Buon Ferragosto! Festivals in Italy to Visit This August

Barbecues, parties on the beach, fireworks – did anyone say Ferragosto?! August 15th might just be the most anticipated date in Italy, as this is when summer really goes underway. In 2023, Ferragosto falls on a Tuesday, creating a nice little “ponte”, or extra days sequence, for everyone living in the country.

If you’ve ever found yourself in Italy during August, you probably noticed that everything comes to a stop in favor of the holiday. Cities are typically empty (or at least emptier) while everyone makes their way to the mountains or the coasts. And it has been like this ever since emperor Augustus, who introduced Feriae Augusti to mark the end of the agricultural season. The date also coincides with the the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary, making it twice the reason to celebrate and get off work. During the late 1920s, the Fascist regime began organizing hundreds of trips with “People’s Trains of Ferragosto”. This way, the less fortunate Italians got the chance to tour the country.

How to celebrate Ferragosto

There are different ways to enjoy Ferragosto. Many Italians typically spend the day(s) with the family and/or friends, going on picnics and barbecues. Others spend the day on the beach, alongside a fire in the evening.

Another good way is to join local festivals, which usually have amazing parades, music, and of course the fireworks. Some Ferragosto traditions are very much alive today, and below I list my favorite must-visits across Il Belpaese. And many of them involve horses and medieval knights?! Read on!

The Palio of Siena

Although held on August 16th, the Palio of Siena in the town’s Piazza del Campo could be considered a Ferragosto tradition. Held twice a year, it is a 390-year-old horse race in which ten horses and ten riders representing the contrade, or city wards, compete. Since there are 17 contrade of Siena, the 7 which did not get to compete in the June race get to do so in the August one (and three more are chosen by draw). Definitely a sight to see if you find yourself in Siena at the right time!

Palio di Siena Ferragosto 2011
Palio di Siena, 2011. Image by Andrea Lensini via Wikimedia Commons

La Giostra del Saracino in Sarteano

An hour away from Siena is Sarteano, with its Giostra del Saracino. With roots in the fourteenth century, the event is inspired by the ruthless jousting tournaments. Today, the “enemy” consists of wooden statues that the jousting knights from five town districts try to beat. The rule is: place a ring of 6 centimeters in diameter onto a shield with a spear while racing. Score a point this way, or be symbolically punished by a fake statue. The joust is preceded by some two hundred people in characteristic 16th century costumes walk the streets on August 15, blaring the trumpets and rolling the drums.

La Giostra del Saracino in Sarteano 2022
La Giostra del Saracino in Sarteano 2022. Image by Xgracex via Wikimedia Commons

La Cavalcata dell’Assunta in Fermo

Here’s yet another horse-related activity for you! In the evening of August 14th and in the afternoon of August 15th, The Cavalcata dell’Assunta takes over the streets of Fermo. Ten city quarters, wearing clothing, coat of arms and shields like they did in the Middle Ages, walk in a parade. The following afternoon, there is a horse race, as well as medieval games such as the tug of war, archery and a Tmburini contest. While there, you can also try the traditional dishes of the Marche region. What’s not to like?!

Cavalcata dell’Assunta – Promo 2017

Gran Ballo di Ferragosto in Rome

Imagine a big city party, in which every square, every street offers music you can dance to. This is what the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto consists of, and arguably the most famous one takes place in the capital city of Rome. I’ve unfortunately never attended one, but I hear it is a hoot. If you’re not aware of it when in Rome, you might as well join a dance or 10, because you won’t be able to get away with not participating anyway. Other Italian cities also host the gran ballo on Ferragosto, so be sure to check your local guides!

La Vara di Messina

Even if you’re not religious, I recommend you go see the Vara in the town of Messina, in Sicily. This is not your typical procession – or at least the Assumption of Mary is definitely taken to another level. The structure carrying Mary is some 14 meters high and weighing about 8 tons. This papier-mâché pyramid of sorts, pulled by ropes through crowded streets, depicts Mary supported on the hand of Christ, ascending into heaven. She is accompanied by apostles, angels, and the Sun and the Moon, among other things. In the evening, the structure is beautifully illuminated as the evening mass takes place.

festivals in Italy - La Vara di Messina Ferragosto 2012
La Vara di Messina 2012. Image by Donniedarko1983 via Wikimedia Commons

Discesa dei Candelieri in Sassari

Sticking to the religious topic but moving to the other big Italian island – Sardegna. The Descent of the Candelieri is a five-century-old festival taking place in Sassari on August 14th. Participants, representing ancient working classes of the city, carry 11 big wooden columns, representing candles through the city streets, attracting 100,000 tourists from around the world every year. This Unesco heritage event honors the vow made to the Virgin Mary who, according to the popular belief, put an end to a terrible plague.

festivals in Italy - La Discesa dei candelieri Sassari 2011
La Discesa dei candelieri Sassari 2011. Image by Gianni Careddu via Wikimedia Commons
Angie Kordic

Visual Arts Editor

Angie Kordic is a 31-year-old Serbian based in Stockholm, Sweden. She holds a BA in Photography from the Istituto Europeo di Design from Milan, where she lived for five years. Her rich experience in the field of contemporary art includes work she did for an arts PR agency in Bari, Italy, as well as the six years she spent at Widewalls magazine, as both Junior Editor and Editor-in-Chief. Currently, she is working for a Swedish fashion corporation and does freelance writing on the side. Although she is an avid traveler, Angie's heart will always belong to Italy - perché la vita lí è semplicemente più bella.

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