Where to Find Rome Christmas Markets (Updated for 2018)

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 for some previous years, the market is back — it should open on 2 December 2018 and close 6 January 2019. (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.

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Five Most Overrated Things to Do in Rome… And What to Do Instead

What to do in RomeWant to know the best things to do in Rome—beyond seeing the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum? Then put away your guidebook. When they go beyond the main sites, too many books (and magazine articles, and television shows) provide the same tired, touristy list of things to do and places to go in Rome.

The problem: These places aren’t only overrun with tourist crowds, but often just don’t tick the box they’re supposed to.

Here are five of Rome’s most overhyped activities—and what to do instead.

1. Instead of having a coffee at Piazza del Popolo…

Tourist trap in RomeDon’t get me wrong: The large, obelisk-topped Piazza del Popolo is worth a stop. (Don’t miss the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, with its Caravaggio paintings). But it’s not where to go for a cup of coffee. The couple of cafes on the piazza are scams expensive (think €4.50 for an espresso) and the service is terrible—which is why you won’t see any locals there.

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For Free Family Fun, Carnevale Returns to Rome

Piazza del Popolo at carnival 2010, Rome Carnevale

Ever since a series of accidents forced Rome to relinquish its once-raucous celebrations, Rome's colder and canal-filled sister has had the claim on Carnevale. But in recent years, Rome's been trying to change that.

Back in the day, Rome did Carnival up right. So right that everyone from Dickens to James to Dumas wrote about the festivities. So right that it went (sometimes dangerously) wrong — and, by the early 20th century, the city had put the kibosh on it altogether.

But that's changing. Two years ago, the city threw huge festivities to try to restart the tradition. And, budget problems aside, it's going for it again this year. Like last year, the main events all have pretty horsey themes. (Above: The crowd at Piazza del Popolo during last year's horse show; below: people watching a street performer at the Spanish Steps, also during Carnevale 2010). Crowd watching a street performer at the Spanish Steps, Carnevale 2010, Rome

The festivities (all free!) kick off on February 26, running through March 8. The highlights:

Opening parade. The parade will kick off from Piazza del Popolo at 5:30pm. Look out for dancers, opulently-costumed performers, horses, and military fanfare.

Day of Cowboy Pride. Yes, Americans, you read that right. On Saturday, March 5, from 10am-1pm and 3:30pm-5:30pm, there will be a cowboy-inspired equestrian show.

Italian cavalry show. It's like an equestrian show… only with the pomp and ceremony that can only come from military splendor! Check it out on Friday, March 4 at 7:30pm. Piazza del Popolo.

The BIG horse show. This is the one not to miss (well, if you like horses, or costumes, or acrobatics): On Saturday, March 5 at 7:30pm, some of the biggest names in equestrian sport perform at Piazza del Popolo. Look out for everything from acrobatic vaulting to Renaissance costumes to a dressage champion.

Spanish Steps during Carnevale 2010, Rome Daily street theatre, parades and other performances. Every afternoon until March 3, from 3pm-7pm, the whole Piazza del Popolo neighborhood will explode with fun, family-friendly activities. Look for a myriad of entertainments, including comedies, equestrian shows, and costume parades, at Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps (above: during last year's Carnevale celebrations), Piazza Navona, and along Via del Corso.

Latin American Carnival. Yeah, it's not all about you, Rome. On Sunday, March 6, from 2pm-5:30pm, Latin American dance and music groups take over from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum.

Via Tiburtina's Great Roman Carnival. Yes, it's a bit farther out — but it's also 1.5km of floats, costumes, dancers and musicians in a massive parade! It's on Sunday, March 6 from 3pm.

Carnival Village. Lots of activities will take place at Piazza del Popolo until the carnival's end. There will be refreshment stands offering food and wine from both Lazio and Tuscany (the home of Rome's "twin" city, Viareggio). And a replica 16th-century theatre will be set up with the help of Rome's Teatro dell'Opera, who will also provide the elaborate costumes.

Exhibit on the rebirth of the Rome carnival. If you're curious about where the carnival tradition came from in Rome — or, more accurately, where it disappeared to — check out the exhibit "Roman Carnival: The Birth of a Tradition," which displays photos and images of Rome's carnivals from the 19th back to the 15th centuries.

Fireworks! Hey, you can't end any celebration without 'em. Check the display out, which takes place above the Pincian hill, on the night of March 8.

 

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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.

Whew!


 

 

 

 

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La Campana: A Classic, and Rome’s Oldest Restaurant

Oxtail at La Campana, near Piazza Navona, RomeLa Campana, a restaurant tucked away a few steps from Piazza Navona, claims to be Rome's oldest dining establishment. It was recorded as being on the same street all the way back in 1518 — a tough claim to match.

But since these kinds of claims are everywhere, particularly in a city as overrun with old establishments as Rome, that's not really why you should go.

You should go if you want to experience good, classic Roman food, or cucina romana, at not-bad prices, in the heart of the center. In an area where culinary mediocrity is so thick on the ground, that's pretty tough to find. Oddly enough for the neighborhood, it's not even fair to call La Campana touristy: While there are always tourists there, a number of businessmen are always taking up the tables as well, particularly at lunch.

That said, not all of my experiences at La Campana have been perfect. One more-mediocre experience included my rigatoni all'amatriciana (€8), a dish that was undone by the long strips of not-very-crisp-or-smoky guanciale, or pork jowl, each of which were at least two-thirds white fat.

