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DISCOVER ITALY

Nine things to do in Italy this autumn

Whether you live in Italy or are just passing through, there's a wealth of things to see, do and eat this autumn. Here are some of our top picks.

Nine things to do in Italy this autumn
Chianti Classico vineyards are tinged with autumn colours on November 2, 2011 in Passignano, Tuscany. Photo by FABIO MUZZI / AFP.

Autumn is widely considered one of the best times to visit Italy, thanks to smaller crowds, temperate weather, gorgeous natural landscapes, and delicious seasonal food.

So where should you start? From harvest fairs to chocolate exhibitions to cultural and religious festivals, here’s what we recommend doing in Italy this autumn.

Visit Italy’s ‘hidden’ cultural sites for free

On Sunday October 15th and Sunday 16th, more than 700 cultural sites across Italy open their doors to the public with Giornate FAI d’Autunno, or ‘FAI Autumn days’, a programme organised by the cultural heritage society Fondo Ambiente Italiano.

Many of the participating sites, including villas, castles, churches, abbeys, parks, and theatres, are not usually open to the public or are otherwise difficult to visit.

Entry is free but donations are encouraged. You can find more on which sites will be open and instructions for visiting each one (some require advance online booking) on FAI’s website here.

READ ALSO: How to see Italy’s ‘hidden’ cultural sites for free this weekend

Let off steam in a hot spring

From Sicily to Lombardy, Italy has a wealth of natural hot springs, and as the weather starts to cool off, autumn is the perfect time of year to test them out.

Some – like the stunning Terme di Saturnia or the Bagni San Filippo in Tuscany – are ‘wild’ natural hot springs that anyone can visit free of charge.

The free Cascate del Mulino thermal pools in Saturnia, Tuscany.

The free Cascate del Mulino thermal pools in Saturnia, Tuscany. Photo by Mark Pisek on Unsplash

TRAVEL: Eight of the best destinations for an autumn break in Italy

Others, like Il Bagnaccio, are formed of man-made clay pools and run by associations that charge a small entry fee; others still are in luxury hotel spa complexes and are priced accordingly.

The range of options means whatever your preferences (and budget), you’re bound to find a hot spring for you.

Fill up at a sagra

Autumn is harvest season, which means it’s also when Italy’s famous sagra food festivals celebrating nature’s bounty get into full swing.

A sagra could last for several weeks or one day, and might consist of anything from a raucous celebration with music and dancing to a lone food stall with a few wooden benches. It will usually be hosted in a field or a piazza, and entry is free.

A man sells marzipan treats at a festa in Catania, Sicily.

A man sells marzipan treats at a festival in Catania, Sicily. Photo by MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO / AFP.

Sagra: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

It’s partly a chance to sample local delicacies, from mushrooms to apples to wine, and partly an opportunity to experience local traditions, as sagre have their origins in ancient pagan thanksgiving rituals.

There are hundreds of sagre held across the country each autumn; you can find some of those happening in October here.

Admire the changing landscape

Italy’s lush landscapes take on a whole new appearance in autumn, when streaks of red, gold and brown ripple through its hills and valleys.

The Foreste Casentinesi National Park and the valleys of Piedmont are particularly recommended for their autumn colours, but Italy has so much unspoiled nature that even if you’re based in a city you can expect to find a range of scenic hikes just a short drive or train ride away. 

Autumn in Folgaria, Trentino.

Autumn in Folgaria, Trentino. Photo by Stefano Segato on Unsplash

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

If you’re not especially mobile, that doesn’t matter – there are plenty of Italians who like to immerse themselves natural beauty without physically exerting themselves, which means there are often restaurants or picnic spots with their own panoramic views just off the road at the start of hiking trails.

If you’re looking for a scenic train ride, the Foliage Train connecting Domodossola in Piedmont with Locarno in Switzerland is reputed to be particularly beautiful this time of year.

Go foraging

If you’re driving through the Italian countryside in the autumn, you’re bound to see empty cars parked haphazardly on the side of the road at various points. 

That’s how you know you’ve happened upon a good foraging spot. Chestnuts, hazelnuts, and blackberries are some of the more popular items to forage at this time of year, but the real enthusiasts are the ones searching for mushrooms.

There's a bounty of treats to be gathered from Italy's forest floor in the autumn.

