Twelve Days of Christmas, Twelve Ways to Get in the Spirit in Rome

Christmas Market at Piazza Navona, Rome Like everything else, Christmas in Rome may not be quite what you expect. You won't see a Santa Claus on every corner or hear Christmas carols in every shop, and the city's Christmas markets are lacking compared to those in northern Europe. But Christmas spirit is alive and well in Rome — you just have to know where to seek it out.

And so, I give you: Twelve ways to get into the Christmas spirit in Rome. (Try humming along while reading. Believe me, it helps).

1. On the first day of Christmas, Rome gave to me… one Santa house. Over the next month, Rome's Auditorium transforms into a holiday extravaganza, with 40 Christmas trees, visits with Santa, a Christmas market, and an ice-skating rink. A full calendar of events includes a gospel festival from Dec. 19 to 26. The Christmas festival runs until Jan. 9; the Auditorium , located near Stadio Flaminio, is easily accessible by bus (the 910, 217 and "M" both go there from Termini) or the number 2 tram from the Flaminio metro stop. For more information, click here.

2. Two ice skates. Slipping and sliding Skating underneath the iconic silhouette of Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo, the ancient-mausoleum-turned-castle-of-the-pope, is a holiday tradition. Click here for more information on the Castel Sant'Angelo rink. Other skating rinks in Rome include those at Re di Roma, Tor di Quinto, and Villa Gordiani. 

3. Three…thousand Christmas cribs. Along with its dozens of other museums, Rome even has one devoted to presepi. Featuring more than 3,000 scenes from all over the world, the museum — which is closed in the summer — is open every afternoon from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, as well as during other limited hours throughout the winter. It's located under the church of Santi Quirico e Giulitta, nearby the Colosseum. For more information, call 06 679 6146.

4. Four (bites of) panettone. Rome's food traditions are incredibly seasonal — and if you want to taste some of the city's best cookies and cakes, Christmas is the right time to come. Try panettone, a traditional Christmas cake (although it tastes more like sweet bread) filled with candied fruits. Other sweets to taste include panforte (a much heavier, denser Christmas cake that's akin to fruitcake) and torrone (chocolate bars filled with nuts or nougat).

5. Five nights of Christmas music. The internationally-renowned academy of Santa Cecilia hosts holiday-themed concerts on five different nights in December, starting on Dec. 7. Make reservations in advance.

6. Six silks a-saving Sudan. It's a Christmas market with a twist: The goods include everything from Nepalese hats to Cambodian silks to Italian panettone, and the proceeds go raise money for the Pediatric Centre in Nyala, Sudan. The Emergency Christmas Market takes place this year at Palazzo Velli on Piazza Sant'Egidio 10, in Trastevere, until Dec. 23.

The Pope at the Spanish Steps for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 7. Seven chances to see the Pope a-flying by. Getting a rare ticket to Christmas Mass isn't your only option.

8. Eight (thousand) toys a-hanging. The goods at Rome's main Christmas market at Piazza Navona aren't anything to write home about — they're mostly mass-produced toys, decorations, and candies. Still, there's something about seeing Piazza Navona all done up for Christmas, and seeing so many Italian families out and about and in the holiday mood, that's worth making a stop. There's also a carousel for little ones.

9. Nine Lessons and Carols. To celebrate the 4th Sunday in Advent, St. Andrews' Presbyterian Church of Scotland is having its Service of Nine Lessons and Carols — followed by, the website says, "mince pies and mulled wine in the manse." Yum! (And, a "manse" sounds pretty cool). The Nine Lessons and Carols service, in English, is at 11 am on Sunday, Dec. 19.

10. Ten(-squared) cribs a-…cribbing. Now in its 35th year, Rome's "100 Presepi" exhibit of Christmas cribs — including both traditional cribs and the more creative, made out of every material from ostrich eggs to tea bags. The exhibit also has a crib-building workshop for children called "Nativity as a Game" (reservations required). The exhibit runs until Jan. 6 and is located at Piazza del Popolo's Sala del Bramanta. For more information, click here.

11. Eleven pipers piping. It's the time of year when sheepskin-clad bagpipers and flutists from Abruzzo and Calabria come to Rome, playing traditional Christmas songs in the streets. They're performing for free, so if the sheepskin didn't give it away, you'll be able to tell the difference between them and Rome's usual hordes of buskers! Look out for them around the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, and St. Peter's.  

12. 12-and-unders singing. This (English) service will retell the Christmas story through activities and carols. It's at the All Saints Rome Church at 5pm on Dec. 24.






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Romeing, On Newsstands Now

Finally, Rome has an answer to “Time Out”: Romeing, a free mini-magazine that publishes a full calendar of events, plus articles and reviews, each month.

