Up to a million visitors descend on Rome between Palm Sunday (March 28) and Pasquetta (Easter Monday, April 5). It's an incredible experience to be among the faithful for one of the pope's Holy Week masses, projected on massive screens in St. Peter's Square outside the church. For tickets to get inside, check the Vatican website; a letter from a parish priest can be enough to secure tickets, occasionally even at this short notice. (If you want to visit the jam-packed Vatican Museums this week, be sure to make an advance online reservation.)
Palm Sunday's open-air mass begins at 9:30 a.m. in St. Peter's Square (note that this is also the day Italy switches to daylight savings time). Pope Benedict XVI will focus on the theme for the 25th annual Youth Day: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" If the crowds are too daunting, try one of the Rome's many other churches, where Palm Sunday is celebrated with the traditional blessing of palms leaves and olive branches.
April 1, Holy Thursday, calls for the traditional Chrism mass, where the pope presides over the confirmation and baptism of Roman citizens in St. Peter's Basilica. This is the easiest mass to get tickets for. At 5:30 p.m., the pope will travel across town to St. John Lateran (Rome's diocese church) to celebrate the Passion and Resurrection and wash the feet of ordinary citizens. Romans often line the streets to get a glimpse of the pope as his entourage passes through the city. This year, any donations will go to rebuilding a seminary destroyed by the earthquake in Haiti.
After a solemn 5 p.m. service* in St. Peter's Basilica on Good Friday, the pope moves to the Colosseum at 9:15 to recite the stations of the cross (the Via Crucis) by candle light. Tickets aren't required, but go early to ensure a spot nearby. All who attend this moving event will be given a candle that's used to illuminate the Colosseum.
The Saturday Easter vigil that begins at 9 p.m. is the most popular mass on the Holy Week calendar. Tickets to attend the mass inside the basilica are essential. It's also projected on big screens in St. Peter's Square, and Gregorian chants can be heard through the speakers for up to two hours before the mass begins.
The pope's Easter Sunday "Urbi et Orbi" blessing is generally the only celebration Romans attend, and they will be there in plenty of time to take the good spots. The blessing begins promptly at 10:15 am in St. Peter's square—arrive at least three hours early if you want a chance at getting close to the action.
Easter Monday is a traditional day of rest in Rome. A handful of restaurants are open, but most museums, stores and banks are closed. Do as the Romans do—take the day off to stroll along the Appia Antica or escape to the beach at Ostia for lunch.
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*The wording of the sentence has been changed to "service" to clarify that Catholics don't celebrate mass on Good Friday.