Rome in winter: why you should put it on your bucket list
What do you expect if you decide to travel to Rome in winter? Mostly, an Italian holiday is paired with warm, sunny days and gelato, but there are so many advantages to spending the coldest days of the year in Rome. The prime consideration is that it never gets too cold in Rome! I’ve spent the last three years’ winters wearing only a light quilted jacket, while the most extreme temperature was roughly minus 3. Days are shorter,; the sun sets at 17:30 against the 09:30 of the summers, but this also means shorter lines at the monuments’ entrance and a less crowded historical center. The Christmas atmosphere is exceptional in one of the world capitals of Christianity: think of all the Christmas markets and the decorations, and, after the holidays are over, it starts another period the citizens impatiently look forward to: sales season! Here are some ideas and tips to consider when you plan your trip to Rome in winter, plus an introduction to our holiday customs and local events.
ROME IN WINTER: PLAN YOUR TRIP WISELY
Let’s talk about where to stay first. Rome’s historical center is a treasure chest of about 20 square km served by 2 and a half subway lines and unfortunately still open to private cars. Traffic is sometimes unbearable,; therefore, the best decision you can make is to find accommodation in an area which is inside or adjacent the historical center, so to avoid commuting. I’ve gone through this subject in my article about where to stay in Rome, which you should read before booking your accommodation. The days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve are better to be avoided, as any kind of service could be slowing down. The best time to visit is between the New Year’s Eve and February, as the holiday confusion is over. Christmas markets in Rome usually last from mid-December to January 6th.
Spending Christmas in Rome
Visiting Rome during Christmas you will experience the most important of the holidays in the Italian culture. Christmas to the Italians means family, belonging, abundance, and light, as you will see from the many decorations in the center. The Christian Christmas coincides with ancient Roman celebrations of the Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, so you know that these celebrations are much more ancient than you think. The crucial days of the holidays are:
People start decorating their houses with Christmas trees and nativities. Decoration appear in the streets of the historical center. Two high, authentic Christmas trees are transferred and adorned at the center of the Venezia Square and the Saint Peter Square.
This day is considered by the Italians the last chance to buy Christmas gifts. Shops are flooded and close around 4 PM. Families gather for a traditional dinner based on fish.
Shops and offices are shut down, while the locals gather again to enjoy an abundant lunch based on meat.
Celebration of Saint Stefano. People gather with friends and families and spend hours around the table eating nuts and sweets and playing traditional games like the Tombola. The day after, the shops will be working again.
The last night of the year, thousands of locals gather in Rome’s historical center to celebrate a new beginning. The government organizes live shows in the Piazza del Popolo Square and inside the Circo Massimo, which are followed by fireworks. To avoid the crowds, climb to the Gianicolo Terrace, from where you will have a breathtaking view of the city center and of the New Year’s fireworks. However, you could take a day-trip from Rome and spend the night in Naples, which is considered by the locals the top location to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Italy.
This is a holiday, and shops and offices stay closed. There will also be a considerable reduction in public transport.
January 6th: Rome’s traditional holiday, “Befana”
This day represents the second most popular celebration in Rome, after Christmas: the “Befana” or “Epifania”. The local custom is to hang socks in the evening of the 5th, which will be filled during the night by a mysterious, magical older woman which flies on a broom from roof to roof… Kids are the main characters of this holiday: they get sweets and charcoal (a candy-kind of) in their socks for all the times they behaved well or less well… Befana is the name of the female figure honoured during this day. The origin is lost in time, prior to the Roman Empire, when pagan, matriarchal societies ruled the Italian peninsula. At that age, the woman was a goddess that flew above the winter fields in order to propitiate a rich harvest. Usually, the Epifania coincides with the opening of shopping sale season.
Christmas Markets in Rome
Every year, starting in December, the handicrafts and food product markets cheer up the city’s squares in the historical center as well as in the suburbs. These are the main ones.
- The Market in Piazza Navona Square
This market is themed around the figure of the “Befana”. You’ll find sweets and other local products, a carousel, and many street artists that will entertain you.
- The Market in Piazza Mazzini Square
Handicraft and food market with a few garment stands.
- The Market “Spazio al Natale”
Address: Parco Jonio in Scarpato St.
Every year the Public Safety Agency organizes the market. There will be kid-friendly areas, handicraft stands, and roasted chestnuts plus vin brulè in the evening
- Talenti Natalizi Market
Address: Piazza Primoli Square
There will be clothing, handicrafts, and typical products from each region of Italy.
