In Rome Christmas markets just aren’t as much of a thing as they are in cities elsewhere in Europe, especially further north. For years, when it came to mercatini di Natale, as Italians call them, the main event really was just the Christmas market at Piazza Navona.
Today, Piazza Navona remains the biggest Rome Christmas market, at least in the center. Every Roman (and visiting) family stops there at some point during the Christmas season. Stalls sell Christmas decorations, gifts and sweets and street performers juggle and dance, all under the gloriously-lit fountains and Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. For atmosphere and convenience, the 100-year-old Christmas market is a good bet. And after being called off in 2015 and 2016, the market seems to be back — it should open on 2 December and close 6 January. (Of course, this being Italy, things can always change!).
But. Most of the gifts for sale there are mass-produced, made-in-China items — and a far cry from the kind of artisanal gifts you can so easily find elsewhere in Rome.
2. Head to a Christmas market. They pop up all over Rome at Christmas. The most famous is, of course, that in Piazza Navona (both at top and below). Here’s a list of other Rome Christmas markets (updated for 2017!).
5. Delve into the tradition of Italian nativity scenes. As well as Christmas cribs popping up in churches all over town, Rome boasts both a museum of more than 3,000 of them and, over Christmas, an exhibition of 200 presepi from artists across the globe (now in its 41st year). Here’s my New York Times piece on where to find presepi in Rome. (The article’s old, but the information’s still good).
6. Check out the Christmas lights. Decorations are getting more ambitious every year, with gorgeous twinklings (and light projections, and jumbo screens) lighting up not only the heart of Rome’s centro storico, but even Termini, EUR, and the Fiumicino airport. Don’t believe me? Check out my photo post of the prettiest lights and decorations in Rome at Christmas!
9. Enjoy delicious Christmas sweets. Bakeries are brimming over with yummy holiday offerings like panettone, torrone and pandoro (above). If you’re in Rome at Christmas, make sure to taste the goods. It’s the one time of year that even Italians over-indulge in the sweet stuff!
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.
Few places seem more appropriate to celebrate Christmas than Rome, the home of not only Catholicism, but of the ancient empire whose pagan festival, Saturnalia, was converted into the holiday celebrating Christ's birth.
Yet after booking a trip to Rome over the Christmas holidays, travelers often get a sudden fear that the city will be completely shut down, making it impossible for them to eat, sightsee, or do anything, really, but go to church.
While it's true that many Romans will leave the city for their family homes over the holidays, there are still plenty of people left in this city of 3 million. Here, what will be open—and what won't—in Rome over Christmas.
Will sites and museums be open? While some museums and sites will remain open even on Christmas Day and New Year's, most of the biggies will be shut. The forum, Colosseum and Palatine will be closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, for example, but open every other day as usual, including Dec. 24.
The Vatican's a tougher one: The Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel will be closed on Dec. 8, Dec. 25, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1. They'll also be closed every Sunday in December and January, as usual, except for the last Sunday of each month, when they are open and free.
Check with other sites individually. Pierreci's sexy new site lists, in English, all of Rome's major museums and archaeological sights, along with their hours and closures. Outdoor sites like Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain, along with churches (see below), will be open.
(More, below, on what you have to know about visiting Rome over Christmas!).
Will the bus and metro be running? Yes. Often, the city even has an expanded service on Christmas Eve until the early afternoon. Service tends to end at about 9pm that night, though, and cabs are in very short supply, so if you need to be somewhere, give yourself lots of time to get there. On Christmas Eve, walking will probably be your best bet, so dress warmly!
Will restaurants be open? Most restaurants will be open every day except for Dec. 24, Dec. 25, and Jan. 1. Some others might close on Dec. 8, Dec. 31 and Jan. 6.
But many places will also be open on even those holidays themselves, including both classic Italian favorites and the kosher restaurants in the Ghetto. Just remember to book in advance.
For 2013 (stay tuned to see if they'll put out a 2014 update!), The Rome Digest has a nice little list of good Rome restaurants that will be open over the holidays, including Metamorfosi, Romeo and Roscioli.
