[I reprint this post each year at the start of the summer as a reminder to travelers who are heading to Italy for the summer]
Ferragosto is the Italian holiday that takes place in August — you can pretty much hedge your bets that most things are going to be closed as Italians head to the mountains, lakes and beaches for some much needed rest and relaxation. It begins on August 15. Many Italians start their summer vacations during this time, and Rome can be quite deserted (except for tourists) during much of August.
The holiday is a curious one for many reasons, one of which is during the entire month of August, most of Italy closes down except for the tourist areas, hotels and restaurants. Most businesses close so that their employees can enjoy the month of August for some much needed R&R!
Second, the holiday began in ancient Roman times when in 18 BC, the emperor Augustus declared that the month of August would be dedicated to the Feriae Augusti – a slew of festivals that honored the goddess Diana, who served as the protector of labor. The month of August also honored the gods Vortumnus and the Opeconsiva, two gods who were worshiped to ensure that there would be an abundant crop, an excellent harvest, and fruitful seasons and safe weather to ensure that the crops would be bountiful.
Diana was also the goddess of maternity, and the 13th of August was the most important day. The ancient Roman holiday was a celebration of maternity and fertility — whether it was in the fields with their abundant crops, or in the bedroom with lots of (male) children to carry on the family line! The 13th of August featured religious services which honored the goddess Diana — with both men and women hoping for fertile fields and fertile wives.
In Christianity, August is believed to be the month in which the Virgin rose to heaven. Pope Piux XII in 1950 cemented this into the church’s canon, although the idea that August was the month of the Virgin began to take shape in the 1700’s. The Virgin was the one that Christians turned to and prayed to for a good harvest and an abundant crop, taking over the “role” of the ancient gods who originally served that purpose.
Now the modern holiday is a time of rest and relaxation where the entire country slows down and Italians enjoy their summer holidays. August is also the hottest month of the year, and Italians generally flee their cities. The religious aspects of the holiday definitely take a “back seat” to many Italians who see this as a time of rest, relaxation and beating the heat.
You’ll tend to see more tourists than Italians in the major cities since many of them are at the beach. If going to the beach, lakes, mountains or other popular (and cooler) destinations are on your itinerary, expect a lot of traffic and crowds. If super hot weather, crowds and tourists and finding a lot of things closed bothers you, best to avoid Italy in August and wait until September or October for your vacation or earlier in the late spring. Ferragosto is something to keep in mind as you plan your trip to Italy.