Christmas is one of the bigger holidays on the Italian calendar, and one of the most popular spots to be at Christmas is in Vatican City. Even if you’re not Catholic, being in St. Peter’s Square for the Pope’s traditional midnight mass is something to behold. Not a night owl? On Christmas Day the Pope delivers his Christmas message from his balcony overlooking the square. You aren’t the only one with the brilliant idea of going to Vatican City for Christmas, however, so here are some things to know before you go.
Christmas Attractions in Vatican City
Leading up to Christmas, there is a huge tree erected in St. Peter’s Square that gets all lit up at night. There’s also a life-sized nativity scene in the square. Nativity scenes are popular throughout Italy in the weeks before Christmas, so look for them in squares and churches well beyond Vatican City. The Pope’s midnight mass on Christmas Eve is held inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and there’s a big screen showing it live in the square so you can still follow along even if you’re not lucky enough to get indoors. The following day, the Pope comes out onto the balcony of his Vatican apartments, which overlooks the square, and gives his annual Christmas address at noon. You can get tickets to actually be inside St. Peter’s Basilica for the midnight mass, but you need to plan many months in advance.
Christmas Attractions in Rome
Elsewhere in Rome, you’ll find nativity scenes in many squares and churches. In fact, in the Piazza del Popolo more than 100 nativities go on display starting in late November, and there’s a museum in Rome devoted solely to nativities—the Museo del Presepio—open all year except August and free to enter. There are also many other churches in Rome that hold Christmas Eve Mass, including mass at Santa Maria in Aracoeli and Gregorian chants at the Pantheon. Don’t miss the Christmas market erected in Piazza Navona, either, where you can often find Babbo Natale (Father Christmas).
The Christmas holidays mean that things like transportation, restaurants, shops, museums and other attractions are on “holiday schedules.” This means trains run less frequently and things are apt to be closed either part of the day or all day. Avoid travel hassles by scoping out which restaurants will be open or stocking up on picnic supplies at the market, don’t try to leave the city (move your big travel days if you need to), and book hotels well in advance so you’re not—literally—left in the cold.