It’s Christmas in Rome, and the Eternal City is looking at its fantastic seasonal best. The streets and squares of the city are wreathed in festoons of golden lights that cast a magical glow over the cobbles, and locals are out in force shopping, celebrating and soaking up the festive atmosphere.
The delights of Christmas in Rome are too numerous to mention: an endless array of historic churches where sacred music heralds the upcoming celebration of Christ’s birth and magnificent paintings of the Christmas story are everywhere apparent; beautiful Christmas cribs and nativity scenes (the tradition of the Christmas crib can in fact be traced back to 13th century Rome, when the renowned artist Arnolfo di Cambio sculpted a magical nativity for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore); traditional Christmas foods and drinks dished up in Christmas markets across the city, as the sweet smell of roasted chestnuts perfume the air; top-notch seasonal shopping, musical concerts…the list goes on. It’s hardly surprising that Rome was recently declared the best Christmas destination in Europe by a leading English newspaper.
Not the least of the city’s festive charms are the beautiful decorations that transform Rome into a twinkling, atmospheric outdoor work of art from the 8th of December through to January 2023. This week on our blog we’re rounding up some of the best places to see the Christmas lights in Rome; if you’re visiting Rome this holiday season, then these are 10 places you don’t want to miss!
This massive square in downtown Rome, dominated by the enormous Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, is the traditional location for the Eternal City’s major Christmas tree, lit every year on the evening of December 8th. A few years ago the tree caused a stir around the world on account of its somewhat bedraggled appearance, earning it the unflattering nickname ‘Spelacchio’ - the baldy one. With typical Roman irony, the city soon took the mangy tree into their hearts, and a Christmas legend was born. This year’s luscious spruce could hardly be accused of similar threadbareness, but not everyone is happy: some rightwing commentators are furious that the tree’s illumination is powered by eco-friendly solar panels, claiming they are unsightly, and have dubbed the tree ‘Fotovoltacchio’ - Ugly photovoltaic one. We think it looks great, however, spectacularly lit up against the gleaming white marble of the massive Vittoriano monument behind, and are delighted that Rome is taking an eco-friendly approach. Viva Fotovoltacchio!
Via del Corso
“Every war leaves the world worse off than it found it.” That’s the main message broadcast by this year’s Christmas lights on Rome’s major shopping artery Via del Corso, a sober reflection on the dark events of the past year subtly woven into the spectacular golden threads that light the way along the historic thoroughfare from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia. The words are taken from a speech delivered by Pope Francis earlier this year, but that’s not the only source of inspiration for the anti-war message that admonishes Rome’s Christmas shoppers. Indeed, it’s worth keeping your eyes trained upwards as you join the traditional Roman evening ‘passeggiata’ down the bustling shopping street, as various messages and phrases in the lights frame magnificent buildings like the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, one of the most important art galleries in the city.
Via dei Coronari
One of the Eternal City’s most atmospheric streets, Via dei Coronari cuts a swathe through the dense medieval streets of the city centre as it arrows westward from Piazza Navona towards the Tiber and onwards to Castel Sant’Angelo. This was the main route that pilgrims traversed in the Early Modern period on their way to the Vatican City and St. Peter’s and the beautiful historic buildings that line the street richly evoke the vibrant world of Renaissance Rome. Via dei Coronari looks even more atmospheric with golden lights framing the street and dimly illuminating its sculpted facades and fountains, dusty antique shops and intimate cafes.
St. Peter’s Square
As the most important church in the Catholic world, it’s hardly a surprise that St. Peter’s basilica tends to go all out with its Christmas decorations. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from all across the world will descend on Piazza San Pietro during the festive period, and their pilgrimage will be amply repaid by the spectacular display that awaits them here: A magnificent tree from the wild mountain forests of Abruzzo is illuminated by an ever-changing display of coloured lights and decorated with adornments made by children from a psychiatric hospital and the residents of a nursing home, whilst a majestic wooden nativity scene made by craftsman from the northern Italian region of Friuli depicts the birth of Christ on a larger-than-life scale.
The effect is truly magical: make sure to pay a visit to St. Peter’s basilica over the holiday period, perhaps attending a Christmas mass within the iconic church before spilling out into the Piazza to admire what must be one of the world’s most beautiful Yuletide displays, surrounded by the Bernini’s sweeping colonnade and the rushing waters of the square’s Renaissance fountains.
Galleria Alberto Sordi
This wonderful shopping arcade located on Via del Corso is Rome’s most spectacular art-nouveau building, its stained glass ceiling one of the highlights of modern architectural design in the city. Opened in 1922, today the gallery is home to high-street stores and an elegant cafe, and always provides a beautiful Christmas display.
Nobody did more to usher in the Renaissance in Rome than the era-defining architect Donato Bramante, whose classicising buildings and sense of harmony revolutionised the story of architecture. His first contribution to the built environment of Rome was the picture-perfect cloister adjoining the church of Santa Maria della Pace, now home to a contemporary art museum and one of the city’s most interesting cafes. Each December the cloister is decorated with impressive Christmas decorations, and this year is no exception. After a long day of Christmas shopping or sightseeing in the Eternal City, there’s nothing better than settling down to a hot chocolate or aperitivo in this awe-inspiring space, with the words of the great Italian poet Dante projected onto the cloister's walls: "e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle" / "and then we emerged to see once more the stars."
Piazza Navona looks good at any time of year, but it tends to be particularly impressive in the holiday period, when the annual Befana Christmas market ensures that a festive atmosphere reigns over the imposing Baroque fountains and churches of Rome’s most iconic square. This year a vintage carousel whizzes children round and round in the shadow of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, whilst market stalls dish up cups of festive cheer to passersby as they browse the artisan products on offer.
The Spanish Steps are located right in the beating heart of Rome’s most prestigious shopping district, and will see more footfall than anywhere else in the city over the festive period. It’s no surprise then that the iconic staircase, in addition to well-heeled Via Condotti that leads to it, has been decked in festive finery for the occasion. Two-thirds of the way up the sweeping Baroque steps, a Christmas tree lights draws your eye to the impressive church of Santa Trinità de’ Monti at the top of the hill, a systemisation financed by fashion house Bulgari. Down below, Via Condotti is surmounted by a series of light installations flanking and framing the luxury boutiques - including, of course, Bulgari’s flagship store. .
Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina
Elegant Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina is home to one of Rome’s most historic churches, legendary site of the election of Pope Damasus 1 in the fourth century BC. The venerable house of worship conceals numerous precious artworks, including a masterful chapel designed and decorated by Gianlorenzo Bernini as well as a striking altarpiece by Guido Reni. This Christmas the adjacent piazza is illuminated in the somewhat eerie glow of a blood-red Christmas tree, composed entirely of recycled materials in an effort to draw attention to the ecologically friendly practices of upcycling and circular economies. The lights themselves, it goes without saying, are ultra-low consumption LEDs.
The beautiful cobbled alleyways and sweeping piazzas of Trastevere, located on the western bank of the Tiber just across the river from Rome’s centro storico, conceal many of the city’s best restaurants, bars and boutique shops, making it an unmissable destination during festive rambles. Here too many of the streets and squares are illuminated with thousands of tiny fairy lights dangling from trees and shrubs, lampposts and fountains. As the sun goes down and night takes over the city, do as the Romans do and head to Trastevere to drink in a magical atmosphere that showcases Rome at its very best.
Through Eternity Tours offer a wide range of expert-led group tours in Rome, as well as private and customised itineraries that showcase the best of the Eternal City. If you’re planning a visit to Rome this holiday period, check out our website for more information!