Florence is filled with beautiful churches.

Travelers arriving in the Renaissance city are right away greeted by the massive, red-tiled cupola of the Duomo. Visible from most parts of Florence, the Duomo is a clear and striking icon of the city. Travelers could spend hours exploring this Florentine gem, whether climbing to the top of the Dome to enjoy panoramic views  over Firenze or studying the intricate details of the Baptistry doors.

However, there are myriad breathtaking churches throughout Florence, some of which visitors often overlook. We understand. Florence is so rich in art, history, and culture it can be difficult to know where to start. So let us help!

The Most Beautiful Churches in Florence: Centro Storico

A little background knowledge can go a long way when planning a trip to Florence. Here’s the rundown on the churches in the historical city center of Florence.

Santa Maria del Fiore

Also known as The Duomo of Florence, this is the city’s most iconic landmark.

Beautiful churches in Florence: The Duomo

Florence began construction on its magnificent cathedral in the 13th century but it wasn’t until nearly a century later that work on its massive dome began. Designed by Renaissance founding father Filippo Brunelleschi, it is one of the most significant architectural achievements of the period and a lasting symbol of the city. Brunelleschi wasn’t the only famous artist to leave his mark on the church. Ghiberti completed the ornate bronze doors on the baptistery, and Giotto the bell tower. All told, hundreds of architects, artists, and engineers worked on the cathedral during its more than 100-year construction.

This is by far the most important church in Florence. To see it all you’ll need The Great Duomo Museum ticket. This includes the Cathedral, Brunelleschi’s Dome (beware, there are 463 steps to climb), Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata, and the Opera Museum.

Santa Croce Basilica

The largest Franciscan church in the world and burial place of the greats.

Santa Croce is one of the most important churches in Florence, and holds just as many impressive statistics as the Duomo. The largest Medieval Franciscan church, Santa Croce was also a convent and theological school that can cite Dante Alighieri as a pupil. An excellent example of Gothic architecture, as the church’s fame and importance grew, the original modest façade was replaced and the structure was continuously made more grandiose.

Artists, theologians, and politicians visited, lived or studied here, and many were buried here as well. Today visitors can see the tombs of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei in Santa Croce. There is also a memorial to Dante, although his actual body is housed in Ravenna after having been exiled from Florence.

During the flood of 1966, water from the Arno River filled the church up to 5 meters, causing severe damage. Volunteers formed human chains to save as much artwork as possible. Visit the Refectory to see Vasari’s ‘The Last Supper’, which was submerged in floodwater for hours. It has since been restored and, only recently, returned to the Basilica, 50 years after the flood.

Santa Maria Novella Basilica

Florence’s first great basilica and a true art-lovers church

Beautiful churches in Florence: Santa Maria Novella
A massive square to match the beautiful Santa Maria Novella Basilica

Once a small church in a tiny square, the namesake square and basilica have matured into one of the biggest and most important in Florence.

Today, Santa Maria Novella is a gorgeous basilica with a white and green marble façade. Founded by the Dominicans in the 13th-century, the façade was completed during the Renaissance by Leon Battista Alberti. The bottom half was already done in Romanesque style, so Alberti had quite the task to complete it in a more modern aesthetic, while still maintaining a uniform face.

Though the outside itself is a work of art, the inside of Santa Maria Novella is a treasure trove of historical art. Here you can see a crucifix and marble pulpit designed by Brunelleschi. The famed crucifix by a young Giotto, and the incredible perspective shown in the Trinità by Masaccio. You’ll find frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Lippi, and a bronze memorial by Ghiberti.

Located just in front of the Santa Maria Novella train station, the Basilica is easy to find and well worth the visit.

Orsanmichele Church and Museum

A multi-faceted church with an uninterrupted view of the Duomo from the third-floor museum.

Orsanmichele might just be one of the most overlooked churches in Florence. That’s because it’s hidden in plain sight. Located right in the center of town between Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, you won’t be able to find a façade even if you look for it. The church is housed in a three-story building, and the entrance to is located around the corner in what seems like the back.

The church has undergone many transformations. Said to be built during Roman times in place of a temple for Isis–the Egyptian goddess of fertility–it was then a Benedictine oratory in the monastery St. Michael (San Michele). The original structure was destroyed in the 13th century, and an arcade grain hall, office space, and general market hall was built in its place.

Though the structure was commercial, a beautiful fresco of the Virgin Mary remained with multiple “miraculous events” attributed to it. Over time, so many pilgrims flooded the hall that everyday commerce became impossible. So, in the 14th century, the arcade was reconverted back into a church.

Today, the Orsanmichele boasts a mix of civic and religious architecture and art. When visiting, be sure to walk around the outside of the building to see the striking statues standing in the church’s niches, created by artists like Verrocchio, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Luca della Robbia.

Basilica di San Lorenzo

One of the largest churches in Florence as well as one of its oldest, San Lorenzo is ground zero for Medici family religious history.

San Lorenzo Basilica's unfinished façade
Don’t be fooled by the rough façade of the San Lorenzo Basilica; inside, it’s a masterpiece of the Renaissance, with art and architecture by Brunelleschi, Donatello, and more. Photo by Richard Mortel

The Basilica of San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches in all of Florence. The complex is immense, spanning the basilica, cloisters, library, and the Medici chapels. Its history follows the Christian community in Florence as well as the personal history of the Medicis, Florence’s ruling family.

The powerful Medici family was the most influential in Renaissance Florence. They brought together artists and masters of the time for various commissions, including the San Lorenzo Basilica.

Built atop a 4th-century church, San Lorenzo was designed by Brunelleschi for Cosimo the Elder, one of the most famous members of the Medici family, for use as a family temple. Michelangelo designed a white marble façade to showcase the church in all its splendor, but it was never completed. Donatello was commissioned to sculpt two bronze pulpits, among other artwork, as well.

Today Donatello, Cosimo the Elder, and 50 members of the Medici family are buried in the crypt of San Lorenzo.

The Most Beautiful Churches in Florence: Oltrarno

Florence’s Oltrarno district is the neighborhood on the other side of the Arno River (literally, beyond the Arno). A historically residential part of Florence’s center, it remains a hip neighborhood with artisan studios, restaurants and some of Florence’s most beautiful churches. 

San Miniato al Monte Basilica and Abbey

Located atop a hill in the Oltrarno, just outside the city walls, San Miniato enjoys the best views over all of Florence.

San Miniato al Monte from afar
San Minato nestled among the Tuscan hills above Florence. Photo by Neil (flickr)

An Abbey built between the 11th and 13th centuries, San Miniato’s hilltop location provides a prime panorama over picturesque Florence. Covered with green and white marble in the same vein as Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, the interior is Romanesque in style, and dark and atmospheric. Be sure to check out the mosaic floors and painted wooden ceiling, as well as the crypt in the back decorated by Gaddi. The church itself is surrounded by a cemetery where illustrious Florentines were buried, including the author of Pinocchio!

To get to San Miniato, head to the Oltrarno then follow signs for the 30-minute walk up the hill, or catch the bus to Piazzale Michelangelo and then take the stairs up a bit further to San Miniato al Monte.

Santa Trinita Basilica

A free, hidden gem in the Oltrarno

After a walk down the elegant via Tornabuoni you’ll find Piazza Santa Trinita and the 11th-century church of the same name. The church was enlarged and renovated in the Gothic style in the 14th century and the façade was added in the 16th century.

Be sure to see Ghirlandaio’s altarpiece and visit the Sassetti Chapel with 15th-century frescoes by the artist with references of the time (Lorenzo the Magnificent, a self-portrait, Piazza della Signoria, and Piazza della Trinita).

Santa Maria del Santo Spirito Basilica

A Florentine church where the architecture is the art.

Santo Spirito church in Florence

Not many people take the time to truly explore Florence’s Oltrarno neighborhood, the area on the other side of the Arno. If they do, they might pass Santo Spirito more than once before going inside or taking in the Basilica’s perfect proportions.

Despite the stark façade, Santo Spirito Basilica is one of the most important churches in Florence’s Oltrarno neighborhood.

The structure was originally an Augustinian convent located outside of the city walls; however, as Florence grew, the Santa Trinità bridge was built and wealthy families in the Oltrarno district decided to renovate their neighborhood church. They commissioned Brunelleschi to design and build the church, to show the neighborhood’s rising status. Today the church walls are decorated with art by Cimabue, Simone Memmi, and Giottino (Tommaso Fiorentino)

Inside, it’s an exemplar of Renaissance architecture. Brunelleschi designed a meticulous church but died before it was ever finished. His apprentices finished the work as best they could, since the renowned architect left few notes behind.

