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. The glimmer of Rome grows even brighter and more magical at Christmas.
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.
This town easily embraces the holiday spirit. Rome is filled holiday markets, decorations, food, and local traditions.
Here’s your travel guide for what to do during Christmas in Rome, Italy.
See the Christmas Lights and Nativity Scenes
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. You’ll find these holiday trees in several famous locations around the city, such as Piazza Venezia, Saint Peter’s Square, the Colosseum, and the Spanish Steps.
Long strings of lights also line many of the streets, and often spell Christmas greetings, such as “auguri,” meaning “wishes.”
Make sure not to miss the massive strings of lights running the length of Via Del Corso, the famed shopping street the connects Piazza Venezia with Piazza del Popolo. The lights are draped all the way down the street, creating a luminous canopy above the avenue.
Nativity scenes are also set up all around the city. A nativity scene, also known as a manger scene, crèche, or presepio, is an artistic scene depicting the birth of Jesus. You’ll find these scenes in different spots around Rome, such as Piazza Navona and Saint Peter’s Square.
All the decorations throughout Rome are magical and serene, creating plenty of holiday cheer. One of the best things to do this time of year is explore the streets and admire the Christmas decorations.
Visit the Holiday Markets
There are a few Christmas markets in Rome, but the most famous is at Piazza Navona. The square is filled with lines of decked out stalls selling holiday decorations, knick-knacks, and holiday treats. Locals and visitors roam the piazza with family and friends. Revelers enjoy snacks and check out the variety of wares.
The items available may not all be as high quality or impressive as those available at shops elsewhere in Rome. However, there are some stalls with lovely Christmas pieces, such as Italian made nativity scenes.
Overall, though, the allure of the market is more about taking part in the holiday merriment. It’s worth visiting the holiday market at Piazza Navona to get in the holiday spirit. Plus, it can’t hurt to pick up a little ornament while you’re there.
The Christmas market in Piazza Navona begins in December and continues until early January. Vendors open up shop in the morning, typically around 9:00 a.m. and stay until late, often until after midnight. It’s an open air piazza, so there’s no fee to enter the market.
Mercato Monti is an awesome year-round local market that gets a holiday flair around Christmastime. It’s a hip indoor marketplace in the Monti neighborhood selling trendy and vintage items. You’re bound to find a unique souvenir here!
Mercato Monti is open most weekends from the morning, around 10 a.m., until nighttime, around 8:00 p.m. The market is located at Via Leonina, 46, 00184 Roma. Entrance to the market is free.
Eat, Eat, Eat!
It simply isn’t a trip to Rome (or Italy, for that matter) unless 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. Here are a couple suggestions, but keep in mind that restaurant schedules may vary from year to year.
Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo near Campo de’ Fiori has a nice Christmas Day lunch. Don’t miss out on the lasagna! The restaurant is located at Via del Biscione, 73-74, 00186 Roma. (2019 update: It appears this restaurant is now permanently closed.)
The Library restaurant near Piazza Navona has lovely holiday meals as well. This charming, hidden away eatery serves upscale European food in a cozy setting. The Library is located at Vicolo della Cancelleria, 36, 00186 Roma.
On Christmas Eve, the traditional meal is on the lighter side, typically involving seafood pasta.
For Christmas Day, the main meal is lunch, and is on the heavier side. This meal 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? Perhaps not. But I’m 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. Make sure to try them both while you’re there!
If you would like to attend mass in Rome at Christmas, there are many options. Most local services are in Italian, but there are services in English as well.
The traditional midnight mass at the Vatican, led by the Pope, is on Christmas Eve. Midnight mass doesn’t start at midnight, it begins somewhere closer to 10:00 p.m. Tickets to attend mass inside the basilica are free and go quickly, so if you’d like to attend, make sure to request tickets far in advance.
However, if you can’t get tickets or don’t want to attend the mass inside the Vatican, you can still watch the service from Saint Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro). Large video screens are set up around the square, where spectators can watch midnight mass. It can get crowded and cold in the piazza, but it’s still nice to be able to witness such a famous Christmas Eve tradition.
All Saints’ Anglican Church is a great option if you would like to attend church services in English on Christmas. The English-speaking congregation is warm and welcoming.
Plus, the church is centrally located between Piazza Del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. All Saints’ Anglican Church Rome is at Via del Babuino, 153, 00187 Roma.
Hang Your Stocking…
There are some fun local traditions to take part in as well.
In Rome, the Christmas season doesn’t end right after Christmas (like it does in the U.S.). The holiday spirit carries on until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
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 through January.
Plan for Christmas Closures in Rome
It’s important to plan for closures when traveling during the holidays. Everything from museums and attractions to restaurant and public transportation could have different hours of operation this time of year.
One great thing about Rome is that many of its sights are outdoors and don’t require tickets, so they’re not affected by the holiday season. The Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Circus Maximus, and Piazza Navona are all open air attractions that you can enjoy year-round, for instance. Several others are impressive from the outside, whether or not you’re able to venture inside, such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon.
If you’re staying near the center of Rome, you will be able to walk nearly everywhere you want to go, so transportation shouldn’t be a problem. If not, public transport will still be available, it just might be limited or busier due to the holiday activity.
Just make sure to plan ahead and check the hours of operation for any places you want to visit when in Rome during the holidays.
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! Cin cin!