9 Things to Do in Rome at Christmas (Updated for 2017!)

If you’re in Rome at Christmas, you’re in luck! As always, there are absolutely tons of ways to get into the holiday spirit.

Here’s the best of what to do in Rome at Christmas.

1. See the Pope. Over the Christmas season, you’ve got lots of opportunities, from midnight mass (although getting tickets can be tricky) to “Urbi et Orbi” on Christmas Day (no tickets needed). Here’s more on how exactly to see the Pope throughout December and January (updated for 2017).

In Rome at Christmas? Why not see the Pope?
Even if you aren’t in Rome at Christmas Day, you may get another chance to see the Pope!

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!).

In Rome at Christmas, don't miss a Christmas market!
The famous Piazza Navona market, one of the most famous things to do in Rome at Christmas

3. Worship — in English. For years, the American Catholic church of Santa Susanna was the go-to for English Mass. But after being “evicted” by the cloistered nuns (well, okay then!), the community moved in August 2017 to St. Patrick’s Church, near the US Embassy. Once again this Christmas, they’re hosting a variety of Masses and other ceremonies in English. For non-Catholics, the Anglican Church of All Saints’ Church holds holiday services, including the Service of Nine Lessons with Carols, and the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church of Scotland has services throughout the Christmas season. Other churches with non-Catholic services in English during Christmas include the American Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, the Methodist Church at Ponte Sant’Angelo, and the non-denominational Cavalry Chapel.

4. Go ice-skating. Skate underneath the iconic silhouette of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo (to be confirmed for 2017 — check here). Other skating rinks in Rome include those at the Auditorium, Re di Roma, Tor di Quinto, and Villa Gordiani.

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).

Christmas lights in Rome

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!

7. Hear some holiday music. The internationally-renowned academy of Santa Cecilia hosts several Christmas choral concerts in December.

Pandoro at Christmas in Rome

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!

Also: the 5 most overrated things to do in Rome, how to start planning your trip to Rome, and 11 etiquette mistakes not to make eating in Italy.

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.

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Hidden Beneath Circus Maximus, an Underground — and Secret — Mithraic Temple

Mithraeum at Circus Maximus, underground Mithraic temple, Rome

While we all continue to wait to see if the Colosseum's underground will reopen, here's another one of Rome's best-kept secrets: the subterranean mithraeum of Circus Maximus.

Hidden below ground next to the famous racetrack, the ancient mithraeum remained a secret for centuries. (It may have even been a secret when worshippers were gathering there in the 2nd or 3rd century!)  In fact, it wasn't until 1931 that the five-room building was discovered… 45 feet below ground. Today, the mithraeum lies beneath the Foundation of Rome's Teatro dell'Opera.

Let me put it this way: Rome has a lot of hidden gems. But few things are more surprising than descending down a stairwell in a nondescript building… only to find such well-preserved ancient chambers!

Thanks to different clues left within the rooms — including, most excitingly, a fantastic frieze showing Mithras slaying a bull (the original was removed for preservation; the copy is shown below) — archaeologists concluded that the chamber was nothing other than a 2nd-century center of worship for followers of the cult of Mithras.  Frieze of Mithras slaying a bull, Circo Massimo mithraeum, Rome
But that doesn't, actually, tell us as much as you might expect. Because of all the pagan cults of ancient Rome, the Mithraic sect might have been the most mysterious. 

No first-hand accounts or scriptures of the cult have survived. What we do know is that Mithraism seems to have come into existence, at least in its Roman form, in the first century. It became very popular — particularly among Roman soldiers, who probably picked some form of it up from the Persians and Greeks — and then, by the fourth and fifth centuries, faded out altogether. That might be because it was just too similar to another religion on the rise: Christianity. (For one thing, Mithras was seen as a kind of sun god who saved his people by shedding "eternal blood").

We can't be exactly sure what Mithraic followers did in sanctuaries like the one beneath Circus Maximus. But it's thought that one part of their ceremony was the sacrifice of a bull (called tauroctony), which is repeated again and again in Mithraic imagery — including in the frieze found here.

But let's be honest. Even if these underground chambers didn't make up a mithraeum, they'd still be pretty incredible. They're so well-preserved you can still walk beneath the same brick arches and tread on the same floor, with its inlaid marble pattern, as the ancient worshipers. Unlike so many other ancient ruins, you can get a real feel for what the building would have felt like.

And, unlike most ruins you find below ground in Rome today — which originally would have been at ground level — the mithraeum always would have been subterranean. That means you can experience the space almost as ancient worshipers would, perhaps sneaking in here as crowds cheered at the Circus Maximus next door.

Pretty cool.  Mithraeum at Circus Maximus, Rome

The mithraeum at Circus Maximus is open by appointment only, and you have to be with a tour — you can't just wander in on your own. (Given how precious it is, that probably makes sense!) Through May 14, Roma Segreta, the association for those who like these kinds of hidden gems, is running tours of the mithraeum. They're about an hour and cost €6. Here's the schedule of Roma Segreta mithraeum tours. Unfortunately, they're only in Italian — but even if you can't understand a word, it might just be worth it for a peek! The coop Il Sogno also offers tours of the mithraeum, and you can pick the time — they start at €80 for 1 to 4 adults.

Want to find out about Rome's other hidden gems? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!


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