Festivals, events and entertainment in Italy
A holiday in Italy can offer more than sightseeing. The country has an unrivalled artistic and musical heritage, today displayed in opera houses, theatres and at outdoor festivals. It also hosts historical pageants, medieval-style tournaments, colourful religious rituals, contemporary art events, cinema festivals, bizarre traditional spectacles, a prestigious tennis tournament, motor racing, Six Nations rugby and, in Serie A, one of the world’s finest football leagues. There’s something for everyone, whether you want to add some variety to your holiday, or plan a trip around attendance of a special event.
Festivals and events in Italy
Italians are very keen on festivals and celebrations of all sorts. Festivals range from local religious processions to avant-garde musical events.
Carnevale – the pre-Lenten carnival – is popular all over Italy, although nowadays it is mostly a children’s event; you’ll see small children in fancy costumes being taken around town over streets daubed with party-string and confetti. The most famous celebration is Venice Carnival, which has a decadent history, although the current event is a reborn tourist attraction. Venice is full of visitors in elaborate fancy dress, with public catwalk parades and private masked balls. Another large Carnival event takes place in Viareggio, Tuscany, with a procession of elaborate floats.
Summer in Italy is hot, and many towns put on outdoor festival seasons of music, dance and shows for both visitors and locals. Often these take place in the local ruins, castle or park – in some cases the entertainment is free and is well worth investigating. Throughout the year, but particularly in autumn, there are many opportunities in small towns to sample a sagra. These are sometimes modern, sometimes traditional parties to celebrate a local product or harvest. The most common is for the wine harvest, but all sorts of other local specialities are celebrated in this way, from strawberries to artichokes. Generally there’ll be free tasting, stalls, music, dancing and perhaps a historical procession. Italians in historic towns are fond of re-enacting their past, and medieval parades, jousts and flag-throwing displays are all popular. You can read more about Italy’s traditional festivals at the foot of this page.
Opera and ballet in Italy
Italy really is the land of opera, and the great composers’ birthplaces, homes and theatres are conveniently distributed around Italy, allowing for some varied and interesting opera trips and festivals. The country’s leading theatres are La Scala in Milan, and the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome. Both of these have long seasons of high-quality opera and ballet performances. Other cities around Italy also have prestigious theatres, such as La Fenice in Venice, several of which are particularly associated with individual composers. Theatres publish programmes which can be consulted online, and it is usually possible to buy tickets in advance online too, and pick them up at the theatre.
> Teatro dell’Opera, Rome
Ballet in Italy has a long and proud past, although nowadays it lacks the popular appeal of opera. The best ballet is to be seen in Milan at La Scala, where the performers and shows are world-class. Rome offers the ballet of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. There are several good ballet companies in Italy, but they frequently lose their best dancers to more prestigious overseas companies. As well as in the country’s principal opera houses, you may get a chance to see touring companies, and in summer months there are outdoor dance performances and festivals.
> Ballet in Rome
In the summer theatres are generally closed, and musical events move outdoors. Italy hosts some very famous and grand outdoor events, like the opera season at the Roman Arena in Verona. The Teatro dell’Opera in Rome puts on a summer season of opera and ballet in the atmospheric surroundings of the ruined Baths of Caracalla. There are many smaller-scale high-quality festivals lasting a week or longer. And even in smaller resorts you will often find entertaining outdoor events for tourists and locals; from lakeside concerts to jazz in a piazza. These events could be a nice extra for your holiday, or the attraction around which you build your trip.
Music and dance festivals and events
Some of Italy’s leading musical and dance festivals are listed below (note that dates are subject to change):
> Opera season in Verona, July-September
> Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi in the charming Umbrian hilltown Spoleto, June/July
> Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago, near Lucca, July-August
> Rossini Opera Festival in seaside Pesaro, August
> Verdi Festival in Parma, October
Naturally, Italy also hosts festivals of pop, rock and other modern music, though these tend to shift around from year to year. Checking local listings for the area you are visiting, or the schedules of touring bands can give you an idea of what’s on. Large gigs are often put on in out-of-town and industrial-estate venues which are hard to find and get to for non-locals, so a taxi may be necessary.
