Christmas in Rome is much more of an intimate affair. The markets aren’t as glitzy as in other cities like London for example, but in return you can expect to find amazing handicrafts, traditional treats and mouthwatering food and drink for you to try!
As you’d expect from a city that houses the Vatican, the link to Christmas’ traditional religious roots definitely feel a little stronger here. But things don’t feel old fashioned in the slightest! Instead the city really comes alive in a show of lights and human activity, and for me it’s definitely one of the best times of year to go. Join me on a little Roman adventure and snap up my best tips for making the most of your Christmas adventures in the Italian capital!
Christmas in Rome: How the Italians do Christmas
Christmas traditions | Rome’s best markets | Things to do – what’s open and what’s not | The best places for Christmas Lunch
Christmas traditions in Rome
Our Christmas season normally coincides with the start of advent – or the 1st of December for when you start opening your advent calendars. ;) But in Rome, things officially start kicking off on the 8th of December. This is the day which marks the Immaculate Conception, or Immacolata in Italian, so as a general rule of thumb you can expect to see the Christmas markets in full-swing by this time of year.
You’ll spot plenty of nativity scenes as you explore the city at this time of year, and the biggest one is found at Piazza Navona, which also hosts the city’s largest and most famous market (more about that later!). The Vatican also sets up a very impressive nativity in St. Peter’s Square opposite the iconic basilica, and while you’re there you could always hang around to hear the Pope give a speech!
If you see seeing people dressed up as a woman with a crooked nose holding a broomstick, then don’t worry! She may look like some sort of witch, but the Romans call her La Befana, and she’s probably the most famous Roman Christmas tradition in Italy. Legend has it that she was a woman who had let the three kings stay the night as they followed the star to Bethlehem, and the next day she wanted to join them on their onward journey. But she could never find the three kings in the end. That’s why she’s still lives on as a Christmas tradition, bringing all sorts of presents and goodies to children on the 5th of January. Or coal if you’ve been naughty. ;)
Rome’s best markets
So, now you have a little taste of what Christmas looks like in Rome (we’ll get to the food later). Now it’s onto the big questions: where and what are the best Christmas markets in Rome? Well, there are a few that I can recommend!
Let’s start with the most famous one: the market in Piazza Navona! As a rule of thumb this market lasts from the beginning of December until Epiphany on January 6th (Befana), the end of the Italian Christmas. It’s a gorgeous square filled with Baroque architecture and beautiful fountains adorned with impressive statues. With traditional carousels, stalls selling plenty of handicrafts and tons of sweet treats to be had, it’s perfect for families or a romantic stroll for just the two of you.
If you’re looking for something a little off-beat, then keep an eye out for the vintage markets at Mercato Monti and Quirinetta Vintage Market & Co., where you’ll be able to find some one-of-a-kind pieces to take home. Similarly there’s tons of artsy markets too, such as Merry Handmade Roma or the Arts and Craft Market in Piazza Cincecittà. You’re spoilt for choice!
Things to do – what’s open and what’s not
As well as a wealth of markets you’ll also have an incredible choice of sights and museums for you to explore. A general rule of thumb is that tourist attractions will be closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day without exception. This includes sights such as the Roman Forum and the Colosseum which require entry tickets. On St. Stephen’s Day they will open again, with the exception of the museums in the Vatican – these close on the 26th December and the 1st and 6th of January, since they’re all religious festivals.
So, if you were worried about not being able to do any sightseeing then don’t worry – things are pretty much business as usual! However I will say that the main difference between Italian and Irish Christmases is St. Stephen’s Day. Shops normally open in Ireland, whereas everything will be shut in Italy on the 26th, so just keep that in mind if you need to pop to the shops to get something!
The best places for Christmas lunch
Even if you’re not staying in Rome on Christmas Day itself, it’s still definitely worth taking the time to have a proper Christmas lunch! The Romans can spend hours in a restaurant together with their family and friends as they enjoy amazing food and traditional dishes. A ton of places are open on Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day too.
Most traditional Christmas lunches in Rome start with a course of tortellini in a delicious broth that’s usually followed up with a main course with meats such as lamb or chicken, served with artichokes, tomatoes and other vegetables. But when it comes to Christmas Eve, fish is what you’ll find on the menu. Whether it’s freshly caught cod, salmon or sea bass, you’ll be able to enjoy some of the best seafood you’ll ever have at this time of year! Things are then finished off with a dessert, or dolci, and the two most popular ones are panettone or pandoro cake – you probably know how delicious these are already! Pangiallo is another cake that’s typically eaten in Rome and it’s normally filled with dried fruit and touch of honey before being glazed with a layer of egg on the top.
The Italians are famous for eating well, and as you can see Christmas is no exception! So, now that you have an idea of what a Christmas lunch looks like, I’ve got a small list of places I’d recommend!
- Al Ceppo (Via Panama 2): I really like this place thanks to the the open fire that they use during the winter months which helps make this place feel incredibly snug. Ask for a wine recommendation and you’ll be amazed by how well everything comes together.
- Riscioli (Via dei Giubbonari, 21 – 22): this is a popular choice and one that’s recommended by many travel blogs, and it’s easy to see why. The restaurant is split up into 4 different areas, each one as cosy as the last. They have a great selection of Roman dishes and a huge wine selection with labels from all over Italy, so you’re guaranteed to eat well here.
- I Clementini (Via di San Giovanni in Laterano 106): I’m putting this one on the list not just because of the food, but because of it’s great location too. The Coliseum and its beautiful Christmas tree are close by, and the nearby churches are stunning. It may be a bit small and off the beaten track, but you can expect great service, fair prices and a fantastic atmosphere.
As you can see, Christmas in Rome is definitely a cosy affair – and that’s exactly why I’m so in love with it! If you’re interested in a little festive adventure in the Italian capital, then keep an eye out on my blog or check back to see the deal I’ll be publishing as part of my Festive Guru Giveaway.
Speaking of my giveaway, you have the chance to win a city break to one of four European destinations so you can explore their Christmas markets for yourselves! Take a look here for more information on how to enter. Good luck! :)
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