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.
Here's what you need to know about coming to Rome at 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. You may also climb St. Peter's dome (it's wonderful to see the Christmas tree in Saint Peter's Square from way up high!)
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 or exchanging some 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.
In 2020, there will be NO Christmas markets in all of Italy, according to the latest decree.
However, a light show has been set up in Piazza Navona which is being projected onto the three fountains in the square, it's a fun, festive thing to do!
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.
In 2020 there are also nativity scenes on display in the Piazza del Campidoglio, Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo.
In 2020 the Pope's Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi speech will be given inside St. Peter's Basilica instead of overlooking St. Peter's Square, to control the number of visitors in line with Covid-19 regulations.
The Pope normally 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 this event normally draws large crowds, this year the Vatican are managing it differently to ensure this does not happen.
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!)
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Besides the above concert on Christmas Day, there are a few other concerts in Rome around this time that will get you into the holiday spirit!
For a unique and solemn experience, attend the Christmas Baroque Concert inside Rome's Capuchin Crypt.
December 28, 2020. From $40.
Optional dinner available.
Listen to a Christmas concert with a variety of holiday songs , from opera arias to classics like White Christmas and Jingle Bells, in a lovely church in the center of Rome. Enjoy a light aperitivo of snacks and sparkling wine after the show, together with the artists. December 22 and 26, 2019. From $35. Check out the Rome Gospel Festival at the Rome Auditorium . There will be a special Christmas Day concert by the Harlem Gospel Choir. Tickets from $25.
Italian state museums and sites, like the Colosseum, Galleria Borghese and Castel Sant'Angelo; and Rome museums, such as the Capitoline Museums are all normally closed Christmas Day (but open the 26th.) They also have shorter hours on the 24th.
In 2020, no museums or cultural sites will be open, all sites have been closed since early November in line with a Government decree, and will remain closed until at least mid-January.
If you are interested in seeing an art exhibit, the following are open on Christmas Day 2020:
The exhibition “ The Torlonia Marbles-Collecting Masterpieces ” opened to the public on 14 October 2020. Ninety-six marbles from the Torlonia collection will be on view to the public at a major show in Rome. Capitoline Museums, New venue at Palazzo Caffarelli. Open daily, from 9.30 to 19.30, now through 29 June 2021. Tickets from €15,00. Banksy - A Visual protest - Over 100 works, in a rigorous exhibition itinerary, tell the world of Banksy. Inside the sixteenth-century architecture of the Chiostro del Bramante, in Rome, there is space for the “unknown” artist who has conquered the world thanks to works steeped in irony, denunciation, politics, intelligence, protest. At the beautiful Chiostro del Bramante, now through April 11 2021. The Chiostro del Bramante is behind Piazza Navona, on Via Arco della Pace, 5. T. +39 06 915 19 41 Click the picture to visit the museum's official site. Open Mon - Fri 10am - 8pm; Sat - Sun 10am - 9pm. 13€ includes audioguide. No advance booking required. Enjoy beautiful exhibitions on Palazzo delle Esposizioni, on via Nazionale. Now through January 17, 2021. Click the picture to visit the museum's official site. Tue, Wed, Thu, Sun: 10am - 8pm; Fri-Sat: 10am - 10:30 pm; Closed Mondays. 8€
Raphael beyond the exhibition
The exhibit has left but you can visit it virtually.
Click the picture to visit the museum's official site.
For a complete list of museums and exhibits open/closed during Rome at Christmas, visit the official Rome Tourist Information page. (This page is almost never translated into English so hopefully you can either figure it out from the Italian version, or use Google translate.)
Until only a few years ago, lighting up streets, homes and buildings was a small part of the Christmas tradition in Italy.
And Christmas trees, which are originally a Northern European tradition, only started being a thing in Rome and in Italy the past few decades.
Now, Rome at Christmas 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 answer is yes. And no.
Mostly Rome is not very crowded just up to Christmas and on Christmas.
So for the dates leading up to Christmas you should be able to find inexpensive accommodations in Rome, but from the 26th, expect rates to go up.
The Christmas tree in Vatican Square is without a doubt one of the most popular of the Christmas trees in Rome.
A relatively new phenomenon, started in 1982 during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the tree is lit up in the afternoon sometime around December 8. There is also an enormous life-sized nativity scene in the square, in addition to the one inside St. Peter's Basilica.
The nativity scene and Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square will be lit on December 11, 2020 at 4:30pm. They will stay lit through January 10, 2021.
The main Rome Christmas market we ONCE had was at Piazza Navona.
It was arguably Rome's biggest and most popular Christmas market and fair. Every year, from sometime in early December until January 6 (Befana), there was a traditional, family-oriented Christmas fair that took up almost all of Piazza Navona, as you can see from the photo below.
In 2014, the fair nearly disappeared. The reasons are political (see below.)
It's now slowly coming back, but with fewer stands than before. The point is that while you will find Piazza Navona festive, with a carousel, nativity scene, some lights, a handful of stands and maybe a tree, it is NOT the huge Christmas Market hub in Rome we once had.
The carousel and Nativity Scene (should) still go up every year, even if the market is much smaller. The idea is that Piazza Navona should be about families and children, and less about "commercial" things.
For 2020, there is no market at all due to government restrictions on all Christmas markets nationwide, there is also no carousel or nativity scene this year. However, there is a fun light show projected onto the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the center of the piazza which plays in the evenings from 5pm-9pm.
The first thing you may want to be aware of, is that Christmas markets are not part of Italian Christmas tradition. They tend to be more common, and much bigger, in northern European countries.
We did have a pretty bustling market, Roman-style, in Piazza Navona. Now that it's sort of diminished, there are a few more places in Rome where you can check out Christmas Markets - just don't expect them to be like the one in Piazza Navona, or what you find in northern Europe!
In 2020 sadly no Christmas markets are allowed to open.
I listed above the Rome Christmas Markets that you can most easily reach from Rome's city center. There are quite a few other Christmas Markets that are just outside Rome, or in sort of far-off neighborhoods of Rome , like in EUR and in Cinecittà. If you'd like to see a complete listing even with the farther-away markets, visit this page (only in Italian.)
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 in Rome at Christmas are in the center of Piazza Navona, the one in Vatican Square, 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 (presepi), 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! Presepi Pampa. 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 St. 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 2020, the Christmas Eve mass will start at 7.30pm to ensure that it ends before the 10pm curfew currently in place, and public participation will be severely limited to ensure compliance with Covid-19 regulations.
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, but will not take place in 2020 as the Pantheon remains closed to all visitors for the moment.
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