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.
Saint Peters square at the Vatican is one of the prettiest places to be during Christmas in Rome
Christmas Market in Piazza Navona in Rome in 2018 is here.
It's been several years that the Christmas market situation in Piazza Navona has been a bit iffy.
Ever since a big scandal in 2014 reduced the market to minuscule proportions, there HAS ALWAYS been some semblance of a market in Piazza Navona. So there is a market, carousel, nativity scene, and live puppet show (several times a day).
While it's much reduced from previous years, when it resembled a Christmas Market you would be more likely to find in Northern European countries, it's still lively and festive.
It will stay up until January 6, 2019.
You can visit the market stands daily from 10am. Monday - Friday they will close at 1am, and on the weekend, they will stay open until 2am.
The Christmas Market and Fair in Piazza Navona in 2014, when a controversy and scandal caused the fair to reduce its proportions drastically. This is now more or less what it looks like each year since then.
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.
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 at 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.
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.
Decorations 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 or exchanging some of what you got as a gift on the 25th.)
In Italy, there is no such thing. Here's why:
You just don't return stuff you get as gifts (they are just not that into returning and exchanging things here, and you can almost never get your money back.)
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.
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:
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.
Even if there is not the same huge Christmas market there as in years past, it's still a festive atmosphere. This is especially nice if you have kids, as there might be games, a Santa, a carousel, and some 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 Francis 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.
There will be a special Christmas Day concert by the New Direction Tennessee State Gospel.
Tickets from $25.
Rome at Christmas - Exhibits Open Christmas Day
Italian state museums and sites, like the Colosseum, Galleria Borghese and Castel Sant'Angelo; and Rome museums, such as the Capitoline Museums are all closed Christmas Day (but open the 26th.) They also have shorter hours on the 24th, so check before you go.
If you are interested in seeing an art exhibit, the following are open on Christmas Day 2018:
Andy Warhol at the Complesso del Vittoriano. Now through February 3rd, 2019.
Mon - Thu 9:30am - 7:30pm Fri - Sat 9:30am - 10pm Sun 9:30 am - 8:30 pm
I attended the opening of this show and it's incredible! A unique mix of immersion theater, with live actors, ballet, modern dance, original music by Sting, and more. I cannot recommend this enough, especially if you are as big a fan of Michelangelo as I am.
Ovid - love, myth, and stories. Now through January 20, 2019
10€ full price (click the photo to visit this site).
Monet to Cézanne - multimedia immersion experience. Now through January 6th, 2019
Check out this multimedia exhibition showcasing the French Impressionists. Allow yourself to be transported 19th Century Paris, and enjoy works by these artists as you've never seen them (there are no original works here, just large-scale reproductions.)
Palazzo degli Esami, Via Girolamo Induno, 4 (Trastevere)
Mon - Thu 10am - 8pm; Fri - Sat 10am - 11pm; Sun 10am - 9pm.
Exciting news for lovers of Ancient Rome! From November 11, 2018 - January 6, 2019, you can visit the gorgeous Ara Pacis at night.
Because this amazing ruin is housed inside an almost all-glass museum that was especially designed for it, you will really get the full impact by seeing it lit up, with the night sky around you outside.
For a complete list of museums and exhibits open/closed during Rome at Christmas, visit the official Rome Tourist Information page. (I'll update for 2018 when it's there. Also, this page is almost never translated into English so hopefully you can either figure it out from the Italian version, or use Google translate.)
When do they light the tree in Vatican Square in Rome at Christmas?
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 Christmas tree and Nativity Scene in Vatican Square is one of the biggest attractions around the Christmas holidays, usually lit sometime around December 8, and staying up through January 6
The nativity scene and Christmas tree in Vatican square will be lit on December 7, 2018 at 4:30pm. They will stay lit through January 13, 2019.
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.
Piazza Navona in Rome at Christmas. This is the fair we used to have before the 2014 scandal!
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.
Enjoying a carousel ride during the annual Christmas fair in Rome's Piazza Navona
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.
Nativity Scene, or Presepe, in Piazza Navona in Rome at Christmas
LOCAL SCANDAL TIDBIT
In 2014, a bit of controversy arose, regarding the vendors at Piazza Navona. In a nutshell, the mayor at the time (Marino) 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. That year, there was mini-protest in Piazza Navona, with only a handful of vendors (something like 4-5.)
In 2016, there were about 6-7 stands, all with carnival-type games where you can win a stuffed animal. That's it. No food, no toys, no crafts, nothing to buy.
In 2017, there was supposed to be a Christmas Market, with SOME stands, but it didn't even go up until December 14.
In 2018, we are still waiting for news.
I suggest going there anyway as it's a beautiful ambiance no matter what!
So where are the Christmas Markets in Rome in 2018?
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!
Here is a fairly complete list of the best markets you will find in the center of Rome at Christmas:
There is a vintage/antique market in Piazza Mazzini in Prati on the first and third Sunday of every month. Throughout December the market turns into a fairly large Christmas Fair (it seems to be open daily during this time.) You will find gifts, crafts, food, Christmas decorations and more. 9am - 9pm.
Throughout December, head to the funky Mercato Monti, in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum. This is a year-round market, normally open mostly on weekends. But during Christmas, they are open on the above dates, daily, and with more of a Christmas feel. Now with 2 floors for twice the fun! 10am - 8pm, via Leonina 46.
Throughout December , you can enjoy a small Christmas market with about 30 stands near the Rome Auditorium. Open daily 10am - 10pm, except Christmas Eve when it will close at 2pm. Food trucks, designers, artisans, Christmas food and decorations. You can easily reach this market from Rome center, with the Metro red line A, and then transferring to tram 2.
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.)
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" 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.
The Nativity Scene in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican
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.
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 (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.
The 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.
A 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.
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.)
Midnight Mass at the Pantheon is a special way to celebrate in Rome at Christmas Eve.
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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