I absolutely love Rome at Christmas time. The city is all lit up and decorated, there are wonderful things to eat (always a priority with me), and it's a great time to see Rome in an entirely different light - literally.
So here's what you need to know about coming to Rome during Christmas time:
Will you be in Rome for Christmas? Are you worried that a lot is closed?
Well don't worry!
The city is quite alive and only a few places close on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day, but there is still plenty to do and you will not be without a place to eat!
The Christmas holiday season in Rome starts on December 8, which is the holiday of the Immaculate Conception, or Immacolata.
The season officially ends on January 6, the Epiphany. This day is called the Befana in Italy.
During the Christmas holiday season in Rome, pretty much the whole city is open normally with the exception of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the day after Christmas (Santo Stefano), and New Years' Day. The Vatican Museums will also be closed on January 6 (the Epiphany.)
Most of the major sites and monuments that have entry tickets, including the Colosseum, Forum, and Borghese Gallery, are closed on Christmas Day and New Years Day. They will, however, all be open on the 26th, despite that day also being a holiday.
The Vatican museums are open normally throughout Christmas time, with the following exceptions:
Saint Peter's Basilica is open daily for visits and normally scheduled masses. The basilica opens at 7am and closes at 6:30pm. See below for more information about midnight mass at the Vatican.
Many shops have extended hours from early November through the 6th of January, i.e. opening on Sundays or staying open through lunch when they don't normally.
However, most shops will be closed by 6pm on Christmas Eve, and shops in Rome will be closed on both the December 25th and 26th.
In the UK and other Commonwealth countries, Boxing Day is one of the biggest shopping and sales days of the year. In the US, the 26th of December is a day for after-Christmas sales (and returning most of what you got as a gift on the 25th.)
In Italy, there is no such thing. Here's why:
Most Rome restaurants are open normally throughout the holiday season but may close for Christmas Eve, sometimes Christmas day (although many are open for Christmas day lunch, which is popular among Italians today), and particularly Christmas day evening.
Most Rome restaurants stay open for New Years' Eve, offering a special New Years Eve menu (cenone, or big dinner), at a set price. Alternatively, some restaurants will offer an "a la carte" menu for Christmas and/or New Years, except that the menu will not be their usual one, and the prices will be higher. Some Rome restaurants close for New Years day, either for lunch or the entire day.
So now that I've told you about all the things that are closed, you may be wondering what to do on Christmas Day in Rome.
Here's a list of things I have done in my years here, things I've sent our guests to do, and things I know Romans do on Christmas day:
Walk around the city center, soaking up the lights and atmosphere, from via Veneto to via del Corso.
Head to Piazza Navona and enjoy the piazza's special look and feel this time of year. This is especially great if you have kids, as there are Christmas-y (sugary) things to eat, a carousel, and lots of lights.
Take the bus to the Gianicolo hill and get a bird's eye view of Rome from there. There is another carousel here for kids, too.
Visit any number of churches and see the presepi, or Nativity Scenes.
Go to St. Peter's Square at the Vatican at noon, and watch Pope Frances give his Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi speech. The Pope appears at the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica and blesses the crowd. (He only does this one other time each year, at Easter.) You don't need tickets but expect large crowds.
Have a big Roman Christmas lunch out at a restaurant. Make it last at least 3 hours (this is quite the Roman thing to do. But you have to book in advance!)
See a concert at Rome's Auditorium.
On December 25, 2015 at 6pm, there will be a Gospel Festival, how fun!
If you are interested in seeing an art exhibit, the following are open on Christmas Day 2015:
For a complete list of museums and exhibits open/closed during the holidays in Rome, visit the official Rome Tourist Information page (the site is normally available in English but this page is only in Italian.)
Until only a few years ago, lighting up streets, homes and buildings was not part of the Christmas tradition in Italy. Neither were Christmas trees, which are originally a Northern European tradition.
Now, the city is awash in lights and decorations. Certainly just walking around the city center is a fun thing to do during the holidays in Rome. The best streets/areas include the area around the Spanish Steps, via del Corso, and of course Piazza Navona, where the biggest Christmas market is.
The main Rome Christmas market you will likely see is on Piazza Navona. It's arguably Rome's biggest and most popular Christmas market and fair. Every year, from sometime in early December (usually the 8th but sometimes earlier) until January 6 (Befana), there is a traditional, family-oriented Christmas fair that takes up almost all of piazza Navona, practically covering the fountains.
Along both sides are stands selling everything from Christmas decorations to gifts to candy and treats. In the middle of the plaza, there is a huge Presepe, or Nativity Scene, and there is also a fun, lit-up carousel.
There are some other Christmas markets in Rome. For a list of them, go here. (The page is only in Italian but you should be able to glean the locations and dates from it. Otherwise, use translate.google.com to translate the whole page.)
If you are looking for some seriously cute Christmas ornaments and decorations, check out the "Sempre Natale" store in Rome. That means "always Christmas", and it does feel like it inside. The shop is small but well stocked with a great assortment of ornaments. Via della Scrofa 93, not far from Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. Open Thurs - Tues 11am - 9pm. Closed Wednesday.
Probably one of the oldest Christmas traditions in Italy is the Presepe, or Crèche, or, Nativity Scene. Whatever you call it, you will find them everywhere in Rome at Christmas, and they are amazing.
The most popular Nativity Scenes are the ones in the center of Piazza Navona, the one in Vatican Square (usually unveiled on Christmas Eve), the one in Piazza del Popolo and the one in the church of Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill. But almost every church in Rome (and frankly just about everywhere in Italy) has a presepe during Christmas.
Speaking of these little figurines for Christmas Nativity Scenes, you may also want to check out the shop on via dei Coronari, that sells these year-round. So even if you are not in Rome at Christmas, you can get into the "Christmas Market" mood.
The figurines are (mostly) not made in Naples, but are made by Italian artisans from different parts of Italy, in particular Tuscany. Items range from Christmas-y to not, and very small to quite large. It's a fun shop and frankly anytime I take visitors there, they seem to buy something! Via dei Coronari 152, open daily 10am - 8pm.
As you might expect, the weather in Rome in December is chilly and can be rainy. The days are short which means it gets dark early, and if it's rainy or humid, the air can feel especially cold after the sun goes down.
But the good thing is that with a darker afternoon, you can enjoy all the lights even more! And with so many people out and about, there is a pretty warm feeling in the air and it's easy to forget you are cold.
If you are coming to Rome over the Christmas holidays, don't forget to add to your suitcase:
Want more information about what to pack for Rome? Click here.
Want to know what Romans eat in Rome at Christmas? And, where to eat? I have a separate page about this. Go here.
On Christmas Eve, you may attend midnight mass at the Vatican...but you should know:
But if you can't get tickets to attend midnight mass inside Saint Peter's basilica, take heart. You and many thousands like you, can spend Christmas Eve mass in Saint Peter's square, and catch the service on the giant jumbo-tron screens. It's actually a very festive and warm atmosphere, even if it's not physically warm outside!
For more details about dates/times of events, and even to watch them live on the Vatican telecast, go here. Note the times given are for GMT, and Rome is one hour later than that.
For something really special, attend a midnight Christmas mass at the Pantheon (which is a church now.) No tickets are required but if you want to be inside, you should get there early.
Mass at the Pantheon begins at midnight on Christmas Eve.
You may also be interested in:
Return to the top of Rome at Christmas.Rome Guide › What to do in Rome › Rome at Christmas