Christmas in Italy is all about the light shows, religious traditions, and decadent shopping. The Eternal City is the best city to experience that Italian festive flare. After all, Rome is an important city to the Christian faith, so Christmas is an iconic time to visit the city. If you want to “do as the Romans do,” we’ve listed everything you need to know about spending Christmas in Rome.
Pro Tip: Planning a holiday trip to Rome? Bookmark this post in a “Rome Christmas” folder so you can easily find it. See our comprehensive guide to Rome for more planning resources and our curated list of Rome Christmas tours for a memorable trip. We also have a great post about spending Christmas in Florence if you’re heading there too!
How To Spend Christmas in Rome
Rome is an important city to the Christian faith, so it makes sense that you’d be interested in spending this special time of the year in the Italian capital. Rome is a breathtakingly beautiful city to visit at any time of year, and Christmas in Rome has a particular magical element that puts the city on a whole new level.
The Eternal City becomes a charming haven with streets lined with lights and decorations adorning all the top sites. Restaurants are decked out and filled with locals looking to get into the festive mood. Nativity scenes and Christmas trees can be found throughout the city too.
You may, however, be wondering what there is to do at Christmas in Rome and how best to enjoy it. In this guide, find out everything you need to know about how to spend a wonderful Christmas in Rome. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Planning ahead for Christmas in Rome
- What is Rome like at Christmas?
- Worship events on Christmas Eve
- Nativity scenes
- Christmas markets
- Christmas concerts
- Traditional Christmas food in Rome
- Things to do on New Year’s Eve
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Planning Ahead for Christmas in Rome
Here’s an important tip upfront: If you’re planning on spending Christmas in Rome, book everything in advance! Christmas through New Year’s is the high season. Everything is open and everything books up months in advance. From December 24th until January 5th, you’re looking at the same number of visitors as the summer, so be prepared for high season rates and book ahead.
If you’re planning to eat out at special places or want an authentic Roman cuisine experience in the top places to eat, check out our list of the best restaurants in Rome by attraction and reserve in advance.
Hotels and Accommodation
Expect to pay the same rates as the high summer season in Rome and definitely book in advance. If you’re shopping for a particular room type or adjoining rooms, consider booking three or more months out. For more information on the best hotels and where to stay, take a look at our articles on Rome accommodations:
- Where to stay in Rome by neighborhood
- Best hotels in Rome
- Best family-friendly hotels in Rome
- Rome hotels with rooftop terraces and bars
Tours and Activities
Similar to hotels and restaurants, the best tours at Christmas sell out quickly. You’re definitely going to want to visit at least the Colosseum and the Vatican while you’re in Rome.
Not only will visiting with a guide elevate your experience and make it much more memorable, but you’ll also get skip-the-line access to most attractions that generally have very long lines to get in.
It’s worth considering because standing in long queues in winter is not going to be particularly fun. Explore our curated list of holiday Vatican and Colosseum tours as well as the rest of our Rome tours—we have options to suit different travelers and schedules.
Not ready to book a tour? Check out our best Rome tours to take and why.
What Is Rome Like at Christmas?
The week leading up to Christmas will be quieter with fewer tourists in town. I would say things really start picking up from December 26th through the New Year. This makes sense because many tourists will enjoy Christmas with their families in their hometowns throughout the world and then venture to the Eternal City for the New Year.
So, surprisingly for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you won’t find nearly as many people as you’ll see just a few days later. From the 26th, the crowds really start to pick up and, of course, culminate over New Year’s.
The ambiance in Rome is magical though. You’ll find lit-up Christmas trees throughout the main piazzas, Christmas markets, and beautiful nativities or presepi on display. The weather is also milder than you think, though you’ll definitely need a jacket.
Worship Events on Christmas Eve in Rome
Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican is the most popular place for worship. If you’d like to book a seat inside St. Peter’s Basilica, you must book far in advance. These tickets are very hard to come by. However, you’ll get to sit (or stand) with people from all over the world coming together to watch the pope.
You can also return to St. Peter’s on Christmas day at noon when the pope gives his Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi speech and blesses the crowd. He only does this on Christmas and Easter, so expect large crowds. Looking for fewer people? Head to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the oldest churches in Rome.
A giant Christmas tree accompanies the huge nativity scene in front of St Peter’s. Both are in the middle of St. Peter’s Square and are available for public viewing without security. To see the tree light up, get to St. Peter’s Square before sunset to secure a viewing spot. The tree is illuminated shortly after sunset.
Nativity Scenes (Presepi)
Few things describe Italy at Christmas better than nativity scenes or presepi. It’s said that in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene, and since then, the tradition has remained strong. St Francis was a medieval monk who was a humanist, environmentalist, and master teacher of Bible lessons. Since most of the population was illiterate during this time, he was permitted by the Pope to physically build the story of the birth of Jesus with clever props.