A young Michelangelo often sought refuge in Santo Spirito. Here he was able to dissect and analyze corpses from the convent’s hospital to learn more about the anatomy of the human body.

sunlight over the Arno River in Florence, Italy

Florence is filled with Renaissance treasures and historical wonders, and many of these masterpieces can be found throughout the city’s churches. These magnificent basilicas offer a glimpse into what made Florence into such a cultural powerhouse over the centuries. While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the options – there are dozens of churches in Florence after all! – it’s nothing that a bit of context and curiosity can’t help solve 🧡

Experience the best of Italian art and antiquities in the cultural capitals of Rome, Florence, and Venice with Ciao Andiamo’s Italy for First Timers bespoke itinerary

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Matera is a remarkable city in Basilicata, a little-visited region in Italy’s extreme south.

A visit to Matera steeps travelers into a unique world of art, history, culture, folklore and the slow pace of Italy’s Mezzogiorno. Matera is famous for its cave dwellings located in the Sassi neighborhoods; homes carved into the soft tufa rock that have been inhabited since the Paleolithic period. It’s ancient on another level, and yet also a working, modern city.

Visit Matera to see this beautiful panorama by night

Foto di blank76 da Pixabay

Rural and remote, Matera isn’t the easiest place to reach, which is likely why it hasn’t long been on the radar of many international travelers. But after gaining UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1993 and being declared the European Capital of Culture in 2019 the city is finally starting to get the mentions it deserves.

Today many visitors travel hundreds of kilometers to see this ancient city made contemporary. With one-of-a-kind accommodations complete with modern amenities, travelers are ready to see Italy’s magical city of stone.

Here’s why you should visit Matera on your next trip to Italy:

To walk the stone streets of one of the oldest cities in the world

Matera is counted as one of the three oldest cities in the entire world. It’s been inhabited since the Paleolithic period, the earliest period of human development, as troglodytes carved cave dwellings into the steep rock. Though estimates on the exact dates of Matera’s first occupation vary, evidence from the Neolithic period and even earlier has been found. Today it’s one of the few locations this ancient that is also so comfortable to our modern tastes. Where else can you sleep in accommodation first used 9,000 years ago?

To visit one of the most unique destinations in the world

Visit the Sassi in Matera, Italy
Photo by  Tomas Turek from Pixabay

Matera is one of the most unique destinations on earth, and certainly one of the most unique in Italy thanks to its infamous Sassi districts. In the Sassi, hundreds of cave dwellings spot the steep landscape. Here you can step back in time to walk along ancestral roads and staircases, to rupestrian (carved in rock) churches, and elaborate cave systems-turned-houses or wine cellars or hotels

The Sassi of Matera were a splendor of history, but by the 1950s they were little more than squalid hovels, unacceptable to today’s standards. The caves had barely changed or improved from hundreds of years earlier and the squalor and unsanitary conditions in the town were declared the “vergogna nazionale” or the national disgrace. The citizens were forcibly moved out and relocated to modern houses in a village atop the nearby plateau, leaving Matera abandoned.

In the 1980s interest in the Sassi returned, and many residents began moving back to the area to renovate the old cave houses, eventually turning the empty shell of a town into a fascinating urban center set in an ancient landscape. In fact, UNESCO declared the entire town a World Heritage Site for being the “most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”

Today, Matera’s cave-dwellings are elegant and comfortable, complete with spas, gyms, restaurants, and wifi.

To marvel at the underground architecture

Though the caves might seem like simple dugouts, they’re actually intricate structures that can be quite complex architecturally. Elaborate renovations were made during the Renaissance when many caves gained new façades, vaulted ceilings or complicated staircases connecting arches, attics, balconies, and cantinas. The Sassi have dozens of tunnels connecting them, proving that what we see is just a scratch under the surface of this elaborate cave system.

Besides the caves, head underground to see the wonders of ancient technology in the Palombaro Lungo, the largest of the Palombari water collection tank system. The Palombaro Lungo is a giant cistern carved into the rock, as large as an underground cathedral, that has supplied water to Materans as far back as the 16th-century. Ingenious and state-of-the-art for the time, the system located under Piazza Vittorio Veneto is one of the best-conserved examples of historical hydraulics and architecture in the world.

To follow the faith across centuries

A view of San Pietro Caveoso Church in beautiful Matera
Photo by chatst2 from Pixabay

Matera is a land with a strong faith going back centuries. There are at least 21 parishes and several churches that have been carved into or out of the rock, as well as others built aboveground on the Piano (plateau) above the town. Then there are the more than 150 churches in the Sassi district itself along with the Murgia National Park.

Though it might be impossible to properly see them all on one trip, the town’s churches are a fundamental part of its history and truly a must-see. Start with the Romanesque Cathedral, whose privileged position atop Civitas hill gives breathtaking views overlooking the Sassi Barisano. Other favorites include the death-themed Chiesa del Purgatorio, the Lecce-inspired San Francesco d’Assisi, the simple interior of Materdomini and the great views from Sant’Agostino.

To see the rupestrian churches of the Murgia National Park

The Park of the Murgia Materana overlooks Matera from gorges and caves beyond the Gravina ravine. A UNESCO World Heritage site along with the Sassi of Matera, here you’ll find more than 150 rock churches to explore.

These rock churches, known as rupestrian churches, were mostly constructed in the Byzantine Empire of the 8th and 9th centuries. Though many are not so well conserved, some of the cave churches still have faded Byzantine frescoes inside. A favorite rupestrian visit is Santa Maria de Idris. Partly carved into the rock and partly built, this 12th-century church is connected by tunnel to the rock crypt of St. John in Monterrone.

Though they were created as religious places of worship, over the years many of the rupestrian churches became multi-use, serving as homes or stables for animals, including the popular Crypt of Original Sin, considered the Sistine Chapel of rupestrian art for its magnificent 8th-century frescoes.

To experience a real-life movie set

Ancient and enchanting, Matera is the perfect setting for historical films and TV series. Though there are older settlements in the Middle East that film crews could use, few are as easy to access with as comfortable accommodations and amenities as Matera.

Approximately 90 movies have been filmed in Matera, from documentaries to neorealism pieces to TV fiction. Film buffs who want to catch a glimpse of Matera’s majestic backdrops can rent Nel Mezzogiorno Qualcosa È Cambiato, a documentary on the plight of Matera in the 1950s; Gli Anni Ruggenti, a comedy about an insurance salesman caught in a misunderstanding in the South; L’Uomo delle Stelle, which is set in Sicily but shot in Matera; or of course, The Passion by Mel Gibson, a story of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life.

To view modern art in the world’s only ancient cave museum

A city carved into the rock, Matera is innately a city of sculpture. Though the ancient sculpture is the town itself, more contemporary fare is still available. Matera’s Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, or MUSMA, is the only cave-museum in the world. Housed in the underground of Palazzo Pomarici, the story of Italian and international sculpture is told through 500 different pieces.

After all, what more delightful place to view contemporary sculpture art than in a remarkably ancient town carved by cavemen themselves?

To celebrate the Festa della Bruna

Visit Matera during the Festa della Bruna to see these wonderful lights
Photo by Fabio Eramo via Festa della Bruna Gruppo Ufficiale Facebook Page.

The Festa della Bruna is the principal event in Matera’s calendar, truly the Materans’ New Year’s Day. Though it’s celebrated for an entire week, the culmination is on July 2nd when time stops in Matera to celebrate the town’s patron saint. Dating back to the 14th century and in remembrance of the Madonna, the festival is far from solely religious, going from sunrise into the dead of night.

The entire town is illuminated by bright lights and decorations. Market stalls and town bands set the atmosphere and a procession of shepherds “wake up” the town at the crack of dawn on the day of the event. Later, the statue of Madonna della Bruna is carried through the town streets on a parade float to the Duomo. Once there, the crowd attacks the float, destroying it piece by piece – a piece of the float is thought to bring luck. The entire event concludes with a huge firework display on the other side of the ravine in the Murgia Park.

A festival for locals by locals, it’s a dramatic event for tourists who, if prepared, can witness the excitement, passion, and euphoria of the event.

Travelers to Matera experience a unique destination, taste the city’s distinctive slow pace and step into a world unto itself. And that’s reason enough to visit!

Visit this one-of-a-kind city with Ciao Andiamo’s expert guide on our Mediterranean Escape trip

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Carnevale in Italy brings a burst of color to the dark, cold months of winter.   

A huge final celebration to eat, drink and be merry before the restrictions and solemnity of Lent, the festivities in Italy aren’t reserved just to Mardi Gras.

Starting about a month before Ash Wednesday, revelers in Italy celebrate for multiple weekends with sweeping parades, elaborate masks and plenty of brightly colored confetti. You can find traditional Carnival sweets in the bakeries and plenty of tricks and mischief. After all, a Carnevale, ogni scherzo vale! That is, anything goes during Carnival. 

