Christmas is an exciting time to visit Italy. Towns are illuminated with silver and gold fairy lights. Wreaths and other garlands bedeck houses and balconies and Christmas trees play centerstage at every piazza.
Christmas in Italy means Italian Christmas markets. Nearly every town boasts one, where the cacophony of crackling chestnuts and bagpipe-playing shepherds, called zampognari, get you into the spirit as much as a glass of vin brulè (warm wine).
Still, it’s not the drinking and dancing that makes visitors want to spend Christmas in Italy. It’s the religious traditions around the holiday. Families still celebrate midnight mass at church and pay respects to nativity scenes. This tradition dates back to the fifth century when Pope Sixtus III introduced a midnight mass in the chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the most important basilicas in Rome.
Nowadays there are plenty of Christmassy services and carol concerts in churches in Italy, and even the most secular of “pilgrims” enjoys these. We’ve narrowed down the list of our five favorite Italian churches to celebrate Christmas 2022, including the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.
Basilica of St Francis, Assisi
In the bucolic region of Umbria, Assisi is an enchanting hilltop city with a compact historic center. The spiritual capital of the region, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, aka Saint Francis, was born here in 1182. He established the Franciscan Order of Friars after giving up his privileged life of wealth to live in poverty.
Saint Francis is buried at the 13th-century Basilica of St. Francis, one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in all of Christendom and one of the most iconic Italian cathedrals. Francis promoted peace and made the Gospel’s teaching more accessible to common people so visiting the Basilica during Christmas in Italy could be a great way to reconnect with his message of non-materialism, which challenges the wealthy and powerful to this day.
The tomb of St. Francis lies deep beneath the Basilica and is one of the most important Christian relics in the world. The Basilica rises above the tomb, supported by huge arches. Cimabue and Giotto designed the frescoes in the 13th century and the nave depicts 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis, who was known for his love of nature and animals. Look for the delicate scene showing him preaching to birds.
St. Francis also began the Christian tradition of the nativity scene by creating the very first one, with live people and animals, in the nearby town of Greccio. Each Christmas, a beautiful life-sized manger scene is displayed in front of St. Francis’ Basilica. Expect beautiful candlelight processions through the piazza, and midnight masses around the city where people line up to kiss the statue of the baby Jesus.
Abbey of San Fruttuoso, Camogli
The Italian Riviera is a perfect destination to travel off-season. Sixteen miles east of Genoa, in the Regional Park of Portofino, lies Camogli, an Italian town famous for its scenic streets and white sea vessels, tucked like puzzle pieces in the harbor. Similar to Cinque Terre, Camogli boasts pastel houses perched on a cliff, decorated with the trompe l’oeil technique. The little fishing village offers several coastal paths where dazzling panoramas await and a challenging trekking path that leads to the gem of the region: the abbey of San Fruttuoso.
This Benedictine monastery, built in the 10th century, seems to have sprouted from the hill above the vibrant turquoise waves. It was owned for centuries by the princes Doria, among the most important families in the history of the Republic of Genoa. In the 13th century, the family changed the abbey’s structure by building the loggia with two orders of three-mullioned windows.
If you are spending Christmas in Italy, head here for a truly unique experience: On Christmas night a boat service from Camogli will bring you to San Fruttuoso where you can enjoy Christmas mass with famous regional choirs. The view of the stone facade, with the windows lit by flickering lights on a clear night, is simply spectacular. At the end of the mass, warm up with a glass of vin brulè.
Fun Fact: At a depth of about 59 feet, lies the submerged Christ of the Abyss statue (Cristo degli Abissi), made by sculptor Guido Galletti. The area has become one of the most famous diving sites in the world, thanks to the many diving centers that flank the bay.
Basilica of Santa Maria alla Sanità, Naples
The presepe—aka the nativity scene—is one of the most traditional symbols of Christmas in Italy. Although religious in nature, the nativity scene in Italy is something appreciated by even the most secular of people. It’s a work of art and whether big or small, you’ll find one in every church in Italy during the season.
The presepe may not have been invented in Naples, but the city takes the tradition of nativity scenes very seriously. The narrow alleyway of Via San Gregorio Armeno teems with sophisticated handmade nativity scenes year-round.
The Basilica of Santa Maria alla Sanità, built over the catacombs of San Gaudioso in the 17th century, boasts a permanent nativity scene called Il Presepe Favoloso (The Fabulous Nativity Scene). Situated on a monumental display cabinet (132 inches high) in the sacristy of the basilica, the Presepe Favoloso is an impressive work by Neapolitan sculptors, the Scuotto brothers. The complex scenography is made up of more than 100 handmade figures and precious accessories. The traditional characters of the nativity scene, such as the Holy Family, farm animals, angels, etc., are incorporated with characters coming from allegories and fabulous tales, or from social and political events.
The visionary world of the Scuotto brothers moves between aspects of Naples folklore and the need to update artistic clichés. The result is stunning. You can admire this impressive work from all sides. Look closer to see how meticulously each piece has been created, without neglecting finer details such as facial expressions and fingers.
Monreale Cathedral, Palermo
Italy is undoubtedly a Christian country and the Catholic faith is very strong, especially in the south. Sicily, with its deep roots in tradition and festivities, is one of the most enchanting regions to visit during Christmas in Italy. Even in the smallest town, many Christian holy sites offer celebrations, concerts, and living nativities. But nothing quite provokes wonder like visiting the Monreale Cathedral. The bustling hill town a few miles west of Palermo‘s city center, boasts a massive Italian cathedral, built due to a struggle for power between the bishop of Palermo and the Norman King William II.
Architecturally the cathedral displays a perfect harmony of styles including Norman, Romanic, and Arabic. The interior is massive (measuring 393 feet by 131 feet) and richly ornamented with exquisite 12th-century mosaics, designed to function as a living Bible. Each corner of the Monreale Cathedral has a story to tell: look for Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent or for Noah building his ark and filling it with animals.
Over the central apse, the impressive mosaic portrait of Christ Pantocrator glows like the sun dominating its surroundings. During Christmas, it’s quite a unique experience attending mass in the nave, where the creation of the earth and the evolution of man is so exquisitely illustrated. The atmosphere is devotional and the acoustics are legendary. Sounds resonate within the walls with crystalline purity and then travel back to the ears of those who hear them.
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, Rome
You can’t talk about Christmas in Italy without talking about Rome and the Vatican. This is Christian history in a nutshell and attending Christmas Mass at the Vatican is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for devout Catholics. The evening celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and, by extension, the birth of the Catholic Church. The event is unique but also exclusive: you have to reserve a free space by booking ahead.
Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is about two-and-a-half hours long and led by the Pope in his white vestments. The vast interior of the basilica is full of iconic architectural details so the acoustics are stellar. It’s emotional to gaze up at the dome of St. Peter’s dome while chanting prayers. If you can’t get a ticket inside, join 80,000 other pilgrims and watch the mass live from big screens placed at St Peter’s Square. It’s standing room only.
The weather is usually mild In Rome and people spill out into the square. In front of majestic St. Peter’s Basilica—the most impressive church in Italy and in the world—the Vatican Christmas Tree stands bright, adorned with lights, ornaments, and other decorative items.
Pope John Paul II, in 1982, erected the first time a Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square to symbolize that “Christ is evergreen.” Regardless of your faith, the Vatican Christmas Mass is a significant event that spreads unity and peace. It’s a unique, evocative way to reconnect with the sacred part of Christmas celebrations.
Spending Christmas in Italy is a recipe for a truly unforgettable festive season. Wherever you decide to celebrate and whatever Italian cathedral you decide to visit, Auguri di buon Natale!