10 Things to Do in Rome for Christmas (Updated for 2016!)

If you’re in Rome for Christmas, you’re in luck! As always, there are absolutely tons of ways to get into the holiday spirit.

Here, the best of what to do.

1. See the Pope. Over the Christmas season, you’ve got lots of opportunities, from midnight mass (although getting tickets can be tricky) to “Urbi et Orbi” on Christmas Day (no tickets needed). Here’s more on how exactly to see the Pope throughout December and January (updated for 2016!).

Pope during Christmas season in Rome

2. Celebrate Christmas at the Auditorium. Every year, Rome’s Auditorium hosts a number of Christmas-themed events (link in Italian), running through December and early January. Goings-on include a Christmas fair, ice-skating rink, and lots of concerts, from Christmas Italian music to gospel.

3. Head to a Christmas market. They pop up all over Rome this time of year, the most famous being, of course, that in Piazza Navona (both at top and below). Here’s a list of other Christmas markets in Rome (updated for 2016!).

What to do over christmas in Rome

4. Worship—in English. The American Catholic church of Santa Susanna is usually the go-to for English Mass. But the church itself is closed for the moment for renovations. In its stead, if you’re in Rome for Christmas, there are a variety of other Catholic churches host services in English throughout the holiday season (of these, my top pick would be the stunning Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri—it’s an ancient Roman bath turned church by Michelanglo, no big deal).

For non-Catholics, the Anglican Church of All Saints’ Church holds holiday services, including the Service of Nine Lessons with Carols, and the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church of Scotland has services throughout the Christmas season. Other churches with non-Catholic services in English during Christmas include the American Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, the Methodist Church at Ponte Sant’Angelo, and the non-denominational Cavalry Chapel.

5. Go ice-skating. The Auditorium’s not the only place you can slip-and-slide. You also can skate underneath the iconic silhouette of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo. Click here for more information on the Castel Sant’Angelo rink. Other skating rinks in Rome include those at Re di Roma, Tor di Quinto, and Villa Gordiani.

6. Delve into the tradition of Italian nativity scenes. As well as Christmas cribs popping up in churches all over town, Rome boasts both a museum of more than 3,000 of them and, over Christmas, an exhibition of 200 presepi from artists across the globe (now in its 41st year). Here’s my New York Times piece on where to find presepi in Rome.

Christmas lights in Rome

7. Check out the Christmas lights. Decorations are getting more ambitious every year, with gorgeous twinklings (and light projections, and jumbo screens) lighting up not only the heart of Rome’s centro storico, but even Termini, EUR, and the Fiumicino airport. Don’t believe me? Check out my photo post of the prettiest Christmas lights and decorations in Rome!

8. Hear some holiday music. The internationally-renowned academy of Santa Cecilia hosts several Christmas choral concerts in December: on Saturday December 17 at 11:30am, Dec. 20 at 7:30pm and Dec. 21 at 8:30pm. 

Pandoro at Christmas in Rome

9. Enjoy delicious Christmas sweets. Bakeries are brimming over with yummy holiday offerings like panettone, torrone and pandoro (above). If you’re in Rome for Christmas, make sure to taste the goods. It’s the one time of year that even Italians  over-indulge in the sweet stuff!

10. Give back. The Emergency Christmas Market now takes place right in the heart of the center on Via IV Novembre 157B (off Magnanapoli), near Piazza Venezia and the Roman forum. It’s a Christmas market with a twist—proceeds from the goods, which include everything from Nepalese hats to Cambodian silks to Italian panettone, go to charity. In 2016, it’s running from 1 to 24 December on Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 8pm and Mondays from 12pm to 8pm (early closure at 2pm on Christmas Eve).

Also: the 5 most overrated things to do in Rome, how to start planning your trip to Rome, and 11 etiquette mistakes not to make eating in Italy.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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In San Lorenzo, One of Rome’s Best Churches

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, interior, Rome

Today, the neighborhood of San Lorenzo is known for its students, grungy atmosphere, graffiti… and as a place you might not exactly want to wander around alone late at night.

But it should be known for something else, too: the magnificent church that gave the quarter its name.

First off, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (or "St. Lawrence outside the Walls," because it is — justbarely — outside the city center) is ancient. Literally. Better yet, more of the ancient design has survived here than in Rome's (admittedly many) other ancient churches. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, first built an oratory here in the 4th century; the church itself came in the 5th century and was reconstructed by the Byzantines in the 6th.

And there are more than traces of the 5th- and 6th-century structures today. Walk up to the very front of the church and around the altar, and you're exploring the same aisles and chancel that the ancients built (below). Not only that, but the mosaic above you — restored in the Renaissance to the brilliant colors you see today — dates back to the Byzantines, too. Altar and Byzantine construction of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

Okay, so the church is ancient, and it's beautiful. Yeah, yeah. What else?