Carnevale in Italy  

A Carnival parade in Putignano, Puglia. Photo by Salvatore Capotorto from Pixabay

If the celebrations seem a little over-the-top, consider that the roots of this festival can be traced to Ancient Greece and Rome in celebrations that honored the god Bacchus (of wine) and Saturn. Some say they go even further back to primitive celebrations of the end of winter and beginning of spring.  

Though its history is pagan, the festival was so widely celebrated and the tradition so strong that it was quickly adapted to fit into the Catholic rituals. During the 40 days of Lent, parties were forbidden and meat, sugar and fats were off-limits. Carnival fit in perfectly as a last hurrah and a way to finish all the stores of rich food and drink before Lent.  

After weeks of mischief and parties, expect a more pious and solemn atmosphere in Italy during the weeks of Lent. Easter in Italy is as strongly felt and celebrated as Christmas.  

Officially, Carnevale is held on Fat Tuesday – in 2020 that is on February 25 – but of course the weekend before sees celebrations just as big or even bigger! Future Carnival dates are February 16, 2021; March 1, 2022; and February 21, 2023.   

Where to Celebrate Carnevale in Italy  

Though everyone knows of the masks and parades of Venice, every town in Italy, even the smallest, has its own Carnevale parade. Small towns will have day care centers and school children march in the street or ride atop team-made floats and school bands play. Bigger cities will bring together floats, bands, dance troupes and group costumes for the parades.  

There are some cities, however, that regularly outdo themselves. Here are some of the biggest, most famous Carnival celebrations in all of Italy:  

Venice, Veneto 

Photo by Serge WOLFGANG from Pixabay

Full of mystery, mischief and intrigue, the Carnival of Venice is undoubtedly one of the most famous Carnival celebrations in the entire world.  

Though the start of Venice’s Carnival is disputed, most attribute it to 1296, with an official document from the Senate of Venice declaring a public celebration on the day before Lent. Created as an allowance for citizens for some fun and revelry, the mask fit in perfectly, allowing citizens to celebrate independently of social class or religion.  

Carnival masks remained a fixture through the Renaissance, and masked comedy troupes would perform in the piazzas of Venice in the 16th century. These same masks and bacchanalia were banned by the Austrians in the 18th century and again by Mussolini in the 1930s.  

After many years, the holiday returned in 1979 in a celebration of the history and culture of Venice. 

The 2020 Venice Carnival will begin on Saturday, February 8 and end on Tuesday, February 25. Visitors can view events like the water parade, mask competitions or the infamous flight of the angel, or simply stroll the UNESCO World Heritage city and to see the elaborate and unique costumes.  

Today roughly 3 million people travel to Venice to participate in the infamous festa Veneziana, making it the most important event of the city and the biggest carnival celebration in Italy.    

Viareggio, Tuscany 

Another one of the most important Carnival celebrations in Italy is in Viareggio, on the coast of Tuscany. Started in the late 1800s by the rich bourgeois class who wanted to freely express their discontent of the high taxes, today the attitude continues with massive papier mâché floats satirizing big political and cultural names.  

The celebration is most known for these elaborate and impressive floats, made with extraordinary detail and engineering. The tradition is so important, that float-makers begin their work an entire year before Carnival!  

Besides the allegorical floats, the entire Carnival of Viareggio is followed by all night musical dances in the streets. This tradition started in the 1920s as “colored all-night dances” or veglioni coloratiwhere women dressed in specific colors and even the jewelry, confetti and decorations had to match. That plus the city’s Art Deco architecture make for the perfect scenography. 

The Carnevale di Viareggio takes place on Fat Tuesday, as well as the four Sundays preceding it. The final parade is followed by a huge fireworks show. Though admission is charged to view the parade, there are festivals, cultural events, concerts and masked balls for free throughout the season. 

Acireale, Sicily  

Photo by Carnaval.com Studios (flickr)

Repeatedly described as one of Italy’s most beautiful Carnivals, this is likely thanks to the intricate floats decorated with fresh flowers, adding beauty and perfume to the streets of Acireale.  

Allegorical papier mâché floats parade down the Baroque streets of Acireale during the Carnival season, but the surprise is in the flower floats.  Dating back to the 16th-century, revelers once celebrated Carnival in Acireale by throwing rotten eggs and lemons, but when those games were officially banned, they were replaced by a much more cultured character: Folk poets, known as abbatazzi, who improvised verses on the streets of the city.  

Today, both the floats and poets can still be found and the Carnival of Acireale is widely entitled the “best Carnival in Sicily.” It is so popular, in fact, that the entire thing is reproduced in the balmy summer air of August. 

Ivrea, Piedmont 

The Carnival of Ivrea is likely the most unique Carnival celebration in Italy. Every year Ivrea, a tiny city near Turin in Piedmont, hosts its famous Battaglia delle Arancie (Battle of the Oranges) in the final days of the Carnival season.  

The battle symbolizes an event in 1194 when the people of Ivrea rebelled against the Royal Napoleonic Troops. It is said that the miller’s daughter, “la Mugnaia,” slayed the hated tyrant who ruled the city after he tried to take her, kicking off a rebellion that ultimately won the townsfolk a bit more freedom.  

Today, la Mugnaia is always represented by a local beauty, and the event is remembered with an enormous orange battle between helmeted “soldiers” in carriages and unprotected “townspeople” representing different districts on the ground. Those that don’t want to participate wear the traditional berretto rosso, red hats, to be excluded from the battle and can stay protected behind massive nets.  

Putignano, Puglia 

The region of Puglia in Italy’s heel likely has the most Carnival celebrations of any region, but the most famous is in Putignano.  

Located in the beautiful Itria Valley, home of trulli houses and interesting karst caves, the ancient town of Putignano is home to the longest Carnival celebration in all of Italy. Every year it starts on Santo Stefano, December 26th, with the Festa delle Propaggini, in which poets recite in local dialect, and ends on Fat Tuesday with a parade and the “funeral” of Carnival, represented as a pig.  

Not only is it the longest Carnival celebration, but it is one of the oldest in all of Europe. Putignano’s Carnival dates as far back as 1394, when relics of St. Stephens were transferred inland to Putignano for protection against invaders. The move was so celebrated that peasants left the vineyards to follow the procession, exploding into song and dance upon arrival, as well as improvised lyrics and poems, satirizing against politicians and news, habits and current events in the local dialect. 

After December 26, this long Carnival is celebrated every Thursday, but it’s not until the feast day of St. Anthony the Abate, January 17, that Carnival really takes off with parties, feasts, pageants, and parades. From then until Fat Tuesday, every day is Carnival!   

Fano, Le Marche 

Photo from @ilcarnevaledifano

It’s not confetti or tinsel or ribbons thrown about during Fano’s Carnival, but sweets. With the “getto” or throw, the masked floats toss hundreds of pounds of sweets, candies and chocolates to the crowds below. (The crowds come prepared with paper cones to catch the goodies!) 

Said to have started in 1347 during a rare moment of peace between two rival families of the time, the Carnival of Fano is known as the sweetest Carnival of Italy.  

The floats parade up and down the streets of Fano, ending in a final round with a “luminaria” with lights, fire and color added as night falls. Finally, a massive papier mâché puppet known as “Pupo” or “Vulon” is burnt in the main square to large crowds on the day of Mardi Gras, a practice that is said to take away winter together with the sins of the townspeople.   

Cento, Emilia Romagna  

The Carnival of Cento is known as far back as 1615, thanks to frescoes by hometown painter Gian Francesco “Guercino” Barbieri that document the celebration, but its most celebrated traditions are more recent.   

In the early 1900s the people created their own king to symbolize the city’s Carnival, a character to represent his fellow citizens, called Tasi.   

During the final parade, Tasi is burned in a bonfire in front of the Rocca while an impressive fireworks show lights up the sky in a scenographic display. Before he is burned, his will is read in the local dialect and his possessions are given to Cento’s most famous citizens – actual citizens of Cento!  

In 1993, the Cento Carnival was twinned with the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro and began displaying allegorical floats inspired by the exhibitions of Rio. Running for five Sundays prior to Lent, the parades circle the city multiple times and throw inflatable and soft objects into the crowd.   

Milan, Italy 

Photo from inLombardia

Technically, the Carnival celebrations in Milan aren’t much different than any of the others. There are parades and parties, confetti and costumes. The difference here is all in the timing.   

Milan’s carnival is the last to be celebrated. The Ambrosian Carnival, named after Milan’s patron saint, holds its final party after the Italian Carnival has officially ended.  

As tradition has it, the city’s patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio (St. Ambrose) was on a religious pilgrimage and asked to postpone the final Carnival celebrations until he got back. So every year, Milan’s carnival is celebrated four days later on the Saturday after Fat Tuesday, ending the Carnival season in the beautiful Piazza del Duomo. 

