Although beaches and sun may draw you to Italy, there’s lots of reasons Winter in Italy is the best time to visit! Let us convince you.
“Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius.”
– Pietro Aretino
I dare say that the Tuscan-born controversial Italian intellectual, Pietro Aretino, had a point. While most people tend to lionize the seasons of Spring, Summer and Autumn, winter remains the forlorn sibling that in a way, must be persevered in a country revered for its favorable sunny climate. In Italy, for one to properly enjoy the wonders of the coldest season, people typically head to the mountains to embark on snowy adventures high in altitude —but trust me when I say that city life is rather enjoyable too. In fact, for this Tuscan Texan who didn’t even see snow until she was nineteen, I uncharacteristically look forward to the winter season like many Italian kids await the Epiphany good-witch, Befana. Yes, perhaps there is something to fear, but Befana, like winter, is a good thing… her arrival brings more joy than despair and perhaps a few treats (if you behave). I say, embrace the time when crowds lessen, sales are in abundance and magnificent sunny days make Italy a joy to be around—just remember pack smart. Here is why winter is the best time to visit Italy.
Crowd-free? Not likely, but definitely more pleasant
In many art cities, such as Florence, Siena, Lucca or Rome – the enormous wealth of art heritage will beckon you indoors to the many museums, churches or archaeological sites in order to see the work of iconic masters such as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Pontormo. Naturally, all of these places are open year-round to visit, but instead of sweltering in the hot summer sun with a crowd of never-ending visitors, winter offers a more civilized approach to discovering some of Italy’s most important museums, like the Uffizi Gallery. We would note that you wouldn’t expect places like Florence to be tourist free—these places are never truly without tourists, but it is much easier to find book a last-minute ticket than Spring, Summer and popular Fall.
Additionally, places that are hot on the day trip trail such as San Gimignano, Cinque Terre, Monteriggioni, Siena, Bagno Vignoni, not to mention further afield Venice are absolutely overrun in the warmer months. As soon as you get off the train, bus, car you will see hundreds of people doing the exact same thing among tiny alleyways and medieval squares that were never meant to have this many visitors. During winter, time moves at a slower pace. I myself cherish San Gimignano, famous for its saffron and award-winning Vernaccia wine, in January and February when you don’t have to jostle through crowds in Tuscany’s “Medieval Manhattan.” Instead grab a cappuccino, plan a few museum stops and don’t’ forget to take in the often marvelous views and you might even get some of these places all to yourself!
Ora, si Mangia! Embrace slow, cozy comfort meals
So much of what we love about Italy is simply the art of a long meal shared with people we love and often lunches on the weekends can extend to several hours with multiple tantalizing courses that make January’s diet ambitions go straight out of the window.
That being said, it is such a rich and glorious time to try some of Tuscany’s top winter favorites: dishes such as gut-sticking ribollita, a hearty stew made with stale bread and seasonal vegetables, especially Cavolo nero or Tuscan kale, a popular winter vegetable.
What else can you see on the menu? Plenty of pumpkin-based dishes, farinata or corn flour with black cabbage, simmering meat stews, and of course all types of minestrone! It’s a delicious time to be in Italy so plan a few long lunches and you’ll be on the right track.
As we head towards carnival season in February, brings the “sweet life” directly to our stomachs thanks to local pasticcerie that hold true to tradition. With the sweetly-fried cenci (named differently in every region), and delightful frittelle fried dough balls, and who could forget the Florentine carnival cake schiacciata alla fiorentina, these treats are seasonal and are entirely worth the extra calories!
Saldi! A Time to shop (smart)
January and February in Italy coincide with saldi or sales season, when prices on most goods are slashed 30, 50 or even as high as 70% across most stores around the country. While this is mainly aimed at locals looking to drum up the economy after the holidays, those visiting can enjoy the cost-saving benefit too! Look for high-value items that last: this means quality winter coats Italian made shoes and leather handbags, at times even wellness spas will throw in their services as part of the sales so if you are on the hunt for something special, time is of the essence. The sales tend to quiet down in mid-February with only the dregs left as they pull out the next season’s collection.
Scared to go outdoors because it’s cold? Here’s where to get warm!
The amount of winter activities in the great Italian outdoors is endless. I’ll spare you all that there is to do in the mountains because that’s an easy guess but what else is there to do on a visit to Tuscany or Umbria per say? One of our favorite local pastimes is to seek out one of the warm and inviting thermal springs for a dip that is also good for you. Many of these bodies of water have mineral properties that offer many benefits for the bather, a tradition in Italy since the time of the Etruscans and Romans. You can choose between a paid spa or take a dip in one of Tuscany’s more “au natural” locations such as Saturnia or Terme di Petriolo.
Viva Il Carnivale! The original party season
Every year revelers get dressed up and parade through the city streets during Carnival season, an important celebration in Italy and many places around the world during the 40 days before Easter. In Italy, our favorite carnivals take place in Venice and Viareggio, two of the most popular destinations to celebrate this annual festa, while you can explore other options here.
In Venice, the party in 2019 is set to kick off on February 23rd and end on March 5th, while Viareggio’s carnival will take place on Saturday 9, Sunday 17, Saturday 23 February, Sunday 3 and Tuesday 5 March.
Additional tips to keep in mind if you plan on traveling in winter
- Often there are great flight deals to popular Italian cities in mid-January –late February. Make sure to set up an alert to nab a last-minute deal.
- Accommodation will also be a lot more affordable in most cities, this is the time to stay in the hotel you’ve always wanted to but couldn’t afford in the summer months. Just keep in mind that in the countryside options are limited as places tend to close seasonally.
- Many restaurants close in January or early February for winter break, so it pays to make reservations in advance at your favorite place.