Vatican Visits that visits the Tomb of Saint Peter and the Necropolis under the Vatican Basilica. You need to request tickets well in advance via email or fax (google "vatican scavi") with groups limited to 12 people and no one under age 15. I saw a lot of discussion on the internet regarding the age requirement. Some people insisted that everyone must be 15 and if they look young they will be asked for ID. Others said they had kids as young as 12 attend and no one asked. My experience was if your child looks (and acts) young, you will be asked for ID. We were not asked for ID for our kids. As for the entrance, this is where we almost got tripped up. The directions say to go to the gate on the left side of the Vatican. I incorrectly assumed that this was the gate just to the left of St Peters that you pass when you exit St Peters Cathedral that usually has a few Swiss Guards standing guard. We ended up waiting (30 minutes) in the general security line to the right that everyone passes through to enter St Peters and almost missed our entrance time for the tour. The tour entrance is the opposite side of the square from the public entrance to St Peters and has its own security check with no line. We ended up running back out and over to the Scavi entrance and entered just in time.

The tour was excellent and well worth it. It's not nearly a confined and claustrophobic as the warning suggest. We had an excellent English speaking tour guide from Long Island, NY give the tour. At the end, you get to see St Peter's bones. Our tour guide let us out in the grotto under the alter. The archaeological information was fascinating and gave great insight into the early days of Christianity. If you can get tickets, I would highly recommend it.

We exited the tour, enjoyed St Peters, I walked back toward the main entrance (against the people entering on the right side of the Vatican square) to pick up my tickets to Christmas Eve mass. The tickets are distributed by the Swiss Guards at the Bronze Doors just after you pass security to enter the St Peters. I had requested tickets (by fax) about 9 months before on the chance we might go to Rome. I'm glad I did as the tickets go quick and it was a truly phenomenal experience. To request tickets, google "vatican christmas mass tickets". The tickets are free. I faxed in my request in March and a few weeks later I received what looks like a hand typed letter notifying me I had five tickets reserved for me and with instructions on how to pick them up. The letter alone is quite the keepsake. We spent the rest of the day enjoying Rome.

The next morning was Christmas Eve. This is where the trip planning started to get a little tricky. The off season hours of operation for various sites are pretty well documented but when it comes to the holidays, you have to check the opening and closing time carefully. Also especially important for Christmas Eve and Christmas day are restaurant reservations.

We started the day with a visit to the Capitoline Museums and Trajan's Market. I had made a lunch reservation at a local place not far away (il Clementini). We made a quick visit to Santa Maria in Laterna and headed back to the apartment to get ready for midnight mass (which is actually at 9:30pm).

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The suggestions I had gotten about the Christmas Eve service was that unless you are willing to show up at least six hours early, don't expect to get a seat close enough to see the Pope during the service. We decided the best strategy was to forgo the view during service in favor of getting a better seat near the aisle to see the Pope process and recess. The other piece of advice I got was to stay near the Vatican as after the service, taxis are few and far between.

When the time came, my son and I left our apartment at 6:00pm for the Vatican. We arrived at St Peter's security at 6:15pm and the line wasn't too long. People had already started arriving in the square to watch the service on the large monitors. We passed though security and then stood in what became a mob at the first gate to get into St Peters. From my best guess about 1000 people had already been let through to the second gate and were waiting to be let into the Basilica. As we waited the mob grew deeper and deeper behind us. After an hour, The Vatican security started to motion that they were about to let people though the first gate. At that point the crowd really started to push. People were reaching and grabbing their partners. It was like getting crushed at a rock concert. The guards were yelling "no spingere" (don't push) but it had no effect. I grabbed my 13 year old son and held on. It was a wild ride for about 10 minutes. Finally we made it through and got to the second gate where things were a little more civilized. We finally sat down around 7:30pm about five seats from the Aisle about 2/3 of the way back. I then called my wife and two other kids to come meet us. We were able to hold seats for them until they arrived.

People continued to arrive for the next hour or so until all the seats were filed. It was standing room only. People without a seat had to stand outside the main aisle. My wife showed up around 8:30pm and said the security line was still long. By that time I had to use the bathroom. Luckily the guards let you leave to use the bathroom (men's had no line, women’s was easily 100 people deep) and return provide I had my ticket.

At about 9:00pm, all the lights were turned on inside the Basilica. I'm guessing this was to configure the lighting for the TV coverage. The benefit is a view inside the Basilica unlike any I have ever seen. It was so bright and so clear. The place absolutely came alive. The mass started at 9:30pm. We saw (and recorded) the Pope walk up and down the aisle. Mass lasted about 90 minutes. At the end, the Pope walks down the aisle with the baby Jesus and places him in the nativity scene. The nativity is at the entrance on the left as you face the altar. Some people in the standing room area knew this was going to happen and started heading over there before the service ended. A tip for anyone who ends up standing.

By the time we got out of the Vatican it was 11:30pm. I didn't make dinner reservations as most restaurants close by 11:00pm and I wasn't sure what time we'd get out. We had purchase food at the local grocery store earlier. As it happended, there was a restaurant about a block from our apartment (Osteria dell' Anima) that was still open that invited us in as we walked past. We had a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner and went to bed that night having experienced something we'll remember forever.

