Christmas markets in Italy, the most picturesque and mouth-watering ones
Journey through the Christmas street markets that are worth a visit. To discover new areas of Italy and old traditions
For many, going to a Christmas market is a passion, and a torture for others. Yet, there is a way to find a point of contact between these two extremes, one that can become a cultural enrichment and a pleasant gourmet outing.
Christmas markets are known to have a very ancient origin: they were first mentioned as early as the Middle Ages, in a document in Dresden attesting to the holding of a single-day event on Christmas Eve 1434.
From there on, we have evidence of Christmas markets across Germany and throughout Northern Europe. After surviving the Protestant Reformation and the tragic events of the two World Wars, Christmas markets prospered over the centuries, and it was during the post-war economic boom that they became also popular with Italians. Not until 1990, however, did Bolzano give us the first Italian Christmas market, making us definitely fall in love with this tradition, which is now also somehow ours.
Today, the culture of Christmas markets has merged throughout Italy with that of typical village fairs resulting in many unmissable events.
The North celebrates tradition
Surely not to be missed, for authenticity, atmosphere and seniority, are the Trentino Alto Adige Christmas markets: Bolzano, Merano, Bressanone, Brunico and Vipiteno are part of the 5 Star Circuit of Christmas markets, which not only offer a fairy-tale atmosphere, but have also been certified for years as ‘green events’, thanks to their eco-friendly organisation.
The Christmas markets in Val Gardena, in Ortisei and Selva, are as typical as can be, with little wooden houses, fresh snow and lights that even add romance to the cable car. In Val Sarentino, in the province of Bolzano, people go to the Alpine Advent Market to stock up on typical handmade products, including the typical thick virgin sheep’s wool jackets (Sarner Jangger) and warm slippers (Sarner Toppar), or to eat homemade krapfen (doughnuts), Striezl (Sarentino fried bread) or rye bread. The lucky ones, in Val Sarentino and in Scaleres, can attend – on the three Sundays before Christmas – the ritual of the Klöckeln with people dressed in traditional costumes going around farmsteads renewing an ancient Germanic ritual aimed at chasing away evil spirits.
In addition to punch and mulled wine (but the truly modern ones will appreciate the recipe for Negroni Brulé on our website), at these traditional markets visitors can also enjoy gingerbread biscuits, zelten with dried and candied fruit, as well as buy speck, grappa and typical jams.
The charming village of Govone, a jewel set in the hills of the Langhe-Roero in Piedmont, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, entirely transforms into the Magical Christmas Village between November and December. This market is now considered to be one of the best Christmas markets in Europe, and it is getting bigger and bigger, so much so that it reaches into neighbouring municipalities. Of course, there is no shortage of local food and wine products to sample, such as the award-winning Roero wines and the prized Piedmont meats.
For a week every year, Milan in Lombardy hosts the Oh bej! Oh bej!, a typical Milanese Christmas market celebrating the city’s patron saint, Saint Ambrose. Oh bej!, a typical Milanese Christmas market celebrating the city’s patron saint, Saint Ambrose. The origin of the festival dates back to the end of the 13th century and, from a celebration of the saint, it is now in every respect a huge Christmas market, with many local specialities – above all, the typical Milanese panettone, which can be bought or tasted in restaurants, perhaps after an equally traditional saffron risotto – in addition to many products from the rest of Italy and the world.
A triumph of lights in the central regions, but with low impact
In Florence, Tuscany, the Christmas atmosphere is full of lights and there is the German-inspired, also for food, Christmas village in Piazza Santa Croce: this is where lovers of bratwurst and bretzel should go, but even whoever wants to taste new flavours like kürtőskalács, a typical Hungarian dessert that is hard to find in Italy. Markets flourish around the regional capital: Arezzo, Empoli, Montepulciano and many other typical Tuscan villages organise events that attract citizens and tourists alike, taking the opportunity to let everyone taste the typical, organic, and local zero-kilometre products.
And the world’s largest Christmas tree? The largest Christmas tree in the world is in Gubbio, in the province of Perugia in Umbria, and occupies a slope of Mount Ingino. At 750 metres high and 450 metres wide, it has been built since 1981. Taking 1,300 working hours to set up, it is mostly powered by a photovoltaic system consisting of 16 modules of 280 W each. Every year, it is possible to adopt a light on the website alberodigubbio.com for the symbolic price of €10, contributing to its maintenance.
In Candelara, a medieval village with less than a thousand inhabitants on the outskirts of Pesaro, in the Marche region, Candles at Candelara is staged: the whole village is filled with candles, thanks to the decision to switch off the artificial lights in the evening to illuminate the castle and streets with just the candles. Of course, the stands with traditional local dishes are not to be missed, to taste the specialities of central Italy and the typical cascioni from Pesaro, created out of a dough of water, flour, salt and lard and stuffed with wild herbs and sausage or cheese.
Moving on to Lazio, the city of Rome is also a tourist destination for its many markets. The most famous one is Piazza Navona. Wandering among the lights and stalls can be tiring, luckily the classic Roman Supplì that can be eaten while walking around gives us energy. Less than a five-minute walk away is the Forno di Campo de’ Fiori, an essential stop to buy a piece of pizza ‘da passeggio’, to eat while walking around the city and stuffed with mortadella. Still in Rome, also worth a visit are the 100 nativity scenes in the Vatican and, why not, the Father Christmas Village at Cinecittà World, where, obviously, it is possible to attend shows and film-themed musicals.
In the South, amid unique places and ancient history
Impossible, for anyone who loves Christmas, not to plan a stop in Naples, Campania. The picturesque, narrow and very crowded San Gregorio Armeno, a street in the historical centre, is famous for its craft workshops where masters have been creating nativity scenes since the 18th century. Getting there is easy, just take the metro and get off at the Dante stop. But do so by stopping here and there at the many Neapolitan kiosks dedicated to street food, to taste a fried pizza or a sfogliatella, to be savoured while walking.
Matera, the city of the Sassi, in Basilicata, honours its already very special urban nature – with cave houses excavated in ancient times directly inside the mountain – by hosting the Nativity Scene in the Sassi, as well as Christmas markets where you can shop for typical products. The Sassi, the historical centre of the city of Matera, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. One more reason to visit this incredible Lucanian city and taste its specialities, like the ‘peperone crusco’ or homemade pasta with the excellent and typical lamb ragout.
Slightly further east, the charming town of Alberobello, in Apulia, sets up a quaint market among its trulli, the white conical stone constructions built around the 15th century, also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. In the oldest part of the town centre, the Nativity scene is staged, with hundreds of figures recreating the scenes. The trulli are decorated and decked out with lights, creating an evocative ambience all over the area, which should be visited not only for the show but also to taste typical Apulian Christmas pastries, including pettole and cartellate with honey.
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