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ITALY EXPLAINED

Everything you need to know about Ferragosto, Italy’s national summer holiday

Why is August 15th a holiday? The Local looks at the history behind Ferragosto, and how you can celebrate the day like an Italian.

Everything you need to know about Ferragosto, Italy's national summer holiday
Vacationers sunbathe at a private beach near Santa Margherita Ligure, southern Genova. In future, prices of sunbeds could be capped for beachgoers. (Photo by OLIVIER MORIN / AFP)

What are we celebrating?

August 15th is when Roman Catholics celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven – the day when Catholics believe Mary ascended to heaven “body and soul” after the end of her life on earth.

However, it was a holiday in Italy long before it took on a religious significance.

READ ALSO: How do Italy’s public holidays compare to other EU countries?

Ferragosto, the Italian name for the holiday, comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti (the festivals of the Emperor Augustus) which were introduced back in 18 BC, probably to celebrate a battle victory, and were celebrated alongside other ancient Roman summer festivals. These festivities were linked to the longer Augustali period – intended to be a period of rest after months of hard labour.

In Roman times, the celebrations included horse races, and the Siena Palio dell’Assunta, which usually takes place on August 16th – although not since the Covid-19 pandemic began – keeps these traditions alive.

Today, the holiday combines both its ancient Roman and Catholic roots; it also marks the semi-official peak of Italy’s summer holiday season.

Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Where’s everybody gone?

It’s traditional to use the August long weekend to take a trip, usually escaping the heat at the seaside, lakes or mountains, so if you stay in town you’ll notice it’s much quieter than usual.

READ ALSO: Gelato, iced tea and escaping to the hills: How to survive an Italian summer in the city

During the era of Fascism, the regime would organise trips with special offers for the 13th-15th August, the idea being that less well-off workers would get the opportunity to visit a different part of the country.

Even today there are often discounts on packages for the Ferragosto weekend – though you may find that train tickets and hotel rooms sell out fast.

Will everything be closed?

If you didn’t have the foresight to book a trip of your own, you may be wondering how to make the most of the day.

Usually, bank holidays mean total shutdown even in major towns and cities, with everything from post offices to public transport closed, and that’s the same on August 15th. And as we mentioned earlier it’s the start of Italy’s holiday season, meaning you’ll see ‘chiuso per ferie’ signs popping up all over the place.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

However, unlike many other public holidays, on Ferragosto a large number of museums and cultural sites remain open. So it’s an excellent time to visit major attractions such as the Colosseum, Pantheon or Galleria Borghese if you’re in the capital, or one of the many museums and sites across the rest of Italy.

What about this year?

While Ferragosto would usually be celebrated with special church services and religious processions, as well as fireworks displays and dancing under the stars, some events have been cancelled or modified this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nightclubs remain closed and there’s a cap on how many people can attend sporting or cultural events.

READ ALSO: Can tourists and visitors use Italy’s Covid ‘green pass’ to access museums, concerts and indoor dining?

And since Italy made its Green Pass compulsory to attend concerts or other big celebrations, you’ll have to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a recent negative test result to take part – even if the event is outdoors. 

If you’re counting on going to a particular event, make sure you check first whether it’s still going ahead and what the conditions are for taking part.

Member comments

  1. Funny thing is: in all my time spent in Italy, the 15th August always had the feeling of the ‘beginning of the end’ of the long summer holidays. A special day, with that hint of sadness that soon it will be all over and it’s back to work and school.

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ITALY EXPLAINED

The 7 signs that August has arrived in Italy

While summer holidays are important everywhere, Italy takes the tradition of le vacanze estive particularly seriously. Here's what to expect now that August has arrived.

The 7 signs that August has arrived in Italy

1. Cities are largely deserted

If you’re in a city or town, prepare for it to feel strangely empty away from the obvious tourist destinations.

In Rome, car journeys that once involved a half-hour battle through wild traffic become surprisingly quick and stress-free. And where are the crowds at your usual after-work drinks spot in Milan? Even the smallest towns will be noticeably quieter than usual.

READ ALSO: Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

This is because all sensible Italian residents have packed up and gone to the beach or the mountains for a month. Next year, you’ll know to do the same.

2. But beaches are packed

Italy was a nation of staycationers even before the pandemic, and in August it’s tutti al mare: everyone flees to the beach, or maybe the mountains, at the same time.

Expect resorts to be packed and hotels, Airbnbs and campsites to be fully booked, especially as international tourists return after two years of travel restrictions.

3. Shops have cheery ‘closed for holidays’ signs

Shop workers and owners take time off like everyone else and it’s very common for small independent businesses like bakeries, pharmacies and florists to close for up to a month.

Some will tell you when they expect to reopen, others just put a sign in the window saying ‘chiuso per ferie’ – closed for holidays.

4. The summer sales are (still) on

Those shops that do remain open – mainly large chain stores and supermarkets –  offer discounts throughout August to those dedicated shoppers who aren’t at the beach. Italy only allows two retail sales a year, and one of those runs through July and August.

5. Everyone you email is out of the office

Need to contact anyone urgently at work this month? If they’re in Italy, then too bad.

Office workers are also usually on holiday, and a great many offices close altogether for three or four weeks.

Forget about out-of-office email replies suggesting an alternative contact or that the person will be checking their email sporadically – they will be on the beach and whatever you want can wait until they are back.

This applies to banks and to any kind of government bureaucracy, and you may also have trouble getting medical appointments at this time of year.

There’s only one place to be in Italy in August, as far as many Italians are concerned. Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP

6. There are ‘red alert’ heat warnings in place

This summer has been an unusually hot one and Italy has already experienced several extreme heatwaves. But as we get into August temperatures will no doubt be high across the board, meaning the country’s health authorities put heat warnings in place on the hottest days and strongly advise people to stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of the afternoon.

7. Every major road has a traffic warning

Italy’s state police make good use of the red pen when putting together the official traffic forecast for August. All weekends feature ‘red dot’ traffic warnings as people head off on holiday, or return home.

The final weekend of August, when people head home in time for il rientro (the return to school and work in September) is also best avoided.

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