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Whether your idea of a good Christmas break is ice-skating under the watchful eye of an ancient castle, sharing midnight mass with the Pope, or simply eating and drinking too much, Rome is the perfect place to indulge and celebrate. So just how should you spend the festive season in Italy’s Eternal City?
The Christmas toy market at Piazza Navona
Along with the usual array of portrait painters, mime artists and peddlers that gather around Piazza Navona at any time of year, come winter you’ll find the Christmas market set up on the square. The famous Piazza is transformed into a child’s paradise with brightly colored wooden toys on display, a traditional carousel, and hot roast chestnut stalls. Look out for Befana the witch, who brings gifts to Italian children on January 6 (Epiphany and Befana’s Feast day).
Attend the Midnight Mass in the Vatican
Every Christmas morning at the stroke of midnight, the Pope delivers his Christmas Mass. Tickets for the mass in St. Peter’s Basilica are free, but must be booked in advance. Visit the Vatican website for information on the mass timetable, which also includes carol services. For those who don’t have tickets, the service is broadcast live on large screens in St. Peter’s Square.
Ice skating by Castel St. Angelo on the banks of the River Tiber
Situated in one of Rome’s most beautiful settings, the Christmas ice rink under the shadow of Castel St. Angelo looks toward St. Peter’s Basilica. What could be more romantic? To get there, take either the Metro to “Lepanto,” or, better yet, take one of the many buses (such as the 30 Express or the 87) to Piazza Cavour.
Nativity scene hunting
Pop your head into any church during December and you’re guaranteed to see traditional nativity scenes on display. From the animals in the stable to the figures bearing gifts to the baby Jesus, these ancient displays are rich in detail and tradition. Don’t miss the huge one in St. Peter’s Square: Each year it has a different theme. Constructed behind curtains over the course of several weeks, it is finally unveiled in mid-December and stays on view for most of January.
Panettone and Torrone
Panettone is the traditional Christmas cake that is given to friends and relatives. Traditionally filled with candied peel, you can now find many other varieties in beautifully wrapped Christmas paper tied with ribbon. For a smaller gift, look out for the torrone, oblong chocolate bars in gift wrapping usually filled with nuts or nougat.
New Year’s Eve
Two of the main gathering places for the adult revelers are Piazza Navona and Piazza del Popolo. Many people also line the banks of the river with glasses of champagne to watch the fireworks. Try to avoid partaking in the other traditional festivity of wading drunkenly into the Trevi Fountain. It is illegal and you may find you start the New Year behind bars, instead of being in front of one.
Transportation during the holidays
Mainline and local services do operate throughout Christmas, but with a very limited service on national holidays (see below). There is a free “shopping bus” that runs between Termini and Via Del Corso during December, but you are better advised to walk than use the public transport. During this period, buses and metros are filled with at least double the capacity of intended passengers, complete with bulky purchases. Visit the Roman transit site for more information.
What’s closed when
Shops are open every day (including Sunday) during the holiday period, except for December 25 and January 1. (Note that Rome’s January sales do not start on the first weekend in January.) Most museums and attractions are closed December 25 and January 1, but are open the rest of the time. (Check online first.) Restaurants generally remain open throughout the holiday period.
Also note that in addition to Christmas and New Year’s, Italians celebrate Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and St. Stephen’s Day on December 26. However, most shops, restaurants, and attractions remain open on these days.