Know this; there's more to Italian festivals than Carnival. In fact, when I set about putting together this list I wanted to compile a comprehensive guide to as many Italian festivals as possible. But, it quickly became apparent that this would be impossible. There are just too many!
The fact remains, though, that there is no quicker way to get under a country’s skin than to experience a festival that celebrates the deep-seated heritage, history, and traditions of a culture. So, check out this list of Italian festivals and next time you find yourself in the Mediterranean's boot
be sure to make your way to one.
Feast of Epiphany (January)
The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated nation-wide on the 6th of January in Italy. It is an important date on the Christian calendar and commemorates the 12th day of Christmas. This was when the three Kings traveled to visit the baby Jesus bringing with them the gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. A big part of this post-Christmas celebration is the tradition of La Befana. La Befana, similar to Santa Claus and St. Nicholas, is a witch who delivers gifts and sweets to good children and a lump of cold to the bad. This is practiced on the eve of Epiphany, January 5th. Across Italy, people light bonfires and burn ragdolls symbolizing the witch. This is done to purge the air of all of the negative aspects of the previous year and create a clean slate for the new one.
Venice Carnival (February)
Of all Italian festivals, Venice Carnival is the most globally renowned. Over the course of its ten days, the floating city of Venice transforms into a winter wonderland. The ornately decorated Italian carnival masks that revelers don throughout the festivities have their origins in the religious festivals of Saturnalia and Dionysia (Latin and Greek cults). Hiding behind their Venetian masks, the carnival was, at one point, such a playground for miscreants, murders and petty criminals that, in the 1700s, Napoleon banned it. And, then 300 years later, Mussolini did too. Now, the carnival’s a little more wholesome. Packing its 10-day programme with fantastic events for all to enjoy, most of the action takes place in Piazza San Marco. But, explore the city to unmask even more of the carnival’s magic.
Battle of the Oranges (March)
Recognized the world over for as the orange throwing festival, the Carnival of Ivrea is not so much an Italian food festival as an Italian food fight. Not native to the small alpine town, Oranges are flown in from Sicily for the carnival's main event. For those not in the know, the “orange carnival” celebration involves dividing the thousands of townsfolk into nine teams who then descend into what is undoubtedly the world’s biggest food fight. The origins of the Battle of the Oranges are unknown. But, the belief is that it celebrates the popular uprising and liberation of Ivrea from its tyrannical leader, a member of the Ranieri family.
Procession of Mysteries (April)
Easter in Italy is a serious affair. Held annually for the past 400 years in Sicily's Trapani is the longest religious display. It lasts 24 hours. The Procession of Mysteries is a religious procession and makes up part of the city’s Easter festivities. The townsfolk of Trapani march twenty wooden floats, consisting of statues depicting the Passion and Death of Christ, through the streets. Believed to have begun in the late 16th century, the procession is the main event of Trapani's Holy Week. It takes place on Good Friday. The “Misteri” of the events name refers to the Mystery of Christ. It also refers to the Italian word for “profession” or “craft,” which explains why the statues are all made of wood.
Gelato Festival (April/May)
Every year, from the end of April and running through to the middle of May, one of the best Italian festivals
takes place across the country: the Gelato Festival
. We can hear your lips smacking. The festival tours the whole country. It stops off in Florence, Rome, Turin, Milan and attracts gelato makers and eaters the world over. As well as an opportunity to sample hundreds of delicious gelato varieties, from the traditional to the crazy, the festival also puts on gelato-making classes and games. The festival is a giant competition, with the best Italian and foreign gelato makers recognized by a panel of experts and you, the festival goers. And, if you're not in Italy, don’t worry, the festival also visits Austria, Poland, Germany, and England.
Feast of the Ascension (May)
Held in May and attracting thousands of spectators a year, The Feast of Ascension is one of Venice’s biggest celebrations. The day remembers two important victories for the Venice Republic. The first, the defeat of Slavic pirates in the year 1000. The second, the conclusion of a centuries-old dispute between the Empire and Papacy in 1177. The Feast of Ascension also commemorates the ceremony of the marriage with the sea. This was when the Doge threw a gold ring into the Venice lagoon, sealing the link between the city and the sea. The celebrations take place over the weekend of the 12th and 13th of May and involve a whole range of activities. These include an impressive water parade and various Regattas.
Calcio Storico (June)
Late in June, Florence celebrates the day for its Patron Saint, St. John Baptist, with a surprisingly strange, but culturally delightful tradition: the Calcio Storico
. What is the Calcio Storico? Dating back to 1580, the Calcio Storico
is a ruthlessly aggressive game. You could even go so far as saying that it is the most dangerous match played between two teams on the planet. Combining elements of rugby, soccer, and wrestling, the sport was first played by the aristocracy. Now, each year on the 24th of June a parade winds its way down from the Piazza Santa Maria to the Piazza Santa Croce which transforms into a dirt-covered Thunderdome. Here two teams, dressed in traditional uniform, battle it out for the glory and a Chianina calf. So, if you can try and watch Calcio
because it really is a sight to behold.
