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.