The Tevere with St. Peter’s dome
Winter sale season in Rome
If you’re passionate about shopping, you should definitely visit Rome during the winter sale season, which starts after the 6th of January. Locals love to purchase in big malls, where they can find everything they need from clothes to home and pet products, grocery, and much more. The malls in Rome also hosts many restaurants, cafeterias, and gelato shops, inviting you to spend the whole day in. Here are the local’s favorite malls:
Centro Commerciale Aura (closest to the historical center) – address: Viale di Valle Aurelia, 30 – subway Valle Aurelia
Porta di Roma – Address: Via Alberto Lionello 201 – Bus line 80 from Venezia Square
Parco Leonardo – Address: Via Portuense 2000 – City train from Roma Ostiense Station (subway Piramide)
Roma Est – Address: Via Collatina – City train from Tiburtina to Ponte di Nona or Lunghezza
Best Shopping in Rome in winter
If you don’t feel like locking yourself up in a big mall, consider hanging around the busiest commercial arteries of Rome:
Cola di Rienzo Street
Castel Romano Designer Outlet (specialized in discounted branded clothes) Address: Via del Ponte di Piscina Cupa 64, Castel Romano – Shuttle bus from Via Giolitti 48 (Roma Termini; leaves at 08:30 – 09:30 – 09:55 – 10:30* – 11:30 – 12:30 – 14:30 – returns at 11:30 – 13:30 – 15:30 – 16:30** – 17.30 – 18.30 – 19:45 – 21:05 – two-way ticket €15)
EXPLORE ONE OF THE BEST MUSEUMS IN ROME
A cold, rainy winter day in Rome can become quite amusing if you spend it inside the rooms of a fascinating museum. Rome’s got more than 180 among museums and collections open to the public. These are only a few of the most prominent ones.
The Vatican Museums
Founded during the 16th century and opened to the visitors for the first time in the 18th Century, they display the artworks collected by the Popes during the centuries from ancient times to contemporary. The Vatican Museums are part of the Vatican State and are one of the most popular museums in the world: to be sure to get a ticket, book at least a couple of weeks in advance on the official website. Here’s the English page with the vatican ticket.
Address: Viale Vaticano 6
Subway Ottaviano or Cipro
The Borghese Gallery
Mostly known for the sculptures from Bernini and Canova, the Galleria Borghese also holds mosaics, bas reliefs, and paintings of other major artists like Caravaggio, Raffaello, and Tiziano. Besides visiting the 20 exceptionally decorated rooms of the museum, you could also book a visit to the depot floor, were 260 additional paintings are kept. Booking is mandatory, and tickets sell fast. Make your inquiry on the official website, to the phone number +39 06 32810 or get the Borghese Gallery ticket directly.
Address: Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5
Subway Flaminio-Piazza del Popolo
The Capitolini Museums
They are located on a very special location in Rome: the Capitolium hill, where Rome was founded with the transfer of the major cult of Jupiter (that before had been happening outside of Rome on the Mount Cavo). The museum was an idea of Pope Sisto IV, which in the 16th century donated a number of the colossal bronze statues that symbolize the history of ancient Rome, like the legendary she-wolf and the statue of riding emperor Marco Aurelio.
Address: Piazza del Campidoglio 1
Bus: 64, 40; Subway: Colosseo, Spagna
Etruscan Museum in Rome: sarcophagus of bride and groom
The Etruscan Museum of Rome
The Museo Etrusco di Valle Giulia is considered the most important exhibition of Etruscan artefacts in the world. By “Etruscan”, historians refer to the civilization settled in the Italian peninsula before the Romans subjugated them, incorporating much of their culture and techniques. The echo of the Etruscan culture is still hearable today: all the Italians customs that we label as “pagan”, the names of most of the towns in Central and Southern Italy and islands, mountains and lakes, and of the divinities come from the Etruscan civilisation. The museum collects 6000 objects from temples and tombs of Central Italy, including the remarkable “Sarcophagus of bride and broom”. The Etruscan art is surprising because it appears so connected to other ancient populations of the Mediterranean Sea and the Near Orient and different from the Roman style (in 2017 the first exhibition comparing Egyptian and Etruscan art and culture was announced in Rome.)
Address: Viale delle Belle Arti
15 minutes walking from the subway Flaminio-Piazza del Popolo
DESCEND INTO ROME’S CATACOMBS
The underground realm of Rome doesn’t fear any atmospherical or temporal agents. Early Christian started digging tombs underground around the 2nd Century, but the custom goes back to the Etruscan civilization. There are approximately 60 catacombs in Rome and 60 more in the Lazio region. The presence of tuff in the soil, both solid and workable, made it easy to dig galleries and rooms underground. Exploring the catacombs is a chance to admire the simple yet beautiful frescoes recounting episodes from the Old and New Testament and the inscription left on the walls by the devotees during the centuries. These are three of the catacombs you can visit in Rome.
