Rome is always stunning, but Rome at Christmas is magical: when the festive season dusts its ancient walls with lights and cheer, the often prickly personality of this multifaceted city softens and acquires an air of joyful elegance that lifts the spirits of inhabitants and tourists alike.
Growing up in Rome I witnessed often the transition from a dull winter day to the light-filled days of Christmas: the first big day for Christmas festivities in Rome is the 8th of December, when trees are traditionally decorated, and celebrations carry through all the way to the 6th of December, when the epiphany ‘takes away’ the holiday (l’epifania, Tutte le Feste porta via).
These full tree weeks of holidays are filled with seasonal events in Rome and I can think of many unique things to do in Rome at Christmas that I am personally looking forward to the experience and that I am sure will put the city on your wish list for Christmas plans next year.
10 unique things to do in Rome at Christmas
1. Look up at the Christmas tree in St Peter’s square
I can think of many reasons why you should visit St Peter’s square and basilica at Christmas, but the one I cherish most of all and is always a great hit with the kids is the big tree that graces the centre of this peculiar yet important State. The tree reaches the square each year from a different destination but it is always immensely tall (in 2016 it is 25 metres!), sustainably grown and meaningful: its decorations are handmade by children in hospitals fighting long term illnesses and its wood, once the festivities are over, is donated to charity.
The tree arrives in the Piazza at the end of November and gets lit around the 8th of December (the exact date changes every year).
Top tip for families visiting with young children: the tree is always a great sight but especially if you have a toddler or anyway a young boy the real fun moment is when the tree arrives. Because of its size, the tree is usually carried by big cranes and machines, effortlessly maneuvering it around as it if was a piece of lego! It is not the most cultural of events in Rome, but I can guarantee it will be one little kids will remember fondly.
2. Marvel at the elaborate nativity scenes
Italy has a strong tradition of nativity scenes and if you are curious about this special craft and its significance, the ‘100 nativity scenes’ exhibition at chiostro del Bramante is the place for you. Like the name suggests, the exhibition has over 100 variations on the theme of the Bethlehem crib and it is interesting because it hosts creations not jut from several Italian regions but also from foreign countries: this year the cribs came from all corners of the world, including Belgium, el Salvador, China, Korea, Panama, Indonesia and Peru, just to name a few!
One fun thing for families visiting with kids is the opportunity for artists in the making to try their hand at moulding their own figurine. The workshop is open to kids between 4 and 11 years of age and it is lead by teachers of the Italian academy or arts – booking is necessary but it is a great way to spend an afternoon, especially if Rome pulls one of its really wet rainy days: they are not frequent (see below) but they do happen and indoors activities do come in particularly handy.
Where are the best nativity scenes in Rome at Christmas?
Another great way to see nativity scenes is to spot them in public spaces around town. The best known are at the Capitolium (to the left of the main stairway), Piazza Navona and in churches such as Santa Maria Maggiore.
If you are at the Capitolium, make sure you also climb up and catch a view over the Roman forum: there is nothing especially Christmassy about this activity, but it is one of my favourite views of Rome and one I couldn’t possibly ignore while talking about this area!
A crib with a difference. A famous crib always worth a visit is the one under the tree in St Peter’s square. Like the tree, the crib comes each year from a different country and wants to be not just a reminder of the birth of Jesus but a moment of reflection on current events. This year, the crib comes from Malta and has strong mementoes about the tragedy of the migrants who lost their lives in the Mediterranean and whose plague is slowly dropping off news: a great opportunity for reflection and a way to introduce this important topic to kids.
3. Celebrate midnight mass at the Pantheon
On Christmas eve the eyes of the catholic world turn to St Peter’s square and if you are spending Christmas in Rome it may be tempting to make your way there to listen to the Pope in person. While this is technically possible, access is very hard and participating in the outdoor event in the piazza, in the December cold, is not always the most enjoyable of experiences. Rather, I suggest you head to the Pantheon.
The pantheon was built in Roman times as a temple to all deities (this is what its name means) and therefore was a pagan building. However, in 609 it became a Christian church and has been used as a catholic space for worship ever since. On Christmas eve it hosts a beautiful celebration with candles and gregorian chants -it is truly atmospheric!
4. Go ice skating at the auditorium
Rome doesn’t see snow at Christmas but ice skate rings do pop up during the festivities. One I love is the small but beautiful ring in the Auditorium, open until late in the evening. The auditorium is an impressive building with a good programme of musical events: it is not in the centre of town and as such is unlikely to be on your itinerary especially if you are on a tight schedule, but if you love music it is worth the detour and the ice skating can be fun fo kids.
If you go, make sure you also stop and the bar for a stylish aperitivo: kids can come too and will find a selection of juices, crisps and nibbles.
5. Celebrate Christmas eve eating fish
Christmas eve is a big festivity in Rome and much more than just a warm-up for the big day. Families gather on Christmas eve and celebrate the occasion with glorious meals with, usually, a fish menu. This tradition has roots in the Christian habit of fasting or at least to eat light on the day preceding a big religious event, but over the course of the centuries it has changed and has become a gourmand extravaganza: salmon, oily fish and shrimps are the most popular starters and shellfish pasta and roast fillets of fish are traditional mains.
If you are renting an apartment in Rome for the festivities, which I highly recommend, you can join this tradition: just be aware that shops do close early on Christmas eve so any stock must be bought in the morning at the very latest.
6. Join the debate: do you prefer panettone or pandoro?
Italy has many Christmas dessert and the two most famous are panettone and pandoro. To the non-initiated, they may look similar, but Italians have very strong opinions about them and are divided into what I can only call two factions: panettone vs pandoro lovers.