Other cultural events
Italy hosts many cultural events, some of which are among the most important in their field. Other events may be smaller-scale but have particularly interesting or unusual themes, or settings. They range from film festivals to busking conventions. Venice’s Art Biennale is a massive contemporary art exhibition attracting artists, critics, buyers and visitors from around the world. Several of Italy’s ancient archaeological sites – notably the Greek theatres in Taormina and Siracusa, and the Baths of Caracalla in Rome – are the atmospheric settings for summer seasons of drama, musical and other events (some mentioned above). Italy’s interesting festivals include:
> Venice Film Festival – A glamorous event on Venice Lido, August/September
> Taormina Film Fest – Events in the Greco-Roman theatre at Taormina, June
> Buskers Festival – In Ferrara, October
> Rome Cinema Festival – Competes with the more famous one in Venice, autumn
> Venice Biennale – Art and architecture exhibitions, in alternating years, June to November
> Mittelfest – Drama, music and dance in Cividale del Friuli, July
> Greek drama in Sicily – Classical drama in the Greek theatre of Siracusa (Syracuse), May-June
Italian football has had a rollercoaster ride in recent years, from the shame of match-fixing scandals to the glories of winning the World Cup. However sceptical you (and the fans) might be about refereeing, conspiracies and match-fixing, watching a match here is still a dramatic and unforgettable event. The atmosphere can range through euphoria, bitterness, impassioned singing and fire-setting violence … all in the space of one match. Few matches are boring: if the on-field action is tedious, derive your entertainment from the singing and flag-waving fans.
More information covering both football and the practicalities of seeing a match can be found at:
> Football in Italy – a guide to Serie A
And more sport
Italy takes part in the Six Nations rugby tournament each year, with matches played in Rome. The capital is also the home of the Italian Open tennis tournament, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. Italy’s Formula One Grand Prix takes place in Monza, near Milan, and it is possible to book a special package to attend the race with travel companies such as Page and Moy.
> Six Nations rugby in Rome
Traditional festivals and events
Italy hosts more ‘traditional’ events each year, as towns revive (or create) historical pageants and festivals. As well as attracting tourism, they appeal to the strong sense of pride Italians feel in their town. Although many have been established, or re-established, in recent years (including Venice Carnival, packaged for tourists in the 1980s), some are genuinely continuous traditions going back centuries. These events vary considerably; some are showy, some are heartfelt, and some are both. Religious festivals are generally the events with the longest and most deeply felt traditions, and they can be fascinating for the respectful visitor, though they are not always as accessible as the more touristy spectacles. Italians don’t just feel fierce loyalty to their town, but to their district, and many events – like Siena’s Palio – involve competition between the different contrade, or districts, of a town. On the destination pages of this website you will frequently find references to important local events; a selection is provided below.
Many celebratory religious events happen throughout Italy, generally at Easter, on the feast day of the town’s patron saint (a local public holiday) and sometimes for other more obscure reasons. Visiting the Amalfi Coast and Bay or Naples in summer, I have almost always come across some local celebrations: a Madonna being carried across the sea accompanied by musicians, fireworks from a village along the coast…
> Venice Carnival.
> Venice’s other events and festivals.
> Festa della Bruna, Matera – my account of attending a passionate and colourful religious festival in the cave-town Matera, with remarkably pagan overtones.
> Palio in Siena – famous horse race which is a hugely important to locals and also a colourful show for tourists – if you can overlook the risks to the animals.
> An orange-throwing battle during Carnival in Ivrea, near Turin.
> Snake-charming procession in Cocullo, in the Abruzzo region, on St. Domenic’s feast day.
> Easter celebrations during Holy Week (the Settimana Santa) are particularly notable in Sicily, where events include a famous Procession of the ‘Mysteries’ in Trapani.
> Flower festivals in towns including Noto, Sicily (May) and Genzano, near Rome (June).
> Human chess game in Marostica (September, even-numbered years).
On this site
Useful links & books
Italy Heaven bookstore (Amazon UK)
Theatres / opera houses