You could spend Christmas at home like every other year, or you could experience something totally new and try spending Christmas in Rome! Rome is a beautiful city with a plethora of monuments to visit and explore including The Pantheon, The Roman Forum & the catacombs. Amazing at any time of year but can you imagine visiting the Colosseum at Christmas? You’ve seen it hundreds of times in movies and on TV, but have you ever seen the Colosseum in the snow? Or the Trevi fountain at night with almost nobody around? What a Christmas that would be!
Spending Christmas in Rome 2018
If you’re spending Christmas in Rome in 2018, you’ll be in store for a few treats this year. Rome experienced its first snowfall in six years last February. This could bode well for your hope of viewing the Colosseum in the snow this year as well!
Whether you’re a first time visitor or are returning to Rome, the opportunity to experience the best that the eternal city has to offer, such as the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps, can help get you into the Christmas spirit.
Think about it, the Christmas spirit. The true
Christmas spirit that we first experienced as kids, the excitement and awe at the occasion draws parallels to viewing awe-inspiring monuments such as the Colosseum
, Vatican City, Piazza Venezia or enjoying the Christmas lights in St Peters Square on a tour of Rome
. When you think about catching the holiday season spirit, this could be the perfect way to do it!
Catching the Christmas Spirit
Christmas is a religious holiday, and as Italy is a religious, predominantly Christian country, Christmas continues to be a traditional period for much of the nation. Aside from similarities to the USA & the UK with the popularity of Christmas trees and decorations, Christmas dinner is a very traditional affair, and we’ll look into that later so you can have your very traditional Italian Christmas holiday!
Continuing the theme of Italian Christmas traditions, you will almost certainly notice on your trip to Rome that many of the squares (and almost certainly any Italian homes) you visit will have a crib or manger, known in Italian as a Presepe.
Another tradition you may be unaware of is the date the kids usually get presents and who is said to bring them… hint, it’s not Santa Claus!
#1 TIP For visiting Rome at Christmas
The best time to visit the monuments in Rome at Christmas is the 26th of December!
Most of the monuments such as the Colosseum, Castel Sant'Angelo and museums are closed on Christmas Day and New Years Day but reopen on Boxing Day (December 26th). The crowds are much thinner than usual, so this could be the perfect time for you to visit your favorite monuments!
What is there to do in Rome on Christmas Day?
Now you know the best tip for visiting monuments in Rome at Christmas is to see them on Boxing Day, but you want something to do on Christmas Day, right? So what exhibits are open on December 25th?
Complesso del Vittoriano (3:30 pm - 8:30 pm)
- Andy Warhol
- Pollock and the school of New York
Palazzo delle Esposizioni
- Pixar: 30 years of animation
Palazzo degli Esami
- Monet to Cezanne French Impressionism
If art isn’t for you, not a problem. There is the famous Christmas market in Piazza Navona; a variety of different establishments to eat at; and (something we will talk about in more depth later) visiting Vatican City and St Peter’s Square.
Rome Christmas Market
The Rome Christmas market is has been downsized greatly due to efforts to bring it back to its roots. Many believe that the market is now changing for the better with the focus shifting more towards kids & families and away from being so commercially focused as it has been in recent years.
The Rome Christmas market is now experiencing something of a resurgence in Piazza Navona after initially struggling with refocusing on traditional values. The market is still certainly worth a visit and would be a good place to visit for families in particular.
Midnight Mass in Rome
For the religious amongst us, you will be happy to know that all are welcome to attend midnight mass with the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica and Square. Two awesome things about this are that
a) tickets are free and
b) the basilica can hold 15,000 people which is plenty for the mass.
For larger crowds, the mass is moved to St. Peter’s Square which has a capacity of up to 80,000 people.
Can I just walk straight into St. Peters for midnight mass?
No. Due to the popularity of the mass, you have to get tickets. You can get up to 6 tickets from The Swiss Guards a few days before. However, to be sure you get the tickets, you really have to reserve them online
. Make sure you arrive early, people have been turned away before (even with a ticket) when the basilica or church is at capacity. Don’t be one of them!
Christmas lunch in Rome
If you’re spending Christmas in Rome this year, you are going to want to try the most delicious food that the eternal city can offer you. If you’re looking for Christmas dinner in Rome, you may want to book a table in advance just to make sure you get seats for you and your party.
You will be spoilt for choice for places to eat in Rome on Christmas Day
, so I’m not going to make a list. Instead, we’ll talk a little about the traditions so that you can enjoy an authentic Christmas in Rome! On Christmas Day, it is normal to start lunch with tortellini or stracciatella soup. You could even kick off the meal with a traditional Italian aperitivo
. This is followed by lasagna or cannelloni and a roast, usually of chicken or lamb. When it comes to dessert, Romans finish their meal off with a traditional cake or panettone.
Top tip on Christmas traditions in Rome: It is traditional in Rome to eat fish (traditionally baccala) on Christmas Eve, you’re not obliged, but if you want to really buy into the local culture, you’ll be having a fish dinner!