There’s a bounty of treats to be gathered from Italy’s forest floor in the autumn. Photo by Hasmik Ghazaryan Olson on Unsplash

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

As mushroom gathering tends to be considered a step up from other types of foraging in terms of both the knowledge required and the potential environmental impact, it’s regulated in Italy.

You’ll need to purchase a permit, and in some Italian regions you’re also required to take a course; partly so you can learn which mushrooms are safe to eat, and partly to protect the natural ecosystem. 

Sample seasonal delicacies

Because fresh local produce is so central to Italian cooking, it’s a good idea to eat with the seasons in Italy.

You can order porcini mushroom tagliatelle at many restaurants out of season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should – the mushrooms will either have been frozen or preserved in vinegar, either of which will detract from their rich natural flavour.

Porcini mushrooms are best enjoyed when in season.

Porcini mushrooms are best enjoyed when in season. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

READ ALSO: Eight of the tastiest Italian foods for autumn

Chestnuts, pumpkins and squash, truffles, bitter greens like cime di rapa, prickly pears, figs and persimmon, and of course, porcini mushrooms are all autumnal Italian foods.

While less seasonally dependant, you’re also particularly likely to find game on the menu in the autumn in Italy, including wild boar, venison, goose, hare, pheasant, deer, and duck, often in warming stews.

Indulge at a chocolate fair

If dessert’s more your thing, fear not: there’s a wide range of chocolate festivals held in Italy in the autumn. Perhaps the most famous of these is the EuroChocolate exhibition in Perugia, home of the traditional Italian Baci chocolates, which this year will take place from October 14th-23rd.

From October 28th to November 6th you can head north to CioccolaTÒ in Turin – where the first chocolate-hazelnut spread, a precursor to Nutella named Giandutto, was invented – or Cioccoshow in Bologna, which this year is happening on November 17th-20th.

Visitors to Italy's chocolate fairs are spoilt for choice.

Visitors to Italy’s chocolate fairs are spoilt for choice. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Wherever you are in Italy, it’s worth heading to your favourite cafe for a cup (which in reality is often a bowl) of hot chocolate – the Italian take on the drink is more of a dessert than a drink: a thick, dark, creamy, decadent concoction.

Experience the Ottobrata Zafferanese

The Italian word ‘Ottobrata’ has more than one definition, being both the name for the pleasant late-summer weather most of Italy has for several weeks in October and the Sunday excursions the ancient Romans would make to the countryside to enjoy the weather and the wine harvest (a bit like the modern-day scampagnata). 

The Ottobrata Zafferanese, though, is its own thing altogether: a cultural and food festival that has been held every Sunday of October since 1978 in the Sicilian town of Zafferana Etnea, it’s one of Italy’s most famous autumn fairs.

Nestled on the slopes of Mount Etna, with stunning views over the Ionian Sea, Zafferana Etnea is well worth a visit at any time of year, but if you come on an Ottobrata day you’ll be rewarded with musical and theatrical displays, artisan craft stalls, and guided food and drink tastings.

Musicians perform at a festival in Pistoia, Tuscany.

Musicians perform at a festival in Pistoia, Tuscany. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Attend Venice’s Festa della Salute

Each year on November 21st, Venice celebrates the Festa della Salute (‘Festival of Health’), or to give it its full title, the Festa della Madonna della Salute, a religious festival dating back to the 1600s.

In 1630-1631 the bubonic plague swept through northern Italy, so devastating Venice that in 1631 the city’s leaders organised a three-day worship procession begging the Virgin Mary to spare its citizens, and made a vow that they would build a church in her honour if she did. The plague passed, and the Basilica of Madonna della Salute was erected.

The occasion isn’t restricted to Venice – Trieste and various other towns in the Veneto region also observe the same date – but in Venice a temporary floating wooden votive bridge, traditionally buoyed by boats, is constructed to allow residents to cross the lagoon en masse and give thanks to the Madonna in the basilica named after her.

You'll have the opportunity to participate in one of Venice's many religious festivals in November.

You’ll have the opportunity to participate in one of Venice’s many religious festivals in November. Photo by Daniel Corneschi on Unsplash

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DISCOVER ITALY

Beyond Venice: Seven of Italy’s most magical carnivals

Italy's carnival season brings colour and fun to the grey month of February, and Venice is far from the only place putting on a show.

Beyond Venice: Seven of Italy's most magical carnivals

Transforming the Serenissima into a Rococo wonderland for a packed two weeks, Venice’s carnival is rightly renowned as one of the highlights in Italy’s cultural calendar.

