As Telegraph writer Lee Marshall said Rome in winter is “at it’s most Roman” – and he’s totally right. The historical capital of Italy is (largely) free of the heaving crowds of summer and the weather is fresh, but not freezing, crisp but not bone-crushingly cold either. An extremely walkable city, Rome in winter is the perfect place to act the flâneur, whilst you explore some of the city’s haunting and historic ruins (many of which are free), or watch the world go by in a Roman cafe as ham hangs overhead from the ceiling and effusive owners urge you to try their coffee and biscotti.
There’s also plenty of plazas and squares to explore, crammed with quaint markets and shops offering Italian tailoring at it’s best. Here’s what shouldn’t be missed during a city break to Rome in winter.
Exploring and shopping
There’s an abundance of plazas and square to explore in Rome, many of which you’ll probably stumble upon when trying to find something else. But the beauty of Rome is that no matter how lost you get, you’ll get bored; the palatial architecture, beguiling cafes and tempting shops will keep you entertained even if you have no idea where you are. Here’s what to look out for as you’re ambling around, though.
When you’re first trying to figure out Rome in winter, keep an eye out for Piazza Venezia. It’s not the most beautiful square, but it’s the most centrally located, at the foot of Capitoline Hill (a large museum) and next to Trajan’s Forum (a historical structure that’s free to view). Piazza Venezia is surrounded by endless traffic and is close to many other tourist sites and main routes, so you’ll probably find yourself crossing it at some point. Look out for the large Christmas tree in the centre!
Full of gorgeous Christmas markets, flashy carousels and Santa sleighs for children and elegant cafes and fountains, Piazza Novona is Rome’s most spectacular square, perfect for perusing on a cold winter’s morning. Recharge and observe the freneticism of Roman life from one of the many (very expensive) cafes, or get a photo next to Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the grand fountain which sits in the centre.
A stone’s throw from Piazza Novona, the lesser-known Jewish Ghetto is all al-fresco dining, envy-inducing bakeries and delicious-looking delis. A beautiful area, the service in some of the cafes can be a little…standoffish at times (one place kept us waiting for ages whilst all the Romans were served around us on Christmas morning) but it’s worth a wander around nonetheless.
Piazza della Rotonda / Plaza Pantheon
My favourite plaza of all, a trip here is best done after first checking out the ancient old Temple, the Pantheon (details below). I liked this plaza best of all because it’s small, contained and looks totally beautiful. Be sure to wander into the well-known Antica Salumeria, a jaw-droppingly crammed deli that offers a fantastic selection of cured meats, cheeses, pastries and sweets. Free samples on offer too…
At first glance, Rome looks overwhelmingly historical. To arrive and find yourself slightly panicked and confused over the sheer amount of ruins and museums that surround you is, I’m sure, perfectly normal. But you don’t have to do it all. A pick of the best educational stuff to do in Rome in winter is below (and most of it is very affordable).
Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel & St Peter’s Basillica
If you’re interested in art and religious history, a joint ticket to the Vatican museum (founded by Pope Julius II in 1606) and the legendary Sistine Chapel, offers an extensive education that will take you around half a day to explore in full. Even if you’re not particularly religious, the art on offer is among some of the best in the world. Highlights include; exhibits on Egyptian mummies, classical statues, bronze busts and of course, the Michelangelo-painted Sistine Chapel. You can also check out the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, which is an Italian Renaissance church decorated with the kind of splendour you’ll eventually become numb to.
TIP: Plan ahead as much as possible; we visited a Vatican ticket office mid-morning, after an audience with the Pope and were told advance tickets had sold out days in advance and that the queue for entry would take three hours. When we joined the queue to find this was true, we were approached by several guides offering us the chance to skip the queue and have a guided tour for 56E each instead of the usual price of 16E. We relented because we didn’t have three hours to waste and eventually bartered the price down to 40E each. The museum and chapel were incredibly busy and it was hard to keep track of our guide, but without one, we would have been wandering around aimlessly adrift in the crowds, so it was definitely worth the money.
A must-see for most, the Colosseum is the sparkling jewel in Rome’s crown and will take you one or two hours to explore in full. A joint ticket can be bought from the ticket office for 16E (if you want a guided headset to tell you about the history of the Colosseum, that’s an additional 9E though) and includes entry to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, which on a nice clear day in Rome in winter, are totally gorgeous.
TIP: Last entry to all three of these attractions is 3.30pm, and if you’re under 25, have ID and live in the EU, you can purchase discounted tickets.
A spectacular former temple that’s over 2000 years old, the Pantheon was converted to a Catholic Church in the 7th century and was the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Today it’s free to visit and boasts an impressive partially-open top roof (when I was there, rain pouring through the roof produced a lovely dramatic effect).
TIP: Take lots of photos; the religious statues, the roof, the shape of the building – it’s all impressive.
All the ruins
Strolling around Rome’s centre means you’ll be able to check out many of the spectacular ruins on your own but it helps to know what you’re looking at. Luckily all of them are equipped with accompanying information that can be read at night too, and most of the best ones are situated on The Via dei Fori Imperiali – the main road in the centre of the city of Rome which runs from the Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. Walk along here and see Trajan’s Forum (2nd century ruins home to Trajan’s Column), Fori Imperiali (a sprawling mass of ruins built by several emperors including Julius Ceasar), as well as plenty of others.
It’s easy to eat well whatever you budget in Rome, but harder to find stand-out places that you’re still salivating about on the plane-ride home. However, since I am a total foodie, I made in my mission to seek out some spectacular eateries. And if you visit Rome in winter when the air is crisp and cold, you won’t feel at all guilty about indulging (carbs = the ultimate comfort food obviously). Here are my two favourites.
We ate here on Christmas day as the restaurant offered an à la carte menu and we’d read good things about it online. I loved both the service and the food and opted for the homemade tortellini with artichokes which was totally delicious. Hands-down the best pasta I tasted on my entire trip, Gropolla d’Oro is stylish without being OTT and the menu won’t break the bank either (I think two courses each for three people with wine and beer came to less than 110 Euros).
For fantastic food from starter to antipasti to desert, and service that’s attentive without being annoying, take a trip to the stunning Hostaria Clementini. We tried to eat here on Christmas Day, but the place was fully booked so we took note of the restaurant’s chic-and-cosy ambience, checked out what everyone else was eating, and vowed to try return on another night. Luckily we succeeded and the meal far surpassed our expectations and ended up being the best we had. My brother was raving about the veal (I don’t eat red meat but it did look nice and was wrapped in bacon and stuffed with spinach) and the calamari with orange mayo and octopus salad was exactly the kind of food I wish I could wrap up and take home with me. Rome, you were exquisite.
Been to Rome in winter? Want to go? Tell me what excites you the most in the comments below…