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Rome at Christmas
Updated for 2019

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


Christmas Market in Piazza Navona in Rome in 2019

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.

For 2019, we are still awaiting news about when the Piazza Navona Christmas market will open. I will be updating this page as soon as we know. But you can pretty much count on there being something from around the first week in December through January 6, 2020.

STAY TUNED!

christmas fair in piazza navona in romeThe 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:

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 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.

TIP!!   

The 26th of December is an excellent time to visit these sites.

They will be much less crowded than usual.

Vatican closing days and times in Rome at Christmas

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 or exchanging some 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 can almost never 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.

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 (almost) all open on Christmas Day!

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.

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. 


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 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.


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!)



See a concert at Rome's Auditorium.

On December 25, 2019 at 5.30pm and 9.30pm, there will be a Gospel Festival, how fun!


Take a Christmas Day tour of Rome that ends in St. Peter's Square where you can enjoy the Pope's blessing (as above.)  

Click here to book your morning tour with Viator (US$) or GetYourGuide (other currencies).

Concerts to attend in Rome at Christmas

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!

Catch Disney on Ice in Rome this December 5-8, 2019, at Palalottomatica in EUR.

Tickets from 29€. Matinees available.


For a unique and solemn experience, attend the Christmas Baroque Concert inside Rome's Capuchin Crypt.

December 20, 27 and 30, 2019. From $38.

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.


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 2019:

Bacon, Freud and the school of London Works from TATE

At the beautiful Chiostro del Bramante, now through  February 2020.

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 6, 2020. 

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€ 


Pompeii and Santorini - now through January 2020

Scuderie del Quirinale, in Via XXIV Maggio number 16.

Museum hrs: Sunday - Thursday 10am - 8pm; Friday and Saturday 10am – 10:30pm. 

15€ full price (click the photo to visit this site).


Secret Impressionists from 6 October 2019 - 8 March 2020.

Bonaparte Palace - General Space Value Culture, Piazza Venezia 5.

Hours: Monday to Friday 9am - 7pm; Saturday and Sunday 9am - 9pm.

Full price tickets € 17.50.


Leonardo in Rome. Influences and heritage.

Now through January 12 2020, every day from Monday to Sunday 10am - 7pm (last admission at 5pm) - Closed on Tuesdays.

Villa Farnesina, via della Lungara 230.


Luca Signorelli and Rome. Oblivion and rediscovery.

The Capitoline Museums pay tribute to the famous Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli.

Capitoline Museums, Exhibition Halls of Palazzo Caffarelli.

Now through 12 January 2019, daily from 9:30am to 7:30pm.

Tickets from € 16,00.


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 2019 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.)

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 a small part of a 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.

christmas tree piazza vittorioChristmas tree in front of the Complesso Vittoriano in Piazza Vittorio - the decorations and type of tree change very year, and this one was particularly beautiful!

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 best streets/areas include the area around the Spanish Steps, via del Corso, via dei Coronari, Trastevere, and Piazza Navona, even with a diminished Christmas Market there.

Take a half day Rome tour and see the lights!

Why not combine a Rome walking tour with a chance to see the best of Rome Christmas decorations?

Book a tour here with Viator (in US$) or with GetYourGuide (other currencies).

Is Rome crowded at Christmas?

The answer is yes. And no.

Mostly Rome is not very crowded just up to Christmas and on Christmas. 

spanish steps in rome at christmasThe Spanish Steps at Christmastime. It can be very crowded just before Christmas and through New Years, but there are quiet moments too

It starts getting pretty busy right after Christmas and leading up to New Years and then through January 6 (Epiphany or befana.)

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.

Booking.com

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 5, 2019 at 4:30pm. They will stay lit through January 12, 2019.

Christmas markets in Rome

Rome at Christmas - Market in Piazza Navona

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.

piazza navona christmasPiazza 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.

christmas carousel in piazza navonaEnjoying 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.

presepe piazza navonaNativity 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, there were as usual the carousel, a nativity scene and a stage for some small shows.

In 2019 there will also be vendors, more than in recent years but not as many as in the past. Stay tuned for more news as we get it.

I suggest going there anyway as it's a beautiful ambiance no matter what!

So where are the Christmas Markets in Rome in 2019?

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 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 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.

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.

via san gregorio armeno naplesVia di San Gregorio in Armeno in Naples
Nativity scene figurines made in NaplesFigurines for Nativity Scenes (presepi) in Naples

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.

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.

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.) 

pantheon with christmas lightsMidnight 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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