Rome for the Holidays

0612_romeholiday0612_romeholiday
Franco Origlia / Getty Images

The weather is sunny and mild, and there's lots of can't-miss Christmas and New Year's festivities, midnight masses, and more.

The holiday season in Rome is unlike any other time in the Eternal City--and not just because of the Vatican's Christmas celebrations. Roman weather in late December is so mild and sunny that it is common for people to enjoy lunch outdoors at piazza cafés. And the Romans--most of whom are not around during the height of the summer tourist season--reclaim their city in the winter, giving visitors a glimpse of everyday life.

Rome takes on a festive feel and an air of debauchery recalling Saturnalia, the ancient pagan holiday still celebrated in some circles on December 17. Like some modern rituals, Saturnalia was marked by gift-giving and a relaxation of the rules. Even some of Rome's present holiday customs--from the Christmas fair at Piazza Navona to the practice of burning the old calendar to mark the New Year--bear the hallmarks of Rome's enduring pagan past.

Five Can't-Miss Holiday Sights

Piazza Navona Christmas Market
In any other city, it would be sacrilegious to host such a kitschy fair in such an important square, but it wouldn't be Christmas in Rome without this annual event, which centers around la Befana, the Christmas witch who, until recently, was more popular than Santa Claus. The square, dominated by three famous fountains, is lined with stands selling everything from hot doughnuts (ciambelle) and cotton candy to Nativity scene figurines and Christmas tree decorations. But you're not here to buy stocking stuffers or tree trimmings. The real joy of this Christmas spectacle is scoping out the fascinating street performers and the impeccably dressed Romans out for a stroll (passeggiata). Piazza Navona, through January 6, 2008, 011-39/06-8205-9127, romaturismo.it, free.

Zampognari and pifferai (Bagpipers and flutists)
From early December through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, traditional bagpipers (zampognari) and flutists (pifferai) descend on Rome from the regions of Abruzzo and Calabria to play traditional Christmas music for the masses. You'll find the musicians, recognizable by their leather-laced shoes and sheepskin attire, wandering around Rome's historical center, especially near Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and at the gates of St. Peter's Square. Don't confuse these genuine traditionalists, who play for free, with the countless buskers and impostor minstrels who also wander the city center playing for spare change--including the Blue Santas, whose jazz renditions of Christmas greats are actually worthy of a few euro cents. Piazza Navona, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza San Pietro, free.

Natale all'Auditorium (Christmas at the Auditorium)
Rome's newest entertainment venue, the Parco della Musica, designed by Renzo Piano, is getting in the holiday spirit with lots of fake snow and a festive lineup including dance recitals, chamber music concerts, and child-friendly puppet shows (tickets range from €2 to €20 ($3 to $38) depending on show). Add to that a 2,000-square foot ice-skating rink (€8 ($12) including skate rental, through Feb. 3, 2008) and a hands-on "Enchanted Forest" play area for the young nonskaters. Food and drink available, but the venue is closed Dec. 24 and 25. Auditorium Parco della Musica, Viale Pietro de Coubertin, through January 5, 2008, 011-39/06-8024-1281, full program at auditorium.com.


100 Presepi
The 100 Presepi exhibition (presepi means Nativity scene) has been a mainstay on any Roman Christmas itinerary for the past 31 years. Now the count is up to 160. A month before the exhibition opens, craftsmen painstakingly set up the expansive Nativity displays, which feature everything from running water and twinkling fires to hand-carved figurines and flying angels. The most famous of the traditional Neapolitan Nativity scenes--some dating to the 17th century--are on display, and this year the organizers have also invited modern artisans who use nontraditional materials such as plastics and other synthetics to go far beyond the usual renditions of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Sale del Bramante, Via Gabriele D'Annunzio (Piazza del Popolo), 011-39/06-8535-7191, presepi.it, through January 6, 2008, 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, 4.50 ($6.50) Mon.-Fri., 5 ($7.20) Sat.-Sun.

Vatican Service at St. Peter's Square
While it's impossible to get a front-row seat unless you're a cardinal or high ranking official within the Holy See, attending either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day mass in this bastion of Catholicism is inarguably a powerful experience. It's not too late to reserve free tickets over the phone. They can be picked up at the bronze doors in St. Peter's Square on the 23rd, but don't delay if you hope to attend. 011-39/06-6988-3273, vatican.va

Midnight Masses

Along with St. Peter's, major basilicas throughout the city host midnight mass. On Christmas Eve, Rome dies down to an eerie silence from around 7 p.m. to just before midnight, when it comes to life with church bells and the opening of many coffee bars and street merchants to accommodate parishioners.

