Rome is an amazing destination with so many things to do and see all year round, but if I had to choose just one city in Europe to celebrate Christmas in, it would definitely be the Eternal City.
As well as being able to attend events typical of the Catholic celebration of Christmas, you can enjoy the beautiful illumination of the city, its Christmas markets, impressive nativity scenes... read on and I'll tell you 10 things to do for a perfect Christmas in Rome:
1. Stroll through Rome's Christmas markets
The most typical Christmas market is the one in Piazza Navona. Here, the market dresses up for Christmas from the beginning of December with stalls selling toys, handmade crafts, roasted chestnuts and typical sweets. The square also has a merry-go-round and a huge nativity scene, as well as a throne where Father Christmas attends to the children.
The square is full of street artists and painters and you can admire the beautiful illumination of the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone and the Palazzo Pamphili, the finest examples of Roman Baroque architecture. Piazza Ankara also hosts a Christmas market, whose profits go to charitable causes, with stalls selling fair trade products and antiques.
To make sure you don't miss the most charming spots, it's best to take one of the best guided tours of Rome, always accompanied by an expert guide you'll discover the corners and squares you can't miss.
2. Explore the Vatican and receive the urbi et orbi of the Pope in person
Whatever your beliefs, if you are visiting Rome at Christmas time, attending the Pope's message at the Vatican is a beautiful and peaceful experience. The papal urbi et orbi is delivered in Vatican City at midday on 25 December and the speech is free to attend, but the crowds are so large that you'll have to get up early if you want to get a seat in the Holy See square.
Another option if you're visiting the Vatican is to attend the mass inside St Peter's Basilica itself, for which you'll need to buy a ticket well in advance. It's so hard to get to this event that I'd almost say it's not worth it, but for many people it's the main reason to go to Rome at Christmas.
And while you're in the area, you can't miss the Vatican Museums inside to admire, among other art wonders, the Sistine Chapel. To do so, you can either buy a ticket for the Vatican Museums or take a guided tour of the Vatican.
3. Enjoy the lights of the city aboard the sightseeing bus
Some cities like London or Paris can boast some very elegant Christmas decorations and illuminations, but none convey the spirit of Christmas as much as those in Rome. The lights that decorate the historic centre give its ancient streets a special aura, and simply strolling along Via del Corso, Via Cola di Rienzo or Via Ottaviano under the Christmas colours is an experience you will always remember.
The city's main monuments and buildings are where the Christmas lights really shine: those of the Vatican or Santa Maria Maggiore are some of the ones that impressed me the most during my visit.
The Christmas lights season officially starts on 8 December and lasts until 6 January, a very special day in Italy when presents are handed out by the Befana (the witch who replaces the Three Wise Men). A good way to discover the city's lights is to take a bus tour to comfortably tour the city and see the special Christmas illumination. If you fancy the plan, you can check which are the best tourist buses in Rome.
4. Attend the mass at the Pantheon
If you liked the idea of attending a Christmas mass in Rome, I recommend you to attend the one celebrated on Christmas Eve at the Pantheon. The mass is celebrated at midnight in Italian, by candlelight, with a small choir, which makes it a very nice experience.
Of course, I recommend you to be there at 11pm or even earlier to get a seat, as the Pantheon fills up pretty quickly. It's cold inside, so don't forget to bring a good coat to make your night more pleasant.
Overall, visiting the Pantheon inside is a marvel: its majestic record-breaking dome and impressive architecture will leave you open-mouthed. To get the most out of it, join a guided tour of Rome's Pantheon.
5. Taste Rome's traditional Christmas Menu
In Rome on Christmas Eve, dinner is traditionally eaten before midnight mass, typically known as the 'Feast of the Seven Fishes', when a variety of fish and seafood is consumed following a medieval custom of fasting from red meat and dairy products. A couple of restaurant recommendations to book on Christmas Eve, albeit at a slightly higher price, would be Crispi 19 (next to the Trevi Fountain) or L'Uliveto, at the Waldorf Hotel Roma Cavalieri.
The quintessential Roman Christmas meal is abbacchio, a dish of lamb roasted with garlic, rosemary and ham, served with potatoes and vegetables, and usually accompanied by a first course of gnocchi alla romana, which is somewhat different from other types of gnocchi. The traditional dessert is pangiallo, a sweet bread stuffed with walnuts, dates, chocolate and honey.
All this will be better explained (and tasted much better) if you take a gastronomic tour of Rome. If you are going to be in the city for a few days and don't know where to go for lunch or dinner, here is a list of my favourites in this article on 10 places to eat in Rome.
