Like most of Mediterranean Europe, Italy is busiest in summer (July-August), and gorgeous in spring (April-June) and autumn (September-October) if you can travel then. There are lots of festivals (see below), but you’ll have to book well ahead.
For city visits - Venice, Florence and Rome - consider going in winter to avoid the queues and enjoy cheaper hotel rates. It can be bitterly cold in Venice, but you’ll be spending most of your time indoors. Venice periodically suffers from acqua alta (high tides) in winter, turning some of its squares and streets into shallow canals with duck-boards to walk on. Or, if you don't mind the heat, consider midsummer, when business drops off and prices fall to mid-season rates.
There are hundreds of local and national festivals throughout Italy. These can involve dressing up, folk-dancing, music-making, horse-racing, wine-tasting, meat-eating, boat-carrying, crossbow-shooting, opera-singing, football-playing and a special feast day for any vegetable you can think of. Minor local events are listed in our hotel reviews (under 'Essentials'); larger festivals are below (with best places in brackets):
Jan 6: Epiphany - church services
Jan 20: Feast Day of San Sebastiano (Sicily, esp. Acireale)
Late Jan – early Feb Carnival processions (Venice, Viareggio, Acireale in Sicily)
Feb 4: Saint Agatha's Feast Day (Catania, Sicily)
Feb 5: Olive and bruschetta festival (Spello, Umbria)
Feb (2nd week): Almond Blossom Festival (Agrigento, Sicily)
Feb 14: torchlit parade for St. Valentino (Terni, Umbria)
March: 1st two weekends: Turin Chocolate Fair (Eurochocolate Torino)
March 19: Palio dei Somari, a donkey race (Torrita di Siena, Tuscany)
March (3rd Sunday): Rome Marathon
March 21: Spring equinox festival, with dancing / music/ speeches (Assisi)
March – April: Holy Week festivities and processions (Enna in Sicily & Chieti in Abruzzo); Easter Sunday mass (St. Peter's, Rome) and 'cart explosion' (Florence)
April: asparagus and artichoke festivals across the country
Mid April: Festa della Fontana - fountains flow with wine (Panicale & Citta della Pieve in Umbria)
April 16: Oil and garlic festival (Montecatini Terme in Tuscany)
April 25: Liberation Day - national holiday
May 1: Labour Day - collecting flowers in the countryside
Early May: Calendimaggio festival (Assisi)
May (various dates): music festivals in Lucca and Florence, Palio (medieval parade with horse races) in Asti, Piedmont
May 11: La Palombella festival in Orvieto
May 15: Corsa dei Ceri candle race in Gubbio, medieval joust in Foligno
May: huge infiorata (flower-petal) artworks across Italy, esp. in Noto, Sicily (3rd weekend)
Last Sun in May: Crossbow matches in Gubbio / Sansepolcro; wine festival at Montespertoli
Early June: Corpus Domini procession (Orvieto)
Mid June: Wine festival in Orvieto, Medieval Soccer Match in Florence
June 15-17: Luminaria (torchlit procession) and boat race in Pisa
June (w/e nearest 24th): Sagra di Saint Giovanni on Lake Como (floating lamps, fireworks)
June 24-30: Festa di San Giovanni in Florence, including ‘historical football’ game
June 29-July 2: Palio horse race through Siena (main event is on July 2)
July 2: secondary Palio horse race through Siena (main event is on Aug 16); also Festa della Madonna Bruna (Matera, Puglia)
July and Aug: Music and art festival in San Gimignano and in Fiesole; jazz festival in Perugia; Puccini opera festival in Torre del Lago; open-air classical plays in Gubbio; various musical events in Siena
8-25 July: Summer music festival in Lucca
3rd Sun of July: Festa di San Paolino in Lucca, with torchlit procession and crossbow contest
Late July: Opera and theatre festival in Barga
Aug 14: Luminaria di Santa Croce (torchlit procession) in Lucca
Aug 14-16: Original Palio horse race through Siena
Aug 15: Ferragosto (Assumption of Our Lady) National Holiday, with a fair in Florence’s Cascine Park, a horse race (Palombella) in Orvieto, a beef-eating jamboree in Cortona
Aug 17: Boat races in Livorno
Late Aug: Choral concerts in Arezzo, chamber music in Citta di Castello
2nd Sun in Aug: Food and wine fair in Montepulciano
Last Sun in Aug: Bravio delle Botti (barrel race) in Montepulciano
1st Sun in Sep: Giostro del Saraceno (armoured jousting) in Arezzo
Sep 7: Festa della Rificolone (torchlit procession) in Florence
Sep 8: Costumed procession in Prato
Sep 10-20: St. Gennaro Feast, Naples
Sep 14: Festa della Santa Croce (sacred procession) in Lucca
2nd Sun in Sep: Crossbow matches in Gubbio / Sansepolcro; Chianti Classico festival in Greve
Late Sep: Classical music in Perugia
Oct 3-4: Festa di San Francesco festivities in Assisi
Mid Oct: Food and wine fair in Castiglione del Lago
Nov 1: Ognissanti (All Saints) Day
Nov 1-5: All Saints’ Fair in Perugia
Dec 8: Immaculate conception of Our Lady
Dec 13: Pottery fair in Siena
Dec: Nativity Crib (Naples) - also bagpipe- and flute players; Christmas Lights (Turin)
Dec 24: Father Christmas arrives (by canoe in Citta di Castello, Umbria!)
