Ferragosto, August 15th, is a public Italian holiday that every year celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The name ‘Ferragosto’ however has a different connotation with ancient Roman origins: it derives from the Latin phrase Feriae Augusti indicating a day of rest and celebration added by Emperor Augustus in 18 BCE to the already existing festivities held at the end of harvest.
This ancient Roman custom persisted: until a decade ago, 90% of Italian companies, shops and industries closed in August, taking one or two weeks off around August 15th. This meant most offices and businesses also shut down all across Italy. This trend has changed, however. Even in small family-run enterprises, shifts guarantee shorter closures. Although the majority of workers do take their vacation around Ferragosto, the country manages to function and not completely shut down.
Ferragosto is not all about vacationing. As a national holiday, each Italian region and city celebrates a little differently.
In Turin, for example, the Gran Galà di Ferragosto celebrates the day in the splendid setting of the Reggia di Venaria. Cocktails, fireworks, DJ sets and live performances are an annual tradition. In Milan many museums usually stay open on Ferragosto: think Castello Sforzesco, Museo del Novecento, the Civic Aquarium and the Natural History Museum, but also the splendid Pinacoteca di Brera.
In Porto Santo Stefano on the Tuscan coast, the Palio Marinaro dell’Argentario takes place on August 15th: an ancient rowing competition at sea. The most famous Palio dell’Assunta however is in Siena on July 2nd and on August 16th. Seven randomly picked “contrade” (neighborhoods of the city) represented by riders in Renaissance costume that ride saddle-free horses and race 3 times around the crowd assembled in Piazza del Campo. Winners of the title display the Palio (painted tapestry) in the victor neighborhood. Not far from Siena, in Sarteano, there’s a beautiful historical procession in full Renaissance costume followed by a sunset jousting tournament, la Giostra del Saracino, which dates back to the 16th century.
In Montereale, Abruzzo, the holiday is celebrated with an original competition held in a meadow opposite the Abbey of the Madonna in Pantanis: contestants declaim rigorously off-the-cuff poetry in rhyme.
In Pozzuoli (Naples) the holiday is observed with a morning procession through the streets of the historic center. After lunch, the “profane” side of the festival kicks off at Molo Caligoliano, where sporty types challenge each other to climb “O Pennone,” a pole covered with soap. In Positano and other towns along the Amalfi Coast, fishing boats and other vessels from neighboring villages gather in the small bay to enjoy local seafood grilled on the beach and a night of music, bonfires and celebrations that end with spectacular fireworks.
In the splendid setting of the Castellana caves near Bari, the midsummer holiday means musical celebrations, games, events and shows but also concerts and book presentations.
Lots of celebrations dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary take place in many towns of Salento. On a less religious note is Notte della Taranta, “pizzica” folk music festival held in many towns in Puglia throughout the month of August. This year the finale is on August 24th.
On Ferragosto in Messina and other Sicilian towns, there’s the procession of the “Vara,” an insanely elaborate float dedicated to the Assumption of the Madonna.
On Ferragosto in Rome tradition is cooling down eating lots of watermelon. In the rest of Italy, the hand-painted signs on roadside stands selling whole watermelons may read the word “anguria,” but in Rome it’s “cocomero.” In absence of portable coolers, mid-August watermelons in Roma are usually kept cold, bobbing in nearby fountains. But there’s so much more to this day than just eating watermelon!
Here are a few ideas of what to do in Rome on Ferragosto.
Many staycationers in the Eternal City take the day to hit the beaches.
Ostia is a very popular destination on the holiday. You can take the train to Ostia Lido (end of the line, all the way to the seaside promenade). The town of Fregene is quieter, but there is no public beach, only lidos where you have to pay an entrance fee and/or rent sunbeds, parasols and beach chairs. Most of these “stabilimenti” serve food, drinks and snacks; have a pool and sports facilities, showers and changing rooms.
Traveling north from Fregene are Santa Marinella and Santa Severa, equally lovely locations for a beach day. Going south you can also find Anzio, Nettuno, Sabaudia, Circeo. Further south are Terracina and Sperlonga. The latter is one of our favorite seaside resorts: great beaches, cleaner water, a charming hilltop village, great food. Sperlonga however is at a greater distance from Rome so it might be wise to either rent a car (and not be bound by public transportation schedules) or plan to spend the night at a hotel/B&B.
An interesting alternative to the coastal destinations near Rome is visiting the region’s lakes: a perfect destination for Ferragosto. Lago di Bracciano is a rather large volcanic lake. The three towns on its shores are: Anguillara, Bracciano and Trevignano. The Orsini castle is in Bracciano, and surely worth a visit. Lago di Bolsena is the area’s largest lake. It boasts a charming resort town with great freshwater fish restaurants! Lago di Martignano, surrounded by lawn beaches, has a lake-side cafe, a couple of agriturismo restaurants, and walking trails. Lago di Nemi and its picturesque town are also worth visiting. On its shores are the ancient Temple of Diana and the Museum of Roman Ships located within walking distance of each other. In it are two ancient Roman ships built under Emperor Caligula.
MUSEUMS & MAJOR SITES
The Vatican Museums close on August 15. The Colosseum is open, with some areas however closed off for distancing regulations this year.
The Civic Museums and the museums of the Municipality of Rome are open. Some of our favorites include Centrale Montemartini; Musei Capitolini; Mercati di Traiano.
If you are interested in contemporary art, we strongly suggest you visit the MAXXI museum
If you’re planning to visit museums and take public transportation in Rome we encourage you to purchase a ROMA PASS.
And since many residents are on vacation, there is very little traffic, no queues and no waiting times. That’s why it’s also so nice to ride through Rome on a Vespa!
Hadrian’s Villa and Villa D’Este in Tivoli are fantastic destinations for the midsummer holiday. Online booking is recommended at least 48 hours in advance.
Another lesser known Villa is the Sacro Bosco aka “Parco dei Mostri” in Bomarzo, with unusual sculptures and bizarre architecture. Have the front desk of your hotel double check opening hours and ticketing guidelines.
Shops are generally closed on August 15th. Some stay open in the historic center. Supermarkets also stay open, but generally with shorter opening hours, and only in the morning until 1:00 pm.
It’s increasingly easier to find great places to eat in Rome open for the entire month of August, and even on the proverbial peak of August closures, Ferragosto. We’re happy to report that many favorites that normally close in August will be open after this disastrous year of loss. Let’s help the restaurant business get back on its feet! Check our updated list of Rome restaurants that are open in August this year.
Busses and trams follow a reduced summer timetable on Ferragosto. The Metro (subway) runs on Friday night and Saturday night until around 1:30 a.m. Night buses (marked with an N before the number) operate according to regular timetables. Taxis run around the clock year round. You can download taxi apps like FreeNow and itTaxi.
Looking for a last-minute Ferragosto getaway destination? Browse our Weekend Guides series for travel inspiration.