Best catacombs in Rome
Catacombs of San Sebastiano
Via Appia Antica 136
Public Transport: subway line A to San Giovanni and bus 218 or subway line B to Colosseo and bus 118 to Catacombe di San Sebastiano
Catacombs of San Callisto
Address: Via Appia Antica 110/126
Public Transport: subway line A to San Giovanni and bus 218 or subway line B to Colosseo and bus 118 to Catacombe di San Callisto
Catacombs of Priscilla
Via Salaria, 430
Subway line A to Sant’Agnese Annibaliano and 10 minutes walking
VISIT THE MOST STUNNING CATHEDRALS IN ROME
While it’s impossible to visit every church in Rome ( they’re more than 1000), the winter in Rome is a great time to explore thoroughly the ones that stand out, less crowded during the cold season. Two of the cathedrals I’m about to recommend are little known to travelers,. but surely they can compete with the most popular one. Set aside a few hours to visit each one of them.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The cathedral rises on the crypt of the first Christian Apostle, Peter, who had migrated from Palestine to Rome to spread the gospel until his death happened during the half of the 1st century. Saint Peter is represented in statues and frescoes inside the cathedral holding a key in his hand, symbol of the key of the Christian church and cult, of which he’s considered the founder, commissioned directly from Christ. The appearance of the cathedral and the square that surrounds it belong to the 17th century, when the most important renovation occurred. The crypt is in the basement of the cathedral, accessible with a staircase. The tomb is aligned with the altar and the colossal bronze canopy of Bernini and the massive dome realized by Giacomo Della Porta following the drafts of Michelangelo. Michelangelo also realized the sculpture “The Piety” representing the Virgin Mary with the body of Christ on her lap, certainly the most praised art-work of the interiors.
St. Peter’s basilica dome
The exploration can be prolonged climbing to the top of Saint Peter’s dome, 551 steps in total. The climb is quite demanding and will warm you up during a cold winter day. There’s an elevator that will save you the first 231 steps for a little bit more money. The view from the top is spectacular, as you can see the whole design of Saint Peter’s Square and the Vatican and the roofs of all the ancient buildings of Rome’s historical center. To access the cathedral and the Dome, first, you need to pass the metal detector controls. You can then choose to enter the cathedral (entrance is free) or to face the queue to get a ticket for the dome ( only cash is accepted).
October 1st – March 31st 07:30-17:00
April 1st – September 30th 07:30 – 18:00
Ticket for Saint Peter’s Dome:
With the elevator: €10
Basic ticket: €8
St Maria Maggiore Basilica
The origin of this cathedral which celebrates the mother of Jesus belongs to a legend. A prosperous Roman nobleman on the night of August 4th 352 saw the Virgin Mary in dreams, and she pointed to him a location on the Esquilino Hill in which would be found snow on the following morning: there, a church should be erected. The nobleman passed on the message to Pope Liberio, who started the preparations to build the cathedral. Historical evidence shows that a cathedral was erected during the 5th Century on the ruins of a Roman villa, which can be visited purchasing a €5 ticket at the cathedral’s gate. The underground preserves the remains of dozens of roof tiles with the sigils of three Roman emperors. The antiquity of the cathedral is partially hidden by the baroque facade, the white travertine marble reflecting all the pink shades of the sun during sunset. The structure of the interior is that of an early-Christian cathedral with three long aisles, and 42 columns per side, but the many chapels on each side and the vault are decorated with brilliant baroque frescoes while the floor exhibits marble mosaics in the cosmatesco style representing the figures of the sacred geometry. The visit is only complete with a walk on the upper floor (ticket is €5 but includes a guided tour in English). The mosaics in the loggia at the first floor are an example of perfectly preserved Christian art and recounts the legend of the snow in August. The tour through the “Loggia of Blessings” takes you to the exhibition of old pope’s tunics and to the helicoidal staircase which connects all the floors.
The mosaics in St. Maria Maggiore
St. Clemente Cathedral
Visiting the Cathedral of San Clemente in Rome is like turning the pages of a history book. During the realm of Emperor Nerone (years 54-68), it was part of the luxurious Domus Aurea Villa and Park, and after the fire and the fall of Nerone, it evolved from a house with a small factory (probably a mint) to a temple to God Mithras. Each layer of the underground of the Cathedral holds different functions in different points in time. The first layer is 20 meters under the actual ground level. The Christian cathedral we see today belongs to the 11th Century and was built upon a more ancient one from the 4th Century. The most outstanding part of the interior are the mosaics of the apsis, representing a harmonious pattern of symbols developing around Christ on the cross. From the 17th Century, the cathedral is managed by the Irish Dominicans monks, which discovered the underground layers and did a huge part of the excavation. The entrance to the ground level is free, while the ticket to the underground costs €10.
I hope you’ll have a great time visiting Rome in winter. If you have more ideas on activities to add to this article, please let me know in the comments!