By Nicole Arriaga in Rome—
With Christmas fast approaching, Romans are getting into gear spreading the holiday cheer. While you won’t see any street-corner Santas in Rome, that doesn’t mean Mamma Roma is a Grinch. The city has a long list of festive holiday activities, and almost all are free!
Here’s a quick overview of how to get into the Christmas spirit in Rome:
Christmas trees and lights in Rome
Piazza Venezia and St. Peter’s Square
There are several colossal Christmas trees on display in and around the historical center. The most traditional ones lie in St. Peter’s Squareand at Piazza Venezia. Both are definitely worth “oohing and aahhing” over.
The Christmas tree put up in Piazza Venezia earlier this year was apparently not to the mayor’s liking and was immediately taken down the same night. It wasn’t your traditional evergreen Christmas tree, rather a life-sized white paper cone. It has since been replaced by a more traditional tree, which should be decorated and lit by mid-December.
The inauguration and lighting of the tree in St. Peter’s Square will take place on December 16, 2011.
Colosseum and Via dei Condotti
Some other nice Christmas trees can be found near the Colosseum and at the beginning of Via dei Condotti (Rome’s “Rodeo Drive”).
The tree on Via dei Condotti is certainly fitting for its luxurious location, as it’s decorated with Mercedes Benz ornaments and, rather than a star, is topped with the luxury car’s trademark emblem. Along the Via dei Condotti stunningly-lit chandelier ornaments dangle and impress. And of course, you shouldn’t miss the flashy golden belt that illuminates the Fendi fashion house just across the way.
Nativity Scenes in Rome
Nativity Scene at St. Peter’s Square
The nativity scene at St. Peter’s Square is one of the prettiest things to visit at Christmastime in Rome. The gigantic presepe (nativity scene) is staged inside the square and is open both day and night.
The official unveiling of the nativity scene will take place on December 24, 2011. This year’s event will be extra special as it marks the 30th anniversary that Christmas is celebrated at the Vatican. Also this year, the presepe is being dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
100 Presepi Exhibit
If you like viewing nativity scenes, almost every church in Rome will have their own nativity scene on display. Go crazy!
Otherwise, if you wanted to see a comprehensive display all in one shot, head over to the “100 Presepi” exhibition at the Sala del Bramante (Piazza del Popolo, 1). For €7, you can see over 100 nativity scenes from around Italy and all over the world. The exhibit will be up through January 8, 2012.
Christmas for the kids
Galleria Porta di Roma
Of course, there are plenty of fun, family-friendly things to do in Rome during the holidays. If you’re interested in shopping, take the whole family over to the second-largest mall in Rome, the Galleria Porta di Roma. During the weekends the mall holds workshops for kids (six and under) to create ornaments and make Christmas cards from recycled items. They can even star in their own mini-movie.
Just outside the mall, near Ikea, there’s an ice-skating rink and a carousel for the kids to enjoy.
Christmas Village Ice Park at Tor di Quinto
Through January 10, 2012, parents can take their kids to the Christmas village near Rome’s Olympic stadium on Via Tor di Quinto. The village hosts a traditional Christmas market which sells all sorts of toys, ornaments and decorations. There’s also a great ice rink for kids, open daily from 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Christmas market at Piazza Navona
The Christmas market in Piazza Navona is the most famous in Rome and is fun for all ages. While the kids occupy themselves on the carousel or with the carnival games, parents can pick up some truly unique gifts, such as a “La Befana” (Christmas witch) ornament.
La Befana is celebrated on January 6th when Italians typically give gifts to their children. According to tradition, La Befana, a witch on a broomstick, delivers presents to children. However, if the children have been naughty, instead of receiving gifts, they’ll get a lump of carbone (coal). For this reason, around the holidays, you’ll see pastry shops selling tasty confections shaped like witches with caldrons of coal-shaped candy.
Also in our guide: Heading to Rome this Christmas — or any other time? Be sure to check out our editors’ reviews of the city’s best cheap sleeps. Our editors have visited, inspected and photographed budget hotels all over central Rome and offer their recommendations for the best values. Read more in our Rome guide.