Ferragosto in Italy: Traditions and Celebrations

What is Ferragosto?

15 agosto assunzione Maria al cielo, Madonna Assunta (© Catherine Leblanc – byzance-photos.fr)

Ferragosto is a holiday celebrated every year on 15th August. For Catholics, it’s the day to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It’s also a public holiday for the whole country, and the real start of the holiday season. Banks, offices, shops, and many restaurants and bars close. Ferragosto in Italy marks a break from work, an opportunity to spend time with family and often a trip to the beach or mountains.

The origins of Ferragosto in Italy

The name “Ferragosto” refers to the ancient origins of the holiday, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. The Feriae Augusti linked various pre-existing festivals in the month of August with a period of much-needed rest for workers. The Italian name “Ferragosto” is directly based on the Roman name for the festival, just as the month of August/agosto is named after the Emperor Augustus.

Throughout the centuries, Italians kept the tradition of Ferragosto and a break from work in the second half of August, during the sweltering heat. But the tradition of a trip at Ferragosto is comparatively modern, originating during the fascist regime in the 1920s. The government organized cheap holidays and train travel on a huge scale. This allowed poorer families to travel during the period around Ferragosto, visiting the seaside or mountain resorts.

Italian traditions at Ferragosto

Il Palio dell’Assunta, Siena.

Ancient Italian traditions at Ferragosto often involved horse races – a tradition that continues today with the Palio dell’Assunta in Siena on 16th August. This famous horse race takes place in the central piazza of the city, and is designed to coincide with the religious festival.

Today, Ferragosto in Italy is usually celebrated with a big family lunch. For a taste of Italian culture and an alternative Ferragosto lunch, check out the film Pranzo di Ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch). Set in Rome, this gentle comedy-drama tells the story of a man left to look after his elderly mother (and the elderly mothers of his landlord and doctor) during the holiday.

The other main tradition is to go on a trip – usually to the beach, the lake or the mountains. Cities tend to be deserted, and you’ll notice a huge difference in cities like Rome and Florence as the locals flee in droves. Some families go away for a weekend break, while others decamp to the beach for the rest of the month.

What to do during Ferragosto in Italy

When in Rome, do as the Romans do and leave! The city tends to be unpleasantly hot and sticky in mid-August, so it’s no wonder Romans flee to the sea. So many businesses are closed that there’s often not much going on. Museums and galleries are one exception, however. So if you find yourself in Rome at Ferragosto, our advice is to go on a Colosseum tour or hang out in other museums, soaking up the culture (and the air conditioning!). Keep in mind that the Vatican museum is always closed on the 15th of August, but it’s open the other days of the “Ferragosto week” . When the temperature drops in the evening, go out for drinks and dinner – checking beforehand that the restaurant you want to visit is open! – and then go for a stroll in the centre. August in Rome may be hot and humid, but it’s also undeniably atmospheric.

During Ferragosto in Italy, we recommend spending a few days by the sea or in the mountains, where the temperature is cooler. Even if you’re based in the city, you can always opt for a day trip. There are plenty of lovely lakes and beaches within easy reach of Rome.

For more tips on how to spend Ferragosto, or for insider information on Italian traditions, contact the team at Roads to Rome Private Tours!

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