 

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Umbria is Italy’s only land-locked region, but it’s not complaining.  

Known as Italy’s green heart, vibrant Umbria is a nature-lover’s paradise. Though it lacks a coastline, the mountains and hills of Umbria are still awash in water thanks to the Tevere River and the Lago di Trasimeno, the largest lake in central and southern Italy.  

Spello, Umbria (Photo by Ken Sandberg)

Though long overlooked for its popular neighbors of Tuscany and Lazio – that’s a huge part of Umbria’s charm. Sometimes called “Tuscany without the tourists,” it’s true that in Umbria you can still get off-the-beaten path with ease. A bit more rustic, more natural than its neighbors, Umbria nevertheless has delicious, high-quality food products, a long history and excellent Medieval and Renaissance art, all while maintaining an atmosphere of peace and serenity. Not to mention enchanting hill towns that you can’t believe you haven’t yet explored!  

Where to Go

Perugia 

Photo by tonixjesse from Pixabay

Umbria’s largest city and the capital of the region, Perugia has a lot to offer visitors. The historical city center is small, but packs a lot of history. There are different ways you can get atop the hill to visit the city center, but perhaps the most suggestive way is with the escalators in the Rocca Paolina. Technically a fort, it feels like an entire a 16th-century city preserved under today’s Perugia. Once in the city center, head to Piazza IV Novembre to dive right in to most of Perugia’s tourist sites: the beautiful 13-century Fontana Maggiore, the unfinished San Lorenzo Cathedral, Palazzo dei Priori and the adjacent Sala dei Notari.  

Home to the oldest university in the region, Perugia isn’t just an ancient city on a hill, but is lived and lively, with actual locals along with the students and visitors (something that some big-hitting Italian towns are starting to lack). Equidistant from Florence and Rome, Perugia is easy-to-reach and a great introduction to Umbria.  

Lake Trasimeno 

Lago di Trasimeno, near Perugia, is the largest lake in central and southern Italy and a veritable natural paradise. A popular vacation place for Umbrians and Tuscans nearby, there are several charming towns along the lake to explore. 

Castiglione del Lago sits above the ruins of Etruscan tombs. Tour the castle, the medieval walls of Palazzo Ducale and the nearby Rocca del Leone fortress. Visit Città del Pieve to walk down the narrowest alleyway in all of Italy and see several works by Pietro Vannucci (also known as the Perugino) who was born there. Or, take a boat to tour the three islands on the lake. Maggiore Island is the only one still inhabited. The largest island on the lake, Polvese, is used as a public park. 

Assisi 

Photo by Valter Cirillo from Pixabay

Assisi is known the world over thanks to St. Francis of Assisi, the city’s patron saint and one of two patron saints for all of Italy. Pilgrims have been visiting the Basilica since its construction in the 13th-century to pay homage to the saint. The gorgeous St. Francis Basilica with upper and lower levels truly is worth a visit, but you don’t need to be religious to visit Assisi. One of the best-preserved medieval cities in all of Italy, the entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Most of the major sites to visit are churches in Assisi – a testament to the city’s deep religious history – but there is also the Rocca Maggiore atop the hill, with views of Perugia to the North, Assisi below and the surrounding valleys beyond. Try visiting the city during the Christmas season. St. Francis is considered the first person to create a live nativity scene and today you can find nativity scenes throughout the city, as well as a living nativity scene with town participants and actors.  

Montefalco

Often called the “balcony of Umbria” for its position and panorama (from here you can see to Perugia, Assisi and even Spoleto), Montefalco is most celebrated for its wine. Città di vino, this tiny town is the home of the celebrated Sagrantino red, a DOCG wine whose dark and dense wine is unique to Umbria. The area’s extra virgin olive oil is nearly just as prized, thanks to its fresh yet intense flavor.

Besides excellent wine, Montefalco also produced six saints over the centuries. The town itself starts from five different gates located at five different parishes. Five lanes climb up the hill until reaching the central piazza and the town’s highest point.

Gubbio  

Photo by Giacomo Zanni from Pixabay

Located in northeastern Umbria, Gubbio is a gorgeous Medieval town filled with lengthy stories and quirky traditions – like an annual race up a mountain carrying enormous wooden prisms that weigh anywhere from 600-700 pounds.  

Known as the Festa dei Ceri, the race is held every year in May to celebrate St. Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio, as well as St. George and St. Anthony. Participants run from the main square in front of Palazzo dei Consoli to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo, on the top of the mountain, all while carrying a statue of their saint on an enormous wooden prism. Maybe that’s why Gubbio is traditionally called the “città dei matti,” or city of crazy people!

Both locations are sights to see, race or no race. The massive, 14th-century Palazzo dei Consoli towers over the central square, Piazza della Signoria, one of the most beautiful in Umbria. Then, be sure to take the funicular from the Porta Romana to the beautiful St. Ubaldo Basilica to see the planks for the famous Ceri race as well as some of the best views of the town. 

Foligno

Foligno was severely bombed in World War II and suffered a powerful earthquake in 1997. Since then, much of the city has been rebuilt and today it is an industrial and commercial center in Umbria.

Visit the two-faced Duomo, with an official facade opening to Piazza del Duomo and another, perhaps more interesting, facade facing south on Piazza della Reppublica and be sure to tour the Trinci Palace, but the real draw is the city’s atmosphere. With a modern appearance and an important commercial background, Foligno is an active, lively city with great shopping, restaurants and aperitif spots and, of course, wine!

Spoleto

Spoleto is a stunning sight framed by the Apennines. Founded by the Umbri, it was quickly taken over by the Romans who built one of the most popular sights of the city: an aqueduct that became the foundation for the Ponte Delle Torri. A huge medieval bridge sitting over a deep gorge, it’s awe-inspiring even today. There’s also a nearly completely intact Roman amphitheater. Later, Spoleto changed hands again, to the Lombards, but its beauty and strategic location ensured that the town flourished. 

Today, it is best known for its three-week summer festival, the Festival Dei Due Mondi, featuring events in opera, dance, music and art.

Spello 

One of the ancient gates that still exist in Spello, Umbria. Photo bychatst2 from Pixabay

Build on a slope of Monte Subasio, The village of Spello is circled by remarkably intact fortified Roman walls that seem to drape around the centro storico. Originally a Roman settlement, the walls are a testament of Spello’s strategic position along the road to Perugia, but the magnificent gates to the village are just as impressive. Head to the west side of town to see the Porta Venere, a gate flanked by a pair of 12-sided towers. The Renaissance artist Pinturicchio had the biggest artistic impact on the town. It’s here that he painted the Madonna in Trono e Santi, his masterpiece for the altar in St. Andrew’s, as well as the colorful frescoes in the Baglioni Chapel inside Santa Maria Maggiore. 

Small Spello is the Italian village you’ve dreamed about with winding streets, stone houses and beautifully decorated balconies. In fact, it’s these floral balconies that have helped Spello officially win the title as il borgo più bello d’Italiaor one of the most beautiful villages of Italy. Flowers are also the star in the Infiorata del Corpus Domini, without a doubt the village’s biggest event of the year. Every summer, various cities throughout all of Italy decorate their streets with elaborate designs made of flower petals. Spello carpets more than a kilometer of road with flowers for the event. 

Norcia 

Located in southeastern Umbria, Norcia is known for its fresh air and spectacular scenery. Sitting under the high peaks of Mount Sibillini, many use the town as a base for mountaineering, hiking and other outdoor sports. It is also a popular hunting zone, especially for wild boar.

Those looking for a more relaxing visit can enjoy the cuisine as Norcia is especially known for its high-quality cured pork products. Norcia’s pork butchers have become so accomplished that they’ve been given their own title. In Norcia it’s not a butcher, macellaio, but a norcinoWherever a norcino goes he can open up a norcineria to sell the Umbrian wild boar and pork products famous throughout Italy. Today a norcineria has become a synonym in Italy for a place that sells prestigious salumi. 

Orvieto 

Orvieto is a tiny town with an oversized appeal. First and foremost, there’s the town’s impressive 14th-century Duomo, with its gold-plated Italian Gothic façade. Besides the pleasant town streets, there’s also a 7 km path that circles the entire city, a double-helix well dug deep into the town’s tufa rock and a veritable city underground.  

Orvieto is built atop soft tufa rock made on an old volcano neck. Easy to dig, over the centuries the entire town has essentially been carved out into cellars and basements, offices, bomb shelters and pigeon breeding rooms. Today you can take a tour underground to visit just some of the approximately 1,200 various caves, tunnels and cisterns carved under the streets and buildings of Orvieto. Come while you can – nearly entirely hollowed out, the fate of the town is clear, just not the when!

