The calendar shows that Ferragosto takes place on August 15. The mid-August break coincides with the Assumption of Mary, in the way that Christmas conveniently takes place around the Winter Solstice.
The further south from Rome that you go, the more you’ll find towns that celebrate the Assumption. Romans typically use the old pagan name as well as adopt a libertine attitude towards the holiday, taking long breaks on either side of the fifteenth or even taking the whole month of August off.
The prevailing travel wisdom about Italy has always been to avoid going to the country in August as it’s hot, many shops and restaurants are closed, and the cities are emptied out of residents and replaced by other tourists. All of this is quite true. But if August is the only time you can take time off to see Florence, Venice, Rome, or any number of cities or villages, then you should go.
Visiting Italy in August is better than not visiting Italy at all.
But you are going to need things to make your August jaunt to Italy a successful one. Here are a few that I suggest.
1) Church appropriate clothing. The time that you really run into the strict dress code in Italian churches — that of covering bare arms and legs for the sake of modesty — is in August, when it’s too hot to want to wear anything more than a tank top and shorts. If your itinerary includes lots of time visiting churches, make sure you pack a longer-sleeved shirt (linen shirts are ideal) or a wrap/pashmina and bring a pair of lightweight pants or a long skirt. My recommendations here are for women, but men, too, need to be considerate of the dress code.
2) A friend with a beach house. You are going to ask yourself, “Self, where are all the Italians?” Well, the Italians are likely at the beach or in the mountains (but mostly the beach) during August in order to escape the heat and also, dear traveler, you. While it’s hard to score an Italian friend with a beach-side home, you would do well to find out which beaches are closest to your preferred destinations. For example, Romans head to nearby Fregene for summer fun, but also to Sperlonga and to the coast of Tuscany (e.g., Ansedonia).
3) A water bottle. Pack an empty water bottle in your luggage if you haven’t thought to do so already. One of the joys of traveling around little towns in Italy is that most, if not all, have at least one “nasone” or nose-shaped faucet in their downtown which residents use for a pure source of aqueduct water. Fill up your water bottle before you leave your hotel in the morning. Then, once you have depleted your water stores, you can use a nasone to refill your bottle. Of course, you can also purchase bottled water or other beverages along the way. But this is an economic and environmentally-friendly choice.
4) Lodging with air conditioning. Air conditioning is not a given at hotels in Italy, particularly if you’re staying in budget or religious accommodations. If you prize cool air in the summer, check to make sure that your hotel has AC before you book. Be advised that some places will charge an extra supplement for air conditioning.
5) A wine key. My less obvious choice among August in Italy travel accessories is a wine key. As more restaurants and bars temporarily close or relocate to the beach in the summer (and in August especially), you may find yourself unable to wine and dine where you wish. Consider shopping in an alimentari or local markets for picnic provisions and pick up a few bottles of vino to make your own lunch or dinner. Having a wine key, particularly one that you are comfortable using, may turn a frustrating mealtime into a memorable one. Some enoteche (wine stores) sell wine keys, too. Side note for American travelers: the TSA allows corkscrews on domestic flights, but not international ones. So you’ll have to pack a wine key in a checked bag if you wish to bring one to Italy.
6) A sense of humor. Above all, what’s important for a successful vacation to Italy in August is a sense of humor. Restaurants you have been researching for months may turn out to be closed for vacation during your stay; restaurant owners and hotel workers may be grumpy having to deal with the likes of you while their friends and family are off galavanting on the coasts; or other tourists may start to make you crazy, crowding you out in the Sistine Chapel or blocking your view on guided tours.
It may be hot in Italy in the summer. But there are many ways to take it in stride. Enjoy yourself. Eat gelato. Get lost. At last — you’re in Italy.