All you need to know to visit the Vatican at Christmas. Days of notice, celebrations, tickets, tours, dress code and more.
Christmas is a very special time in Vatican City.
During the weeks coming up to Christmas, the Vatican gears up to celebrate one of the most important recurrences of the Christian calendar and goes to all lengths to mark the occasion with religious ceremonies, decorations and special events.
Visiting the Vatican at Christmas is a treat for Christian visitors and also fantastic for visitors with different religious backgrounds and views.
Vatican City at Christmas time is a feast for the eyes; however, visiting at this time takes a bit of planning.
Due to the popularity of this site, you need to get your tickets well in advance and build your itinerary around special events that affect opening hours and accessibility.
This travel guide explains what you need to know if planning to visit the Vatican at Christmas.
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Table of Contents
The Vatican at Christmas: dates of notice
The Christmas season at the Vatican stretches from the 8th of December to the 6th of January included.
8th of December – The Immaculate Conception.
On this day, the Catholic Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception, the Marian Dogma that says Mary was conceived pure from Original Sin.
The day is a festivity for the church and also National Holiday in Italy. This affects your ability to visit parts of the Vatican.
Need to know: on the 8th of December the Vatican Museums are closed.
10th December 2021: on this day, Vatican City turns on the lights of its stunning Christmas tree. The tree stands tall in St Peter’s Square; access is free but crowds tend to be intense.
24th December: on Christmas Eve, Vatican City celebrates the upcoming birth of Jesus with the so called ‘Midnight Mass’, led by the Pope.
The Vatican Christmas Mass takes place in St Peter’s Basilica, in the evening (not necessarily at Midnight, see below).
On this day, the Vatican Museums are open until 1pm only.
25th December: on Christmas Day, the Pope gives his Urbi at Orbi Blessing in Piazza San Pietro (St Peter’s Square).
The blessing happens at 12 and it usually attracts large crowds, gathering into the square, from where they can see the Pope in person.
On this day, the Vatican Museums are closed.
26th December: St Stephen’s Day. On this day, the Vatican Museums are closed.
31st December:On the day, the Pope celebrates the Vespers and Te Deum.
On this day, the Vatican Museums are open until 1pm only.
1st January: On the first day of the year, the Pope celebrates the Angelus, which usually attracts large crowds in Piazza San Pietro.
6th January: the Epiphany. On this day, the Vatican celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings to the stable. The day is marked by Mass in the Basilica.
What to do in Vatican City at Christmas
Vatican City is rich in attractions.
Depending on what you like and your party, you can choose to take a stroll and admire beautiful Piazza San Pietro, visit the Basilica, climb St Peter’s Dome, see the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel to all of the above.
You can also see the Pope (see below).
Good to know! If you want to familiarise yourself with Vatican City, you can book a FREE walking tour. A great introduction to the area, perfect if you are happy to visit the Basilica in your own time and do not wish to enter the museums.
Admire St Peter’ Square, its Nativity scene and impressive tree
St Peter Square (Piazza San Pietro, in Italian) is one of the most beautiful squares in Rome and a special place to visit at Christmas.
Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the square is a marvel of architectural proficiency and, at Christmas, it is where Vatican City showcases its Christmas Tree and sets up the Nativity scene.
The Vatican Christmas tree is the most impressive in Rome.
Very tall and wonderfully decorated, you can usually see it from the beginning of December and it stays up until the 6th of January included, the day of the Epiphany.
The Vatican Christmas tree lights up at sundown, at around 5pm.
The Vatican Crib is always wonderful and touching.
Located in the center of the square, it is different every year and always has a special meaning, evoking world events as war zones and the tragedy of refugees, inspiring action and preyers.
This year, the Vatican nativity scene comes from Friuli Venezia Giulia.
Access to the piazza is always free but may prove hard on times of high affluence, such as during Papal appearances and blessings.
You can read here >>> my guide about how to visit St Peter’s Square.
Visit the Exhibition 100 presepi
A lovely and Christmassy thing to in the Vatican at Christmas is to visit the free exhibition 100 presepi.
Hosted under the colonnade (left wing, looking at the basilica), the exhibition showcases nativity scenes of all types and sizes.
The exhibition is free and no booking is necessary.
If you are not familiar with the idea of presepe, you may be interested in reading here >>> all about Italy’s nativity scenes.
Go to Christmas’ Midnight Mass at St Peter’s Basilica
It is possible to attend the Pape’s Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas eve.
You must prebook your tickets from ‘Prefettura della Casa Pontificia’, the office in charge of public access to ceremonies and events at the presence of the Pope: tickets are free..
The tickets are free and you can request them here.
Attend the Papal Urbi et Orbi benediction on Christmas Day
Another fantastic opportunity to see the Pope is the Urbi et Orbi blessing on Christmas Day in Piazza San Pietro.
On this day, faithful from all over the world gather in St Peter’s Square to see and hear the Pope in person.
Access to the square is free; however, current anti-gathering regulations may impact the running of this event.