Palio di Siena (July/August)
Twice a year in Siena, on July 2 and August 16, one of Italy's most significant sporting events takes place, the Palio di Siena
. This event has taken place every year since 1644. It is a slice of Sienese culture that everyone should see. Amidst the thousands of tourist spectators, two-thirds of the city’s population turn out to watch this spectacle. The locals love it. Represented by a jockey and horse, 10 of the city's 17 contrade compete in a bareback horse race. The prize: the Drappellone - a large, painted, silk canvas. The race only lasts about a minute, but you can enjoy a full day of activities. There is an 8 am Mass for the jockeys, followed by a procession that precedes the race. After its all over, each contrada holds its own open-air feast.
La Quintana & Ferragosto (August)
The first Sunday of August, the small medieval town of Ascoli Piceno holds a jousting tournament called La Quintana. For the occasion, the locals dress in period-specific clothing and accompanied by drummers, archers, and flag throwers, participate in a medieval parade. The towns many small streets and piazze come alive with stalls selling food and craft products. But, the centerpiece is, of course, the joust itself. Jousters representing the sestieri (neighborhoods) they are from, compete to hit a target mounted on a dummy, while many of the towns 50,000 inhabitants cheer them on.
Later in the month, on the 15th of August, all of Italy celebrates the feast of the Assumption of Mary. This is the day Catholics believe Mary ascended to heaven. Also, it marks the “official” start of Italy’s summer holiday period. Many Italian towns and cities will organize processions, with people carrying statues of Mary through the streets.
The Festival of Madonna degli Ammalati (September)
When Mt. Etna erupted in 1669, it devastated the small Sicilian town of Misterbianco. Legend has it that when a priest returned to the site in the 1700s all that remained was a statue of the Madonna, the baby Jesus resting in her arms. Now, Misterbianco celebrates this miracle with a five day festival in early September. The festival procession carries a 51-kilogram bell from one church to another. This culminates in “La Cantata,” an evening of singing and dancing and a firework display the following day.
Food Festivals (October)
Let’s face it, any time you're in Italy and Italian heritage
, it’s all about the food. However, in October, Italian food festivals happen the length and breadth of the country and Italy really does become all about the food. To begin with, there is the International White Truffle Fair in Alba
. There is also the lesser known truffle fair celebrated in Santa’Agata Feltria. Alternatively, if truffles aren’t your thing, then head to Cuneo in Piedmont and celebrate all things Marrone (a cousin of the chestnut) at the Fiera Nazionale del Marrone. Finally, for the chocolate lovers amongst you, there is Italy’s biggest chocolate festival, Perugia’s Eurochocolate Festival.
Festa della Madonna della Salute (November)
On the 21st of November, a makeshift bridge is built across a canal. This connects San Moisè and Santa Maria del Giglio, allowing for a procession to the church of Madonna della Salute. In 1630, hit by the plague, nearly one-third of Venice's population suffered death. As a result, the Venetian Senate commissioned the construction of a new church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, commonly referred to as the Salute. This festival and its procession are the people’s way of paying tribute to the Virgin Mary for deliverance from the deadly disease. It is also a fantastic opportunity to share in an authentic, cultural experience many tourists overlook.
Wild Boar Festival & Christmas Celebrations (December)
The Italian wild boar, or cinghiale, is celebrated throughout Italy. Due to its lack of a natural predator the porcine beast has thrived. There are over 150,000 roaming the forests of Tuscany alone. In Maremma, the wild boar has become a local symbol and in the isolated coastal town of Suvereto, a short trip from Florence, the sleepy city celebrates the animal with a distinctly Italian festival. Held in the first week of December, the Wild Boar Festival sees the townsfolk fire up their grills to cook up a storm of delicious boar-centric meals. Alongside, booths sell locally produced specialties such as olive oil and honey. There are also themed dinners, historical re-enactments, and archery competitions.
Italy in December also hosts a whole string of Christmas related festivals. First of all, celebrated in the Abruzzo region, Saint Nicholas Feast day is on the 6th of the month. Over the exchange of gifts, people enjoy traditional loaves of bread and biscuits. Also, throughout Italy on the 8th of December, people celebrate the Feast Day of Immaculate Conception too. There are feasts, parades, and music and many churches hold special masses. Lake Trasimeno hosts in December (and running through to January) a free Gospel music festival. This takes place across the many theatres and churches of the area.
Secret Canal and Gondola Tour Venice