Italy, with its 5,000 miles of Mediterranean coastline dotted with colorful seaside towns and charming beaches, is a lusted summer destination and one of Western Europe’s most population vacation spots. It’s no surprise that an average of 65 million tourists flock to Italy every year, making it the fifth most visited country by international arrivals worldwide, and its popularity is no different in August.
With sumptuous sea temperatures and scorching sun, August is as popular a time as ever to go to Italy, if not one of the busiest months on the peninsula, along with June and July. Still, you might have heard that Italy is essentially closed in August, so, is this true, and what does it mean?
Many Italian businesses do, in fact, close their doors in August, but this doesn’t mean the whole country is a ghost town. Our guide explores the ancient traditions of Ferragosto and the modern history that has shaped Italy’s most important national holiday to find out if Italy really is closed in August. Let’s get into it.
Is Italy closed in August?
There are a few reasons that Italians say that Italy closes in August, but that doesn’t mean that it’s closed to tourism. Indeed, August is the traditional time that locals, and many southern Europeans, take their summer vacations, escaping the unbearably hot temperatures for cooler regions or seaside spots. For this reason, many businesses shut for the month. This also has a lot to do with the national holiday, Ferragosto, celebrated on August 15th, but that really lasts until the beginning of September, which the majority of Italians recognize.
Italians celebrate Ferragosto on August 15th, before August 15th, and after August 15th, meaning some establishments can close as early as mid-July for the holiday and general summer vacations. You’ll find that many stores, restaurants, and tourist attractions remain open but smaller, family-run businesses tend to shut up shop for the entire month of August.
During August you could find that many of the smaller towns and cities have a lot more room to breathe than if you came earlier in the year, and some churches and squares could be near-deserted, making for a unique way to experience Italy. However, it’s important to remember that you certainly won’t be alone wherever you go. As we said, August is still one of the most popular times for international tourists to visit the country and they flock to the beaches, ruins, and Vatican sites in their thousands, every day of the week.
You’ll also find that many Italian tourists take their vacation in their own country. Just because they’re not running their pizzeria in Rome, doesn’t mean they won’t be queuing to eat at the same one as you on the Amalfi Coast. If you’re visiting in August, you should plan ahead if you have some specific Italian bucket list activities to tick off on your trip and check if any smaller museums or boutique shopping you desperately want to visit are still open when you go. Still, you shouldn’t expect Italy to be shut down for the whole month.
Why do Italians celebrate Ferragosto?
Ferragosto is one of Italy’s most important holidays, and one of the only national breaks that is celebrated exclusively by Italians. Ferragosto dates back to 18 BC and the reign of emperor Augustus when the Roman emperor decided to combine the various festivals of August into a longer period of rest. The public holiday is celebrated on August 15th in all of Italy, but the emperor initially made the 1st of August a day of rest to mark the end of the harvest season.
Traditionally, family and friends would gather at the beginning of the month to enjoy the fruits of their labor after weeks of arduous agricultural work. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this day of rest transitioned into longer periods of rest, until the Christian Period, when it began to revolve around August 15th to coincide with the Assumption of Mary. Ferragosto became a time for religious observances and civic events, while Italians took their chance to have their time of rest before and after the official holiday.
The Assumption of Mary and subsequent Feast of the Assumption in Christianity commemorates the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, didn’t decay upon death but was rather assumed into heaven to be reunited with her soul. On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius VII declared August 15th to be the official day that the Church would celebrate the Assumption of Mary but many Christians recognized this day decades early.
Still, Italians didn’t really start abandoning their towns and cities, creating supposed “ghost towns” all over the country during August, until Mussolini’s dictatorship during the inter-war period in Italy. The leader and modern founder of fascism organized summer camps, or colonia estiva, for Italian children where they could flock to the coast or mountains in the hot mid-summer month for fresh air, recreation, sports, and ultimately, indoctrination. These camps principally hosted in Gaeta, Tuscany, and Anzio but found all over the country, also organized for adult days in conjunction with other holidays where parents could join their kids for a bit of relaxation themselves.
Rail tickets were reduced in August in order to facilitate such trips, so those who didn’t go to the colonia estiva made the most of the deals and hopped onto trains heading elsewhere in the country. The concept of vacationing with the family in August quickly caught on and was extended from a few days to weeks on end. Offices close, official establishments temporarily shut their doors, and everyone was encouraged to do the same since it became hard to carry on with business as usual.
Italy has always been a country of tradition. The whole premise of the Italian dream is finding la dolce vita: a life of heedless luxury and pleasure, where work-life balance, lifestyle, and enjoyment are all prioritized over capitalism and the extreme commercialism that we see elsewhere in the west.
In the middle of any normal day in Italy, most businesses shut up shop for a few hours anyway, just so employees can enjoy lunch with family and friends, and at 6 pm on the dot, everyone heads for an aperitivo, since working overtime is unheard of. It should come as no surprise that the tradition of leaving your life behind for a few weeks by the sea or escaping the heat for the mountains was born out of one holy day in Italy.
What happens on Ferragosto?
The official day of Ferragosto is traditionally a day of rest in Italy. However, since many people leave their towns and cities before, after, and over Ferragosto, and Ferragosto also falls on the same day that Catholics commemorate the Assumption of Mary, celebrations can look very different depending on where you go.