St. Francis included the elements from all of the gospel stories and used live animals to build his manger in a cave about 100 km north of Rome. This creative storytelling helped local people connect with the story of the Nativity and the Christmas message in a vivid way. Even miracles were associated with the first manger scene built by St Francis.
To better understand the birth of Christ, the manger is in an area local Italians would recognize rather than traditional Bethlehem. Some 800 years later, these teaching tools about the first Christmas can be seen all over Rome. They are often placed in local villages or piazzas in Italy, just as St. Francis did.
You’ll see presepi in every church around the holidays, as well as most shop and bakery window displays. For an impressive, life-size display, head to St. Peter’s Square next to the Christmas tree.
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Via del Corso is fun to see for the never-ending Christmas lights, but there’s more to explore! Streets vendors will line the busy squares, like Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori, where you can buy unique handcrafted gifts.
One of the most popular Christmas Markets in Rome is in the iconic Piazza Navona. It’s also known as the Befana Christmas Market and opens the first week of December and ends January 6. It’s not as full of vendors as it used to be, but you can still find treats and treasures.
Other Markets to check out are in the Borghese Gardens and Campo Dei Fiori. The Mercato Monti is another great market that Romans flock to around the holidays. If you’re looking for a special event, head to Wave Market at Lanificio. Think vintage and handcrafted accessories, jewelry, clothes, and even funky and trendy home decor.
Streets vendors will line the busy squares, and the best place to keep yourself warm is next to the guy roasting chestnuts. The festive surroundings, aroma, and popping sound of the chestnuts mean that Christmas is around the corner.
Christmas Concerts and Lights
Listening to classical music by local musicians in some of the most beautiful churches in the world is an unforgettable experience to have in Rome at Christmas. The main churches that put on concerts every year are Chiesa di Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi, Santa Maria ai Monti, and Sant’Ignazio.
Check out the Conciliazione Auditorium near the Vatican for their schedule of holiday concerts. It’s not uncommon for school groups or adult choirs to casually gather in Piazza Navona. You may not find signs or schedules, but while wandering around the city, you’re bound to stumble upon a surprise concert!
And after your concert, be sure to stroll through the city’s top streets for amazing light displays. The theme this year for the holiday lights along Via Del Corso is Hope. The beautiful light display stretches from Piazza Venezia down to Piazza del Popolo, the entire length of Via Del Corso.
A good walking route to get into the holiday spirit is to start in Piazza Venezia to check out their giant Christmas tree, then head down Via del Corso to the Christmas Market in Piazza del Popolo. If you can’t make it all the way down to Piazza del Popolo, you can always turn up Via Condotti, where you can end at the Spanish Steps where a small Christmas market is sometimes located.
Traditional Christmas Food in Rome
It’s not difficult to find local Roman hotspots offering special menus around the holiday season. There’s a misconception around town that everything shuts down at Christmas. That’s actually false!
Skip the tourist traps and go for one of these locally approved restaurants in Rome that serve traditional Roman food. The different traditional Italian Christmas foods vary depending on the day of the celebrations. Christmas Eve is all about the fish in Italy, while Christmas Day traditionally starts with a tortellini soup followed by meat.
Other dishes are also worth trying for an authentic flavor. Broccolini is everywhere in Rome during the winter and very difficult to find outside of the season. Puntarelle is my favorite Roman vegetable dish and only seasonal. It is chicory, typically sliced thin, dressed like a salad with olive oil and vinegar, and topped with anchovies.
Panetone is ubiquitous all over Italy at Christmas, and you will find towers of boxed Panetone in every grocery store in Rome. The soft round Italian fruitcake is always a perennial favorite.
I Pizzicaroli offers a fondunta (Italian fondue) made of cheese from northern Italy. Trust me, this warm, cheesy goodness hits the spot on a cold winter day in Rome.
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Things To Do in Rome on New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve Celebrations
If you extend your vacation to New Year’s Eve, Rome won’t disappoint in terms of entertainment! The tradition in Italy is to have a special New Year’s dinner called cenone. For this reason, many restaurants will offer special menus and rates. It’s best to call and book your favorite culinary experience in advance.
After dinner and some drinks, Romans usually go out to watch fireworks at midnight. The main city-sponsored public event on New Year’s Eve will be a show at Circus Maximus starting at 9:30 pm. The Catalan dance company “La Fura dels Baus” will perform dance and circus shows. After midnight, welcome the new year with a live DJ set.
New Year’s Day Activities
January 1st is a Catholic holiday called Solemnity of Mary. On this day, you can attend the Angelus at noon in St. Peter’s Square. Most shops, restaurants, and sites will be closed on New Year’s Day. However, there are some musical performances that you’ll be able to attend.
Check out the official Rome tourism site for the most up-to-date information for your New Year’s Eve plans.