What to Do

Umbria is filled with festivals. You can find food festivals, music festivals, sports events and more. From local, traditional events to international affairs, it seems there’s something to do year-round.  

Music aficionados will enjoy the Umbria Jazz Fest, held twice a year. Nearly a week-long event of jazz concerts and encounters, it’s held in Perugia in the summer and Orvieto in the winter.   

Perugia is also home to the annual EuroChocolate Festival (no wonder, with its roots in chocolate production) as well as the International Journalism Festival for journalists and media members.  

In Spoleto, you can find the Festival dei Due Mondi in June and July, when the city becomes the busiest town in central Italy. The festival is an immersion of music, dance, theater and literature in a picture-perfect setting. 

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Photo by crilaman from Pixabay

Nature-lovers can visit the Marmore Waterfalls near Terni; hike, cycle or horseback ride in the Monte Subasio Natural Park; or fish in Lake Trasimeno. The more adventurous can go on an excursion in an underground cave on Monte Cucco

Finally, deep-dive into the Umbrian culture with a traditional festival like the aforementioned Festival of the Ceri in Gubbio

What to Eat 

The food in Umbria is generally simple, rustic fare, but the high-quality pork from Norcia and the legendary black truffles of the area elevate the cuisine to something well-worth tasting. In fact, Norcia and its surroundings are perhaps the true birthplace of Umbrian cuisine, but the fish-based meals from Lake Trasimeno offer something different to the rich dishes of the land-locked country.  

Remember, Italian food is entirely regional. So when in Umbria, here’s what to eat:  

Zuppa

A classic minestrone (vegetable soup) with the addition of farroa local grain. Soups in general are popular in Umbria, especially with legumes and beans like the fagiolina from Trasimeno, lentils or chickpeas.  

Black Truffle 

The prized black truffle of Umbria is a must-try while in the region. With a strong, earthy taste, these delicacies are hometown heroes. Choosy about where they grow and difficult to find, they’re perhaps the most sought-after delicacy in Europe and they grow naturally in the Umbrian countryside! More abundant here than anywhere else in Italy, black truffles are integral to Umbrian cuisine. Try them shaved fresh on top of homemade pasta, eggs or risotto.  

Go on an authentic, private truffle hunt in the countryside of Umbria with a local truffle hunter and his trained dog. Then follow your outing with a truffle tasting (along with pasta, bruschette and wine) on a private Ciao Andiamo tour. 

Pasta alla Norcina 

Pasta made with a black truffle sauce with anchovies or else with sausage and cream. Be sure to ask which sauce you’ll have before ordering as both dishes go by the same name. 

Strangozzi  

A long, curved pasta strand, this pasta gets its name in a rather unique way. When Spoleto was under the papal rule the citizens who didn’t pay their taxes were given fines by esattari, or collectors, sent from the pope. Angry, they often plotted to strangle these collectors with a long leather cord called a strangozzo and supposedly that’s how the similarly-shaped pasta got its name.  

Norcino 

Photo by GBSurf from Pixabay

The cured pork from Norcia, known as norcinois so delicious that it’s worth mentioning twice…or even more. You can enjoy the norcino in a ragù, but perhaps the best way to really appreciate the meat is with an appetizer plate or in a simple sandwich. Two favorites to try are guanciale (for pasta dishes) and coppa for sandwiches.    

Polombacci 

This is wild pigeon, sometimes served with grapes or a sauce called la ghiotta, meaning the gluttonous, made with cooking juices, olive oil, vinegar, anchovies, olives, lemon, safe, salt and pepper. In a fight with the Vatican, Orvieto was completely surrounded and cut off from the outside world. To survive, the town dug a well for water (the famous double helix well) and bred pigeons, the only animal that could fly off to feed itself and return to roost, and the meat has been on menus ever since.  

Anguilla and perch  

Eel from Lake Trasimeno served grilled or braised in wine, tomatoes, onion and garlic. Try also fish stock, risotto with fish or freshly grilled perch fillets. Every year in September the area hosts the festival of fish. Said to have the largest frying pan in the world, they fry up to two tons of fish per hour. If you’re not there during the festival, try tegamaccio, a stew of carp, pike, trout and other fish straight from the lake.  

Sagrantino Wine

When in Italy, drink as the Italians do – with delicious, local wines. In the hills around Montefalco the celebrated Sagrantino wine is made. There are two different Montefalco Sagrantino’s with DOCG status: the Montefalco Sagrantino Secco, a dry wine, and the Montefalco Sagrantino Passito, a sweet, dessert wine. The Secco is aged for at least 30 months, 12 of which are in oak barrels, producing a rich, full-bodied red with high tannin levels. It pairs perfectly with meat, game or with the regions infamous black truffle! 

Perugina chocolate 

Photo by timothy green from Pixabay

Perugia is famous for its chocolate production and home of the Perugina chocolate factory. Travelers to the city can tour the factory, but anyone can enjoy a decadent Perugina chocolate. Similar in idea to the American Hershey Kiss, a Baci Perugina is made slightly richer with the addition of hazelnut and wrapped in notable silver and blue wrapping, each with a romantic message tucked inside.  

In general when eating in Umbria you want to look for specific ingredients rather than specific dishes, such as black truffle, sheep cheese, lentils (those from Castelluccio are considered the best in all of Italy), mushrooms and farro, an ancient but popular local grain. 

How to Get There and Around 

Get there fast, then take it slow. Photo byMarco Pomella from Pixabay

The closest airports to Umbria are Rome, Pisa, and Florence. Perugia also has a small airport with flights coming from other parts of Italy and Europe.  

It is easy to take a train from Rome or Florence to major cities in Umbria such as Perugia or Orvieto. Unfortunately moving from town to town in Umbria by public transport is a bit more complicated.

Though there are trains, they only connect between major cities and sometimes you’ll have to change trains multiple times.  

The absolute best way to get around Umbria is with a private car. With a private driver it’s easier to take in the beauty of Umbria: the winding roads, country scenery and improbable Umbrian towns. Or, let us take care of the transportation for you!

Wine-taste in Montefalco, cook in an agriturismo in Assisi, tour the medieval town of Spoleto and get a pizza inside the ancient Roman walls of Spello on our Food, Wine and the Rolling Hills trip in Umbria and Tuscany!

 

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Most visitors to Italy only think of the Mediterranean summers, but December is a great time to visit the peninsula. Tour Italy’s greatest cities under the twinkling lights of Christmas. It’s the most festive time of the year and the atmosphere and spirit of celebration are addictive! 

The holiday season in Italy starts with the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, when cities’ Christmas lights are turned on and Italians officially bring out the Christmas decorations and set up their tree or Nativity scene. Though it’s slightly later than most American’s day-after-Thanksgiving approach, in Italy the holiday season doesn’t end until the Epiphany on January 6th.

A predominately Catholic country, most of the season’s big-hitting holiday dates are from Christmas Eve on December 24th to the Epiphany on January 6th – the original 12 days of Christmas!

Though winter is the low season for travel to Italy, Christmastime does see a spike in visitors, as other Europeans have time off and tourists from all over plan their trip to take in the beautiful sights and smells of the holiday season in Italy. Coming to Italy in December? We’ve got everything you need to know about the holiday season in Italy:

Italian Holiday Traditions

Italians are champions of tradition and there’s no better time to see that than the holidays, when each symbol, event and meal are reminders of the magic of the season. No matter where you’re coming from, there are a few things you can expect to see during the holiday season in Italy:

Christmas markets

A good Christmas market is a feast for the senses, with delicious smells, warm desserts and drinks, handcrafted wares and atmospheric lights. Photo from Pixabay

Though this tradition is mostly attributed to Germany and Austria, Italians love their Christmas markets as much as their northern neighbors. In December, you can find Christmas markets in most cities throughout Italy. Visit Italy’s largest Christmas market in Bolzano, a city in the border region of South Tyrol. In Florence the historical Santa Croce Piazza fills with a market hailing directly from Germany for the entire month of December or head to Piazza Navona in Rome. Some, like those listed above, last all month, others like those in Genoa, Bologna or Syracuse, Sicily last for a week or two or at a specific time period, like Milan’s O Bej O Bej. The market, that gets it’s name from the local dialect for “how beautiful, how beautiful,”  usually runs for one weekend around the time of Milan’s patron saint festival on December 7th.

Christmas lights and Christmas trees

Few people in Italy decorate their house or garden with Christmas lights, but each and every town center will be positively lit up with lights and sparkling decorations. Some favorites are Ferrara, Turin, Milan and Rome. Beyond that, you can expect big cities to have a massive pine tree decorated for the season, usually located in front of the Duomo. There’s one in Florence, Milan, Naples and Venice, but perhaps the most impressive is Rome, which has not one, but several Christmas trees throughout the city. You can usually find a tree near the Colosseum, in Piazza Venezia, on Capitoline Hill and, of course, in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City.

