Even if you're lacking an invitation to a home-cooked Christmas dinner, you can still enjoy the echoes of Italy's holiday festivities pouring into the streets. Here, the obvious superficial beauty of twinkling lights, strung ribbons, and evergreen trees is met by the requisite preparations for a proper Italian Christmas feast: orders for stufato are debated at the butcher, kilos of Panettone change hands, and cases of Prosecco fly off the shelves. The churches, normally static and historical, become alive and vibrant. Youthful reunions invade local bars, and dinner parties explode into song. Below is a visitor's guide to the local holiday rhythm in three top Italian destinations.
Around Christmastime, Milan shows off its sophisticated side, with choral concerts at San Marco, opera at La Scala, and ballet at the Piccolo Teatro. In the historic Brera quarter, locals are bundled in velvet and cashmere in search of shopping finds at boutiques like Corso Como 10, with its haute couture, and Cargo & High-Tech, with three floors of upscale housewares and gadgets.
For lunch, the strict kitchen at classic Milanese establishment Rigolo draws a loyal clientele for seasonal plates like pesce affumicato (smoked trout, tuna, and salmon), cappone con mostarda (succulent chicken with preserved fruits), and rustin negaa (veal braised in wine and sage, and stuffed with pancetta). Finish off with a traditional holiday dessert: a wedge of panettone spread with chocolate, cream, or mascarpone.
Wander over to Via Solferino, with its abundance of boutiques and local artisans. For sharply styled eyeglasses, try Ottica Marchesi; duck into Bottega del Intimo for lingerie; and hit up Pierre Mantouz for hosiery.
Ever-so-naturally for Italy, the afternoon rolls into the aperitivo hour, which is best taken at an establishment like Jaimaica or N'Ombre de Vin. Follow it up with dinner at a restaurant well-suited to the season: Try La Pesa for antiquated recipes or Al Porto for fish.
Christmas in Florence is delicate and demure. The lights twinkle softly, while the usual tourist chaos is muted. In the crisp chill of winter, the usual sprint—from the Uffizi to the Galleria dell'Accademia to the Dome of Brunelleschi—slows to a saunter, allowing the architectural details en route to speak even louder.
Under this spell, a wander through the Convent of San Marco is a must. On the walls of each cell, Fra Angelico painted his most famous frescoes, recounting, through ethereal images, the story of the life of Christ.
Then, across the river, on Florence's highest hill, the San Miniato al Monte is an active monastery with a beautiful Romanesque chapel. Every Sunday and holiday, mass is held to Gregorian chant at 10am and 5pm. (The monks also make teas, candies, and candles, which are sold in their pharmacy.)
For traditional Florentine Christmas fare, look for paté di Toscana on crostini, broth of gallina (hen) with cappelletti, a lusty ribollita potage, or roasted duck al'arancia. To finish: castagnaccio alla Fiorentina, ricciarelli or cavalucci cookies, or a simple slice of panforte.
Within its petite dimensions, Bologna is bursting at its brick seams with exquisite chapels, modern art, and antique collections. In December, its porticoes are decked with Christmas lights, and streets echo the sound of church bells, while wafts of nutmeg and pasta sauce fill the air.
Bologna is also scattered with inspired markets and carefully curated boutiques. For clothing, begin with Jaqueline, a tiny space selling delicate dress, or L'Inde Le Palais, for a sprawl of high-fashion pieces. Around Christmas, wine store Enoteca Italiana is a beehive of wrapping paper and ribbons, cases of Lambrusco, and fascinating salesmen.
Gourmands can seek out eateries like La Salumeria and Tamburini for specialties like mortadella (Italian sausage) and culatello (cured meats), or L'Arte della Sfoglia for fresh pasta. Seek out Bolognese dishes like passatelli in brodo (made of breadcrumbs, nutmeg, eggs, and parmesan), or zampone (stuffed pig's trotter) with lentils. Finish up with il panone di natale, made with honey, dried figs, nuts, and mostarda (a sweet Italian condiment).
Sarah Lewis is a freelance writer settled between Milan and Sifnos, Greece. After graduating from Maine's Bowdoin College, she has since entangled herself in the intimate politics of a small (but exceptional) Italian restaurant, all the while reporting on such topics as art, gardens, and Italian cuisine.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Sarah Lewis