Dec 25, 26: Christmas – family affair with parties, public mass (St Peter's, Rome)
Dec 31, Jan 1: New Year (San Silvestro) – fireworks and dancing in major cities
In Florence, the main fashion shows are the Pitti Fairs in January and June, and the Modaprima Womenswear in late November.
In Venice the famous Carnival takes place in February / early March, during the 10 days preceding Ash Wednesday. It opens with the mind-boggling (and wallet-busting) Doge's ball in the 15th-century Palazzo Pisani Moretta, and continues with street parties, costumed parades and all kinds of (mostly free) musical gigs, from chamber to reggae. It was once a largely spontaneous, masked and costumed street festival to chase away the winter blues with music and dancing in the squares. But locals reckon it has gone downhill in the past 5-6 years, as crowds of drunken tourists have led to it being tightly controlled, with one-way pedestrian flows ordered through the narrow alleyways. Certainly it draws the crowds: more than 100,000 visitors can arrive in one day, doubling the population of the city. You'll need to book your hotel 6 months ahead or more.
There is also the Biennale cultural festival in June, a film festival in late August, a historic regatta on the 1st Sunday in Sept, the Venice Marathon in Oct, and the Festa della Salute on 21st Nov.
NB, please do not rely solely on this information for your travel planning.
ITALY: BY AIR
From the UK and Europe:
Getting to Bari and Brindisi (for Puglia & Basilicata)
Getting to Genoa (for Liguria)
Getting to Milan and Verona (for the Lakes & Alps)
Getting to Naples & Amalfi Coast
Getting to Rome
Getting to Milan
Getting to Sicily & Aeolian Islands
Getting to Turin (for Piedmont)
Getting to Tuscany (including Florence)
Getting to Umbria & Le Marche
Getting to Venice
From the USA: You will need to fly to Rome or Milan. Options include Air Canada, Air France, Alitalia, Delta, Continental, KLM and Lufthansa.
By train from the UK: London-Milan is 11 hours. London-Florence and London-Rome are 16 / 18 hours respectively. Check out Rail Europe or Seat 61.
BY CAR: For Tuscany and Umbria, you’re best off hiring a car. Most of the best hotels and guesthouses are in the countryside and taxis are quite pricey. See our car rental recommendations. For cities such as Rome, Florence, Venice or Naples, you don't need a car.
BY TRAIN: cheap and although many stations are a few miles outside town, a navetta shuttles between station and town centre.
There are various types of train within Italy:
Eurostar (ES or Treni Eurostar Italia) is Italy's premier train, travelling quickly between major cities, not to be confused with the Eurostar that plies the English channel. Seat reservations on Eurostar Italia are mandatory.
Intercity and Intercity Plus are relatively fast trains that run the length of Italy, stopping at large cities.
Direct and Inter-Regional Trains (diretto and interregionali) are local trains, the interregionali the faster of the two types. Cheap and usually reliable, but seats can be hard to find on major routes, especially in August or holiday periods. Consider first class, asking for Prima Classe, per favore - it's less likely to be full.
For schedules and booking, see Trenitalia.
BY BUS: Quick and usually stop right in the town centre. Jump on and pay for local journeys; buy in advance from bus stations for inter-city journeys.
Citizens of EU countries, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who hold valid passports do not require a visa to visit Italy for periods of less than 90 days.
No vaccinations are required. EU citizens are entitled to reciprocal state medical care in Italy (take a recently-stamped E111 form), but additional medical insurance is strongly recommended. There are good, English-speaking private doctors and dentists throughout Italy. In a medical emergency, dial 118.
In summer, take mosquito repellent and use strong suntan cream. Avoid the midday sun (when you are in or by the sea, its effects are not so apparent) and drink plenty of water. Tap water is generally safe but in coastal areas is heavily chlorinated. Cheap bottled mineral water is widely available.