Traditional meals

Fish is the traditional meal served on Christmas Eve, as Italians avoid meat and large meals in fasting and preparation for Christmas Day. After dinner many families attend their local midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, families feast the entire day, with a large lunch that usually has multiple courses and dozens of servings. Though every family is different, some regions have specific food traditions for Christmas Day, such as homemade cappelletti in broth in central Italian regions or panettone for dessert in the north.

Regional celebrations

As always in Italy, you can expect different traditions from different regions. Italy is a nation of city-states and though it’s one country, each area is fiercely proud of its own traditions and culture. Some dates, like December 8th, are national holidays, but there are other important holiday dates for individual regions. For example, Abruzzo celebrates St. Nicholas on December 6th, the generous saint’s feast day, with the nonni dressing up as St. Nicholas and giving gifts to children. The Milanese celebrate their patron saint, St. Ambrose, in style on December 7th, and those from Bergamo (as well as other towns) exchange gifts on December 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, rather than Christmas day.

St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia, is also celebrated in Syracuse, Sicily, where where she’s celebrated with a huge parade that ends in a firework display over the harbor in one of the biggest celebrations of the year. Research in advance your Italian destinations to see the extra events and celebrations they may have in December.

Caroling or … bagpipes!

Though caroling isn’t such a common practice anymore, in Lazio, Abruzzo, Sicily and other areas of southern Italy you may still see bagpipe players, called zampognari, playing carols the week of Christmas. Originally a practice of shepherds who would play their Christmas hymns as they returned home from their outposts in the mountains, today it’s continued by locals who want to keep the culture alive.

Nativity scenes

Living nativity scenes with local participants are popular throughout Italy. Photo by Michelle Scott from Pixabay

Nativity Scenes, or presepe, are super popular in Italy. They can be found throughout town and in nearly every Italian home. Some families don’t even put up a tree in lieu of a nativity! These can be super small or enormous, elaborate affairs with collections growing by the generation. You can find the oldest Nativity in the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Rome, but the place to find hand-crafted Nativities is in Naples. Here the artisan craft is still going strong and you can shop, window shop or simply admire the skilled craftsmen at work on via San Gregorio Armeno. Sometimes called Christmas Alley, this long street in the historic city center has nativity scenes on sale year-round!

Besides these small works of art, another popular tradition in Italy is the “living nativity” with actors and sometimes entire villages as the set. Known as presepi viventi, often the locations are just as suggestive as the scene itself. Custonaci in the Trapani region of Sicily holds its living nativity in a cave, Mantova in Lombardy has around 150 people featured, and the rocks, stones and caves of Matera make for the perfect setting for a reenacted Bethlehem.

Good luck and good fortune for the New Year

New Year’s Eve has fewer specific rituals than Christmas. Italians can celebrate at home, at a restaurant (with reservations well in advanced) or in the piazza where some Italian cities organize concerts and events. Throughout the country, New Year’s Eve is often celebrated in Italy with fireworks, especially in Naples where public and private fireworks can be set off long into the night. Italians eat lentils for dinner for good luck in the coming year, usually paired with a large sausage that requires hours of slow cooking called a cotechino. The tradition doesn’t stop there – be sure to pack a pair of red underwear if you’re coming for New Year’s, it’s considered good luck as well!

La Befana, the country’s happy witch

A representation of the Befana, Italy’s Epiphany tradition. Photo by sara150578 from Pixabay

January 6th is another important holiday for the Italian Christmas season. Known as the Epiphany, this is celebrated as the day the three wise men finally reached baby Jesus. In Italy it’s celebrated by an ugly but friendly “witch” known as La Befana who comes during the night to fill children’s shoes or stockings with candy, toys and sweets, similar to a Christmas stocking in America. Remember: l’Epifania tutte le feste porta via, or with the Epiphany, the holiday season is officially over. 

Menorah lightings for Hanukkah

It’s no secret that Italy is predominately Catholic, but Italy has a large Jewish population as well. This year Hanukkah starts on December 22 and ends on December 30. The highlight of the Hanukkah celebrations is in Piazza Barberini in Rome’s Jewish quarter where an enormous 20-foot-tall menorah is kept and lit each night. The Jews came to Rome long before Jesus’ time and lived freely until about the Dark Ages, when they were forced into the ghetto for more than 300 years. Today, the Jewish ghetto, or Jewish quarter, is the location of lively events, parties and feasts to celebrate Hanukkah. 

Other impressive menorahs can be found in Milan’s Piazza San Carlo, in Florence’s Tempio Maggiore Synagogue, one of the most atmospheric in all of Italy, as well as in Venice where there are not one but five still-active synagogues. Venice’s Ghetto Square includes a Jewish Cemetery and Jewish Museum. Head to the square to see the menorah lighting and the music, dancing and food that follows. 

What to Know 

The holiday season in Italy is filled with wonderful celebrations and festivities that are well worth seeing. It also, however, is filled with closures for national holidays or reduced opening hours for winter.

Be sure you plan your visits to museums and sites in advance to avoid going when they are closed. If you happen to be there on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or St. Stephen’s Day on December 26th, expect most everything to be closed. You’ll definitely want to book restaurants in advance for these days, as well as on New Year’s Eve.

Winter in Italy in general means attractions and transportation schedules change, usually with fewer hours or fewer trains running. Winter is Italy’s low season, but Christmastime usually sees a spike in visitors and crowds and prices may reflect that.

Remember also that just how cold it is depends a lot on where in Italy you are visiting. Up north in the Alps you might be skiing, while down in Sicily you’ll be strolling along the sea with a warming sun.

In general you should still bring a heavy coat, hat, gloves and warm, comfortable boots that can take you from day to night. Italian winters are humid, giving the air a chill even when the temperatures aren’t all that low and in northern Italy you might find rain or snow. Find out more on what to pack for winter here.

Though cold in winter, many of the attractions that you’ll want to see are indoors, making winter just as nice a time as others. Not only that, but the decorations, warm food and festivals make touring around a pleasure, even if it’s cold.

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No trip to Italy is complete without fully exploring the cucina italiana and all the deliciousness it has to offer. Cups of gelato every day, an entire pizza just for you, coffee, pasta, bread, it’s easy to indulge in a country that celebrates beauty, food and joy so much. 

But it’s not just about eating when in Italy, but about eating right. Italians are king of taking advantage of fresh, seasonal produce. And though you won’t be looked down on if you want to try a staple dish out of season, most of Italy’s top restaurants follow the seasons when making their menus.  

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If you’re eating in an authentic joint, visitors to Italy in the spring will be eating totally different dishes than visitors in autumn, because the best of Italian food is fresh, local and seasonal.

Fall in Italy is one of the best times to explore the country’s seasonal food culture. It’s the harvest season, when mushrooms, pumpkins and, of course, grapes are being picked throughout Italy and festivals celebrating the produce abound! 

Taking part in these food festivals, called sagre in Italian, is an excellent way to really get into the fall spirit. At this time of year you can enjoy novello wine sagre, funghi porcini sagre, sagre for grapes and pumpkins, apples and chocolate. And of course, the definitive sagra for the unrivalled white truffle in Piedmont, not to mention festivals for the black truffle of central Italy.   

Want to know more? Deep dive into Italy’s cuisine on your trip with this autumnal fare:  

Truffles 

truffle hunters and their dog hunt for truffles in autumn in Italy

These pungent delicacies are revered throughout Italy and beyond. With a strong, earthy taste, you’ll find tartufo gracing menus throughout Italy in autumn, but the best are found in Umbria, Tuscany, Le Marche or Piedmont where the infamous and rare white tartufo is found. Truffles are difficult to find and impossible to grow in a lab, making them prized and pricey. Not only that, but the most delicious varieties are only available fresh in October and November, so get them while you can! Try them shaved fresh on top of homemade pasta, eggs or risotto.  

Can’t get enough truffle? Go on an authentic, private truffle hunt in the countryside of Umbria guided by a local truffle hunter and his trained dog. Follow it with a truffle tasting (along with pasta, bruschette and wine). As with all good things, this tour is seasonal, so sign up while you can!

Pumpkin  

It wouldn’t be fall without pumpkins! Though Halloween isn’t a native holiday and pumpkin spice items have yet to hit the shores of the peninsula, Italians know just how to bring out the delicious flavor of the pumpkin. You can find pumpkin served roasted as an appetizer or in a classic pumpkin risotto, but it’s all about the tortelli di zucca, or pumpkin-stuffed pasta. Mostly found in the plains of southern Lombardy and northern Emilia Romagna, tortelli di zucca is the traditional way to enjoy this harvest vegetable.  