But I've also had a juicy saltimbocca (veal wrapped with prosciutto, €12, shown below) and an excellent coda alla vaccinara (€12), at top, in a rich, delicious sauce and with the meat falling off the bone. That coda alla vaccinara, alone, made me vow to pay more visits to Rome's (maybe) oldest restaurant. Other classic dishes on the menu to try include the fettucini al ragu (€10), trippa (€12)and artichoke (€5).

Saltimbocca at La Campana, RomeSomething else I'll say for La Campana: The service is excellent. That's not something you tend to see in many moderately-priced Roman restaurants, particularly not those that have been written up as often as this one. But the black-vested waiters are unfailingly polite, and the service (usually) pretty fast.

La Campana. Vicolo della Campana 18. Closed Mondays. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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Eat, Pray, Love and Il Gelato di San Crispino

Ginger-and-cinnamon and black fig gelato at San Crispino, Rome

A confession: I sort of feel the same way about San Crispino, one of Rome's most famous gelaterias, as I do about the book Eat, Pray, Love.

Eat, Pray, Love wrapped up a long-established idea (travel as a journey of self-discovery!) that's still a bit underaccepted by Americans (isn't traveling for a year hippy-dippy and selfish?) in an appealing package (easily-relatable 30-something woman finding her independence, and, in true Disney fashion, love!) that still seems just-off-the-beaten-path-enough to be original (would you quit your job to travel for a year? Well, maybe if you had the cash advance she did, but still….)

Similarly: Il Gelato di San Crispino takes the concept of using fresh, organic ingredients (not exactly a new culinary idea, at least here in Italy) that's still seen as a bit rare (given the number of gelaterias that don't do this) in an appealing package (I mean, it's gelato, and it's near two of Rome's biggest tourist sites).

And just as Eat, Pray, Love found wild success, so — it seems — has San Crispino. As well as franchising (there are now two of the stores), San Crispino's even gotten a movie cameo. In a movie about a woman traveling to Rome to find herself. What was the name of it? Oh, yeah. Eat, Pray, Love. Go figure.

Now, I like San Crispino. Maybe even more than I like Eat, Pray, Love. But I wouldn't call San Crispino the best gelateria in Rome. Its flavors, like the chapters of the book, can be a little uneven in their poignancy and effectiveness. (Okay, I'll stop now). I prefer the creamy texture of the gelato at Ciampini, just up the road. And San Crispino is a little pricier than other gelaterias, with the cheapest cup, for just one taste of one kind of gelato, coming in at €2.50.

That said: I still sometimes recommend the place. Why? First of all, when other gelaterias that "foodies" tend to tout are on Rome's outskirts (like Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè, out in E.U.R.), San Crispino is right in the center. It's convenient. And as corny as it is, you can't underestimate how watching the sunset light up the dome of the Pantheon while noshing seems to make your gelato taste that much better. (The only way, I'm guessing, that all of the restaurants on that piazza manage to stay in business).

Secondly, lots of other people, from La Pergola's Heinz Beck to Elizabeth Gilbert herself, are obsessed with San Crispino gelato. It's obviously a crowd-pleaser. And third, the fruit flavors do taste pretty darn fresh. I especially like their black fig, blackberry, and plum. The ginger-and-cinnamon is a favorite, too.

So: Go. Just please, leave the copy of Eat, Pray, Love in your hotel room to keep the gelateria from imploding by sweet-stuff overload.

Il Gelato di San Crispino. Via della Panetteria 42 (Trevi location) or Piazza della Maddalena (franchise at the Pantheon. For a map, click here.

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Ristorante Montevecchio: Tastes of a Grandparents’ Kitchen…?

DSC_0001 I had high hopes at Ristorante Montevecchio, a restaurant tucked into almost-impossible-to-find Piazza Montevecchio. Just a two minutes' walk from Piazza Navona, the place is in the center of everything — but thanks to the small, tranquil piazza, still feels off the beaten path.

But I wasn't there because of the location. I was there because the restaurant had been recommended to me, with lavish praise, and because when I Googled it, one of the first things that came up was this glowing review by NPR. (I hadn't even been aware that NPR did restaurant reviews). With visions of "Fresh Tastes of a Grandparents' Kitchen" running through my head, I went.

My first warning sign: the complete lack of diners. At 9:15pm — prime dining time. I should have listened to my own instructions. Instead, I gave it a try.

To be fair, the food was good. I started off with the timballo di parmigiano di melanzane, a little eggplant-and-ricotta concoction that was yummy, if not exactly €12 worth of yummy. For the second course, I took the waiter's suggestion and had his favorite, the ravioli Montevecchio-style — ravioli of the house. Big, plump pillows of pasta filled with ricotta and spinach, the dish was satisfying. But when I pay €16 for pasta in Rome, I expect something pretty darn fantastic, or at least seafood-based. This was not it. The same went for the €8 tiramisu, served, oddly, in what to all intents and purposes appeared to be a water glass.

The service was good, although I can't imagine that three waiters to three tables — the maximum the restaurant got to while I was there — could ever struggle. And the fact that they were closing down at 10:30, when most popular restaurants are just starting to get into full swing, made my dining companion and I feel awkward. "I'm worried the waiter's going to hit you in the head with a chair he's swinging onto a table," she whispered to me at one point. It was only 10:45.

Final verdict? The food's fine, but to get bang for your buck in Rome, skip Montevecchio — unless it's just the cute little piazza you're looking for. (In fairness to NPR, by the way, it looks like management has changed since the review was written).

Food: 3 of 5. Ambiance: 4 of 5. Value: 2 of 5.

Ristorante Montevecchio. Piazza Montevecchio 22a. Closed Mondays. See more details here. Click here for a map.

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