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TRAVEL: How to make the most of a Christmas break in Rome

The Local Italy
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TRAVEL: How to make the most of a Christmas break in Rome
What can you do in Rome over Christmas? Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Spending the Christmas holidays in Rome this year? Here are some of the best festive foods, drinks, events and displays the city has to offer.


Rome is a popular Christmas destination among international tourists, and with good reason.

But before we get started on all the fun things to see and do (and eat), it's worth setting expectations if it's your first winter holiday in the Eternal City.

You won't find a snowclad winter wonderland. While it does very occasionally snow in Rome, it's an extremely rare event that in any case doesn't tend to occur before January.

Daytime temperatures in December hover around 10-14C and rarely dip below freezing; expect grey clouds and possible rain, but not frost.

You won't find amazing Christmas markets; while Rome does have a few, they're nothing to rival those of northern Europe. They're fairly small, and you won't find much in the way of Christmas treats or mulled wine at most of them.

You also probably won't find a Christmas fair you love. The big ones in Rome tend to be ticketed and fairly expensive, and visitors often report being underwhelmed.

With those caveats out of the way, here's what you can look forward to when spending Christmas in Rome.

Botanical gardens light display

If you're seeking some Christmas charm, look no further than the colourful light show in Rome's botanical gardens in the central Trastevere district.

The Trame di luce ('textures of light') display runs from 5pm-11pm most days of the week (excluding Dec 24th, 25th and 31st) until January 7th, with last entry at 9.30pm.


Features this year include a 'light cathedral' and an atmospheric smoke-filled forest; the trail is 1.5km long and takes an estimated 90 minutes to complete. Tickets are available here.

Open-air Christmas decorations

To enjoy some of the most beautiful Christmas displays in Rome, you don't need to pay a centesimo.

The presepe (nativity scene) in St Peter's square is life-sized; this year's display is a tribute to the first nativity scene said to have been commissioned by St. Francis of Assisi 800 years ago.

READ ALSO: Italy's Christmas markets: Where and when to visit in 2023

Outside St. Peter's you'll also find the sixth edition of the Vatican's '100 presepi' exhibition, which sees 100 nativity scenes from around the world displayed among the piazza's colonnades.

The Vatican's Christmas tree is one of the city's most impressive, and this year Dior have sponsored a dazzling white-and-gold tree on the Spanish Steps.

The traditional Christmas tree in centre Piazza Venezia has been moved to Piazza del Popolo due major works for the Metro C tube station.

The 2021 presepe nativity display at the Vatican. The 2021 nativity scene and Christmas tree at St. Peters. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

To stroll under a tunnel of Christmas lights, walk from Piazza Venezia down the Via del Corso or Via dei Condotti, Rome's major intersecting shopping streets, towards the Spanish Steps; less central areas including in the Cinecittà neighbourhood, Nuovo Salario, Ostia and Colle Prenestino will also be illuminated this year.


And if you want to see the world's oldest presepe, head to Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica; the nativity scene displayed year-round here dates back to the 13th century, when it was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV.


Rome's temperatures rarely reach freezing in the winter, but that doesn't mean fans of the ice won't find an opportunity to get their skates on.

This year's ice rink by EUR lake south of Rome is being billed as the largest in the area, at 8,500 sqm.

Smaller ice rinks in Foro Italico, located between the Olympic stadium and Ponte Milvio, as well as Piazza Re di Roma in the San Giovanni/Tuscolana neighbourhood, Largo Beltramelli in Tiburtina, and Tor Bella Monaca, as part of the Ice Park Roma initiative.

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about


Those buying tickets to 'Christmas World', the Christmas fair in the sprawling Villa Borghese park by Piazza del Popolo, will find a rink there.

One of the most traditionally scenic spots is 'Grinzing Village' right by Castel Sant'Angelo. Unfortunately this one hasn't opened for the last few years, but check back in future for its return.

Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo by the River Tiber has in previous years served as the backdrop for an ice-skating rink. Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo by the River Tiber has in previous years served as the backdrop for an ice-skating rink. Photo by Rainhard Wiesinger on Unsplash

Mass at St. Peters or the pantheon

A major draw for many people visiting Rome over Christmas is the opportunity to attend mass at the Vatican and hear the pope speak.

However attending a papal mass at Christmas requires significant advance planning.

While tickets are free, you'll still need to book them several months ahead by downloading and submitting a request form. While it seems in the past the Vatican would only receive completed forms via fax, the current version of the form says email or post are also acceptable.

You'll then need to go to the Vatican prefettura a few days before the service to find out if you made the cut and if so, collect your tickets.

READ ALSO: Ten words you need to know for an Italian Christmas

The 'midnight' mass service actually starts around 9pm on Christmas Eve, with doors opening around 7.30pm and attendees encouraged to arrive before then to get good seats.

Those who didn't get tickets can watch the mass on one of the giant screens set up outside St. Peters.

Tens of thousands gather on Christmas Day each year for the pope's Urbi et Orbi blessing.

Tens of thousands gather on Christmas Day each year for the pope's Urbi et Orbi blessing. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

Alternatively, you can go to St. Peter's Square at 12pm on Christmas Day to hear the pope deliver his Urbi et Orbi address from the balcony; no tickets are required, though expect the piazza to be very crowded.

You can also attend an actual midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Pantheon, starting around 11.55pm. This requires no tickets or advance booking, but you'll want to arrive by at least 11pm to secure a place.


Christmas food and drinks

Despite having more or less invented the drink millennia ago, Rome isn't really big on mulled wine (vin brulè, 'burnt wine' in Italian) - you tend to have to go further north for that.

That doesn't mean it's impossible to find, but it's more something you'll stumble upon very occasionally than a beverage you can expect to find readily available in bars or Christmas markets.

What Rome does have plenty of is castagne - chestnuts - roasted on large metal plates and served in paper cones. These are the perfect way to keep warm while wandering the city's streets.

A street seller prepares roasted chestnuts in a touristic part of Rome. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.

And despite the lack of mulled wine, Rome's many enoteca wine bars are ideal places to duck in to when you need a little refreshment.

At this time of year you're likely to find them invitingly decked out with Christmas lights, and many provide street heaters if you want to sit outside.

Panettone, Italy's candied fruit and raisin-studded brioche Christmas cake, will be on offer in most bakeries, and you'll find torrone toasted nut nougat in shops and market stalls.

READ ALSO: The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast

If you're looking to eat at a restaurant on Christmas day, you're likely to be served traditional seasonal dishes such as tortellini in brodo followed by roast lamb or other meat and panettone or its sister cake pandoro for dessert.

The Fork has a list of restaurants open on Christmas day and New Year's Eve - expect to pay over the odds to eat out on one of these days. 

Do you have any other recommendations for things to do in Rome this Christmas? Let us know in the comment section below.


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