Rome is an amazing destination to travel to 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 typical Catholic Christmas events, 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 the Christmas markets of Rome
The most iconic Christmas market is in Piazza Navona. There, the market dresses up for Christmas from the beginning of December with stalls selling toys, handmade crafts, roasted chestnuts, and local sweets. In this square, you will also find a merry-go-round and a huge nativity scene, as well as a throne where children can visit Santa Claus.
The square is full of street artists and painters and you can admire the beautiful illumination of the Font of the four rivers, the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone and the Palazzo Pamphili, the best examples of Roman Baroque in the city.
Piazza Ankara also hosts a Christmas market, the proceeds of which go to charitable causes, with stalls selling fair trade products and antiques.
2. Enjoy the lights of the city and its illuminated monuments
Some cities like London or Paris boast 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 lighting really shines: those of the Vaticanum, 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 gifts are delivered by the Befana (an old lady who, according to Italian folklore, gives sweets and gifts to children in the fashion of Santa Claus or the Three Wise Men).
A good way to discover the lights of the city is to take a guided tour with a specialized guide who, in addition, will help you to contextualize everything you see and tell you the history and anecdotes of the city. If you fancy a plan like this, you can check what are for me the best guided tours of Rome.
3. Receive the Urbi et Orbi Blessing from the Pope in person
Regardless of your religious beliefs, if you visit Rome for Christmas, 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 square of the Holy See.
Another option is to attend the mass held inside the Saint Peter's Basilica itself, for which you must purchase a ticket well in advance. It is so difficult to get access to 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 a visit inside the Vatican Museums 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.
4. Attend Mass at the Pantheon
If you liked the idea of attending a Christmas mass in Rome, I recommend you to attend 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 very nice experience.
Of course, I recommend you to be there at 11 p.m. in the evening or even earlier to get a seat, as the Pantheon fills up pretty fast. It's cold inside, so don't forget to bring a warm coat to make your night more pleasant.
5. Taste the traditional Christmas menu of Rome
In Rome, you eat big at Christmas, as is the tradition in Mediterranean countries. The city's restaurants go to great lengths to prepare the typical menus for the holidays, so I recommend you make reservations 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 nuts, dates, chocolate, and honey.
If you're going to be in town for a few days and don't know where to go to eat or dine, here's a list of my favorites in this article on 10 places to eat in Rome.
6. Take a picture of yourself on the Colosseum Christmas tree.
The Christmas trees that are placed next to monuments and buildings of importance in Rome are usually illuminated modestly, but that does not make them less beautiful. A good example is the tree that is placed every year next to the Colosseum, 72 feet high. The solemnity of the place gives this decoration a certain Christmas magic and you can take a very special picture with the Colosseum in the background.
And while you're here, you can't miss visiting the Colosseum inside: this will automatically become the highlight of your trip (believe me, the inside of the Colosseum will leave you in awe). I recommend that you either buy an online ticket for the Colosseum or take a guided tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum, which will give you the historic background to discover the history of ancient Rome.
Other Christmas trees worth seeing on your trip to Rome are the ones in St. Peter's Square, imposing and abundant in decorations, and the one that is personally my favorite, the one in Piazza Venezia.
7. Admire the Nativity Scenes in the churches of Rome
The tradition of setting up nativity scenes was born, of course, in Italy, by 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.
A good idea for a Christmas plan is to take an 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 don't know where to start, I have written this article about 5 most beautiful churches in Rome so you can tour around the city and visit 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've just been magically transported back to your memories of Christmas past, you'll 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.
At the Auditorium of the Conciliazione, near the Vatican, you can check the Christmas concert program, and in Piazza Navona there are often concerts of choirs that you can find on an impromptu basis.
9. Taste the typical Christmas sweets
Do you have a sweet tooth? Then you've chosen the right place to spend Christmas. Here is 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 slivered 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, in all shapes and colors, that will fill your stomach and your heart with the spirit of Christmas.
10. Ice skate on an iconic Roman monument
Although temperatures in Rome rarely get low enough to see snow at Christmas, there are skating rinks scattered throughout the city where you can enjoy a traditional way to spend the afternoon.
The most beautiful ice rink I found was the one at Castillo 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 Castle itself inside (which I recommend 100%) heres all the information about Castel Sant'Angelo Tickets.
Another option is the skating rink of the Auditorium Parco della Musica, placed outside this music center in the city, or the one in the Christmas market of Piazzale Ankara, where you can go skating after an afternoon of shopping.