Entry to the Papal Mass on Christmas Eve at the Vatican is arguably the hottest ticket in Rome, sought after even more than tickets for the basilica’s underground necropolis tour. Ultimately, though, the application is a lottery. Reserve early enough and request few enough tickets, and you could find yourself inside St. Peter’s Basilica with the Catholic hierarchy. Miss out, and you still have the chance to worship outside in St. Peter’s Square.
Christmas Eve Mass takes place at around 9.30 p.m. in St. Peter’s Basilica, the enormous cathedral that can accommodate a congregation of roughly 15,000. Entry tickets are essential; they must be reserved at least two months in advance and collected up to three days before Mass, but the tickets are free and guarantee a seat in the basilica as long as admission has been secured. Either reserve tickets online at the Vatican website or get them from the Swiss Guard in St. Peter’s Square, at the Bronze Door from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
You have a better chance of getting a ticket if your request does not exceed six people, and booking early, even six months ahead, offers stronger odds than leaving it until October. Bear in mind, though, especially if traveling to Rome specifically for the Mass, that having a ticket does not guarantee entry to the basilica. Once the cathedral is full, entry will be denied, so arrive up to three hours in advance. U.S. visitors can also try securing tickets from the Bishop’s Office for U.S. Visitors to the Vatican, but these are extremely difficult to obtain.
Visitors can eliminate the uncertainty entirely by booking a tour with a local guide service, which typically includes a bus tour of Rome, dinner and guaranteed entry to Mass for prices that are surprisingly reasonable given the magnitude of the event. For those who cannot get into the basilica, large screens relay the ceremony to crowds of up to 80,000 in St. Peter’s Square, for which no ticket is required. However, for entry to both the basilica and the square, a strict dress code is enforced by the Swiss Guard. Shoulders must be covered, and shorts or miniskirts are prohibited.
Frommer’s warns that many Rome hotels hike their rates considerably during busy periods, but salvation is at hand by opting instead for reasonably priced bed-and-breakfast or rental apartments. An appropriate choice would be staying in a convent or monastery, which charge nominal fees but do restrict visitors to single-sex dormitories with the possibility of curfews. Try Monastery Stays for a list of nearby convents. While none are actually within Vatican City, a handful are right outside its walls.