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Rome at Christmas
What to do, where to eat, what to expect, and what's open

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.

christmas tree in saint peters squareSaint Peters square at the Vatican is one of the prettiest places to be during Christmas in Rome

So here's what you need to know about coming to Rome during Christmas time:

Rome at Christmas - What to do

trastevere street at christmasTrastevere street during Christmas in Rome

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. 

The word Befana is not a direct translation from the word Epiphany.

In Italy, the Befana is a good, although not pretty, witch that flies around and brings gifts to children on the night of the 5th of January, celebrating the Day of the Kings, or Epiphany.

What's closed in Rome at Christmas time

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.)

Main Rome sites that close in Rome over the Christmas holidays

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.

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TIP!!   The 26th of December is an excellent time to visit these sites. They will be virtually empty.

Vatican closing days and times at Christmas in Rome

The Vatican museums are open normally throughout Christmas time, with the following exceptions:

  • December 25, Christmas Day
  • December 26, St. Stephens (Santo Stefano)
  • January 1, New Years Day
  • January 6, Epiphany

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.

Rome at Christmas: Shops closing hours

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.

leather shop at christmasDecorations going up for Christmas at one of the many shops on Via Veneto

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:

  1. You just don't return stuff you get as gifts (they are just not that into returning and exchanging things here, and you absolutely cannot get your money back.)
  2. December 26th is Santo Stefano, another religious holiday, which is why banks, offices and shops are closed. But Italians start chomping at the bit by the afternoon of the 25th and from then, and all during the 26th, you will see large swaths of Italians strolling the city center, gazing longingly at the shop windows.
  3. Shopping sales (saldi) are held twice a year, the dates of which are government regulated. Sales are held once in summer and once in winter. In Rome, winter sales begin sometime the first week in January. Click here for more about Shopping Sales in Rome.

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TIP! Do you really need to shop on December 25th?

Termini train station has many shops, restaurants, a few pharmacies and a grocery store. They are all open on Christmas Day!

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Restaurants closing in Rome over the Christmas holidays

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 then, what CAN you do on Christmas day in Rome?

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:

christmas lights near pantheon

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. 

carousel at gianicolo hill in rome

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.

nativity scene at santa maria sopra minerva

Visit any number of churches and see the presepi, or Nativity Scenes.

vatican at christmas

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.

pizzeria open on christmas in rome

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!)

harlem gospel choir at rome auditorium

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:

  • Balthus – Scuderie al Quirinale, 16.00-22.30
  • James Tissot - Chiostro del Bramante, 16.00-21.00
  • Impressionist and Modern Art - Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 16.00-22.30

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.)

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Where to see the lights in Rome at Christmas

via del corso christmas lightsChristmas lights on Rome's via del Corso in 2013/2014. These were my favorite so far!

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.

christmas tree piazza vittorioChristmas tree in front of the Complesso Vittoriano in Piazza Vittorio - just beautiful!

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. 

Christmas markets in Rome

Rome Christmas market in Piazza Navona

piazza navona christmasPiazza Navona in Rome at Christmas - this is the fair we used to have before the 2014 scandal!

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.

christmas carousel in piazza navonaEnjoying a carousel ride during the annual Christmas fair in Rome's Piazza Navona

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. 

presepe piazza navonaNativity Scene, or Presepe, in Piazza Navona

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.)

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In 2014, a bit of controversy arose, regarding the vendors at Piazza Navona. In a nutshell, the mayor tried to "clean up" piazza Navona, and bring it back to its more traditional roots, of just local artisans and food vendors. The number of concessions went from 115 to 72. Then, those vendors who signed up for their concessions did not go pick them up, to show solidarity with their kicked-out brethren. So now there is a mini-protest going on on Piazza Navona, and many fewer stands than in previous years.

In 2015, the scandal continues. Until early December it was still not clear who would get concessions, and how many, on Piazza Navona. I will be visiting it soon and checking it out. Stay tuned.

Rome at Christmas - year-round Christmas store

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.

sempre natale shop in rome"Sempre Natale" Christmas shop, where it's always Christmas in Rome!

Nativity Scenes in Rome at Christmas

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.

presepe saint peter's squareThe Nativity Scene in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican

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.

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Naples is famous for their Nativity Scenes. There is a street I love to visit there, Via San Gregorio Armeno, where the artisans make the figures and figurines for nativity scenes around Italy and the world.

These figurines are just incredible, down to the tiniest detail...like little wood burning stoves that actually light up; bakers shoving pizza into ovens; and animals that seem alive even though they are only the size of my hand.

One more year-round Christmas Store in Rome - Presepi

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.

nativity scene figurines at a shop in romeThe details are wonderful on these nativity scene figurines on via dei Coronari in Rome

Rome at Christmas - what the weather's like

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.

Rome weather at christmasA chilly rainy day doesn't stop people from enjoying the Christmas atmosphere in Rome!

What to pack if you are coming to Rome at Christmas

If you are coming to Rome over the Christmas holidays, don't forget to add to your suitcase:

  • A rain coat or jacket
  • Goretex or waterproof shoes
  • Hat, gloves and a scarf
  • A good camera that can take pictures in the dark - you will want lots of pictures of the lights and decorations!
  • Some extra vitamin C and Zinc to keep the cold and flu away

Want more information about what to pack for Rome? Click here.

Rome at Christmas - where to eat

Want to know what Romans eat in Rome at Christmas? And, where to eat? I have a separate page about this. Go here.

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Midnight Christmas Mass at the Vatican

On Christmas Eve, you may attend midnight mass at the Vatican...but you should know:

  • It actually starts at 10pm, not midnight. (In fact, the procession begins at 9:30pm, so you may want to be there even earlier.)
  • It's extremely difficult to get tickets to midnight mass inside the basilica. You might try with any clergy you know, and request tickets many months in advance. 
  • If you would like to request tickets to attend a Papal Mass, here's how.

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.

Rome at Christmas - Midnight Mass at the Pantheon

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.

Many churches around Rome hold midnight mass on Christmas Eve. And they do it closer to midnight than at St. Peter's (which is at 10pm.) 

Another special place to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve in Rome is at Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, above Campidoglio.

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