Well, it's built on the spot where St. Lawrence himself is buried. One of Rome's most important saints, Lawrence met his fate during Valerian's persection of Christians in 258 A.D., and — the story has it — was grilled to death. (The Vatican has a sense of humor about the whole thing: Today, he's the patron saint of cooks and chefs).

Lawrence was buried in Christian catacombs here, and when Constantine became emperor, he  built a shrine and funerary hall at Lawrence's tomb. That's all directly under the church's altar today. And if you peek through one of the grates under the altar, and bring a flashlight (or a flash camera!), you can see some of the ancient tunnels that, presumably, lead down into those catacombs. Down into the catacombs at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

If that doesn't do it for you, make sure you also check out the mysterious marble slab behind the altar: According to tradition, this is where Lawrence's body was laid after he was grilled… and it left a stain that would never go away.

Not a big fan of St. Lawrence? Hey, it's okay. The church also has the remains of the martyrs St. Stephen and St. Justin, also beneath the altar. And if none of these ancient folks do it for you, then try the gloriously-decorated Chapel of Pope Pius IX, where the longest-reigning pope in history — as well as the pope who convened the First Vatican Council and decreed the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary — is interred. The pope, who died in 1878, has been kept visible for the faithful today, with just a silver mask covering his face.

All this, of course, is leaving lots of things out. Like the gorgeous 13th-century episcopal throne and marble screen, inlaid with precious porphyry and granite. Or the 13th-century frescoes, still in good condition, on the exterior of the church as you enter. Or the lovely 12th-century cloister, complete with fragments of ancient inscriptions and sarcophagi… and with the remnant of an all-too-modern bomb, courtesy of the Allies, that hit the cloister in World War II.

I could go on. Instead, I'll just leave you with one last gem: a 2nd-century sarcophagus depicting a pagan marriage feast. (Today, incongruously, it holds the 13th-century remains of Cardinal Guglielmo Fieschi). Ancient Roman sarcophagus, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

The church is open daily from 7:30am-12:30pm, 3:30pm-7pm, and on Sundays from 7.30am-12.30pm and 4pm-8pm. It's located at Piazzale del Verano, 3, in the heart of San Lorenzo — a 20-minute walk from the Termini train station, or a 10-minute walk from the Policlinico metro stop on line B. Click here for a map.

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Is Anything Open During Christmas and New Year’s in Rome? (Updated for 2014)

Rome at Christmas time, in Spanish Steps area Few places seem more appropriate to celebrate Christmas than Rome, the home of not only Catholicism, but of the ancient empire whose pagan festival, Saturnalia, was converted into the holiday celebrating Christ's birth.

Yet after booking a trip to Rome over the Christmas holidays, travelers often get a sudden fear that the city will be completely shut down, making it impossible for them to eat, sightsee, or do anything, really, but go to church.

While it's true that many Romans will leave the city for their family homes over the holidays, there are still plenty of people left in this city of 3 million. Here, what will be open—and what won't—in Rome over Christmas.

Will the Colosseum be open over Christmas

Will sites and museums be open? While some museums and sites will remain open even on Christmas Day and New Year's, most of the biggies will be shut. The forum, Colosseum and Palatine will be closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, for example, but open every other day as usual, including Dec. 24.

The Vatican's a tougher one: The Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel will be closed on Dec. 8, Dec. 25, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1. They'll also be closed every Sunday in December and January, as usual, except for the last Sunday of each month, when they are open and free. 

Check with other sites individually. Pierreci's sexy new site lists, in English, all of Rome's major museums and archaeological sights, along with their hours and closures. Outdoor sites like Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain, along with churches (see below), will be open.

(More, below, on what you have to know about visiting Rome over Christmas!).

Will the bus and metro be running? Yes. Often, the city even has an expanded service on Christmas Eve until the early afternoon. Service tends to end at about 9pm that night, though, and cabs are in very short supply, so if you need to be somewhere, give yourself lots of time to get there. On Christmas Eve, walking will probably be your best bet, so dress warmly!

Will restaurants be open over Christmas in Rome
Will restaurants be open?
Most restaurants will be open every day except for Dec. 24, Dec. 25, and Jan. 1. Some others might close on Dec. 8, Dec. 31 and Jan. 6.

But many places will also be open on even those holidays themselves, including both classic Italian favorites and the kosher restaurants in the Ghetto. Just remember to book in advance.

For 2013 (stay tuned to see if they'll put out a 2014 update!), The Rome Digest has a nice little list of good Rome restaurants that will be open over the holidays, including Metamorfosi, Romeo and Roscioli.

I want to go shopping. Can I? Throughout December and January, yes. However, most shops will close early on Christmas Eve and will not be open on Christmas Day. Other days some might be closed or have shorter hours include Dec. 8, Dec. 26, and Jan. 1. If you want the saldi, you'll have to wait—usually, these after-Christmas sales kick off throughout Lazio on the third Saturday of January.