A few tips for anyone thinking of going to Christmas Eve service. You need to request ticket far in advance. The tickets are free so if you are at all considering going, just fax in the request so you don't regret it later. If you really want to good seat for the service, you need to get there 5-6 hours before. Dress warm as St Peters is cold during the service. Be ready for a mad scramble for seats but once the service starts, it’s pretty civilized.

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On Christmas Day we woke up, exchanged a few small presents and headed out for lunch and then to Piazza Popolo by way of Trevi Fountain. At the Piazza was the 100 Precepe exhibit. Everywhere we went there were nativity scenes. This was a special exhibit that was open on Christmas Day featuring 100 of them. There were nativity scenes made of macaroni, paper, wood blocks, some very elaborate. It was a good diversion on a day where most things were closed.

I was led to believe that almost everything would be closed Christmas morning in Rome but that was not the case. As we walked across town, there were many cafes and other shops open. By the afternoon, everyone was out walking and everything was open. I had made lunch reservations which was very smart as everyone who didn't was scrambling to find a restaurant. We did an afternoon tour of the Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere and took a rest. That night we had dinner with friends who flew in at a restaurant near the Trevi Fountain, tossing a few coins on the way hoping to return again someday. Again, reservations were a must as all the restaurants were full.

The next morning I woke up and rented a car at Roma Termini and drive back to the apartment to pick up the family for our trip to Orvieto then Siena. A word of advice, don't rent a car and drive back into the city. A lot of people suggest (rightly) to train to Orvieto and rent the car there. I would have but all the rental car agencies in Orvieto were closed that day. What could have been a nightmare turned out to be OK. It was early Saturday morning and there wasn't much traffic. What I didn't count on was our apartment being inside the ZTL. Luckily the ZTL was not in effect on Saturday morning so I was able to drive right in. I hadn't thought about the ZTL when I booked the car. Lesson learned, don't rent a car and then try to drive in the city.

We drove to Siena stopping in Orvieto and Civita di Bagnoregio. As with other locations, it was clear of tourists and felt very genuine. We happened upon a special treat at Civita di Bagnoregio. There was some local festival going on the weekend after Christmas and New Year’s. The Streets were filled with a market of local crafts and the town was filled with local people. It was exactly the experience you want when traveling. For anyone visiting Civita di Bagnoregio next year, check the calendar and try to visit on the Christmas Weekends if they host the market again. It was a wonderful experience. Orvieto was the same atmosphere. Local and authentic.

We used Siena as a base for the next few days. It had a few more tourists but was still uncrowded and welcoming. We had little trouble getting dinner reservations (except for the best restaurants). The square was not crowded during the day. We were able to climb the tower with no wait. The town was decorated like the others with lights across the main streets.
The next day we drove to Assisi. It was very cold and in the clouds the entire time. It was a good history lesson for the kids who really liked the coffee mugs of the "fat" St Francis. They were a little disappointed to find out he didn't really look like that. Regardless, it was well worth the hour or so drive but the cold took its toll on everyone.

Our next stop was Florence by way of San Gimignano and Volterra. I understand why Rick is so down on San Gimignano. It's the Napa Valley of hill towns. Still a good stop and Volterra was a reminder of what we like about the hill towns. Then we arrived in Florence.

I've always had a love/hate relationship with Florence. While the art and architecture is amazing, the tourist crowds, the crass souvenir shops and groups of wannabe teenage girls walking around everywhere almost ruin the experience for me. Almost. This visit was no exception. Unlike all the other cities and towns we visited, Florence was crowded. Crowded with tourists.

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We spent the next few days taking a cooking class, seeing sights we missed the last time we visited and buying keepsakes. We had a great New Year’s Eve dinner at Buca Mario (the Peter Lugar of Florentine steak) and got to bed reasonably early as we flew home the next morning. On our way out, we passed by Pizza della Signoria. It looked like a warzone. Bottles, trash, debris everywhere. It must have been quite a party that night!

Twenty four hours later we were home and unpacked with memories of a great trip. For anyone contemplating visiting Italy over the holidays I would say do not hesitate. It very well may be the best trip of your life.

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I loved your very detailed report. I haven't been to southern Italy yet, and you included some great tips. I like this report even better now that you've consolidated it into one thread - thanks for making the effort, it's much more readable now.

Now that the kids are mostly out of the house, I'm looking forward to travelling off-season. Can't do Christmas yet, as my parents claim they're too old to travel to Europe again, so we'll spend that time with them as long as we can.

Thanks again for this detailed and well-written report.

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Thank you for your insights on holiday travel. I've been wanting to plan a trip during Christmas break and was considering Vienna etc, however based on your descriptions I think Italy would be perfect! I have two children (8 and 11) and I think this would be perfect for them. I like that there aren't too many tourists in Rome during that time as well.

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Aloha Joe Aloha, I enjoyed your report about your family visit to Italy over the holidays! You've included a lot more information and impressions than I've seen here before, on that subject. I especially appreciated your detailed description of your family's participation at the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter's Basilica. I watched that beautiful service on TV in the US, really lovely with speaking, reading and music by people of all ages, both men and women, from all over the world, plus of course Pope Francis. I think I saw your family there in the congregation! You were the ones all in matching Aloha shirts, correct? (:->)))

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Thank you, Aloha Joe, for posting your wonderfully concise and well-written trip report. It sounds as if it was an amazing time for all your family! I am taking notes as one of my travel dreams is to spend Christmas in Rome. How nice you had (mostly) good weather.