I want to go shopping. Can I? Throughout December and January, yes. However, most shops will close early on Christmas Eve and will not be open on Christmas Day. Other days some might be closed or have shorter hours include Dec. 8, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1. If you want the saldi, you'll have to wait—usually, these after-Christmas sales kick off throughout Lazio on the third Saturday of January.
And what about churches? Ah, churches! They will, of course, be open on Christmas; many will offer mass at the same time they'd usually have their Sunday service. If you're interested in attending mass, check with the church in advance. Otherwise, you're fine to visit most churches as usual, being, of course, particularly respectful and refraining from taking flash photographs if a service is going on.
Over the Christmas holidays, many visitors to Rome have one goal in mind: how to see the Pope. (Note: This post has been updated to reflect 2017 dates and information!)
The brass ring of the experience is, of course, midnight Mass at St. Peter’s. While that’s a very, very special (if crowded) experience, it’s also tougher to book than a scavi tour. If you want to take a shot, then fax or write the Prefecture of the Papal Household at +39 06 6988 5863 with your information; here’s where you can find out how to book midnight Mass at St. Peter’s.
Keep in mind that this is best done at least a couple of months in advaance. By December, it’s pretty safe to say there won’t be any spots left—unless, that is, you’re in with a parish that can try to work their magic for you.
Luckily, though, there are other ways to get a glimpse of the Pope over the Christmas holidays. These include:
On December 8, see the Pope at the Spanish Steps. Each Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, the Pope goes to Piazza di Spagna in an act of homage to Mary (see photo at top… previous pope, same idea!). (Get there early to get closest to the column erected in honor of the Immaculate Conception, which is where the Pope will be for his blessing). It’s at 4pm, and no tickets are required.
Even if you don’t have tickets to midnight Mass, you can still attend. You’ll just have to stand out in the piazza and watch the ceremony on Jumbotrons; not quite the same, okay, but still pretty neat with thousands of people packed into the square. Just remember that it’s actually at 9:30pm, not midnight. (Pope Benedict changed it a few years ago, apparently wanting to get to bed a bit earlier, and Pope Francis has followed in his stead).
Go to “Urbi et Orbi” on Christmas Day. This is the special blessing the Pope gives the crowd — and gives all Catholics watching or listening through T.V. or radio worldwide — that happens only twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. The Pope appears at the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica at St. Peter’s Square for the blessing at noon. Tickets aren’t required.
Pray the “Angelus” with the Pope throughout December. For 2017, in December the Pope leads the faithful in prayer from his window at noon on Dec. 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31. For January dates, check here as we get closer. Tickets aren’t required.
Attend a Wednesday papal audience. The general audience will occur every Wednesday in December and January, as usual. Tickets are required; send your information to the same fax number as listed above for the midnight Mass.
Get tickets to another Pope-led mass. In December 2016 and January 2017, these include:
Dec. 12: Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Peter’s Basilica, 6pm
Dec. 24: Mass for the Solemnity for the Birth of Our Lord, St. Peter’s Basilica, 9:15pm
Dec. 31: The First Vespers and “Te Deum,” St. Peter’s Basilica, 5pm
Jan. 1: Holy Mass, St. Peter’s Basilica, 10am*
Jan. 6: Holy Mass for the Epiphany, St. Peter’s Basilica, 10am*
Jan. 12: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Sistine Chapel, 9:45am*
*Note: I haven’t confirmed these exact times for 2018 because they aren’t yet on the Vatican site, but they’re likely to be accurate. Keep checking back on the Pope’s official calendar to confirm.
Remember that, again, you need tickets for these Masses in advance. (For less popular ceremonies, you can turn up two or three days in advance and get them directly from the Swiss Guards, without having to fax in advance. Truly. But for special ceremonies like these, I’d recommend doing the advance booking).
And make sure to check out my 5-minute video for everything else you have to know about spending the holidays in Rome!