When is the best time to go to Italy? Certainly we have images of sun soaked coastline with jagged cliffs and colorful houses, we fantasize about basking in the warmth of the Roman sun, we can just picture standing in a vineyard as the warm day turns to a cool but lovely late autumn afternoon. But what if I told you that November, December, January and February are actually magical? While Italy with no tourists at all is close to impossible, there is a sharp decline in the number of travelers around Italy if you avoid the high season (Easter to All Saints Day – in Italy, we mark our calendar around the church holidays and the harvest). Not sure if you want to spend your well-earned money on an off season trip? Here is a list of reasons that might just convince you that this is the BEST time to go.
1. No annoying tourists – isn’t it funny that we all want to go to that one incredible, undiscovered place and we always want no one else to be there. The problem is that if it is in fact so incredible, it will not stay undiscovered for long. Yes, the tourists will come. Yes, they may be annoying. Yes, you may even be one of those annoying tourists. While the halls of the Vatican or the streets of Florence will never be empty, an off season trip is going to find you with far fewer crowds to navigate. And that is a good thing.
2. Sales – I mention this only because I feel it is my duty to keep you informed of all things Italian. Consider it a PSA, not a recollection of my personal experiences or interests….(my husband reads this blog you know) January is sale time in Italy. And between that and the strength of the dollar right now ($1.08 to the euro at the time this blog was written), that makes those Bruno Magli shoes you were eyeing in the window an absolute steal – you might even have to buy two pairs.
3. Hot chocolate – when it is cold and blustery outside and your feet have been standing on the marble floors of churches for a couple of hours, there is nothing more comforting than a steaming cup of hot chocolate. This is not Swiss Miss we are talking about my friends. The ambrosia they serve at Gilli and Rivoire in Florence is so thick that the spoon stands up in it. That alone is worth the trip.
4. Gray & Mysterious – there is something truly magical about Italy in the winter. The warm glow of street lamps, the sound of heels clicking on the cobblestones, the mist that hangs over the Arno River or on the Grand Canal in Venice. Magical indeed.
5. Christmas markets – head over to Italy in early December all the way through to January 6 (Epiphany and the official end of the Christmas season) to experience the enchanting Christmas Markets. This tradition is very popular in Northern Europe and therefore taken on by the villages in the Dolomites and the Lake District. Little huts selling Christmas goodies – gifts and food – can be perused as you sip mulled wine out of terra cotta cups. There is no better way to get into the holiday spirit.
6. Carnevale – The season leading up to Lent and Mardi Gras is known as Carnevale and the celebration in Venice has a long standing history and is world renowned. There are events throughout the city and a seemingly endless itinerary of masquerade balls and parties. But even if you are not a part of the party scene, you can experience the magic of Carnevale in the streets. People come from all over the world and dress in elaborate costumes, posing under the arcades and on the bridges of La Serenissima.
7. Olive harvest - my favorite time of year is the November olive harvest in Tuscany and Umbria. There is a ritual around collecting the olives, all of which are gathered without machines. The oil presses are open 24 hours a day as there is a short window during which the olives need to be pressed to avoid rancid oil. Farmers wait at the frantoio (oil press) for their oil, often socializing with other farmers and having a communal meal. They always leave a portion of the oil for the frantoio as payment. You can take part in a olive harvest by special arrangement. I highly recommend it.
8. Comforting, warm and enticing dishes such as polenta and beef cooked in Chianti. Roasted potatoes. Hot lentil soup. Some of the yummiest Italian dishes scream comfort food to be served on a chilly, dark day with a big glass of robust red wine.
9. Airfare – while airfare to Europe will never be really cheap (believe me, you do not want to know what that would look like – think Spirit for 9 hours…) you can get some really good deals in the off season. Last year Emirates ran a special- 2 roundtrip tickets from JFK to Milan for $799. You can hardly get from Boston to Florida for that price.
10. Less frazzled staff – Hotel staff want to help you. They really do. The Italians embody hospitality and take it very seriously. Unfortunately, in the height of tourist season, there is just not time. Off season visits allow you to really get to know the hotel staff and get great advice from a local.
Word of warning. There are places that close down completely over the winter season. Lake District, some of Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast and others close down from November to March. Major cities all remain up and running (of course). If a last minute trip to Italy is on your mind, it’s not too late to plan. Email me and we can plan something really fabulous!