What is Italy’s “Ferragosto” and Why Am I Not On Vacation?

The turquoise Mediterranean Sea of Italy's Cinque Terre – one of the most popular vacation spots for Italy's Ferragosto holiday.

…And why does Europe shut down for a month in August?

Two years ago, I wrote a post called August in Milan about the Italian holiday period of Ferragosto, and how the city heats up and empties out. I was half complaining at the time, but now ­– as a freshly repatriated expat in hard-working Chicago – I remember it fondly. I spent much of that August sitting on the stone floor of my un-airconditioned apartment (the only way to even try to keep cool besides taking a cold shower) and listening to the quieter-than-usual traffic pass by under my window.

Ferragosto is today, August 15th, and it’s a national holiday in Italy and Switzerland.

It has roots in ancient Rome as a celebration of the end of the summer agricultural season. (I’m not an anthropologist or anything, but it seems significant that even ancient Italians started celebrating before the harvest, while Germans didn’t start the fun until after, with Octoberfest.)

A beach shack business in Rimini, a popular vacation spot on Italy’s Adriatic coast. If you want to see first-hand what ferragosto is, this is a good place to find out. ©KettiWilhelm2018
A beach shack business (the 44th one on this beach, in fact) in Rimini, a popular vacation spot on Italy’s Adriatic coast.
What is ferragosto? It's the opposite of this calm, quiet sunset on the beach in Rimini, Italy. (At ferragosto, it's guaranteed to be packed with crowds.) ©KettiWilhelm2018
Sunset in Rimini.

But what’s more important now is that Ferragosto is the centerpiece of what becomes an entire month off. An entire month of my friends in Europe torturing me with vacation photos from Sicily and video calls from the beach in Tuscany, while we work away in our new American life.

When we lived in Italy, we used to resent the rigid dominance of tradition and the calendar there. Now, I keep hearing complaints from friends back in Italy (Italians and non-Italians alike) that they “have to take a vacation right now.”  

It’s true: If you work in France or Italy (as Lele and I did until this summer) you essentially must take some of your vacation days in August. While France doesn’t call its celebration Ferragosto, they do follow a similar holiday schedule and almost everyone ends up on vacation for part or all of August.

Every company in Italy except the large multinationals shuts down for at least two weeks, so employees don’t have any choice but to take vacation.

That’s paid vacation, of course. Of which most jobs in Italy offer five weeks per year. In France it’s often seven weeks.

Throughout the past year, I listened to my boss in France gripe about how the (luxurious) French holiday schedule makes it so hard to get work done (even though he is French). Then I sent him an email during the first week of August and got an auto response saying he would be out of the office until August 26.

And for the past two weeks, I’ve been entertained by listening to my Italian husband try to explain to his American high-tech-industry clients that their orders won’t be shipped until September because Europe is closed for business right now.

Kids playing football (soccer) in the most beautiful Italian soccer field imaginable.
Kids playing football (soccer) in the most beautiful Italian soccer field imaginable.
An overlook gazing down on the Ligurian Sea, on Italy’s West coast, including an ancient church and a window that’s all that remains of what was probably once a beautiful building. (This is Cinque Terre, an extremely popular ferragosto destination.) ©KettiWilhelm2018
An overlook gazing down on the Ligurian Sea.

This can also be frustrating if you work in Italy or France because:

1.) Hey, maybe you don’t want to take your vacation in August. And

2.) Everyone takes vacation in August, so it’s the most expensive time of the year to travel to, from, or around Italy.

But honestly, my frustration about Ferragosto is mostly from my stubborn, independent American side.

My overworked, under-vacationed American side now sees that the tradition of Ferragosto ­– while definitely limiting to my freedom of choice – does have the positive effect of making people actually go on vacation. It’s a stress relief valve built into the culture. I’ve been reminded lately that this doesn’t really exist in the workaholic US culture, where people even accumulate unused vacation days.

Ferragosto may not give Italians much individual choice, but it does provide the communal privilege of a healthy escape from work. If everyone has to go in August, at least everyone goes – crowds or no crowds.

So do yourself a favor and take a break already.

A peaceful abandoned (ancient) building made from clean, white sandstone, with an olive tree leaning in front of it near the Southern tip of Sicily.
Somewhere near the southern tip of Sicily.
Just a quiet trail to a tranquil beach in the south of Sicily.
Just a quiet trail to a quiet beach in the south of Sicily.

Traveling to Italy? Some advice…

1. Travel like a local:

In my experience, trains are almost always the best way to get around Italy. This is especially true during busy travel periods for locals, such as Ferragosto and April 25th (Liberation Day, celebrating the end of WW2 in Italy). You don’t want to be on a highway during these times, because you will run a huge risk of getting stuck in traffic, at a standstill, for hours. It’s happened to me, and I wished I’d taken the train.

Unlike in the US, trains in Italy go to every city and nearly every tiny town, and offer many options for daily departures.

You can book train tickets through ItaliaRail. They put you on the same trains and offer the same schedules and prices (from what I’ve seen), as the local website (TrenItalia). The main difference is ItaliaRail’s site and live customer service are completely in English and designed for international travelers.

2. Read these now to feel cool when you get there:

To show up prepared, and not feeling like a clueless tourist, check out my post about How to Eat in Italy! It guides you through the food day – from avoiding overpaying for coffee, to the difference between all the courses on the menu, to when to tip.

If you want even more about Italian coffee culture, I wrote about the complicated story of the country’s first Starbucks.


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