Chestnuts 

chestnuts are a classic food to eat in autumn in Italy

While Americans are picking prime pumpkins to carve for Halloween, Italians are enjoying their mild autumn weather out in chestnut woods, foraging for these delicious nuts. Italy’s ultimate street food, visitors can find vendors selling bags of warm roasted chestnuts nearly everywhere this season. Or try them in a dish such as chestnut gnocchi or a hearty chestnut and mascarpone dessert.  

Grapes and wine 

By far the best way to try grapes in Italy is with an excellent bottle of wine. Luckily, in fall there are wine and harvest festivals galore. Try vino novelloliterally “young wine” harvested and fermented quickly for that year’s production. Popular in Veneto, you can also find it in Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Puglia and Sardinia. Or else tour the gorgeous vineyards dressed in their fall colors and enjoy wine from other years in the local cantinas.   

Still, wine isn’t the only way to enjoy the grape harvest. Now’s the time of year when you’ll find creative uses of the ubiquitous fruit. Look for it served with a wild poultry like pigeon or guinea fowl, atop focaccia, made into a jam, or pressed into fresh juice.  

Porcini mushrooms 

The mushroom foraging season can sometimes start as early as mid-August, but can be enjoyed in dishes throughout fall. King of the mushrooms in Italy are the favored funghi porcini. A meaty, flavorful mushroom, it’s perfect as a substitute to meat or to add a heartiness to soups or sides. Order porcini over a bed of polenta, try it with tagliatelle pasta or in a warm, creamy risotto.

Figs and prickly pears 

Stop to pluck figs from trees or the unique fichi d’India from cacti for a sweet, sumptuous fall treat. Photo by Angeles Balaguer from Pixabay

Lush, aromatic figs fall from the trees in September. Try them in a warm arugula salad, alongside a silky burrata cheese with balsamic vinegar or simply fresh from the tree. The sweet fruit also pair well with cured meats like prosciutto and with a variety of cheeses.  

Further south you can find prickly pears or fichi d’India. Actually a type of cactus from Mexico, legend has it that they’re called Indian figs because Christopher Columbus thought he had arrived in India when he first saw the fruit. In Italy you can find these in Sicily or Sardinia, where they might even be served for breakfast. They’re healthy and hydrating and can be used fresh as well as in liquors or desserts. 

Chocolate 

Though chocolate can of course be enjoyed year-round, it seems the Italians have decided that autumn is the best time to celebrate the sweet treat, with multiple different chocolate festivals taking place in this period. In October there’s EuroChocolate in Perugia and CioccolandoVi in Vicenza. In November you can choose from CioccolaTò in Turin, Sciocolà in Modena or the Cioccoshow in Bologna. At the very least, take advantage of the cooler temperatures to enjoy a cioccolata calda, or hot chocolate, which is served thick and creamy, essentially just pure melted chocolate in a cup, but always delicious! 

Photo by Foundry Co from Pixabay

Beyond these decadent fall foods, there is plenty of other produce in season in the autumn, including apples (especially up north in region’s like Trentino Alto Adige), fennel, spinach, fall artichokes, rabe and prunes. 

Everyone loves Italian food, but to truly get into the Italian culture, the regional, seasonal offerings are the prime choice!  

Truly explore Italy’s sublime seasonal cuisine with Ciao Andiamo winery tours, culinary walking tours and cooking tours led by local guides, experts and chefs. Discover all your options here!

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Tucked underneath the Alps in the northwest corner of Italy is Piedmont, an unassuming and long-overlooked region that just happens to produce some of Italy’s highest quality wines. 

Though most only think of the Tuscan vineyards, Piedmont is a cultural, culinary and wine-producing powerhouse, and well worth a visit for food and wine lovers.  

Italy’s ruling Savoy family ruled from Piedmont for more than a century. The Italian Unification Movement started from here and the region’s capital, Turin, also happened to be the first ever capital of the country of Italy.  

Home of Fiat, Olivetti, and Nutella, the Piemontese are known for being hard working and industrious but, like all Italians, they also know how to unwind. It probably comes as no surprise that this is mostly done with food and wine. 

a coffeehouse in Piedmont, Italy

Though all of Italy has a claim to food fame, Piedmont has some heavy hitters that can’t be ignored. Namely, the pungent and evasive white truffle, the rich Nebbiolo grape and a culinary attention that threads through it all.  

In fact, the Slow Food Movement was started in Piedmont in the 1980s “to defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life.” Today the organization spans the globe but remains dedicated to artisanal, sustainable food and the small-scale producers that safeguard local traditions and high-quality products. All of which perfectly describes Piedmont’s wine production: small-scale family estates with a remarkably high quality with more than 40 different DOC and DOCG wine varieties. 

Is it really any wonder, then, that the region produces some of the world’s finest wines? 

Piedmont’s UNESCO World Heritage Vineyards 

The vineyards in Piedmont

Most of Piedmont’s wine is produced in the rolling hills of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato.  

In fact, the vineyards of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato are a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. They’re cited as a “cultural landscape,” an “archetype of European vineyards” and a “living testimony to winegrowing and winemaking traditions.”   

This area covers hundreds of municipalities in the south of Piedmont, incorporating towns like Asti, Alba and Monferrato, but more importantly, it has a special microclimate perfect for growing grapes. Cool air from the Alps in the north meet warm currents from the Mediterranean to the south to create cold nights, warm afternoons and long, foggy mornings.  

King of Wine and Wine of Kings 

It’s the area’s characteristic fog, or nebbia, that gives the name to Piedmont’s infamous Nebbiolo wines. Harvest takes place in late October, when it’s normal for an intense fog to roll into the region where Nebbiolo grapes are grown.  

There are multiple different wines made using the Nebbiolo grapes, but by far the two most famous are Barolo and Barbaresco.  

The first is rich and hearty and one of the most renowned Italian wines in the world. It’s said to be the king of wine and the wine of kings. High alcohol and high tannin levels, it pairs perfectly with Piedmont’s heavier cuisine: game, truffles, cheese. 

Like Barolo, Barbaresco is made from Nebbiolo grapes and also smells like roses and cherry. It’s also a deep red with high alcohol levels but its nutrient-rich soil tends to even out the tannin levels, giving it an ever-so-lighter taste than Barolo. It’s often considered a bit more approachable than its counterpart.  

Beyond that, Nebbiolo wines include Langhe Nebbiolo, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Ghemme, Gattinara and Roero Rosso, among others.

But Piedmont’s extraordinary wine production doesn’t stop there. (After all, Piedmont is the 6th highest producer of wine in Italy and Barolo and Barbaresco make up only about three – six percent of that).  

Wines to Try in Piedmont

crates of grapes grown to make wine in Piedmont, Italy

You could spend weeks touring Piedmont’s vineyards and wineries. Usually small-scale and family-owned, each is slightly different in its approach and taste.  

Barbera

Though Barolo and the other wines made from the Nebbiolo grapes are by far the most widely known internationally, it’s Barbera that is in the typical Piemontese’s glass. Barbera has made huge strides in the past few decades, growing into its role as Piedmont’s favorite medium-bodied red. It’s also significantly less expensive and easier to pair with a variety of foods. Try two different versions of Barbera in Asti or Alba. 

Dolcetto d’Alba

Produced in the province of Alba in the Langhe, Dolcetto d’Alba is another favorite red. Called “the sweet one” it’s not so much sweet as velvety, filled with dark fruit flavors, licorice and tannins. 

Fresia and Malvasia 

Fresia, along with Malvasia, are two lighter, slightly sweeter reds made in the Monferrato area. Of the two, Fresia is a slightly more complicated red in taste and production while Malvasia is fresh with just enough tannin to balance out the sweetness.  

Moscato Bianco

Muscat grapes, or Moscato in Italian, are some of the oldest known varieties of grapes grown for wine. All that time has certainly helped, today it’s one of the most delicious and widely known sparkling white wines. Piedmont is ground zero for this sweet wine, so be sure to try it when in Piedmont, maybe a creamy Moscato d’Asti Spumante 

Of course this is just a taste of the world-class wines that Piedmont produces, but enough to tempt a visit we’re sure!   

Piedmont is filled with perfect panoramas, culinary delights and historic towns. Tuscany may get all the glamour, but Piedmont sits stoic, sure of itself among castles, truffles and wine. 

Tour vineyards and delight in Piedmont’s gastronomical delights with Ciao Andiamo on our Castles, Truffles and Barolo trip. Click here to learn more!

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Everyone loves Italian food. Fresh, seasonal and simple, few cuisines know how to make the most of incredible flavors with so few ingredients. So how do Italians do it? First, they buy high-quality ingredients – after all, you don’t need much! Second, they always make sure they have enough on hand for a beautiful home-cooked meal. Here are the most ubiquitous Italian food staples and what you can make with them.

