The name Cabiria is borrowed from the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, while the character of Cabiria herself is taken from a brief scene in Fellini's earlier film The White Sheik. It was Masina's performance in that earlier film that inspired Fellini to make this film. But no one in Italy was willing to finance a film which featured prostitutes as heroines. Finally, Dino de Laurentiis agreed to put up the money. Fellini based some of the characters on a real prostitute whom he had met while filming Il Bidone. For authenticity, he had Pier Paolo Pasolini, known for his familiarity with Rome's criminal underworld, help with the dialogue.
Nights of Cabiria was filmed in many areas around Italy, including Acilia, Castel Gandolfo, Cinecittà, Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore, and the Tiber River.