One of the more beautiful midnight masses is at the Pantheon. You don't need tickets, but you should be there by 10 p.m. to get a seat and hear the Gregorian chants. Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill is also popular with Romans for its stunning service in one of the city's oldest churches.

The church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which straddles the Campidoglio on Piazza Venezia, is also a worthy choice. The 124 steps up to the church are lit with candles, and the traditional zampognari and pifferai give a concert at the basilica doors. This church features a wooden carving of the baby Jesus believed to be made of the wood of an olive tree from the Garden of Gethsemene. Local Romans bring their children here on Christmas Eve for a ritual blessing in front of the carving.

Dining on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and San Stefano

Many Romans will be dining on traditional fish feasts with their families on Christmas Eve, but there are still plenty of options for the kitchenless. Instead of offering an à la carte menu, most restaurants put together special fixed menus for Christmas Eve, likely seafood-based and starting around €40 ($58) a head. Ask to see the menu di vigilia di Natale and book in advance, since seating is generally limited. Christmas Day is a different story. Rome is notoriously buckled up on Christmas Day, with the exception of the Jewish ghetto, where restaurants will be happy to serve you traditional Jewish-Roman cuisine. The Feast of San Stefano on December 26, a public holiday, is back to business for most restaurants, which treat the day like a typical Sunday--meaning lunch is the big meal of the day and should be enjoyed over several hours and courses.

Notte di Capodanno or New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve in Rome is nothing if not a barrage on the senses. Traditionally, Roman restaurants from the tiniest trattoria to the most elegant ristorante offer fabulously extravagant fixed menus that range from €50 ($72) to well over €250 ($361) a head. Meals start around 8:30 P.M. and finish around 11:30 p.m., just in time for everyone to head to the nearest piazza for the citywide countdown. At midnight the city lights up, with private fireworks displays from balconies and terraces rivaling the official shows put on by both the Vatican and the city government. In the piazzas, Romans burn their old calendars and chug spumante (sparkling wine) from the bottle. All of the major squares will be festive, but Romans will revel on either the Piazza San Giovanni or the Piazza del Popolo, one of which will host an all-night rock concert beginning after the countdown (the location will be announced a day or two ahead). The more subdued should head to Piazza del Quirinale, where the president of the republic hosts a classical music concert outside the official residence.

New Year's Day is a popular day for dining out and walking through the city's picturesque squares. Most stores and all museums will be closed, but many of the churches are venues for chamber recitals, and you often don't need a ticket.

Getting Around

Many places that might normally be open on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve may be closed this year because the holidays fall on Sunday, traditionally a non- or limited-commerce day in Rome. Likewise, traditional restaurants will tend to be open for lunch and not dinner on Sunday, as is the usual practice, except those offering special Christmas or New Year's Eve meals. In general, the stores in the historical center around Piazza di Spagna will be open, those in outlying districts like Prati, Parioli, Trastevere, and Testaccio will not, or will be limited to a few hours in the early afternoon.

Museums in Rome are generally closed on Mondays; check out romaturismo.it for a complete list of museum hours and closure dates. December 26 is a mixed bag, when the Vatican museums are closed but most of the city museums are open.

Rome's transportation system (atac.roma.it) is extending its hours through January 7, adding more buses and diverting some of its metro lines to better accommodate holiday shoppers and revelers. Still, Christmas Day and New Year's Day will be slow days for buses, so stick to the underground metro, or better yet, go on foot if you can. The three-day Roma Pass (romapass.it, sold at all participating museums, Termini station, and major subway stops, €20 ($29), is a great way to travel before the holiday weekend. The pass offers unlimited public transportation on buses and the metro, free admission to two museums or archaeological sites, and reduced admission to others. (Vatican museums are not included.)

If your visit falls on the holiday weekends when museums will be closed, consider ATAC's three-day €11 ($16) or seven-day €16 ($23) unlimited transportation pass, compared to a regular fare of €1 ($1.44) for up to 75 minutes on a bus or a one-way metro ticket.

Taxis, which are privately owned, are also scarce during the holidays, with the exception of New Year's Eve when drivers will be working normally. Some drivers will try to charge "creatively," so if you hail a taxi on the street, insist that the cabdriver use the meter, or tassametro. Fares are expensive (€8-€15 ($11.50-$22)) for a ride within the city center, and there's a higher rate 10 p.m.-7 a.m. and on Sun. and holidays; add about €1.04 ($1.50) extra for each large bag. If you've called ahead for a taxi, there will be an additional charge on the meter for pickup. Check the placard on the driver's seat for relevant holiday rates, and ask the driver for a receipt when you exit the taxi.

Related Content