Published on: 15 April 2014 | Last updated: 25 March 2018
My favourite times are May, June, September and October, but if you are heading for the mountains, then July and August may be the best times. In June some of the higher mountain passes may still be snowbound — the organisers of the Giro d'Italia (which takes place in June) often have to change the route because of weather conditions. September can be a good time, especially if you like the sight of snow on the mountain peaks, but if you are camping it can get cold at night. Bear in mind that for ever 1000 metres of altitude temperatures are 6.6 degrees (Celsius) cooler.
The Italian holiday season
One of the things to take into account is that the peak holiday season in Italy is the week or two around August 15 (ferragosto). I've stayed in campsites at ferragosto and then returned a week or so later and the difference has been marked. If you have the choice then I'd definitely avoid mid-August.
The Italian holiday season can also be extremely short —especially the season for beach holidays. Campsites in seaside areas may only open from mid-June to mid-September. This is particularly the case where the area is mainly dependent on Italian customers —in areas where there are more clients from northern Europe the season tends to be a bit longer. There aren't any hard-and-fast rules here: on Elba, for example, most campsites stay open until mid-October while close by on the mainland coast many are shut or deserted by mid-September. This isn't to say that you won't be able to find a place, it's just that it's worth checking the campsite's opening and closing dates before you toil up a big hill only to find that the campsite is closed (I speak from experience).
If you're in northern Europe and thinking 'oh Italy is in the south it's bound to be warm and sunny', well it's not quite as simple as that. In fact during the winter temperatures in Italy are often very cold, and it can also be very rainy. The average annual rainfall for Italy (at around 750mm) is pretty similar to the average annual rainfall in the UK, US, and Australia. The good news is that on the whole there are fewer rainy days, but when does rain it rains pretty heavily.
The climate can also differ quite markedly between the islands and coastal plains, which tend to have hot, dry summers, and the mountains where the weather in summer can be unsettled and thunderstorms quite frequent. Across the whole of the arc of the Alps summer thunderstorms in the late-afternoon or early-evening are a frequent occurrence. If you are planning a tour in north-east Italy, in say, early-May or late-September/October, you are often on the borderline between different weather systems and the weather can get pretty unsettled.
Temperatures generally tend to hit a peak in mid-summer into the upper-thirties (Celsius). As you'd expect, the hottest temperatures tend to be in Sicilia, but in the hottest days of summer, the weather systems tend to be determined by the weather over Africa and tend to affect pretty much the whole of the peninsula. During the hottest days of summer the Italian TV news lists the hottest cities (complete with obligatory footage from the beach, tourists with parasols, people paddling in fountains etc etc etc), and while the Sicilian cities tend to head the league, places like Firenze, Bologna and Bozen are usually not very far behind.
Italians have a special word (afa) for hot humid heat, and in summer you can hear it a lot, along with caldo africano (African heat).
Public holidays and dates for your diary
For some reason public holidays in Italy always seem to take me by surprise —even though they're pretty similar to holidays in the UK. In Italy the holiday is taken on the actual date rather than the nearest Monday —this means that if the holiday falls on say a Thursday or a Tuesday, many people will be tempted to fare il ponte (ponte - bridge) and make a long weekend of it.
If you're travelling in Italy, holidays probably won't affect you very much, as many shops and businesses stay open. Supermarkets are generally closed, post offices will definitely be closed, and there will be a reduced service on the railways. You may also find that accommodation is harder to book: a hotel owner may be less keen to take a booking for one night during a long weekend at the beginning of Spring. Ferragosto on the 15 August is the day for big family lunches: Il Pranzo di Ferragosto is an Italian institution. Restaurants are packed although if you get lucky, they might find a place for you at the second sitting.
On the positive side, you may find that there are lots of Italians out for a bike ride as well, which always makes things more interesting. And some museums and galleries are free on May 1st.
The main holidays likely to be of interest to cycle tourists are:
- Pasqua (Easter)
- Pasquetta (Easter Monday)
- Festa della Liberazione - 25 April
- Festa dei lavoratori (International Workers Day) (1 May)
- Pentecoste (Whitsun)
- Festa della Repubblica - 2 June
- Ferragosto - 15 August;
Other days that are probably less relevant:
- Tutti i santi (All Saints Day)- 1 November
- Immacolata Concezione - 8 December
- Natale - 25 December
- Santo Stefano - 26 December
- Capodanno - 1 January
- Epifania - 6 January
Two other dates to keep in mind:
- for the last 20 years the last Sunday in May has been the day when vineyards open their doors to visitors (although many are of course also open at other times). In many places, there are tastings and other activities through the whole weekend. For more information about the Cantine Aperte visit the website for the Movimento Turismo del Vino (it/en)
- the Giornata FAI di Primavera. The Fondo Ambiente Italiano (it/en) is the Italian equivalent to Britain's National Trust - an NGO that works to protect properties of historic, cultural importance or natural beauty. In March it holds a day when all of its properties are open to visitors - it has also encouraged public and private bodies to open up other buildings that are normally closed to the public) .