But when it comes to carnival celebrations, the country’s offerings extend far beyond Venice’s waters.

READ ALSO: Venice Carnival: What to expect if you’re attending in 2023

From three-day food fights to sky-high floats and masked revelries, here are some of Italy’s most spectacular carnivals to look out for.

Putignano – February 12th, 19th, 21st, 25th

Putignano’s carnival is one of Europe’s oldest, dating back to 1394 when the relics of Saint Stephen were transported to the town to protect them from Saracen raids, and locals downed tools to join the procession and celebrate.

This is also one of the longest-running carnivals in Europe, starting on Boxing Day and traditionally ending on Shrove Tuesday, when a papier-mâché pig is carried through the streets and then burned. Concerts, shows, and various parades all feature.

More information here.

Viareggio – February 12th, 16th, 19th, 21st, 25th

In Viareggio’s masked parade, hundreds of colourful papier-mâché floats up to 70 feet high are carried along the Tuscan seafront to music and dancing.

It started out in 1873 as a protest at the upper classes not having to pay taxes and continues to provide political and social commentary today – expect to see papier-mâché caricatures of politicians and celebrities atop the carnival floats.

More information here.

One of Viareggio's 2017 carnival floats.

One of Viareggio’s 2017 carnival floats. Photo by Claudio GIOVANNINI / AFP.

Fano – February 12th, 19th

Fano’s is the sweetest of all the festivals, as chocolates, sweets and sugared almonds are thrown from the float wagons into the crowds of spectators.

It dates all the way back to 1347, making it one of Italy’s oldest carnivals, and is thought to have originated as a celebration of a reconciliation between two warring local families.

If you prefer sweet spectacles to tastes, in the last parade the floats are lit up with luminarie, making them particularly impressive to look at.

More information here.

Ivrea – February 12th, 16th, 18th-21st

Looking for something more exciting than your average parade? In Ivrea, the highlight of the festivities is the annual orange fight – a rather messy way of commemorating the local people’s struggle against the city’s tyrant and, later, against Napoleonic troops.

READ ALSO: What changes about life in Italy in February 2023

Those on foot represent the townspeople while those on carts play the part of the troops, all throwing oranges at each other. The epic battle lasts three days – this year, the 19th to the 21st – at the end of which awards are bestowed on the winning teams.

More information here.

Members of orange battle teams throw oranges at each other during the traditional "Battle of the Oranges" festival held during the carnival in Ivrea, near Turin, on March 3, 2019.

Members of orange battle teams throw oranges at each other during Ivrea’s 2019 “Battle of the Oranges”. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP.

Acireale – February 11th-21st

Acireale’s festivities once involved locals throwing rotten eggs, oranges and lemons at each other in the street – but luckily for 21st century visitors, the custom was banned in 1612.

These days it’s a much more respectable affair: as well as papier-mâché caricatures of public figures, you can expect to see elaborate flower and light displays.

If you miss the February festivities, Acireale’s carnival is so popular it usually returns for a few weeks in July and August.

More information here.

Mamoiada – February 11th, 16th, 18th-21st, 25th

This carnival is one of Sardinia’s oldest folk festivals, drawing on ancient traditions. Instead of papier-mâché floats, expect to see Mamuthones and Issohadores.

The former parade in groups of 12, dressed in black masks and dark sheep skins; the latter, dressed in red with white masks, lead the Mamuthones with complex dance steps. At a certain point the Issohadores ‘catch’ onlookers with a rope, who then free themselves by offering food or wine.

Festivities end with feasting on pork and beans, while wine and local sweets are traditionally offered to visitors throughout the carnival.

More information here.

'Mamuthones' join other revellers in Mamoiada's carnival celebrations. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.

‘Mamuthones’ join other revellers in Mamoiada’s carnival celebrations. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
Cento – February 12th, 19th, 26th, March 5th

This quiet medieval town in the Emilia Romagna countryside comes to life in February when it puts on its ‘Carnival of Europe’ festival. Since the early 90s it’s been twinned with Rio de Janeiro’s carnival, with the winning floats getting to appear in the Rio parade.

Watch out for flying objects – part of Cento’s tradition is the gettito, where toys and inflatable objects are thrown from the floats into the crowd. The end of the festival is marked with an unmissable fireworks show.

More information here.

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