[Updated for 2018.]
Many Italian cities including Bologna feature Christmas markets this time of the year, and, while my favorites are in the northern mountainous region of Trentino-Alto Adige, I still like to pay a visit to Bologna’s traditional mercatino: the ancient Fiera di Santa Lucia, whose origins date to the end of the 16th century.
Before Napoleonic troops invaded the city, the fair was held in front of the former church dedicated to Saint Lucia in via Castiglione; after 1796, it was moved under the portico of the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Strada Maggiore, where it’s still held today.
The many stalls (bancarelle), open until December 26, offer a variety of Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, balls, festoons, lights, and of course, crib statuettes. Classics like baby Jesus, the ox and the donkey, stand alongside more fanciful creations, such as tiny forks and plates for decorating tables, sticks for the Three Wise Men or baskets for shepherds.
Bologna boasts a rather ancient nativity scene tradition (presepe bolognese), dating back to the 13th century. The Bolognese nativity scene tradition differs from others in Italy, for example the famous Neapolitan tradition, because the characters are molded or carved in full, including the clothes, using materials such as terracotta, wood, papier-mache and plaster.
Bologna’s Fiera di Santa Lucia offers a few gastronomic treats as well, with traditional Christmas candy, such as hot and crunchy croccante alle mandorle (made with almonds and sugar), torrone (nougat) or traditional sweets from the nearby Apennines.
While you’re there, peek inside the Basilica of Santa Maria dei Servi, which dates from 1346. The church is Gothic in style and features works of art by Bolognese painters Vitale da Bologna and Lippo di Dalmasio; there is also a ‘Madonna in trono’ painting attributed to Cimabue. There is a porticoed courtyard next to the church.
A side note: unfortunately, the offer of authentic, artisan-made Christmas items has diminished in recent times, with some stalls offering mass-produced, or even unrelated-to-Christmas articles. Still, for the Bolognesi, visiting and shopping at the Fiera di Santa Lucia is a heart-felt Christmas tradition and, if you’re in town during the holidays, I’d recommend paying a visit.
You can find the ‘Antica Fiera di Santa Lucia’ at the Portico Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Servi – Strada Maggiore – Bologna. Open every day until December 26, approx. from 9 am to 8 pm.
Want more Christmas markets in Bologna? Here’s a list from the City of Bologna’s official tourism website.