6. Take a photo at the Colosseum's Christmas tree and visit its arena.
The Christmas trees that are placed next to monuments and important buildings in Rome are usually simply lit, but they are no less beautiful for that. A good example is the 22-metre high tree that is placed every year next to the Colosseum. The solemnity of the place gives this decoration a certain Christmas magic and you can take a special photo with the Colosseum in the background.
And while you're here, you can't miss the Colosseum inside and this will automatically become the highlight of your trip (believe me, the Colosseum inside is much more majestic than you can imagine). I recommend that you either buy an online ticket for the Colosseum or take a guided tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Here is a link where you can find the best experiences you can have at the Colosseum.
Other Christmas trees worth seeing on your trip to Rome are the ones in St. Peter's Square, imposing and abundant in decorations, and my personal favourite, the one in Piazza Venezia.
7. Admire the nativity scenes in Rome's churches
The tradition of setting up nativity scenes was born, of course, in Italy, at the hands of the "presepi" of St. Francis of Assisi, when in the Christmas of 1223 he created the first nativity scene to celebrate mass, using straw, hay, a donkey and an ox. This event became a tradition as other towns and cities replaced these elements with figurines, initially created by hand.
In Rome the tradition is celebrated in a big way and you can admire some truly impressive nativity scenes. A good example of this is the crib in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where a scene sculpted in marble by the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio in 1290 is preserved.
One idea for a Christmas plan is to take a guided tour of Rome to see some of the many nativity scenes on display in churches and squares. I recommend the ones in St Peter's Square, the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna, the Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano (in Via dei Fori Imperiali), the Church of San Carlo al Corso (in Via del Corso), the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (Piazza del Popolo), and the one in Piazza Navona.
8. Go to a Christmas concert
Listening to classical music at Christmas is a tradition in many families. Especially in Spain, you've probably seen the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's New Year's concert on TV.
If you've just been magically transported back to your memories of Christmas past, you'll be delighted to know that on your trip to Rome during this celebration you can listen to live classical music in some of the city's churches. I especially recommend the concerts at Chiesa di Sant'Antonio dei Portoghesi, Santa Maria ai Monti and Sant'Ignazio.
The Auditorium of the Conciliazione, near the Vatican, has a programme of Christmas concerts, and in Piazza Navona there are often concerts by choirs that you can find on the spur of the moment.
9. Lose yourself in the Galleria Borghese to keep out the December chill
The Borghese Gallery is definitely one of the things to do and see in Rome. Located in the middle of an idyllic garden considered the lung of Rome, you won't have trouble finding its spectacular façade guarded by fairytale gardens.
There you will see some of the most famous classical sculptures in history, such as the Rape of Proserpina or Apollo and Daphne. Why is this a must-see? The rooms and the Palace itself are a work of art. Besides, being a much less popular tourist spot, you can walk around inside practically alone (seating is extremely limited) and the experience is unique. Taking a guided tour of the Borghese Gallery is the best way to see it from the inside.
On the other hand, take the opportunity to walk around the Villa Borghese and its lake on the way out, and if the weather permits, rent a boat to enjoy a sunny winter morning.
10. Taste the typical Christmas sweets
Do you have a sweet tooth? Then you've chosen the right place to spend Christmas. Here's a string of delicacies to try:
- The pandoro, a star-shaped sweet bread sprinkled with icing sugar, usually eaten for breakfast dipped in coffee.
- The classic panettone, another sweet bread filled with nuts, sultanas, or chocolate, and topped with flaked almonds.
- Panforte, a fruit cake flavoured with cloves and other spices, originally from Siena.
- Panpepato, similar to panforte but with a stronger ginger flavour.
As you stroll through the medieval markets, you will see all kinds of Christmas biscuits, of all shapes and colours, that will fill your stomach and your heart with the Christmas spirit.
Remember that for the most demanding palates there is this gastronomic tour of Trastevere that will bring you closer to the most original flavours of the city by the hand of an expert and you can also try the gastronomic tour and wine tasting in the Vatican.
11. Go ice skating on an iconic monument in Rome
Although temperatures in Rome rarely get cold enough to see snow at Christmas, there are ice rinks all over the city where you can enjoy a traditional way to spend the afternoon.
The ice rink I found most beautiful was the one at Castel Sant'Angelo, the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian's family, now a museum. You'll have it as a backdrop while ice skating. If you also want to visit the inside of the castle itself (which I recommend 100%) I leave you here the information about the Castle. Rome Castel Sant'Angelo Tickets: how to buy, prices and schedules.
Another option is the skating rink of the Auditorium Parco della Musica, installed outside this music centre in the city, or the one at the Christmas market in Piazzale Ankara, where you can skate after an afternoon of shopping.