Spending The Winter Holidays In Rome
Christmas as we know it was created in Rome. As home to the Vatican, the smallest sovereign state in the world, Rome assumes pride of place at the global table of Christmas festivities – starting on December 8th, the Day of the Immaculate Conception, and concluding on January 6th, the Epiphany. But in shaping our Christmas traditions, the Eternal City’s pagan past holds equal weight. For it was here, in the crucible of today’s metropolitan husk of the once great empire, that pagan and Christian traditions forged to form our modern concept of Christmas.
The ancient Romans didn’t celebrate Christmas. Instead, from December 17th through to December 23rd they celebrated the Saturnalia – a festival held in honour of the god Saturn. The ancients commenced the Saturnalia by performing a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forumbefore taking part in public banquets designed to subvert the rigid social hierarchy and temporarily defy social conventions.
During the Saturnalia masters laid banquet tables for their slaves, the city morphed into scenes of carnivalic celebrations, and everyone participating exchanged small gifts – a tradition which has since infused today’s Christmas traditions. The first century AD poet Catullus once called the Saturnalia, optimo dierum – “the best of days.” It’s fair to say that Christmas in the Eternal City still fits the bill.
At Christmas, the frenetic capital comes momentarily to a stop, as most businesses close down and most Romans retreat to spend the day with their family. It’s not on Christmas Day but on the morning of the Epiphany that children traditionally receive their presents, delivered to them by not by Saint Nicholas but by Befana – an ugly yet benevolent witch. But aside from the gift giving (which in recent years has shifted back to Christmas Day), most Italian Christmas traditions are now almost identical to ours.
The winter might see Rome grow increasingly lethargic, but not everything slows to a halt around Christmas. Rome was, is, and always will be a fully functioning metropolis, and the Italian capital is crammed full of things to do during the winter holidays. Let us at Roman Candle Tours tale you through some of recommendations.
Spend Christmas in the Vatican City
Situated at the spiritual and physical heart of the sovereign Vatican City, Saint Peter’s Basilica embodies the epicentre of the Catholic faith and so serves as the congregational point upon which the Christmas masses gather. On Christmas Eve, the ancient basilica serves as the scene of one of the most mystical midnight masses in the western world, viewable from within the basilica itself or from one of the giant projector screens in the piazza outside.
Saint Peter’s Basilica might have a capacity of 15,000, but because the Midnight Mass service is so popular anyone hoping to attend must reserve their tickets in advance. Doing so is free. The only hassle is the process of ordering and collecting them (which involves downloading this application form and then faxing – yes faxing – it back to the Papal Prefecture).
On Christmas Day, the Pope delivers his urbi et orbi blessing – to the city and to the world – from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Whatever your faith or creed, joining the crowds in Saint Peter’s Square is a memorable and remarkably soul stirring experience. Just be aware that with another enormous Christmas tree occupying space on the right of Caligula’s Obelisk, getting the best view might prove difficult.
The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are closed on the December 25th and 26th and January 1st and 6th. Visit any other time, though, and you’ll see that with the capital’s diminished crowds during the winter months, this is by far the best time to see the Vatican. To do this, we recommend taking our private Vatican City tour, which covers the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Even if you set a day aside, the Vatican’s collection is mind-blowingly vast. The miniature sovereign state boasts the world’s richest, most exhausting collection of art anywhere in Europe, maybe even the world. If you spent a mere minute looking at each item in the Vatican Museum’s collection, it would take you four years. So as seeing everything is neither feasible nor possible, depending on the depth of coverage you want you’re best off choosing between the highlights we’ve handpicked for our three-hour touror five-hour in depth tour.
Roam through the winter city
While stunning all year round, Rome takes on new lease of life around Christmas. The city sees the advent of its nativity scenes, including the world’s oldest permanent nativity at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere and the beautiful wood-carved collection at Saints Cosma and Damiano above the Roman Forum.
Ornately illuminated Christmas trees spring up in several locations around the city: near the Colosseum, on the Capitoline Hill, and in Saint Peter’s Square. But Rome’s seasonal centrepiece is the Christmas tree in the centre of Piazza Venezia.
The city authorities do, admittedly, have some making up to do after the lacklustre effort of last year’s tree. Residents dubbed Piazza Venezia’s previous tree Lo Spelacchio (the plucked one) or “The Toilet Brush”, on account of its sparse and traumatised appearance. Quite the sorry sight, the tree attracted no shortage of mockery and derision from around the world too; some seeing it as emblematic of the Italian capital’s broader socio-economic decline.
Thankfully, this year’s incarnation already promises to be more encouraging. This is in no small part due to the tree’s powerful financial backing: the €376,000 transportation and decoration cost of this year’s Norwegian Spruce has been paid for by none other than Netflix (at the expense of being able to release a rather cutting viral video joke).
While seeking out specific landmarks – like the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and other monuments made famous as iconic movie sets, meandering Rome’s well-beaten streets without purpose and letting its ancient arches, columns and temple remains surprise you at every turn is a pleasure in itself. Not just during the peace and solitary quiet of the solstice, but whichever time of year.
