A trip to Italy is high on many people’s bucket lists due to the country’s fascinating history, gorgeous art, rich culture and fantastic food. Rome is a magical city throughout the year, but even more so during the festive season. The streets twinkle with Christmas lights, and famous monuments are bathed in the glow of giant Christmas trees.
Christmas is a religious holiday for many people, and in Rome, there are many opportunities to experience both Christian and Jewish traditions. Here are 20 ways you can celebrate a magical Christmas in Rome.
- Christmas in Rome
- 20 Ways To Celebrate Christmas in Rome
- 1- Visit the Piazza Navona Christmas Market
- 2- Attend Midnight Mass at St Peter’s Basilica
- 3- Admire The Nativity Scenes
- 4- Eat Seafood on Christmas Eve
- 5- Go Ice Skating Near Castel Sant’Angelo
- 6- Listen to the Pope’s Christmas Day Address
- 7- Experience the Hanukkah Street Party
- 8- Enjoy an Italian Style Christmas Lunch
- 9- Explore Rome in the Off-Season
- 10- See the Colosseum Christmas Tree
- 11- Attend a Christmas Concert at the Auditorium
- 12- Taste Panettone and Pandoro
- 13- Watch a Zampognari Performance
- 14- Learn About La Befana
- 15- Indulge in Italian Christmas Biscuits
- 16- Go to The Christmas Concert
- 17- Go to the Markets at the Auditorium
- 18- Try Vin Brulé
- 19- See a Performance of The Nutcracker
- 20- Celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception
- 20 Ways To Celebrate Christmas in Rome
Christmas in Rome
20 Ways To Celebrate Christmas in Rome
Piazza Navona is a gorgeous baroque-style square in Rome home to the Piazza Navona Christmas Market, the most famous Christmas market in the city.
The market runs for almost the entire month of December and finishes in the first week of January, coinciding with the Feast of the Epiphany.
The market sells a range of Christmas gifts, sweets, pastries, games, and clothes.
The stalls vary from year to year, so there is always something new.
A traditional merry-go-round is usually set up to add to the festive cheer.
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2- Attend Midnight Mass at St Peter’s Basilica
In the centre of Rome is the Vatican, the world’s smallest microstate.
This independent nation is the centre of the Roman Catholic faith and home to the Pope.
At Christmas time, people from all over Italy and the world flock to St Peter’s Basilica to listen to the Pope celebrate Christmas Eve Midnight Mass.
While it’s free, the event is so popular that you’ll need to fill in a reservation form at least two months in advance, and places aren’t confirmed until a few days before the mass.
Also, despite the title of the event, it starts around 9.30 pm.
St Peter’s Basilica is at Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Città del Vaticano, Vatican City.
3- Admire The Nativity Scenes
Something you will notice around the city during the festive season is Nativity Scenes.
The popularity of the Nativity Scene, or “Il Presepe” is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, a famous Italian saint.
A Nativity Scene can be found at every church, with the largest at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican.
Each year the scene is made somewhere different, and the figures are always life-size.
While the scene is set up in early December, baby Jesus isn’t placed in the manger until Christmas Eve.
Under the Colonnade of St Peter’s Square, there is also a display called “100 Presepi”, which has 100 different nativity scenes from around the world.
Other places to see splendid examples of a Nativity Scene are the Spanish Steps, the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore Church and Santa Maria in Trastevere.
4- Eat Seafood on Christmas Eve
Most Italians will not dine on meat on Christmas Eve due to their Catholic beliefs.
It is a practice that goes back to a longstanding tradition of not eating meat on the eve of a feast day.
Instead, many families will come together and enjoy a large seafood dinner that can include various fish and crustaceans.
As Rome is so close to the Mediterranean Sea, there is a lot of high-quality seafood in the city.
Many restaurants will have a special menu for the night, which you can wash down with a glass of vino and a post-dinner drink of limoncello.
5- Go Ice Skating Near Castel Sant’Angelo
Castel Sant’Angelo also called the Mausoleum of Hadrian, is an impressive historical building in Rome and a must-see tourist attraction.
Originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and his family, it was later converted to a fortress for the Pope’s and is now a museum.
Close to Castel Sant’ Angelo is Piazza Adriana.
There, a temporary ice rink is set up for people to enjoy during the winter.
It has excellent views of the surrounding area and is a fun and festive way to spend a few hours.
6- Listen to the Pope’s Christmas Day Address
On Christmas Day, the Pope delivers his annual papal address called “Urbi et Orbi”, which means “To the city and the world”.
Traditionally it is delivered from the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square, with tens of thousands of people coming to listen to the Pope’s message.
He usually speaks about the significance of the Christmas period and the troubles and conflicts faced by modern society.
It is a message of peace, hope and love, which often involves a call to action for people and governments to make the world a better place.
7- Experience the Hanukkah Street Party
The Jewish holiday Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, takes place around the same time as Christmas.
It goes for eight days and marks the recovery of Jerusalem and rededication of the Second Temple.
Near Campo Dei Fiori in Rome, a Jewish community goes all out during Hanukkah.
At Via del Portico d’Ottavia, in the Jewish Ghetto, there is an annual Hanukkah Street party.
It usually starts in the afternoon and involves booths, processions, and dancing.
Visitors are welcome to join in on the celebrations.
8- Enjoy an Italian Style Christmas Lunch
Italy is renowned for its cuisine and experiencing a Christmas lunch there is a great way to sample a range of traditional foods.
A typical Italian Christmas lunch is a multiple course affair that can last for hours.
It often begins with a gourmet antipasto spread with cured meats, Italian sausage, fine cheeses, brined olives, and artichokes.
