There’s no place like Rome for the holidays. From Advent, December 1, to the Epiphany, January 6, the Eternal City entices you with its bustling piazzas, sparkling decorations and boundless holiday events. Plus, Rome is scented with Yuletide, thanks to aptly placed roasted chestnut stands on nearly every corner of the city center. Here’s how to make the most of this festive season in the Italian capital.
If all roads lead to Rome, then all Yule paths go to Piazza Navona for its century-old mercatino di natale (Christmas market). From the last week of November through the first week of January, the piazza transforms into a busy Christmas market where merchants put the paintings aside and set up stands selling toys and candy, and carnival-style stalls offer games. This is where you want to come to fill up your Christmas stocking and get ready for Befana, the witch-like old woman from Italian folklore who brings good children candy on January 6. The centerpiece of the city square is no longer Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s beloved Fountain of Four Rivers creation, but a vintage carousel, which, like the rest of the market, is open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
For a different spin, make your rounds by foot and plan a path around the historic center. Every piazza is decked out for the festivities, but be sure to spot the oversized Christmas trees in Rome’s bigger venues, such as Piazza di Spagna, Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Venezia. On December 13, head to St. Peter’s Square for the 4:30 p.m. lighting of the Vatican’s Christmas tree, usually one of the largest in the world. And peek into every church along the way, as each displays an elaborate, handmade presepe (Nativity scene/crèche). For a crèche crash course, Piazza del Popolo’s Sala di Bramante hosts the annual 100 Presepi — you guessed it, 100 Nativity scenes of varying styles all in one place.
Though a white Christmas may not be in the forecast, you can find hot chocolate and ice skating at pop-up alfresco rinks by Castel Sant’Angelo and at the Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium Parco della Musica, where a Christmas village and market take over the piazza. Consider staying warm and catch a performance of Lo Schiaccianoci (The Nutcracker) at the historic Teatro dell’Opera on December 15 and 16, too. Italy’s rising ballet stars from the Teatro dell’Opera school will take the stage in the seasonal tradition. Also not to miss is MACRO (Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome) Testaccio’s holiday concert series (through January 6) at Big Bambú, a larger-than-life bamboo installation by American artists Doug and Mike Starn that’s meant to be explored by its walkways and paths. Upcoming concerts include the Balanescu Quartet on December 28 and Dustin O’Halloran on January 6.
Christmas Eve Mass
Christmas Eve is arguably the most important night on Rome’s December calendar. The pope holds a reservations-only mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and immediately afterward, St. Peter’s Square is deluged with people waiting to see the unveiling of the Vatican’s Nativity scene, often larger-than-life and with animatronics. If you can’t get tickets to the evening mass, there are plenty of notable other options. Three favorites are the former pagan Pantheon and its chilly midnight mass, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli and its bagpipe procession, and midnight mass at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Capodanno, New Year’s Eve
On December 31, most of the city walks along Via dei Fori Imperiali toward the Colosseum, and the street is closed off for a massive New Year’s Eve party. For some live entertainment, head to Circus Maximus for an outdoor concert featuring some of Italy’s most famous musicians (Niccolò Fabi, Malika Ayane and Nina Zilli headline the show) around 10 p.m. No matter whether you’re indoors or out, look up to the skies at midnight for the celebratory fireworks over Castel Sant’Angelo and the Colosseum — it’s a sight to be seen.
Photos Courtesy of iStock-scubabartek and Erica Firpo