Here I was planning my trip to Italy without realizing that while August is a great time to visit, not only is it the most popular month for Italians to go on holidays, but it is also the month of Ferragosto. What and when is Ferragosto, you might ask? These are the same questions I typed into my Google search, and while doing so had a funny feeling that I would be making some last-minute changes to my travel itinerary once I found out the answers. I still don’t remember how I heard about Ferragosto, but I’m certainly glad I did while I was still on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Without going into too much history and detail, Ferragosto was first introduced as part of other festivals to celebrate the harvest and end of a long period of intense agricultural labor. As time went on, this became the popular time during the year for taking trips to other Italian cities, the seaside, and mountain lodges for the day or long weekends. (Check out my previous blog posts about Cinque Terre and Lido di Camaiore – examples of popular coastal and seaside destinations where many locals vacation to escape the stifling heat of the cities.) Ferragosto celebrates the middle of the Italian summer and marks the unofficial start of Italy’s summer holiday season. Coincidentally, August 15th also marks the Feast of the Assumption. As it was later described to me, Ferragosto is like Thanksgiving in the States. Much like we do here in the States on Thanksgiving, Italians usually gather on August 15th with family and friends for a special lunch and/or dinner.
Looking back now, I don’t think the “research” I conducted prepared me for what to expect. However, the WhatsApp messages I exchanged with the host at the bed and breakfast where I would be staying in Perugia gave me a better idea about how big a deal this holiday was.
So how did I spend my Ferragosto in Italy? I opted to travel on Ferragosto – I figured if places were going to be closed, I might as well plan to do my intercity travel on that day. It was a good plan, but it wasn’t without its challenges.
Even the trains operated on a limited schedule for the holiday, which didn’t make travel impossible, but certainly left me with fewer options. With the train schedule limited because of the holiday, planning my arrival to Perugia for when the bed and breakfast owner returned from her Ferragosto lunch with her family was a bit tricky. While I could have opted for a train that departed Florence earlier in the day and wandered around Perugia for a couple of hours before checking in, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot to do and see – as the majority of businesses were closed that day. And truth be told, there was more going on at the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence (Firenze SMN) anyway, which made the thought of waiting in Florence more tolerable. Of course, my train was “in ritardo” (which for anyone who’s traveled in Italy by train, this isn’t surprising), and I ended up spending more time at Firenze SMN than I bargained for, but hey, I was in no rush.
Now while I knew from my research for this trip that Ferragosto was a public holiday, I never would have guessed that places would be closed for the rest of the month following the holiday – I found that out by chance.
The following day, I met my mom in Rome, and we headed back to Perugia. While we made Perugia our base, I decided to plan a day trip back to Florence two days later. Our train pulled into Firenze SMN, and as soon as my mom and I stepped off the train, we made a beeline to the vegetarian restaurant (La Libreria Brac).
As we walked around the block several times and glanced ever so often at my phone to confirm the address, I finally noticed a piece of paper hanging on a door where the map showed the restaurant was supposed to be. It was then I realized that the restaurant I was so desperately searching for had been right in front of me all along. I didn’t recognize it because it was closed (and the restaurant sign was covered). However, the message on the piece of paper hanging on the door was very clear – “Closed for Ferragosto. Return first week of September”. I shook my head in disbelief, mumbled under my breath, “is this a joke?” and just walked away.
While we continued looking for an alternative place to eat, I started to take more notice of similar signs decorating other storefronts and restaurants. I was so disappointed; on the entire 2-hour train ride from Perugia to Florence, I kept raving to my mom about this restaurant, only for us to walk around in circles and eventually discover that it was closed for the rest of the summer! Fortunately, my disappointment eventually faded when we found another restaurant (Sgrano) where we enjoyed some of the best gluten-free pizza I’ve ever tasted!
During the week of Ferragosto and through the end of August, you will find that many local businesses, shops, and restaurants are closed, but there are still plenty that’s open for you to enjoy. The summer holidays didn’t entirely disrupt my plans for the rest of the trip. However, if I had to plan it again, I would have made some minor tweaks to my itinerary.
Even though most tourist attractions are open the week of Ferragosto, if you’re looking to expand your adventures beyond cultural sites and tourist attractions and you must travel around that time, I suggest traveling a couple of days before the holiday. This way, you’ll arrive at your final destination and still have a day or two to explore the area before much of the country shuts down to observe the holiday.
If it’s one thing that this experience has taught me, always check what holidays (public or national) occur around the time you’re traveling. Like it or not, if the country you’re visiting is on holiday – then it might have to be a day (or two or three) of rest for you too!