Olive Oil

Photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

It’s no secret that olive oil reigns supreme in Italian cooking. Whether it’s used to sauté fresh vegetables, enrich a pasta sauce or dress a salad, a high-quality extra virgin olive oil is a must in an Italian kitchen. Not only that, but many Italian kitchens will have different types and qualities of Italian-made olive oil based on the use. Whatever the use, olive oil is the foundation that Italian dishes are built upon.

Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce has gotten a bad rap in Italian-American cooking lately, but it’s still a staple here in Italy. Here it’s not the only way to dress a pasta and it doesn’t drench the pasta when it is used. A basic tomato sauce is considered just the start to a pasta sauce. It’s the base on which you build your flavors. Most are usually flavored with a soffritto of finely diced onion, carrots and celery. After, you can add meat, sausage, olives, fish – nearly anything – to create the pasta sauce of your dreams.

Dried Pasta

Photo by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

Even when don’t have a single vegetable or any option of meat or fish, you can still have a full meal if you have some pasta. In Italy there are hundreds of different types of pasta, dry and fresh, but while the fresh pasta has an expiration date, dried pasta lasts years. Keep a variety of different pasta types so you’ll always have an option no matter what sauce you decide to make!

Onions

On that note, onions are a basis of flavoring here in Italy. Where in America garlic abounds, Italians tend toward the still-pungent but softer flavor of onions. Even if you don’t have carrots or celery to make a soffritto for a nice pasta sauce, a bit of diced onion will still spice things up. Onions flavor lentils, meat dishes and make a wonderful side dish to fish entrees. They also last for weeks in a dark, dry place, making them the perfect pantry food.

Basic herbs and spices

Photo by Konstantin Kolosov from Pixabay

Italians definitely prefer fresh herbs – some won’t even make certain dishes without them – but you can keep a stock of a few dried spices that will come in handy in a pinch. First, an Italian kitchen will have both fine salt and large sea salt. The first is used to season your dish, the latter is used to season the water to pasta or at most sparingly sprinkled over salmon or steak. Beyond that keep pepper, garlic and parsley in your pantry to cover your bases. Fresh is the only way to go with basil, sage and bay leaves, however.

Breadcrumbs

Often breadcrumbs are that just something you needed to raise your dish up a level. Slice vegetables and bake them under a mixture of olive oil, spices and breadcrumbs. Or else bulk up fish filets with breadcrumbs and parsley. With just an egg and some breadcrumbs you can make any slice of meat or fish impannato, breaded, to quickly fry it up and enjoy but that’s not where it ends in Italy. The land of the cucina povera, bread was never wasted here. Make stuffed tomatoes with a filling of herbs and breadcrumbs or take a cue from the Sicilians and add some breadcrumbs to your pasta to add some texture, such as in pasta con le sarde or

Eggs

Italians have a super varied diet and rarely eat the same thing over and over. Though they might have pasta every day, it’s never with the same vegetables or sauce or even the same type of pasta. And their protein rarely comes from the same source. It’s normal to vary between fish, meat, beans or cheese in the same week and eggs usually make the menu as well. Not only are eggs a solid source of protein during the week, like in a classic Italian frittata, but they also enrich savory tarts and can be used to make real Italian fresh pasta. Mix 100 grams of flour with 1 egg slowly to create the base of your fresh pasta then roll out to flatten and cut in whatever form you want. Cook until the pasta rises to the surface of the water and you’re good to go!

Olives

Olives are another pantry item that last for a long time and adds a kick of flavor to any dish. Make a super simple pasta with tomato sauce and black and green olives or grind up black olives along with almonds and ricotta to make a pesto siciliano. You can add olives to salad or bake fish on a bed of chopped tomatoes and olives (breadcrumbs are good here too) and of course, a bowl of olives is the perfect antipasto to pair with a glass of wine.

Wine

Whether you imbibe or not, wine is a staple in any Italian kitchen for its rich flavor and multi-use. It’s not uncommon to sfumare a dish with a splash of wine, then leave the rest of the bottle on the table to drink with dinner. Not only that, but there are many dishes that are specifically made with wine, like pasta al Barolo or risotto with Taleggio and Raboso, where the final flavor is that of the wine itself.  Cheers!

Can’t get enough of Italian food? Enjoy private tastings at hidden wineries and rustic-style feasts on our Food, Wine & the Rolling Hills trip in Tuscany and Umbria. Write us for more info!

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One of northern Italy’s most beautiful historic cities, Verona is famous worldwide as the setting of Romeo and Juliet. Travelers have long come to enjoy the romance that permeates the city, but there’s so much more to experience in Verona.  

A wide angle over the city of Verona at twilight, exactly when the opera in the Verona Arena begins!
Verona is beautiful in any light. Photo by Helge Thomas.

In fact, the entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its 2,000 year old architecture and urban structure that is still visible today.

Founded by the Romans in the 1st century BCE, Verona’s strategic location between Milan and Venice, sea, mountains and the Italian peninsula, helped it to grow rapidly in importance.  

Today travelers from all over the world come to tour Verona’s cobbled streets and take in its architectural icons. But there’s one architectural icon that outshines all others: The Arena di Verona.

An open-air amphitheater still in use today, the Arena di Verona is the best representation of the city’s important history and rich culture. Today visitors can go to see a ballet, an orchestra concert or a classic opera, and even if it’s not something you’d usually do, we promise you:

There’s no better way to experience the history and magic of the Verona than by seeing an opera in the Verona Arena.

What is the Verona Arena? 

The Arena di Verona is the city’s magnificent amphitheater built by the Romans in 30 AD. The third largest arena in antiquity, it could once hold up to 30,000 people.  

Though it looks like a miniature Colosseum, it was actually built nearly 50 years before the iconic Colosseum. Also, differently than Rome’s most famous ringed amphitheater, the Verona Arena is still used to this day.  

In fact, it’s the largest Roman amphitheater still in use. Standing tall for nearly 2,000 years, the Arena has survived pillaging in the Middle Ages, an earthquake that toppled its uppermost ring, countless rulers and World War II. It has been a stage for gladiator fights, a public trial area, cheap housing for prostitutes and more and later shops, offices and a small market before ultimately returning to a theater.  

Though the Arena had begun its opera tradition in the 1800s, for various reasons it still sat mostly unused. It wasn’t until nearly a century after the first performance that the Verona Arena became a true opera house with the opening of Aida by Giuseppe Verdi in 1913. 

Besides brief pauses during the First and Second World Wars, the Arena has been hosting summer opera seasons ever since.  

Today Verona’s Arena still fills with 15,000 – 20,000 spectators ready to enjoy an opera on a warm Italian summer night.  

Why You Should See an Opera in the Verona Arena

a close up of a giant face, a set dressing from the Tosca opera, with the Verona arena in the background
Set dressing from Tosca sits outside the Arena in Verona. Photo by Boss Tweed

While Vienna and Milan’s infamous opera houses maintain their elegant dress code and extravagant price tag to match, opera in the Verona Arena is available to all. Travelers can choose between assigned seats and cushioned chairs and the stone seating of the amphitheater rings and whatever price range runs between the two. Accessible prices and no strict dress code mean travelers can get tickets for the opera even if they didn’t plan ahead, and if they’ve had enough they can simply get up and leave!  

Built in the 1st century AD, the Arena’s acoustics are so remarkable that even today performers sing without the use of microphones and each voice can be heard in any seat throughout the entire amphitheater.  

Whether you’re an opera fan or not, opera in the Verona Arena is a must-have experience. At a Verona opera you’re fully experiencing Italian culture, participating in history and enjoying a magnificent Italian summer evening in the biggest open-air opera house in the world. 

How to See an Opera in Verona

Photo by Dimitris Kamaras

The Arena’s summer opera season runs from June to mid-September, but check online for exact dates. 

The 2019 Arena di Verona Opera Festival opens on June 21st with the Traviata and ends September 7th with Aida, the “Queen” of the Verona Arena. Since it debuted in 1913 on the Arena stage and officially opened the Arena back up to the public, Aida has been performed over 670 times and is a symbol of the Arena.  

Spectators can also see ballet and concerts in the Arena as well.  

You can purchase tickets online quickly and easily to ensure you have a spot. You can pay with credit card and look at your seating online as well. Otherwise, you can buy tickets directly at the ticket office on Via Dietro Anfiteatro 6/b from 10 am – 9 pm on performance days and until 5:45 pm on days with no performances.  

Truly live La Dolce Vita on our Dolce Vita trip by adding an opera performance on your overnight stay in Verona. Click here to learn more today!  

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