Rome for Christmas Vacation
If you’re traveling with children, you may be surprised to find out that Christmas Day itself isn’t the ‘big day’ for kids. Instead, the big day comes on 5th January, known as La Befana. La Befana is a sort of strange Santa Claus; a legend has it that she flies around on her broomstick bringing gifts to all the children who have behaved well that year.
What else is there to do in Rome at Christmas?
If you’re spending Christmas in Rome, you will have the opportunity to see some world famous sites in a totally different light than usual. We’ll take a look at some popular places (ok there are a lot of tourists, and it will be busy, but they are popular for a reason - they’re awesome) and some lesser known spots that will give you something a little different to talk about when you return home or upload to your Instagram.
The first stop on our spots to visit in Rome at Christmas is:
Not nearly as famous as other pyramids such as those in Egypt, the Pyramid of Cestius is located in a busy city center, much easier to get to than their older counterparts! The pyramid was built in homage to its older counterparts in Giza. A 2000-year-old pyramid in the center of Rome is a strange site, but one well worth visiting.
- Christmas shopping in Rome
Due to the fantastic reputation, Rome has for shopping; it won’t surprise you to find out that many travelers flock in Rome to take advantage of the fantastic Christmas shopping.
- Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls
The Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an accolade given only to a select few. The basilica was erected over the burial place of (you guessed it) St Paul.
The garden and sword-wielding statue out front will put you in mind of a scene from Highgarden (Game of Thrones) and visiting in the run-up to Christmas will give you the best chance of viewing the basilica without hordes of tourists jostling you for a picture! Although if you’re going just before Christmas, maybe it will turn into something more like Winterfell rather than Highgarden… Game of Thrones fans let me know if you go!
A former amphitheater, Teatro Marcello is one of the best places to spend an afternoon in the entire city. The remnants of the amphitheater take you back 2000 years (even the apartments built on top fail to ruin this scene!).
Ice skating in Rome seems to be a huge event at Christmas time. There is a never-ending number of ice skating rinks open up in and around the city center. Spending an hour or two on the ice could be a great way to get your appetite going for your traditional Italian Christmas dinner!
- Christmas Tree in St Peter’s Square
We’ve already mentioned visiting St Peter’s Square to attend Christmas mass with the pope, but there is another reason to visit, the splendid Christmas tree that is donated each year. Lit up at night with the backdrop of the Square it really looks fantastic. If you’re lucky enough to go while it's snowing, then this will undoubtedly be a trip to remember.
If you decide to go to St Peter's Square on Christmas Eve, you will see the life-size nativity scene. This could be the perfect time for you to visit, so you get to enjoy midnight mass with the Pope.
Outside of Piazza San Pietro (as its known locally), you’ll enjoy the various other attractions in Vatican City including:
- The Vatican museums: Such as the Gallery of Maps or Sistine Chapel (there are 53 other galleries and collections to choose from).
- The Swiss Guards: A group of former soldiers whose job is to protect the Pope, they have an interesting backstory of protecting the Pope throughout the decades and from various attacks such as the one in 1527. Despite being heavily outnumbered and suffering many casualties, the Swiss Guards were able to save the Pope's life. They by bought him enough time to escape through the secret tunnels to Castel Sant’Angelo.
IIf you are visiting the Vatican you should be aware that you won’t be allowed to enter if you don’t abide by the dress code. It’s not particularly stringent; it seems to be simply adhering to traditional Christian values of modesty. Saying that it is in contradiction to the splendor and pious nature of some of the buildings. Maybe modesty isn’t the correct word. Anyway here's a quick rundown of what to wear/not to wear if you want to enter the Vatican:
- Keep your shoulders & knees covered. As the great Charlie Kelly says, cover your knees up if you’re gonna be walking around everywhere. Although as you’ll be visiting at Christmas, this one won’t be an issue!
- Take your hat off inside (but hopefully, you do this anyway!)
As you can see, Santa Maria Aracoeli is aesthetically pleasing but its not the main reason for our visit. The main reason for our visit to Santa Maria Aracoeli is Santo Bambino. But what is it?
Well, legend says that the statue was carved way back in the 16th century and afterward, painted by an angel. That’s not where the craziness ends though. The statue was aboard a ship with its sculptor (the friar). The ship sunk during a storm, but instead of going down with the ship, the sculpture washed up on the shore of Livorno.
That’s STILL NOT THE END OF THE STORY!
In 1994, after a relatively peaceful period for the statue, it was stolen from its ‘secure’ vault. The thieves entered the building dressed as workmen there for fixing up the monastery. Due to the immense popularity of the statue, a number of people offered to put up a ransom for its return. Despite the efforts, it was never recovered and a copy was made, also from Gethsemane wood.
You can enjoy this fascinating piece of history for yourself Christmas Eve until Epiphany when the Santo Bambino is brought to the Nativity Chapel from its private quarters for midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
So, before you go....
So there you have it. If you’re thinking of spending Christmas in Rome this year, you’re in for a real treat. Great food; interesting activities; midnight mass with the Pope and places with some of the most interesting back stories you could ever hope for. Christmas in Rome could be a great change of pace for you and your family. If you’re lucky, get to see some of the world's most amazing, awe-inspiring monuments in the snow. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!