7. Nativity scenes
One of the most beloved Italian Christmas traditions, nativity scenes or presepe can be found all over the city as churches and shops display them from December 8 until January 5. The oldest one can be found in Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore 42, 00100, Rome, +39 06 6988 6800). Those of Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano (Via dei Fori Imperiali 1, 00186 Rome) and Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere (Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, 00153 Rome, +39 06 581 4802) are also very popular as so is the Santo Bambino of Aracoeli, a wooden image depicting Baby Jesus in Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli (Scala dell’Arcicapitolina 12, 00186 Rome, +39 06 6976 3839). Spectacular open air nativity scenes can be visited in Saint Peter’s Square – featuring riveting life size figures and unveiled on Christmas Eve – and in the Spanish Steps.
Insider tip: While some presepe portray all the characters, others add the figurines in a strict biblical appearance, so do not be surprise if you see that Baby Jesus is missing! He will appear on December 25. If you are staying in the city for a few days we recommend visiting the nativity scenes on Christmas Day when most museums and all the shops are closed.
6. See Pope Francis
While it is quite hard to get your hands on tickets for the Christmas Eve Mass – bookings start at least 2 months in advance – there are several opportunities to see the Holy See in the Vatican City throughout December. On Sunday 7, 14, 21 and 28 and Friday 26 he will be praying the Angelus at 12 noon from his window to the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square. On Wednesday 24, you can gather in St Peter’s Square and follow the Papal Mass taking place at 9.30pm in Saint Peter’s Basilica (Piazza San Petro, 00120 Vatican City, +39 06 6988 3731) on the screens displayed in the square. Finally, on Thursday 25, he will give the Urbi et Orbi blessing at 12 noon in St Peter’s Square; this only happens twice a year (Christmas and Easter) so we highly recommend to arrive early as there will be a large crowd.
Insider tip: Although Rome is predominantly Catholic, other religions also celebrate the joyous season in the city. An example is the display of a large Menorah in Piazza Barberini celebrating the Jewish festivity of Hannukah. From December 16 until December 24 2014, each night a candle of the nine-branched candelabrum will be lit.
5. Mercato Natalizio in Piazza Navona
From November 26 2014 to January 6 2015, Piazza Navona hosts the colourful Christmas and Epiphany Market. Although it may lack the winter atmosphere of German markets in other capitals in Europe, it is every bit as festive. You can buy almost anything here: from delicious food and sweets, to souvenirs and accessories. There are also rides and balloons for the younger ones and the impressive fountains and monuments provide a unique background! It is a great alternative to normal shops, especially if you are in town during Christmas as stores begin to close around 6pm on the 24th and remain close until the 27th.
Insider tip: If you are looking for a unique gift for a child, we recommend buying a Befana doll from one of the stands. La Befana is a good witch with magical powers that brings toys to Italian children on Epiphany Eve (January 5); assuming that they behave well, otherwise all they get is a lump of coal!
4. Ice skating near Castel Sant’Angelo
Rome may not strike you as the best place for an outdoor ice skating session and that is exactly what makes the Ice Angel ice rink near Castel Sant’Angelo (Lungotevere Castello 50, 00186 Rome, +39 06 681 9111) the more special. Part of the Grinzing Village set in the gardens by the castle, its 800m2 surface provides memorable moments for all the family in an unparalleled setting by the Tiber River. It will reopen its doors in December 5 2014 until February 26 2015 from 10am until midnight every day; so there is no excuse to not lace up the skates this Christmas! Tickets cost 9€ for adults and 7€ for children under 14. Figure skating performances are also said to be scheduled for the holidays. The village will also hosts a small Christmas market, several concerts and shows for children.
Insider tip: If the weather is a bit drizzly, the state-of-the-art Auditorium Parco della Musica (Viale Pietro De Coubertin 30, 00196 Rome, +39 06 8024 1281) also has a superb ice rink. Furthermore, from December 4 2014 to January 6 2015 it will host ‘Natale all Auditorium,’ a month full of Christmas related events and exhibitions set to delight visitors of all ages.
3. Traditional Christmas sweets
When it comes to gastronomy, Italians proudly claim to have no competence and although the French would be the first to disagree, we think they would agree that it is true at least during Christmas. The traditional desserts baked and set on the table during this time of the year make you drool just by saying the names: torrone, pandoro, struffoli, panforte… And of course there is delicious panettone, a sweet bread loaf stuffed with raisings and a Christmas favourite throughout Italy. In fact, some of them are so good that well-known restaurants go as far as including them on their dessert menus!
Insider tips: Although you can buy most of these desserts at the supermarket, we recommend you to try the local bakeries. Our favourite one is Pasticceria Regoli (Via dello Statuto 60, Rome, +39 06 4872 812). It is ideally located near Termini and has been baking traditional delicacies that take you straight to heaven since 1916!
2. Christmas concerts
Following the tradition of previous years, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Auditorium Parco della Musica, Viale Pietro De Coubertin 30, 00196 Rome, +39 06 8024 1281) will host a series of holiday themed concerts in December. Furthermore, on the 14th and the 21st of December, the younger voices and orchestra of the academy will offer a remarkable spectacle for all the family with tickets selling for just 12€ for adults and 8€ for under 18s.
Insider tip: Classic music lovers should not miss the chance to see Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi life also at the auditorium. His concert on 17 December 2014 promises to be a memorable experience and will take place in the wonderful Sala Santa Cecilia at 9pm. Tickets are available between 30€ and 45€.
1. The Colosseum lights and Christmas Tree
It may seem impossible to make the spectacular Roman Colosseum (Piazza del Colosseo 1, 00184 Roma, +39 06 3996 7700) even more spectacular than it already is, but when winter comes that is exactly what happens. The building is gorgeously illuminated and a large Christmas tree is set outside to celebrate the holiday season offering visitors a picture perfect postcard to send back home. But the best part is being able to enjoy crowd-free tours of the underground and the 2nd and 3rd floors. Tours are available from 9am to 5pm from 9 October to 31st December 2014 and tickets are just 12€ for adults and 7,50€ for children.
Insider tip: The Colosseum Christmas tree is by no means the only one in the city. The impressive Piazza Venezia in the heart of Rome features one alongside a nativity scene made just with wires that include a camel and the one in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City is also worth a visit. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina does not feature a traditional pine tree but its leafless trees are decorated with thousands of LED lights that take your breath away!