It may not be as popular as the high summer months, but Christmas is a fantastic time to visit Rome. Most people take the period from Christmas to the New Year off work, with a few days thrown in on either side, so the streets and restaurants come alive with locals enjoying the company of friends and family or shopping for last minute presents. Then there are the celebrations – lively markets, outdoor ice rinks, nativity scenes, choir performances and religious parades. What's not to love in a Christmas in Rome?
Well, there are a few things not to like. For one – museum Christmas opening times. A lot of Rome’s museums and attractions are closed for some or all of the festive season. Major sights like the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum will be closed on Christmas day (December 25th) and New Year’s Eve. (December 31st) But open every other day. The Vatican Museums will be closed December 8th, 25th, and 26th, with early closing on December 31st. The other museums are a little all over the place with their opening times, and you’ll have to check individually for any off-the-beaten-track spots you want to visit. Just to be on the safe side, take it as a given that everything closes Christmas day and New Year’s Eve and tread carefully on the days in between. The Maxxi Museum, for example, will be closed Christmas and December 27th with limited a later opening time of 11 am on December 24th, 26th, and 31st. Then the Capitoline Museums are closed December 24th, 25th and 31st with early closing on December 24th. Some smaller museums will close for a lot of this period.
But that’s enough negativity – it’s Christmas! And who needs museums when you can have the streets of Rome? One of the highlights of any Christmas trip to Rome has to be the city’s Christmas markets, especially the one in Piazza Navona. In the weeks coming up to Christmas, stallholders brave the moderate Rome winter (usually around 10 degrees Celsius) to bring you bountiful displays of Christmas food, crafts, tree decorations, gifts and all manner of pretty trinkets. Street performers play carols, and the whole square is lit up like, well like a Christmas tree.
And speaking of lit up like a Christmas tree, Rome’s shopping streets are something to behold with their cobbled streets alight. Via dei Condotti, Rome’s principal shopping street is a highlight, but you’ll find Christmas lights strung up around streets and piazzas all over the city so bring a coat and an umbrella. December is not the wettest month of the year in Rome but if you’re staying a few days chances are you’ll see some rain at some point; take a few hours just to wander around and soak up the atmosphere.
Of course, this blog post wouldn’t be complete without some reference to Christmas in the Vatican City. Where better to celebrate a Catholic holiday than at the home of the Catholic Church? Christmas in the Vatican will remind you what Christmas is really about – fewer presents under the Christmas tree and more nativity scenes and masses.
Visiting St. Peter’s Square is a must for any visitors spending Christmas in Rome. During December the square is home to a massive Christmas tree and a fantastic manger. The main events, however, are the midnight mass on Christmas Eve which is said in St. Peter’s Basilica by the Pope and broadcasted to a whopper crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square and the hotly anticipated Pope's Christmas address given from his balcony every year at 12 pm. If you plan on attending either event, you should email the Vatican directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to request tickets. Even then our advice is to arrive early and bring a flask of coffee; good spots are always in high demand.
Churches around Rome will be going all out for the Christmas season too. The nativity in Santa Maria Maggiore is a 13th-century work of beauty, and although it is displayed year-round below the basilica, it’s best to visit it when it’s most relevant. Then there is the statue in Santo Bambino, a replica of the original which was said to have painted itself but which was stolen from the church (tut tut!). Every year the statue is pulled out and put into the church on Christmas Eve, where it stays until The Epiphany on January 6th when it’s the center-point of a very lively parade that’s well worth attending. Keep an ear out as you wander around too – a lot of churches will have regular carol services, some in Latin, during the Christmas season and they’re a real treat.
So, the moral of the story is this – Christmas in Rome is a fantastic time to visit because it lands you in a city entirely different for the summer-time, museum trek, tourist-heavy version. There are some down points but you will always find a restaurant open for dinner (even on Christmas Day), and your hotel should know which. Plus once it hits 5 pm the streets come alive as Italian families pour into the streets and piazzas of their city, full of rice and wine and Christmas cheer. Bring a coat, check that your hotel has heating, buy an umbrella when you get here and enjoy.
For an extra-special, extra-sociable Christmas Day why not consider the unique Christmas Day version of our Best of Rome walking tour, taking in a lot of the aforementioned Christmas sights – from the market in Piazza Navona to streets strung up with Christmas lights and St. Peter’s Square. Hear about all the traditions and superstitions that make Christmas in Italy unique, including the tale of the mysterious Christmas Witch. For more details see here.
Recommended tours for Christmas in Rome
The Roman Catacombs are surprisingly cozy during cold weather, not to mention an incredible visit. Our Crypts & Catacombs Tour visits the passages of the Roman Catacombs, Basilica San Clemente and the (some say creepy) Capuchin ‘Bone Chapel’. And with bus transfers included you won't even have to brave the weather.
The Borghese Gallery & Gardens is a great place to visit during quieter times of the year since it's busy year-round. Explore artworks by Bernini, Caravaggio and Canova and the beautiful Borghese gardens.
The Vatican is an excellent bet for lousy weather and particularly atmospheric around the Christmas period. Check out our full listing of Vatican tours.