For Catholics, the Assumption of Mary is traditionally celebrated by the Feast of the Assumption, which Christians all over the world partake in. The day starts with an obligatory mass service, and in Europe, it’s also a tradition to plant a statue of Mary in your garden to bless future harvests. A “feast” isn’t actually required, but as is always the practice in Italy, there’s a lot of eating. Some Italians will go out for dinner, but it’s most customary to cook something at home or have big street parties where everyone sits and eats together. Other Christians might volunteer at a soup kitchen, all while contemplating Mary’s life and passing.
For non-Christians, there are still plenty of reasons to celebrate and they usually partake in similar festivities. Colorful street processions, religious or otherwise, fireworks, horse races, beach games, and pageantry are all commonplace in Italy on August 15th. Many people also have bonfires or BBQs and whole towns come together to party.
In Rome, August 15th, and the days immediately before and after it, are marked by Gran Ballo di Ferragosto, a city-wide party that brings everyone together before Romans all pile into their cars and leave the city for the rest of the month. There are always events leading up to Ferragosto, but on August 15th the streets and squares come alive with huge sound systems, dance performances, street food, and general merriment. Meanwhile, in Montepulciano, the rich Tuscan wine region, historical pageants and games bring the streets to life in a different way.
See below for more examples of how Ferragosto is celebrated in Italy, so you can find out what’s going on wherever you’re planning to go:
- Diano Marina, Liguria – A festival of the sea with a revered fireworks display takes place.
- Cappele sul Tavo, Abruzzo – At night, huge effigies parade through the streets for the Palio of the Pope, ending in fireworks.
- Siena, Tuscany – A world-famous bi-annual horse race, with its historical roots in the middle ages and Roman games, takes place around the Campo.
- Bari, Puglia – Small boats light up the sea with candles and firework displays.
- Caltagirone, Sicily – A reenactment of the salvaging of a Byzantine icon of the Madonna in 117 takes place during a water festival, and people make their way on their knees towards a statue of Christ on the cross.
- Garda, Lombardy – There is a horse race, a fishing regatta, and a parade performed by locals in historical costumes.
- Sassari, Sardinia – The Festa dei Candelieri is held here on August 14th-15th, where teams of men bearing huge and heavy candles race through the streets.
Can you still go to Italy in August?
It might be hot and a season for rest, but there’s a lot going on in Italy during Ferragosto. Businesses “shut down” in August, but this only makes way for different kinds of fun, and August 15th itself is an exciting time to visit with all the local celebrations that take place all over the country.
You might have heard rumors that Italy “closes in August”, but it isn’t off-limits by any stretch and this isn’t a secret, since it’s a very popular time for international tourists to visit. Many Italians also stay local for their holidays, meaning the beaches and mountainous towns are full of visitors trying to cool off from the mid-summer heat. Pretty much all tourist facilities are up and running even if small family-owned businesses are closed for the month, and it can be very crowded in popular resorts.
Major cities in Italy like Rome, Milan, and Florence, where landmark Renaissance art lives harmoniously among ancient Roman ruins, are always popular. Yet, August could be one of the best times for a metropolitan break, if you don’t mind the heat that is, since Italians tend to vacate their cities, opting for seaside resorts and cooler northern regions in place of city breaks.
Just as many places that close remain open, and there are different festivities to enjoy like concerts, exhibits, and religious events. Small boutique stores and quaint family restaurants might be closed, but you can still shop to your heart’s content with big-name brands in Milan’s commercial district, and eat enough pizza and pasta to feed a small Italian village in Rome’s San Lorenzo neighborhood (and everywhere else in the city).
When is the best time to visit Italy?
Mussolini’s dictatorship might have meant that rail tickets were reduced to facilitate mass vacations across the country in the early 20th century, but today, the week of the Assumption, which always encompasses August 15th, tends to be the most expensive time to visit Italy, since it’s become such a popular time to take a few days off.
August can still be a great time to go, especially if you want to avoid the July crowds in major cities or partake in some of the unique Ferragosto celebrations, but there are plenty of other, better times to visit Italy.
June and July in Italy see some of the best weather with highs of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and all the conveniences of the peak season. But they’re also the most popular times to visit, and even busier than August, plus the July heat can be unfavorable in some destinations.
If you want pleasant weather and fewer crowds, May, September and October are great times to visit. Tourist facilities get up and running at the end of Spring, and sultry temperatures in the mid-80s last until early October. Italians even swim in the Adriatic and the Mediterranean until mid-autumn, with average sea temperatures hovering at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, September can be equally as busy and expensive as July with all the high-season perks.
If you don’t mind compromising on weather, visit Italy between November and February for the cheapest deals on flights and accommodation and the fewest crowds. Italy is always magical and Rome in January is the same Rome as it is in July. Some tourist attractions won’t be open to the public, but most museums and Vatican city stay open all year round.
Why is Italy closed in August? The Conclusion
August is Italy’s hottest month, and it’s scattered with national holidays that prompt Italians to shut up shop and take their summer vacations, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. The truth is, Italy isn’t really closed in August, especially not when it comes to international tourism, lively festivities, and beach holidays.
The major cities might be quieter, with limited operating hours instated for the Post Office, banks, and small businesses, but the hoards of tourists don’t cease, and you’ll find that most vacated Italians have only flocked to the beaches which are likely to be even more busy than usual.
You might find it easier to navigate Rome after August 15th, and the queue at Venice’s Saint Mark’s Basilica could be that little bit shorter, but it’s still swelteringly hot and you shouldn’t assume that you’ll be alone if you visit Italy in its “ghost month”.