Rome is an amazing destination with so many things to do and see all year round, but if I had to choose just one city in Europe to celebrate Christmas in, it would definitely be the Eternal City.
Besides being able to attend events typical of the Catholic celebration of Christmas, you can enjoy the beautiful illumination of the city, its Christmas markets, impressive nativity scenes...read on and I will tell you 10 things to do for a perfect Christmas in Rome:
1. Stroll through Rome's Christmas markets
The most typical Christmas market is the one in Piazza Navona. There, the market dresses up for Christmas from the beginning of December with stalls selling toys, handmade crafts, roasted chestnuts and typical sweets. In the square there is also a merry-go-round and a huge nativity scene, as well as a throne where Santa Claus attends to the children.
The square is full of street artists and painters and you can admire the beautiful illumination of the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone and Palazzo Pamphili, the best examples of Roman Baroque.
Piazza Ankara also hosts a Christmas market, the proceeds of which go to charitable causes, with stalls selling fair trade products and antiques.
In order not to miss its most charming corners, it is best to take one of the best guided tours of Rome, always accompanied by an expert guide, you will discover the corners and squares that you cannot miss.
2. Explore the Vatican and receive the urbi et orbi of the Pope in person
Regardless of your beliefs, if you visit Rome at Christmas time, attending the Pope's message at the Vatican is a beautiful and peaceful experience.
The papal urbi et orbi is delivered in Vatican City at noon on December 25, and the speech is free to attend, but the crowds are so large that you will have to get up early if you want to get a seat in the Holy See square.
Another option if you are visiting the Vatican is to attend the mass held inside St. Peter's Basilica itself, for which you must purchase a ticket well in advance. It is so difficult to attend this event that I would almost say it is not worth it, but for many people it is the main reason to go to Rome at Christmas.
And while you are in the area, you can't miss the Vatican Museums inside to admire, among other wonders of art, the Sistine Chapel. To do this you can either buy a ticket for the Vatican Museums or take a guided tour of the Vatican.
3. Enjoy the lights of the city and its illuminated monuments
Some cities like London or Paris can boast of having very elegant Christmas decorations and illuminations, but none convey the spirit of Christmas as much as those of Rome.
The lights that decorate Rome's historic center give its millenary streets a special aura, and simply strolling under the Christmas colors along Via del Corso, Via Cola di Rienzo or Via Ottaviano is an experience you will always remember. But it is in the city's monuments and main buildings where the Christmas illumination really shines: those of the Vatican, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Paolo fuori le Mura, or San Giovanni are some of the ones that impressed me the most during my visit.
The Christmas lights season in Rome officially begins on December 8, the day of the Immaculate Conception, and lasts until January 6, a very special day in Italy when the gifts of the Befana (the witch who replaces the Three Wise Men) are delivered.
A good way to discover the lights of the city is to take a guided tour with a specialized guide who will also help you to contextualize everything you see and tell you the history and legends of the city. If you fancy the plan, you can check what are for me the best guided tours of Rome.
4. Attend mass at the Pantheon
If you liked the idea of attending a Christmas mass in Rome, I recommend attending the one celebrated on Christmas Eve at the Pantheon. The mass is celebrated at midnight in Italian, by candlelight, with a small choir, which makes for a beautiful experience.
Of course, I recommend being there at 11pm or even earlier to get a seat, as the Pantheon fills up pretty quickly. It's cold inside, so don't forget to bring a good coat to make your night more pleasant.
Overall, visiting the Pantheon inside is a marvel: its majestic record-breaking dome and impressive architecture will leave you open-mouthed. To get the most out of it, join a guided tour of Rome's Pantheon.
5. Taste the traditional Christmas menu in Rome
In Rome you eat big at Christmas, as is the tradition in Mediterranean countries. The city's restaurants take special care in preparing the typical menus for these holidays, so I recommend you to make a reservation for Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas lunch.
On Christmas Eve, dinner is traditionally eaten before midnight mass, typically known as the 'Feast of the Seven Fishes' or simply the 'Vigil': at this time, a variety of fish and seafood is consumed following a medieval custom of fasting from red meat and dairy products. A couple of restaurant recommendations for dinner on Christmas Eve, though somewhat pricey, would be Crispi 19 (next to the Trevi Fountain) or L'Uliveto, at the Waldorf Hotel Roma Cavalieri.
The quintessential Roman Christmas meal is abbacchio, a dish of lamb roasted with garlic, rosemary and ham, served with potatoes and vegetables, and usually accompanied by a first course of gnocchi alla romana, somewhat different from other types of gnocchi, as these are small discs of corn semolina gratin with butter and cheese. The traditional dessert is pangiallo, a sweet bread stuffed with walnuts, dates, chocolate and honey.
All this will be better explained (and tasted much better) if you take this famous gastronomic tour of Rome with an expert.
If you are going to be in the city for a few days and don't know where to go for lunch or dinner, I leave you a list of my favorites in this article about 10 places to eat in Rome.
