As Italy groans under the weight of its exponential increase in summer visitors, we are starting to nudge our clients towards the quieter early spring (March/April) and late fall (October/November) seasons to avoid the crowds, heat, and general chaos that can mar a summer trip.
But we are also encouraging travelers to consider winter trips from December to March, when the entire country gets a chance to breathe again, there is more availability from hotel rooms to museum tickets, and guides and drivers are rested and relaxed. That said, there are certainly some caveats to a winter trip: the weather can be unpredictable; there are certain destinations that essentially close for the entire season; and simple pleasures like outdoor dining and basking on the beach are generally off the table.
The most important factor in a winter trip is the choice of destination. There are some spots in Italy that delight all year round, and others that are decidedly seasonal and can be a challenge to enjoy (or even simply visit) in the winter. Here are the best places to visit in Italy in winter plus a few areas to avoid in the off-season.
The Eternal City is enchanting no matter what the season.
Winter weather in Rome is neither arctic nor balmy (though it is decidedly warmer than much of the US), and you can definitely catch days that are particularly nippy or wet. But one thing is guaranteed during a winter visit to Rome: no crowds. You can enjoy famously chaotic sights like the Vatican and Colosseum in peace, nab tables at the most popular trattorias, and wander A-list neighborhoods like Monti and Trastevere feeling like a local. On sunny days, the city’s open-air sites and charming backstreets beckon; when the weather becomes less inviting, museums and churches offer eye-candy shelter. The Romans are also more welcoming in the off-season, when their city is more livable and tourism less disruptive for residents.
Warmer climes on the island just a few nautical miles from Africa
You probably won’t be able to take a dip in the sea (though some seasons are mild enough that winter bathers make the evening news), but Sicily is one of the best places to visit in Italy in winter if you’re looking for Mediterranean climes. The average winter temperatures hover around 60° and the island gets very little rain, so the chances of being able to sit outside for a cappuccino, hike, or bike are relatively high. We planned both Thanksgiving and Christmas trips to Sicily just last year, and our clients were able to spend much of their time outdoors either visiting ancient sites or hitting the trails. While tourist crowds are almost non-existent, the island’s cities bustle with locals during winter months, the UNESCO-listed ancient sites stay open all year round, and opera and concert seasons are in full swing, so you can get a peek at SIcily’s sumptuous historical opera houses.
Savor the rare months of the year when this gem isn’t overrun with tourists.
Venice has become so packed over the past few summer seasons that it’s a challenge to enjoy the city between May and September. We encourage our clients to get off the beaten path and explore the quieter “sestieri”, but there’s no escaping the throngs in St. Mark’s Square and other must-see sights. Though Venice is bone-chillingly cold in winter, its magical atmosphere makes it one of the best places to visit in Italy in winter. Quiet, misty, romantic…this is the Venice of postcards. Since the city has a year-round tourist season, hotels and restaurants are still open, plus there are no lines at the A-list sights, and gondolas continue to glide along the canals (with lap blankets provided to keep you warm). The only exception to this serene vibe is during the Carnival celebrations in February, when the city comes to life and parties like no other.
Ski the most majestic peaks in Europe.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most stunning alpine landscapes in the world, the Dolomites are particularly spectacular in winter. Dramatic serrated peaks jut above stone pinnacles and spires, with pristine expanses of forest below. You can spend your time here reveling in the views, or enjoy some of the best skiing in Europe. This mountain range is home to luxurious resorts like Cortina d’Ampezzo and Madonna di Campiglio, though the Dolomites are also fascinating for their unique Tyrolean history and culture, which includes a distinct language and cuisine.
Most of Italy is prime for a winter visit, but there are a few destinations that we generally discourage for winter visits (though even these have exceptions…we planned a trip for clients in December on the Ligurian Riviera and they had a fabulous trip!). Here are a few places you should probably cross off your list from November to March:
The coastlines along the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian shut down in winter.
The resort towns that line Italy’s coast virtually shutter when the summer season ends in September. Beach clubs close up shop, hotels and restaurants take a much-needed break, and the “la dolce vita” vibe that makes these waterfront hot spots charming under the summer sun vanishes completely. One exception is the resort town of Viareggio along the Tuscan coast, famous for its Carnival festivities in February.
Don’t risk getting stranded when winter storms roll in.
Aside from Sicily, Italy’s smaller islands are not particularly attractive winter destinations. Most hotels, restaurants, and other services close up shop, the weather is unpredictable, and the pretty towns are more or less vacant. In addition, choppy winter seas mean that you might get stuck for a day or two if the ferry and taxi boat routes are suspended.
Hilltowns in Tuscany and Umbria are cold and damp come November.
Postcard-perfect from spring through fall, the charming medieval villages the clients love to visit in Tuscany and Umbria are decidedly unwelcoming for much of the winter. Those stone castles, monasteries, and farmhouses that are delightful in the summer become bone-chilling in the winter, plus restaurants and other services close down from Christmas to Easter and the weather can be wet for days on end. You may get lucky (we had clients in Montepulciano for a week in January and the weather was divine), but don’t risk it.
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