The height of summer
Italians traditionally celebrate Ferragosto with friends and family on the beach or in the mountains.
In the middle of August, it’s as if everyone has deserted all the cities between Brenner and Sicily. Italians have a traditional holiday on the Feast of the Assumption. Ferragosto is like Christmas and Easter rolled into one, offering an indescribable sense of freedom and love of life. Families and friends celebrate outdoors – on the beach or in the mountains. The only people left in cities are the ones who can't get away because of their jobs.
The public holiday on 15 August is a really old tradition. In ancient times, the giddy days of high summer were called “Feriae Augusti” (“festivals of Augustus”), from which today's “Ferragosto” is derived. Rome’s first emperor Augustus staged a three-day celebration in mid-August marking his victory over his adversaries Mark Antony and Cleopatra. That was in 29 BC. Ferragosto remains one of the country’s most important holidays, but is probably also the happiest – ideal when those of us from more northern climes want to top ourselves up with some southern joie de vivre and if we’re lucky join in the festivities too.
Restaurants are extremely busy so it’s essential to make a reservation if you don’t want to be standing outside a restaurant with a rumbling stomach on 15 August. Inside and on the terrace there are special holiday menus that the Italians are more than willing to spend money on. There’s no celebration without the traditional array of antipasti, pasta, carne/pesce and dolci. People celebrate in large groups, regardless of whether they’re taking a picnic hamper to the beach or are sitting around a fire or even in a restaurant. There are numerous traditions during Ferragosto: in the evening lots of places stage huge firework displays and on the next day, 16 August, the famous “Palio dell’Assunta” horse race is held in Siena. The crazy race around the city’s Piazza del Campo has been staged since 1633 in a competition between 17 city districts and also featured in the opening scene of James Bond’s “Quantum of Solace”. The winner is the “horse that finishes all the laps first – with or without a jockey”.
In mid-August, half of Italy is out and about. And many shops stay shut. In the past even the bakeries in small holiday destinations remained closed, but these days more and more shops are open. Schools are guaranteed to be shut and lots of companies close for a few weeks. August is simply holiday time and many Italians take their whole holiday entitlement in one go. People are simply in a good mood and wish each other “Buon Ferragosto” around the feast day, just like we say “Happy Easter” or “Merry Christmas”. Ferragosto brings people together. There’s no one leaving early because they have work to do in the office. It’s an important time – and it has been for 2000 years.
What should you do at Ferragosto?
Book early: restaurants and beaches get full.
Relax and join in the celebrations: lots of Italians are on holiday in mid-August. It’s all about relaxing.
Watch what is probably Italy’s most famous horse race – the Palio held in Siena on 16 August: https://www.visittuscany.com/en/topevents/palio-di-siena-tuscany/