Have your picture taken at the Colosseum Christmas tree and visit the Colosseum arena
Christmas trees placed next to monuments and buildings of importance in Rome are usually illuminated in a simple way, but they are no less beautiful for that. A good example is the tree that is placed every year next to the Colosseum, 22 meters high. The solemnity of the place gives this decoration a certain Christmas magic and you can take a special picture with the Colosseum in the background.
And while you're here, you can't miss the Colosseum inside and this will automatically become the highlight of your trip (believe me, the Colosseum inside is much more majestic than you can imagine). I recommend that you either buy an online ticket for the Colosseum or take a guided tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, which will put you in the background and let you discover the history of ancient Rome.
Here is a link where you can find the best experiences you can have at the Colosseum.
Other Christmas trees worth seeing on your trip to Rome are the ones in St. Peter's Square, imposing and abundant in decorations, and my personal favorite, the one in Piazza Venezia.
7. Admire the nativity scenes in Rome's churches
The tradition of placing nativity scenes was born, of course, in Italy, by the hand of the "presepi" of St. Francis of Assisi, when in the Christmas of 1223 he created the first nativity scene to celebrate mass, using straw, hay, a donkey and an ox. This event became a tradition when the rest of the towns and cities replaced these elements with figurines, initially created by hand.
In Rome the tradition is celebrated in a big way, like all other Christmas traditions, and you can admire some truly impressive presepios. A good example of this is the nativity scene in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where a scene sculpted in marble by the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio in 1290 is preserved.
One idea for a Christmas plan is to take a guided itinerary through Rome to see some of its many nativity scenes, which are displayed in churches and squares. I recommend those in St. Peter's Square, the Spanish Steps, the Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano (in Via dei Fori Imperiali), the Church of San Carlo al Corso (in Via del Corso), the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (Piazza del Popolo), and the one in Piazza Navona.
If you are also an art lover and would like to visit some of these churches inside but you don't know where to start, I have written this article on 10 most beautiful churches in Rome so you can organize your tour of the city according to the ones you like the most.
8. Go to a Christmas concert
Listening to classical music at Christmas is a tradition in many families. Especially in Spain, you've probably seen the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's New Year's concert on TV.
If you have just been magically transported back to your memories of Christmas past, you will be delighted to know that on your trip to Rome during this celebration you can listen to live classical music in some of the city's churches. I especially recommend the concerts at Chiesa di Sant'Antonio dei Portoghesi, Santa Maria ai Monti and Sant'Ignazio.
In the Auditorium of the Conciliazione, near the Vatican, you can check the Christmas concert program, and in Piazza Navona there are usually concerts of choirs that you can find on the spur of the moment.
9. Taste the typical Christmas sweets
Do you have a sweet tooth? Then you have chosen the right place to spend Christmas. Here's a string of delicacies to try: pandoro, a star-shaped sweet bread sprinkled with powdered sugar, usually eaten for breakfast dipped in coffee, the classic panettone, another sweet bread filled with nuts, raisins, or chocolate, and covered with sliced almonds, panforte, a fruit cake flavored with cloves and other spices, originally from Siena, and panpepato, similar to panforte but with a stronger ginger flavor.
As you stroll through the medieval markets, you will see all kinds of Christmas cookies, of all shapes and colors, that will fill your stomach and your heart with the spirit of Christmas.
Remember that for the most demanding palates there is this gastronomic tour of Rome that will bring you closer to the most original flavors of the city by the hand of an expert.
10. Go ice skating at an iconic monument of Rome
Although temperatures in Rome rarely get low enough to see snow at Christmas, there are skating rinks all over the city where you can enjoy a traditional way to spend the afternoon.
The skating rink I found most beautiful was the one at Castel Sant'Angelo, the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian's family, now a museum. You will have it in the background while ice skating. If you also want to visit the inside of the Castle itself (which I recommend 100%) I leave here the information on Rome Castel Sant'Angelo Tickets: how to buy, prices and schedules.
Another option is the skating rink of the Auditorium Parco della Musica, installed outside this music center in the city, or the Christmas market in Piazzale Ankara, where you can take the opportunity to skate after an afternoon of shopping.
11. Lose yourself in the Galleria Borghese to take shelter from the cold December weather
The Borghese Gallery is undoubtedly one of the most special places in Rome. Located in the middle of an idyllic garden considered the lung of Rome, you will not find it hard to find its spectacular facade guarded by a fairytale gardens.
There you will see some of the most famous classical sculptures in history, such as the Rape of Proserpina or Apollo and Daphne. Why is this a must-see? The rooms and the Palace itself are a work of art. In addition, being an enclave much less demanded by tourists, you can walk inside practically alone (the capacity is super limited) and the experience is unique. Taking a guided tour of the Borghese Gallery is the best way to see the inside.
On the other hand, take the opportunity to walk around Villa Borghese and its lake and if the weather permits, rent a boat to enjoy a sunny winter morning.