Both desserts are not homemade but rather bought (in supermarkets or in their craft version in some deli shops and bakeries) and their appearance is somehow reminiscent of the one of a brioche, soft and sweet to the bite.
The traditional panettone is made with raisins and candied orange peel while pandoro is plain and served with a generous dusting of icing sugar. Both now come in more elaborate form with filling ranging from chocolate to alcoholic cream. As I mentioned, Italians are evangelical about preferring one of the other and while they will not hold it against you if you don’t agree with their choice, they are likely to take note of which side of the debate you are on. So, taste aways and pick a favourite!
7. Load up on sweets at Rome Christmas markets
Christmas markets are not part of the Italian Christmas traditions but in the last few years they have become quite popular with locals and you can find some in the city and they are great places to pick up sweets, local specialities and knick-knacks. The traditional address for the Rome Christmas market used to be Piazza Navona: this wonderful square has for many years hosted a big market and my childhood memories are filled with trips to the square to pick up candy and caramelised apples. Sadly, the Italian tendency to scandals when it comes to public spaces and bureaucratic processes meant the market is not in existence anymore and Romans had to find alternative spaces.
In 2016, the Rome Christmas markets are held in:
Piazza san Giovanni in Laterano: where there are outdoor stalls with books, jewellery and artefacts (Metro: San Giovanni)
Piazza di Spagna (metro: Spagna, where the Spanish steps are): the market opens on the 18th but in typical Roman fashion there has been no communication on how long it will stay open (sorry for the cynicism: Rome can be infuriating from this point of view)
Mercato Monti, a year-round market, indoor, near the Colosseum that turns on the Christmas feel during the weeks leading up to Christmas (metro: Cavour)
Romarket, in front of the Maxxi museums and not far from the auditorium (and the zoo. With kids, it may be worth it to plan a day in this area)
8. Buy sweet coal
Italy celebrates the epiphany (6th of January) with a very special character, la befana. Abroad it is often referred to as Italy’s Christmas which and she is an old wich-like lady who on the night of the 5/6th of January flys around Italy on a broomstick to deliver sweet to the good kids and coal (sugar in the shape of coal, for our overly pampered generation) to the naughty ones. You can read all about it here and if you want to introduce your kids to this tradition, there is no place like to Rome to get your fix of sugar coal!
9. Go sightseeing without the crowds
Rome’s main sights sparkle with decorations at Christmas but sightseeing this time of the year will reward you with more than beautiful lights: during the Christmas holiday, must-see attractions tend to be emptier and in most cases you will be able to get in without having to queue. Plan in advance to make sure the attraction you have in mind is open, but do make the most of this time.
10 See the lights
In the last few years, Rome has embraces the tradition of lights and decoration to an incredible extent. While the displays are not as impressive as the ones in, let’s say, New York (but really, who can compete with that?) the city really puts on a show. The best areas to enjoy the Christmas lights in Rome are the streets between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Venezia (via del Corso), Trastevere and Piazza Navona.
The weather in Rome in December:
December is one of the coldest months in Rome and while temperatures stay well above freezing, especially on a wet day it is wise to wrap up. The average temperature is around 10 degrees and showers of rain are possible while, usually, short lived.
What to pack for visiting Rome at Christmas
If visiting Rome in December you will need good, warm, walking shoes, a coat (ideally waterproof) a scarf and an umbrella. if you are travelling with kids, make sure you wrap them up well especially if they are in a buggy or pram: I usually found a snowsuit style outfit, good covers and a hat the best option – heating is not as full on in Italy as you may be used to in other countries, but do make sure you can take layers off easily especially if planning on visiting museum.
Where to stay in Rome at Christmas
Christmas festivities make the already chaotic public transport system unreliable, with fewer services available. If you can, especially at this time of the year it is worth investing in accommodation in the city centre: my best choice would be an apartment in the city centre, in the area around Piazza Navona or the Pantheon. The extra cost for such a location will be offset by the ease of movement.
A good alternative are the roads between the Colosseum and Rione Monti or Trastevere, which is separated from the centre by the river Tiber, but is atmospheric and very well served with local shops and restaurants.
Christmas in Rome: what is open? Closing hours and what to expect with shops and museums
Most tours and attractions will be open over Christmas and will follow standard opening hours and schedule. However, there are some notable exceptions on Christmas eve, Christmas day, St Stephen’s day (the 26th of December), New year’s day and January the 6th.
Sites that close during Christmas in Rome
The colosseum, the forum and the Borghese gallery are closed on Christmas day and new years day
The Vatican museums are closed on all the above mentioned days, but the main square stays open, and so does the basilica
Shops opening hours in Rome at Christmas time
Shops have prolonged opening hours during the Christmas weeks but do close early on the 24th of December and tend to reopen on the 27th. If you are really stuck for supplies, your best bet is to head to termini station where shops are usually open even after hours and during festivities
Important note for shopping lovers: when I first moved to Ireland I was in shock when I discovered shops had sales right after Christmas. In Rome, there is no such thing and sales do not start until January at the earliest.
Restaurants opening hours in Rome at Christmas
Eating out in Rome on Christmas eve and Christmas day is not always easy: many restaurants close on the 24th and the ones that are open tend to have special Christmas menu with equally ‘special’ price tags. The same happens for new year’s eve when restaurants tend to be booked for events or offer special festive menus. My advice is to book in advance to make sure you are happy with the deal you are offered or to do as the Romans do: stock up on food at home and join the celebrations after dinner!
I hope you enjoyed reading about Rome at Christmas. I am looking forward to going back to Rome for the festivities; will you be there too?