Indulge in some winter shopping in Rome
Italian luxury brands, many of which have become household names, furnish many shop windows in Rome’s city centre, catching your eye as you wander along the illuminated boulevards that stretch west from the Spanish Steps to the Campus Martius. The Via Nazionale, which runs north from Piazza Venezia to Piazza della Repubblica, is the most popular and well-served high street, as is the chic and fashionable area around the Spanish Steps.
Just a quick caveat when it comes to winter shopping in Rome: while many of our western Anglophonic countries have embraced the tradition of the Boxing Day sales, Italy is still reluctant to allow the sales to steal time away from family time and feasting. The Italian government only permits sales twice a year: once during summer and once during the first week of January. So if you’re searching for a bargain, choose your timing carefully.
Visit one of Rome’s Christmas markets
Piazza Navona has long been home to Rome’s largest Christmas market. This year’s Christmas market features 48 stands, offering everything from handmade Christmas gifts, roasted chestnuts, festive food and warming mulled wine. Elsewhere in the stunning renaissance piazza you’ll find street performers, craftsmen and portraitists adding to the festive energy.
The Christmas market at Piazza Navona runs from December 5th through to the 8th and is open from 10am until 1am during the week and 2am at the weekend. If morning markets are more your thing, make a point of visiting the famous fresh food and vegetable market of Campo dei Fiori. Though open all year round, this market is extra special around the festive season, not least because of the ample sampling opportunity it grants its punters.
If you’re looking for something a little more vintage, why not head to Urban Market – an eclectic clothing and souvenir in the trendy, upcoming neighbourhood of Monti. Monti’s market is open every weekend of the year from 10am – 8pm. During December, however, the market spans two extra floors to accommodate young, local artisan talents and the magnetic interest they attract.
Check out the Christmas village at the Auditorium
Not far from the Flaminia metro line, the Auditorium Parco della Musica is one of the main orchestral and modern music venues in Rome. While its events calendar runs throughout the year, in late December it doubles up as a winter wonderland. The Auditorium’s annual Christmas village, whose main fare is antique stalls, charity sales, and fair trade products, offers an enticing opportunity to shop, sample, and even ice-skate an afternoon away in the Italian capital.
Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Rome
Rome comfortably rivals the world’s other major capitals in its capacity to put on an unforgettable New Year’s Eve spectacle. The historic centre of course lends itself to this, with vast public spaces like the Circus Maximus and Piazza Navona boasting centuries, if not millennia, of spectacle and celebratory continuity. Then there are Rome’s Seven Hills, which still serve the Eternal City not as strategically situated settlements from which to found a flourishing empire, but as panoramic vantage points for the city’s New Year’s fireworks celebrations.
The Janiculum Hill in Trastevere offers one of the best panoramas over the city as a whole, but it’s not alone. The Capitol Hill right in the centre, Villa Borghese on the historic centre’s northern outskirts, and the Oppian Hill overlooking the Colosseum also offers incredible views.
Unfortunately, the city’s authorities don’t publish details of the New Year celebrations until the very last moment. But if last year is anything to go by, the Circus Maximus is the most likely candidate for concerts, fireworks and other spectacles.
If you’re still not entertained (Are you not entertained!?), you can keep going into the late hours of January 1st in one of the bars and clubs of the the Testaccio neighbourhood: home to the city’s most vibrant nightlife. Just remember – what you do this night echoes in eternity.
Take a day trip back in time
While winter is one of the best times to visit the Eternal City, to some the vast built-up metropolis can still seem overwhelming. If this is the case, why not take advantage of the lack of crowds in the region by taking a day trip to one of Rome’s nearby sites.
One of the most popular destinations, easily accessible by train, is Ostia Antica. Ostia is to Rome what Pompeii is to Naples: an almost perfectly preserved settlement, seemingly frozen in time and resplendent with ancient houses, temples, an amphitheatre and stunning original floor mosaics. The first time I went to Ostia was back in January 2015, and for the half day I was there I had the place practically to myself. It’s best to check the weather forecast before you go though; the former port town offers next to no cover.
Another popular destination – slightly smaller if not infinitely more imperious than Ostia – is Hadrian’s magnificent palace at Tivoli. While Tivoli is an absolute must-see, getting there from Rome is slightly more arduous. That’s why we recommend taking our guided 7-tour, which includes a private driver and coverage of the imperial palace and Gardens of Villa d’Este.
Spending winter in Rome with Roman Candle Tours
We hope our three-part series on spending the winter holidays in Italy (Venice, Florence and Rome) has given you some inspiration for your upcoming winter trip to Rome. For more ideas, check out our range of tours on the website or visit our blogs, which deep dive into juicy info about Italy, Rome, Florence, Venice and Italian Food and Wine.
When you next find yourself in the bel paese, we at Roman Candle Tours would love to hear from you. Operating across the country, our team of tour-guiding experts are here to share with you the best Italy has to offer as we guide you through its unique and enchanting cities. And if there’s something you’re dying to see but can’t find on our website, get in touch and we can see about organising a tailored tourof whatever Italian interest tickles your fancy.
If you liked this article, also read “Reasons To Visit Rome In The Fall”