11 Christmas things to do in Rome

Christmas makes Rome an (even more) magical city: don't miss the following list of must-see places to spend a few days in a magical setting.

Alex Grande

Alex Grande

9 min read

11 Christmas things to do in Rome

The Colosseum Christmas Tree | ©Getty

Rome is an amazing destination with many things to do and see all year round, but if I had to choose only 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 the Christmas markets in Rome

Piazza Navona Christmas Market| ©Jamie Heath
Piazza Navona Christmas Market| ©Jamie Heath

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 of toys, handmade crafts, roasted chestnuts and typical sweets. The square also hosts 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, whose profits go to charitable causes, with stalls of fair trade products and antiques.

To not 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 can not miss.

Book a tour of Rome

2. Explore the Vatican and receive the urbi et orbi of the Pope in person

Aerial view Urbi et Orbi Blessing| ©Michael Beat
Aerial view Urbi et Orbi Blessing| ©Michael Beat

Regardless of your beliefs, if you visit Rome at Christmas time, attending the Pope's message at the Vatican is a beautiful and peace-filled 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 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 get 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.

Book skip the line tickets to the Vatican

3. Enjoy the lights of the city aboard the tourist bus

Christmas lights| ©AHLN
Christmas lights| ©AHLN

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 the 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.

The city's monuments and main buildings are where the Christmas lighting really shines: those of the Vatican or Santa Maria Maggiore are some of the ones that impressed me the most during my visit.

The Christmas lights season officially starts on December 8 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 bus tour to comfortably travel around the city contemplating the special Christmas lighting. If you fancy the plan, you can check which are the best tourist buses in Rome.

Book your seat on the Rome sightseeing bus

4. Attend the mass in the Pantheon

View of the Pantheon| ©Benjamín Mejías Valencia
View of the Pantheon| ©Benjamín Mejías Valencia

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 being there at 11 pm 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.

In general, 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 the Pantheon in Rome.

Book a guided tour of the Pantheon

5. Taste the traditional Christmas menu in Rome

Roman restaurant at Christmas| ©Marco Verch
Roman restaurant at Christmas| ©Marco Verch

In Rome on Christmas Eve, dinner is traditionally eaten before midnight mass, typically known as the 'Feast of the Seven Fishes': 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 to book on Christmas Eve, albeit for a somewhat steep price, 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. 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 a gastronomic tour of Rome. 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.

Book a gastronomic tour of Rome

6. Take a picture at the Colosseum Christmas tree and visit the arena.

Colosseum Christmas tree| ©Images George Rex
Colosseum Christmas tree| ©Images George Rex

The Christmas trees that are placed next to monuments and important buildings 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 photo with the Colosseum in the background.

And while you're here, you can't miss the Colosseum inside and this will automatically become the top 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. 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.

Book a guided tour of the Colosseum

7. Admire the nativity scenes in Rome's churches

St. Peter's Nativity Scene at the Vatican| ©jennicatpink
St. Peter's Nativity Scene at the Vatican| ©jennicatpink

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 in the rest of the towns and cities these elements were replaced by figurines, initially created by hand.

In Rome the tradition is celebrated in a big way 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.

Book a guided tour of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore

8. Go to a Christmas concert

Christmas concert| ©Steven Lozano
Christmas concert| ©Steven Lozano

Listening to classical music at Christmas is a tradition for many families. Especially in Spain, you've probably seen the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's New Year's Eve 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.

The Auditorium of the Conciliazione, near the Vatican, has a schedule of Christmas concerts, and in Piazza Navona there are often concerts by choirs that you can find impromptu.

Book tickets for an opera concert in Rome

9. Lose yourself in the Borghese Gallery to take shelter from the December cold

Facade of the Borghese Gallery| ©Leon Reed
Facade of the Borghese Gallery| ©Leon Reed

The Borghese Gallery is undoubtedly one of the things to do and see 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.

Book a guided tour of the Borghese Gallery

10. Taste the typical Christmas sweets

Panetone| ©N i c o l a
Panetone| ©N i c o l a

Do you have a sweet tooth? Then you've chosen the right place to spend Christmas. Here you have a string of delicacies to try:

  • The pandoro, a star-shaped sweet bread sprinkled with powdered sugar, usually taken 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.
  • Panpepato, similar to panforte but with a stronger ginger flavor.

While strolling 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 Trastevere that will bring you closer to the most original flavors of the city by the hand of an expert and you can also try the gastronomic tour and wine tasting in the Vatican.

Book a gastronomic tour and wine tasting in Vatican City

11. Go ice skating on an iconic monument of Rome

Skating in Rome| ©Jacqueline Poggi
Skating in Rome| ©Jacqueline Poggi

Although temperatures in Rome rarely get cold enough to see snow at Christmas, there are ice rinks all over the city where you can enjoy a traditional way to spend the afternoon.

The ice rink I found most beautiful was 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 Castle itself inside (which I recommend 100%) I leave you 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.

Book tickets for Castel Sant'Angelo