That’s followed by a regionally inspired pasta dish, like lasagne Bolognese, baked pasta, or tortellini in brodo.
Like most countries, the main course is meat, with roasted lamb, baked chicken, a veal roast roll, or braised beef.
Dessert is often a smorgasbord of Christmas treats, including panettone or pandoro,
9- Explore Rome in the Off-Season
The Christmas period is the low season in Rome, making it the perfect time to explore the city without the massive tourist traffic in summer.
Head to the Trevi Fountain for a crowd-free photo and explore places like the Colosseum, Pantheon, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum without the big crowds and long lines.
Accommodation is often cheaper, and once Christmas day has passed, you can take advantage of the post-holiday sales in one of the most fashionable cities in the world.
10- See the Colosseum Christmas Tree
The Colosseum is one of Italy’s most iconic landmarks.
During the day, you can explore the general public areas (priority access is a must to skip the lines!) or go on a tour to the restricted spaces, including the top-level, underground and arena floor.
At night the Colosseum is lit up on the outside, and during the festive season, a beautiful Christmas tree is placed outside, making it the perfect spot for a Christmas photo.
The best views are from Via dei Verbiti and the Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana.
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11- Attend a Christmas Concert at the Auditorium
The Auditorium Parco Della Música releases their highly anticipated “Christmas at the Auditorium” event program every year.
The program is incredibly diverse, with shows targeted at adults, all the way down to children under three years old.
There is a mix of new and returning plays, shows and performers, with regular highlights like the Roman Gospel Festival, Orchestra Popolare Italiana and Academia Nazionale Silvio d’Amico.
12- Taste Panettone and Pandoro
Nothing says Christmas more than the traditional panettone and pandoro cakes when it comes to Italian desserts.
Panettone originates from Milan and is made from a sweet dough with candied fruit and raisins mixed through it.
Pandoro comes from Verona and is usually bright yellow and made in a star shape.
Nowadays, you’ll be able to try traditional panettone and pandoro Christmas cakes as well as modern variations created by talented bakers.
Some of the best bakeries in Rome to try the cakes from are Antico Forno Roscioli, Grue, Pasticceria Bompiani, and D’Antoni.
13- Watch a Zampognari Performance
A zampogna is a type of traditional Italian instrument with double pipes.
While the zampogna can be played at any time of the year, it has a special place at Christmas time.
“Tu scendi dalle stelle” which means, “You come down from the stars”, is a traditional Italian Christmas carol that was created from the sounds of zampona music.
As you wander the streets of Rome, you may come across a small group of festive zampognari playing the carol on their zampona, while wearing the traditional sheepskin and woollen cloaks of Italian shepherds.
14- Learn About La Befana
La Befana is a uniquely Italian Christmas character whose existence ties in with the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.
Legend has it that she met the Three Wise Men, and after initially declining to come with them to meet Jesus, she then travelled in search of the baby, which she continues to do to this day.
On 6 January, which is the Feast of the Epiphany, La Befana rewards good children with toys and candy, while the naughty ones get coal.
An excellent place to celebrate the day is at Piazza Navona, where the special Befana Market is held.
You’ll also likely come across La Befana Christmas souvenirs during the lead up to Christmas Day.
15- Indulge in Italian Christmas Biscuits
Like many European peoples, Italians have a range of sweet biscuits baked and enjoyed around Christmas time.
Tozzetti is a hard, crunchy cookie cut into strips and is usually filled with almonds, dried fruit, chocolate, or lemon.
Zaletti is a biscotti that usually contains raisins soaked in spirits before cooking, while mostaccioli are chocolate covered spiced biscuits.
You’ll be able to pick up some Christmas biscuits from the supermarket or baker, or you can even try making them yourself as many Italians will throughout the festive season.
16- Go to The Christmas Concert
The Christmas Concert is a special event that has been organized by the Vatican each year since 1993.
It is a celebration of the spiritual side of Christmas and the proceeds go to supporting charitable projects and organizations.
Performers come from all over the world and include pop, rock, gospel, soul, opera singers, and musicians.
You can get tickets to see the concert in person or watch it on television when it is broadcast on Christmas Eve.
17- Go to the Markets at the Auditorium
Outside the Auditorium Parco Della Musica, there is a delightful Christmas market.
The stalls sell artesian gifts, festive treats and locally made crafts, and there is a special mailbox to send things to Santa.
Next to the markets, there is also an outdoor ice rink.
In between exploring the stalls, you can hire a pair of skates and take to the ice, with people of all skill levels welcome.
18- Try Vin Brulé
Vin Brulé is the Italian take on mulled wine’s European Christmas tradition.
To create vin brulé, red wine is brewed with citrus and spices, including lemon, orange, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
The end result is often quite sweet.
Unlike most European versions of spiced wine, vin brulé is boiled, meaning much of the alcohol content evaporates during the process.
19- See a Performance of The Nutcracker
During December, Rome’s ballet companies and opera theatres will generally perform the classic Christmas story, The Nutcracker.
The Nutcracker is set on Christmas Eve and tells the story of a young girl who befriends a nutcracker and journeys through a series of fantasy lands to defeat the mouse king, learning more about herself and her family along the way.
The elegant costumes, stirring music and rich storyline are sure to get you into the festive mood.
20- Celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception
On 8 December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which signals the start of the Christmas period in Italy.
It is a national holiday, and in Rome, there are processions through the city, honouring the Virgin Mary.
Many people, including the Pope, will visit the Immaculate Conception statue in Piazza di Spagna, which has a wreath placed on it by a fireman.
In the evening at Piazza Venezia the mayor facilitates a ceremony inaugurating the city Christmas Tree, and many nativity scenes will start to be set up throughout Rome.