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The best time to visit northern Italy really depends on what you're planning to do. Skiers will find the best snow in the Dolomites in February and March, whereas sun worshippers will find the best sun and people-watching on the Riviera in the height of summer. Wine enthusiasts will find grapes on the vine in late summer and early fall, and might even take part in an early October harvest.

In a general sense, April to June and September and October are the most pleasant months for touring Italy -- temperatures are usually mild and the hordes of tourists not so intense. But starting in mid-June, the summer rush really picks up, and from July to mid-September, the country teems with visitors. (It should also be noted that the post-summer cooling rains come to northern Italy almost like clockwork on Sept. 1 and can last a week or two.)

August (with July a close runner-up) is the worst month to visit any Italian city. Not only does it get uncomfortably hot, muggy, and crowded with foreigners, but the entire country goes on vacation from at least August 15 to the end of the month -- and a good percentage of Italians take off the entire month, leaving the urban centers to the tourists. Venice in July and August is a swarming and sweltering Disneyland. Elsewhere, many hotels, restaurants, and shops are closed in mid-August -- except along the coast and on the islands, which is where most Italians head.

From late October to Easter, most tourist sights have shorter winter hours or close for renovation periods, many hotels and restaurants take a month or two off between November and February, beach destinations become padlocked ghost towns, and it can get much colder than you'd expect (it may even snow). The crowds thin remarkably, especially in Venice.

In mountain towns and ski resorts, high season is from mid-December through mid-March; low season is June, when many hotels are closed (which is a shame, for there's great hiking in the mountains during June's warm days).

High season on most airlines' routes to Milan usually stretches from June to the end of September, plus Christmas/New Year's week. This is the most expensive and most crowded time to travel. Shoulder season is from the Easter season (usually late Mar or Apr) to May, late September to October, and December 15 to 24. Low season is generally January 6 to mid-March, November 1 to December 14, and December 25 to March 31.

Dog Days of August -- Try to avoid traveling to Italy in August, as this is when most Italians take their ferie (vacations) and many shops and restaurants in the cities will be closed. Also keep in mind that many of the lodgings that will be open in August do not have air-conditioning.

Weather

It's hot all over Italy in summer, especially inland. The high temperatures begin in May (sometimes later for the Alps), often lasting until some time in late September. July and August can be impossible, which explains why life in the cities slows down considerably (and life in the coastline resorts comes alive). Few budget hotels have air-conditioning (and just a handful of hotels in all of Italy have discovered mosquito screens, so when you open the windows for some respite from the heat, you tend to invite dozens of tiny bloodsuckers in as well). In Venice, the November rains kick off acqua alte, when the lagoon backs up a few times each month, flooding the central city with .6 to 1.8m (2-6 ft.) of water (no joke). That may sound like an invitation to stay away, but I think it's one of the most remarkable times to be there. Bring rubber boots.

Winters in the north of Italy are cold with rain and snow, and December through February can often be unpleasant unless you're skiing in Cortina or enjoy a snow-sprinkled city. Nights can be cold, and hotels' heating systems can be frustrating sometimes. Purpose-built, modernized hotels in their own buildings often have independent heating/cooling systems you (or they) can control, but in older hotels and in small ones that take up only part of a building, the heat can often be turned on for the winter only on a pre-established date dictated by the local government, and left on only during certain hours of the day (just one of the many lovely laws still hanging on from the Fascist era).

For the most part, it's drier in Italy than in North America. Since the humidity is lower, high temperatures don't seem as bad; exceptions are cities known for their humidity factor, such as Venice. It's important to remember that this is not a country as smitten by the notion of air-conditioning and central heating as the United States. And remember that the inexpensive hotels we list in this book are often the very places that will remind you of the pros and cons of ancient stone palazzi built with 1m-thick (3-ft.) walls. Don't expect the comfort of the Ritz at cheaper inns.

Holidays

Offices and shops in Italy are closed on the following dates: January 1 (New Year's Day), January 6 (Epiphany, usually called La Befana, after Italy's Christmas Witch, who used to bring the presents until Hollywood's version of Santa Claus moved the gift giving to Dec 25 by popular kiddie demand, though a few presents are always held over for La Befana), Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, April 25 (Liberation Day), May 1 (Labor Day), August 15 (Assumption of the Virgin -- much of Italy takes its summer vacation Aug 15-30), November 1 (All Saints' Day), December 8 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception), December 25 (Christmas Day), and December 26 (Santo Stefano); most Italians' Christmas holidays last from December 24 though January 6.

Closings are also observed in the following cities on feast days honoring patron saints: Venice, April 25 (St. Mark); Genoa and Turin, June 24 (St. John the Baptist); Bologna, October 4 (St. Petronio); Trieste, November 3 (San Giusto); and Milan, December 7 (St. Ambrose).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.