Although there are other print publications like this in Rome, none are in English. (One exception: “Where Rome,” but its calendar isn’t exactly exhaustive). Aimed at expats or travelers looking for something to do beyond the Vatican or Colosseum, whether a new modern art show at the Maxxi or a rugby match viewing at Flaminio Stadium, it’s small enough to slide into your back pocket or purse.

Check it out…plus my contributions, including my monthly “Tips & Tricks” column (inspired by the same section in this blog!).

You can pick up Romeing at a variety of hotels, museums, bars, and embassies around the city, including the Galleria Borghese, Maxxi, Bibli (Trastevere), Mimi e Coco (Piazza Navona), Magnolia (Campo dei Fiori), the British embassy, Australian embassy, and Leonardo da Vinci language school, among others.

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For Bookish Expats, Rome’s Little-Known English Library

For literature-loving, English-speaking expats, there's always a conundrum in living abroad: How do you keep up your reading without breaking the bank?

In Rome, there are several solutions. The most obvious are the city's (pretty high) number of English bookstores. Favorites include the Anglo-American Bookstore, the Almost Corner Bookshop, and The Lion Bookshop (stay tuned for an upcoming post on English bookstores in Rome). While it's great to browse shelf after shelf of the newest, best English books out there, the downside is that the (imported) books can be pricey.

The second option: a Kindle or other wireless device. (Yes, one bought in the U.S. will work in Italy). I've just gotten on the Kindle train myself, and I love it — it's super-convenient and light enough to carry around all day. (It's definitely made waiting for the bus a lot more bearable). The upside is that you have thousands of English books at your fingertips; the downside is that many books, particularly those that are slightly more obscure, old, or academic, still haven't been Kindlefied. Plus, while the prices are less than print prices, they still seem high for the book being, you know, electronic.

Luckily, there's also a third option for bookworms: the Santa Susanna Lending Library.

Located a stone's throw from Repubblica, the library — joined to the beautiful church of Santa Susanna — has dozens of shelves stocked with English books, from history to biographies to novels. Most seem to be a little on the older side, and it doesn't seem to be where you'd go to, say, get the newest book on the top of the N.Y. Times bestseller list. Still, it's a good option for those who'd like to get a fresh crop of books every week… and then return them. And it's pretty cool just that there's, you know, an English library in Rome. Of all places.

Plus, if you like used books, get ready: The library is hosting a used book sale starting on Friday, December 10. (The sale runs on Friday from 1pm-4pm, Saturday from 10am-12:30pm, and Sunday from 10am-12:30pm). Books will start as low as 10 cents. Yay!

The library is located at XX Settembre, 15 (next to the Santa Susanna Church). It's open weekends from 10am-12:30pm, Tuesdays from 10am-1pm, Wednesdays from 3pm-6pm, and Friday from 1pm-4pm. It costs 25 euros for a 3-month membership for one person, 40 euros for a 12-month, with a 5-book limit. For a family membership, with a 10-book limit, it's 35 euros for 6 months, 45 for 12. For more information, call 064827510 or email

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Cupcake Craving? Indulge Your Sweet(y) Tooth

Red velvet cupcake from Sweety Rome, Monti, Rome

Every once in a while, a girl (or guy) needs a cupcake. These aren’t easy to come by in the Eternal City, a town more known for devil-fighting than devil’s food. Luckily, there’s Sweety Rome.

A bakery and café located in the heart of Monti, Sweety Rome boasts pastries, muffins — and cupcakes. When I saw a red velvet cupcake (shown above), next to a chocolate cupcake, next to a vanilla-with-lemon icing cupcake, at a bakery in Rome, I almost couldn’t contain myself. (I thank Baked & Wired, the frustratingly-tempting and way-better-than-Georgetown-Cupcake place next to my old office building in Washington, D.C., for my not-quite-forgotten cupcake addition).

But displaying a cupcake is one thing. Actually baking one that’s up to a Baked & Wired-lover’s snuff is something else.

Two trips, three muffins and three cupcakes later (gross, I know), this self-appointed expert’s verdict: pretty darn good. No, the cupcakes aren’t the size-of-a-plate monstrosities with two inches of icing that you see back home, and they’re slightly on the dry side. Nor are the muffins as sweet as what I’m used to spoiled by in the U.S. But when you’re craving something sweet and American, either one will do the trick.

Sweety Rome also does pies and cakes that you’re not used to seeing in Italy, like pecan pie, cheesecake, and key lime pie; if you want one for a special occasion, you have to order in advance. Some of the cute designs they can do are in the window — even a cake shaped like a Chanel bag. 

And, excitingly, I hear that they do brunch. When I swung by at 9:30am on a recent Saturday, this brunch did not appear to be on quite yet. In fact, they weren’t even open. But I’m game to go back, so stay tuned for an American brunch update.

Sweety Rome, Via Milano 48, in the Monti neighborhood. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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