At night, Rome is bathed in a pale yellow light. A peaceful timelessness settles into the city when the monuments and ruins are shrouded in that warm glow. At Christmastime, the glimmer of the Eternal City grows brighter and more magical. Countless lights are draped down Via del Corso and strung throughout the streets. Strands of bulbs spell out holiday greetings, dangling overhead as you walk the city. Decorated trees and nativity scenes adorn the squares. With Vatican City inside Rome, it’s easy for this town to embrace the holiday spirit — between its holiday markets, decorations, food, and traditions, Rome is a lovely place to spend Christmas.
City of Lights
Perhaps one of the best things to do in Rome at Christmas is simply walk the streets. There are beautifully decorated Christmas trees on display at many squares and monuments, such as Piazza Venezia, Saint Peter’s Square, the Colosseum, and the Spanish Steps. There are often nativity scenes set up in many areas as well, such as Piazza Navona and Saint Peter’s Square. Long strings of lights line many of the streets, and often spell Christmas wishes, such as “auguri,” meaning “wishes.” All the decorations are at once marvelous and serene, creating plenty of holiday cheer.
Above: The view from the top of the Spanish Steps looking out over Via dei Condotti
There are a few Christmas markets in the city, but the most famous is at Piazza Navona. Lines of decked out stalls selling holiday decorations and knick-knacks fill the square. Locals and visitors alike roam the piazza with family and friends, having a snack or checking out the variety of wares. The items available may not be as high quality or impressive as those available at shops elsewhere in Rome, but the allure of the market is more about taking part in the holiday merriment than finding gifts. It’s worth visiting the holiday market at Piazza Navona to get in the holiday spirit, and it can’t hurt to pick up a little ornament while you’re there.
Above: Holiday lights near Campo de’ Fiori
Joy by the Plateful
It simply isn’t a trip to Rome (or Italy, for that matter) unless wonderful food is involved. And of course, the holiday season is no exception. There are restaurants open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, just make sure to do your research and make reservations ahead of time. Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo near Campo de’ Fiori has a nice Christmas Day lunch, while The Library restaurant near Piazza Navona has lovely holiday meals as well. (Restaurant schedules may vary by year, however.)
On Christmas Eve, the traditional meal is on the lighter side, typically involving seafood pasta. On Christmas Day, the main meal is lunch, and is on the heavier side. Christmas lunch usually involves meat and often some kind of baked pasta. After dessert, go ahead and try some house limoncello. Is it traditional to wash down Christmas lunch with limoncello? Probably not. But we’re always in favor of limoncello. So go for it.
A couple other traditional Italian Christmas treats include panettone, a sweet bread usually baked with dried fruits, and pizzelle, light waffle-like cookies.
Above: Saint Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro) at Christmas time
If you would like to attend mass in Rome at Christmas, there are many options. In addition to services in Italian, there are options for English speakers as well.
For Christmas Eve, there’s the traditional midnight mass at the Vatican, led by the Pope (which is not always actually at midnight). Tickets to attend mass inside the basilica are free and go quickly (usually you need to request them months in advance). However, anybody can go to Saint Peter’s Square and watch the mass on large video screens in the piazza. It can get crowded and cold, but it’s still nice to be able to witness such a tradition.
For services in English, the All Saints’ Anglican Church is a good option. It’s between Piazza Del Popolo and the Spanish Steps, so it’s in a convenient location, and the congregation is very welcoming.
Above: La Befana, the Christmas witch who brings candy on Epiphany Eve
Hang your Stocking…
On January 5, don’t forget to hang up your stocking before bed. Santa’s work may be done, but La Befana is just getting started. According to Italian folklore, an old woman riding a broomstick (sort of like a nice Christmas witch) brings candy or gifts to children on the Eve of the Epiphany. Throughout the Christmas season, toys and decorations of La Befana can be found throughout the shops and markets. La Befana brings her gifts during the night of January 5, the night before the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Another benefit to this tradition is the continuation of the Christmas season — holiday celebrations carry on through the Epiphany. So hang up your stocking and keep up the merriment until early January.
Above: Lights spell out holiday wishes on a Roman street
Rome is a wonderful city to visit any time of year, and Christmas time has its own unique draw. The city is brightened by decorations and holiday cheer, there are fewer tourists than the warmer months, and there are plenty of great yuletide traditions to take part in (hello, La Befana). Buone feste!