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The ten most enchanting Christmas markets in Italy

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The ten most enchanting Christmas markets in Italy
A stall at Bolzano Christmas market. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
12:02 CET+01:00
The Christmas season has officially begun here in Italy. The first festive markets are already open and more are set to follow as advent continues.

Many of Italy's most established Christmas markets are in the South Tyrol region near Austria, but there are festive delights to be found across the entire country.

Whether it's Santa, spectacle or regional specialities you're after, here's our guide to the very best Italian Christmas markets.

Best for Italian traditions: Milan, Lombardy

Photo: Leonora Giovanazzi/Flickr

When: December 7th-10th
Where: Piazza Castello

While some of Italy's Christmas markets aren't far off the ones you'd find in Germany and Austria, Milan's December fair is 100 percent made in Italy. It's known locally as Oh Bej! Oh Bej! (meaning "how beautiful!" in local dialect) and falls early in December to coincide with the feast day of city's patron saint, Sant'Ambrogio. Legend has it that it dates back to the 1500s, when a papal envoy came to Milan bearing gifts for all the city's children (who couldn't help but cry "oh bej!" at the sight). Today you'll still find toys and sweets, but also bric-a-brac, books, flowers and crafts. 

If you miss Oh Bej! Oh Bej!, Milan's Piazza Duomo hosts a more modern Christmas market from December 9th to January 6th.

Best for spectacle: Santa Maria Maggiore, Piedmont

Video: Santa Maria Maggiore/YouTube

When: December 8th-10th
Where: Piazza Risorgimento 

Piedmont’s biggest Christmas market is one of the most spectacular anywhere in Italy. Expect stilt walkers, chainsaw carving, alphorns and bagpipes, as well as 200 stalls selling crafts and homemade specialities. Make sure you try the famous “stincheèt”, a thin sheet of flour cooked on a stove topped with butter and a pinch of salt. 

Best for Santa: Merano, South Tyrol

Photo: RossoGialloBianco/Flickr

When: November 24th - January 6th
Where: Piazza Terme and surrounding streets

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of Merano. Wearing his traditional bishop's hat instead of a red cap, every December he parades through the streets handing to gifts to children who've been good – but watch out for the Krampus, masked demons who run after him punishing those who's been naughty. Saint Nicholas will visit the market on December 6th, but the Krampus will be there two extra days on December 5th and 8th. Aside from the parade, visitors can ice skate or listen to live music in Merano's central square, before warming up with a cup of tea or mulled wine in the heated stalls.

Best for atmosphere: Candelara, Le Marche

Video: TObe Studio/YouTube

When: December 2nd-3rd, 8th-10th
Where: Throughout the town 

Tiny Candelara, near Pesaro, hosts what might just be Italy's most unique Christmas market. Each December, the castle town celebrates the craft that gave it its name: candle making. For part of each evening, all electric street lights are switched off, leaving Candelara's medieval walls bathed in the glow of a thousand flames. If that weren't enough to tempt you into the hills of Le Marche, there's also a full Christmas market with Santa, pipers and a living nativity scene. Younger visitors can even try their hand at making a candle of their own.

Best for Advent: Vipiteno, South Tyrol

Photo: darvina06/Flickr

When?  November 24th - January 6th
Where: Piazza Città

This medieval town in South Tyrol keeps the excitement going all through December with its living Advent calendar. Each day in December, a different window somewhere in the city centre opens, to reveal... well, that would be telling, but it almost certainly involves something sweet. There's also a traditional Saint Nicholas parade, brass bands, decoration-making workshops, carriage rides and cooking classes to enjoy, all watched over by Vipiteno's handsome medieval clock tower.

Best for lights: Turin, Piedmont

Photo: Alessio Maffeis/Flickr

When: December 1st-23rd
Where: Cortile del Maglio, Borgo Dora

Turin has a reputation for some of Italy's most cutting-edge Christmas displays. In December local and international artists light the city with colourful installations – some simple, some surprising, all of them impressive. Once you've finished admiring them, make your way to this covered courtyard in the Borgo Dora neighbourhood to pick up handcrafted ceramics, glassware or embroidery made by local and international artisans. Turin also hosts a number of other Christmas markets in December, including in central Piazza Castello.

Best for location: Florence, Tuscany 

Photo: Any colour you like/Flickr

When? November 29th - December 21st
Where: Piazza di Santa Croce

There are larger Christmas markets in Italy, but few can boast a better backdrop than Florence's gorgeous Gothic basilica. As you'd expect from its name, the Florence Weihnachtsmarkt draws heavily on German traditions – but its 50 or so wooden huts house a mixture of exhibitors from all over Europe, so you're sure to some Florentine panforte (fruit cake) to go with your Bratwurst.   

Best for romantics: Verona, Veneto

Photo: A.Currell/Flickr

When? November 17th - December 26th
Where: Piazza dei Signori

Verona has a tradition of romance and you're sure to fall in love with this dreamy market, which takes its influence from Nuremberg, Germany. You'll find German foods, from sausage to stollen (a Christmassy fruit bread) and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) in the 80 stalls lining the streets. Take a digestive stroll to the Piazza Bra: the entrance to the city is illuminated with thousands of lights and a giant Christmas star, setting the scene for a fairy-tale experience.

Best for families: Bolzano, South Tyrol

Photo: davidoneclick/Flickr

When: November 24th - January 6th
Where: Piazza Walther

Bolzano is one of Italy's largest and oldest Christmas markets. In the shadow of the snow-covered Dolomites, the medieval city centre hosts some 80 stalls selling locally made wares and traditional treats around a nativity scene set in a real wooden stable. The rustic romance is enough to charm visitors of all ages, but kids will be especially impressed with the Children's Market, complete with miniature train, puppet theatre and merry-go-round. Don't forget to try the vin brulé (mulled wine) and apple strudel. 

Best for nativity scenes: Naples, Campania

Photo: Royal Olive/Flickr

When: Year round
Where: Via San Gregorio Armeno

For a more Mediterranean tradition, head south. The artisans of Naples are famous for their handmade presepi, or nativity figurines, which you can find on sale in the workshops that line so-called "Christmas Alley" west of the central train station. Among the usual characters, look out for astonishingly intricate fishmongers, butchers, pizza makers and other figures that have made their way into Neapolitan Christmas tradition – not to mention the pop stars and politicians that craftsmen sometimes slip in there too.

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