And what about churches? Ah, churches! They will, of course, be open on Christmas; many will offer mass at the same time they'd usually have their Sunday service. If you're interested in attending mass, check with the church in advance. Otherwise, you're fine to visit most churches as usual, being, of course, particularly respectful and refraining from taking flash photographs if a service is going on.

Also: Rome's best Christmas markets, and 11 etiquette mistakes not to make eating in Italy.

Want more great tips and tricks for Rome? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

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Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome’s Gothic Gem

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome Most visitors wander right past Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, intent on getting to the Pantheon, just a stone's throw away. While you can't necessarily blame them — from the outside, Santa Maria looks rather plain — they're missing out.

Because Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is one of Rome's most beautiful churches. It's a fresh experience after the dozens of Baroque and Renaissance buildings that populate the rest of Rome. And it boasts a number of treasures, from the body of St. Catherine of Siena to a (supposed) Michelangelo statue.

Built from 1280 to 1370, the church is the only Gothic church in Rome, at least in style. That's not the only different thing about it. There's also the name, which literally means "St. Mary on top of Minerva"; it got that title because it was built on top of an ancient Roman temple to Minerva. And it's here — well, in the Dominican monastery next door — that Galileo was tried for saying the earth revolved around the sun.

Inside, the interior opens up in all its pointed-arches, blue-sky-with-gold-stars Gothic glory. (It's particularly vibrant thanks to 19th century restorations). Walk all the way to the apse, and you'll see, on the left, "Christ Bearing the Cross," a marble statue started by Michelangelo in 1521. It was finished by a student of his — who was later fired from the job for his inadequacy — and it's no clear exactly how much of a hand the master really had in it. Still, pretty neat. Look out, too, for the tomb of Fra Angelico, the beatified early Renaissance painter, on the left.St. Catherine of Siena, Santa Maria Sopra MinervaMeanwhile, the altar holds something really precious: the body of St. Catherine of Siena (above). The patroness of Europe, the saint is credited with having convinced the popes to return to Rome from Avignon in 1377, and her reams of political and religious writing — and their influence — have made her one of only three female Doctors of the Church. Her body is here, not far from the nearby house where she died at the age of 33. (Her head is in Siena). 

But that's not all for Santa Maria Sopra Minerva's treasures. Don't miss the Carafa Chapel to the right of the apse, which was frescoed by Filippino Lippi from 1488-1492. Look out for the dark-garbed man who seems out of place in frescoes, like the central one of the Assumption: He's St. Thomas of Aquinas.The Assumption, Filippino Lippi, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Remember: Next time you're going to the Pantheon, stop here. You won't be disappointed.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is open from 7am-7pm on weekdays, and from 8am-7pm on weekends. It does close, though, from 1pm-3:30pm on weekends and holidays. It's located on Piazza della Minerva, right near the Pantheon. For a map, click here

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Santo Stefano Rotondo, for Strong Stomachs Only

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Santo Stefano Rotondo, for Strong Stomachs Only

Santo Stefano in Rotondo, Rome
If you get nightmares — or nausea — easily, don't visit the Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Think you can handle it? Then welcome to some of the most graphic frescoes of 16th-century Rome.

First, though, there's more to this church than its frescoes. Built on top of the remains of a 2nd-century Mithraic temple (currently being excavated), the church was built in the fifth century A.D. to hold the body of Saint Stephen, which just had been brought to Rome from the Holy Land. The church's architecture is particularly unusual. As Rome's first circular church, it was modeled after Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Back then, with another entire ambulatory besides the two there today, it would have been much larger).

Santo Stefano in Rotondo also holds some odd treasures: a 6th-century mosaic of St. Primus and St. Felicianus; the tomb of Irish king Donough O'Brien, who died in Rome in 1064; a chair of Pope Gregory the Great from 580.

But if you go to the church, you could miss all of this for its frescoes.

Spiraling around the circular walls, the paintings depict 34 different martyrs — each being killed in gruesome ways. (Molten lead poured down the throat? Check. Breasts cut off? Check. Boiled alive? Check!) Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII near the end of the 16th century, the paintings are naturalistic in their graphic displays, making anyone who looks closely enough wince. The peaceful expressions on most of the martyrs' faces go somewhat toward mitigating the"ouch ouch OUCH" effect… although in all honesty, I find that eerie calm a bit more disturbing than convincing.  Scenes of martyrdom at Santo Stefano in Rotondo.

Charles Dickens may have put it best, writing of his visit of the "hideous paintings" that cover the walls. He wrote,

…such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects.

So, what do you think: Can you handle it?

If you can, remember that Santo Stefano Rotondo is closed Mondays and Sunday afternoons; otherwise, it's open from 9:30am-12:30. It's also open 3pm-6pm in the summers, and 2pm-5pm in the winter. The address is Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo 7, about a 10-minute walk from the Colosseum or from San Giovanni in Laterano, and right nearby the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati. For more information about the church, click here. For a map, click here.

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