Keep an eye on local news, should it be arranged as a virtual event instead.
Visit the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel at Christmas
The Vatican Museums are among the best and most significant art museums in the world.
Large and stunning, they are home to outstanding paintings, some of the most important sculptures in Rome and the world, tapestry, maps, treasures, and they are also where you find the world-renowned Sistine Chapel, one of the jewels in the Vatican’s crown.
The Vatican Museums get very busy over the holiday season and advance booking or tours and tickets is mandatory.
Need to know: during Christmas Festivities, the Vatican Museum have shorter opening hours on the 24th and 31st January. They are closed on the 8th, 25th, 26th December and the 1st of January.
Good Vatican Museum Tickets are:
Vatican Museum Entry Tickets (official website): these are the tickets sold by the Vatican Museums themselves.
You can select the day and time of your visit and have the option to modify your booking once, if needed.
Vatican Museums Entry Tickets by GetYourGuide: These are entry tickets to the Vatican Museums provided by GetYourGuide, one of my favorite ticket providers for attractions in Rome and Vatican City.
Their easy to use website allows you to select the day and time of your visit.
In addition, a generous cancellation option means you have peace of mind, should you suddenly need to change plans.
Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel Tour: this is an excellent option for a guided tour of three large museums.
On the GetYourGuide website, you can select the date and time of tour visit and they guarantee a free cancellation with a full refund up to 24h before you visit, for peace of mind.
A guided tour is the best way to see the Vatican Museums if you are short on time or want some extra information about this incredible collection and its most important masterpieces.
Vatican Museum Family Tour with Scavenger Hunt: If you are visiting the Vatican Museums with kids, I highly recommend you splash out on a family tour.
While the price is steep, a tour allows them to properly enjoy a museum that is, otherwise, easily overwhelming.
The tour I recommend is this one, which is organized like a scavenger hunt and keeps them well entertained.
Visit St Peter’s Basilica
St Peter’s Basilica is a Rome must-see even for non-religious visitors.
St Peter’s basilica is wonderful, inside and out.
Built on the location of the Tomb of St Peter, the basilica is one of the largest and most beautiful Catholic Churches in Rome and the world.
On the outside, you will marvel at its incredible facade and unique dome, built following a design by Michelangelo and still nowadays one of the most impressive landmarks in Rome.
Inside, you find many precious masterpieces that make this basilica effectively a museum in its own right.
The most impressive and best known pieces here are the wonderful Pieta’ by Michelangelo and the main altar baldaquin by Bernini but the church is more than the sum of its parts and deserves a visit as a whole.
Need to know: access to St Peter’s Basilica is FREE. A dress code is strictly enforced (see below). During religious ceremonies, the basilica is only accessible to the faithful for worshipping, with proper ticket (see above the paragraph about Mass at the Vatican at Christmas); tours and visits are suspended.
Climb St Peter’s Dome
If you are not afraid of heights nor small spaces, then you can consider taking a Christmas adventure climbing to the top of St Peter’s Dome!
The climb is exciting and the views from the top are among the best views over Rome you can ask for.
At Christmas, it is exceptionally fun to visit as you can see not just the city but the Vatican Tree and Crib from above!
Meet the Pope in person by Booking a Papal Audience
It is possible to meet the Pope at the Vatican at Christmas and throughout the year by booking a Papal Audience.
Papal Audiences are always free but you need to plan in advance as you need a booking and special ticket.
The office in charge of organizing the Papal Audience is Prefettura Della Casa Pontificia: on this page you find the official form to request access to the Audience and the Fax number to send in your request.
If accepted, you will then have to collect the actual Audience Ticket at the Vatican the day before the Audience.
The Papal Audience happens in the morning, arrival is recommended for 8.45 am.
Visiting the Vatican At Christmas with kids
Christmas is a great time to visit the Vatican with children. For them, the highlights of a visit usually are:
The stunning tree and the beautiful nativity scene in St Peter’s Square – if you go in early Dember, you may see the machinery that lifts it up, usually a hit with toddlers and small kids!
The Swiss Guards, with their colorful costumes
The Dome climb (Older kids only)
The Vatican Museums, if visited with a guide who can make them entertaining for them.
You can find here >>> my tips for visiting the Vatican Museums with kids
And here >>>> my guide to what to see in Vatican City with kids aside the Vatican Museums.
Dress code to Visit the Vatican at Christmas
The Vatican requires its visitors to abide by a strict dress code. We have written about it here >>>> what to wear to visit the Vatican.
At Christmas, abiding by the dress code is rather simple as the temperature is on your side.
For outdoor attractions (the square, the dome), you want to wear a warm coat, warm clothes and good walking shoes.
For inside, you want to wear long sleeves and a woolen sweater (for temperature) and stick with modest clothing: avoid mini skirts, shorts, revealing tops and slogans written on clothing, as they may be cause for refused entrance.
I hope you enjoyed these tips for visiting the Vatican and Christmas and they helped you plan your visit. Safe travels!