There is no real high or low season in Rome: just times when the Eternal City is more or less busy. That said, there are periods to avoid if you want to beat the crowds: Easter especially, when a surge of regular tourists coincides with the arrival of thousands of Vatican pilgrims and packs of Italian schoolkids being led around on educational trips by hassled teachers.
May, June, September and the first half of October can also be busy: but this is a big, vibrant city of three and a half million people, and outside of tourist pressure points like the Vatican Museums or the Colosseum, it tends to absorb its visitors well (it helps that the city’s sights are well spread out).
For hotel bargains, look at months like November, the first half of December, January (at least from the 7th onwards), February and August (when business travel is negligible, and the summer heat keeps many tourists away). See my Rome Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Rome page for more advice.
The occasional blockbuster art exhibition will bring cultured crowds to Rome for the opening, and Romans of all ilks will queue for hours to see the highlights of a new show. Check our listings and/or http://en.turismoroma.it for forthcoming events.
Changing weather patterns in recent years mean that you can get your feet wet when you’re least expecting it – but from June to mid-August you can still be pretty sure to find sun, sun and more sun – interrupted by the occasional, usually short-lived, summer downpour.
What a lovely time to visit this can be, with the days getting longer, the scent of wisteria and orange blossom on the air, and midday temperatures occasionally pushing up above 20°C. But there can be plenty of rain between March and May too. March especially is unreliable: Italians call it ‘marzo pazzo’, or ‘Crazy March’ for its tendency to alternate between days of freezing winds and driving rain and others of balmy near-summer temperatures.
Easter is an important religious festival in Rome, and the Pope’s Via Crucis Mass at the Colosseum on Good Friday attracts large crowds. Easter Sunday and Easter Monday are public holidays, and on the Monday (known as ‘Pasquetta’ or ‘Little Easter’), the tradition is to drive out of town for a rural lunch – or rather, to sit in a traffic jam for hours before turning around and heading home in frustration.
Spring also brings two important cultural appointments: the Italian Culture Ministry’s Settimana della Cultura (Week of Culture; for details see www.beniculturali.it), usually in April, when most state-owned museums are free and offer extra-long opening hours; and the Porte Aperte (Open Doors) weekend organised by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI; www.fondoambiente.it), generally towards the end of March, when hidden Roman palaces and artistic gems rarely shown to the public are placed on display.
Other regular spring events include the Rome marathon – usually on the third or fourth Sunday in March.
Watch out for two public holidays, when schools, public offices and many shops close, and a reduced public transport service operates: 25 April (the anniversary of Italy’s liberation at the end of World War II) and Labour Day, 1 May – which is marked by a free mega-concert in Piazza San Giovanni.
The summer months guarantee generally cloud-free days. June can be magical: hot but not excessively so by day, and cooling down enough come evening that you might just consider wearing a jacket when eating outside.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the stifling heat and humidity which was once a feature of Rome in August is now more often experienced in July. Romans haven’t changed their holiday habits in consequence though: August is still the sacrosanct month for heading off to the beach or the mountains – meaning that it can be a good time to visit if you are fairly heat-resistant. You will find quite a few restaurants and shops closed – especially around the dog-days of Ferragosto (15 August, a public holiday). But the days when pretty much the whole city shut down are a thing of the past, and hotel rates tend to be significantly lower than in July and September.
The big cultural draw of the summer is the Estate Romana (Roman Summer), a packed four-month programme (June-Sept) of events, concerts and festivals, most of them open-air. Check the city council website for details: www.estateromana.comune.roma.it (also in English). The summer sales usually start on the first Saturday in July.
October and November are Rome’s rainiest months, but if you’re lucky enough to catch a patch of Indian summer this can be the best time of all to visit the city, with the air fresh again after the last of the summer humidity has been swept away – yet still, at times, warm enough to eat an al fresco lunch in shirt-sleeves.
This is also a great time for exhibitions – there are a spate of openings in September and October, after the summer lull – and for performing arts events. The best of the latter are organised under the umbrella of the Roma Europa Festival (www.romaeuropa.net), which brings some of Europe’s best theatre, dance, music and video artists to the Eternal City. At the end of October, the recently launched Rome International Film Festival (www.romacinemafest.org) draws Hollwood stars like Nicole Kidman and Al Pacino, and presents a varied schedule of films, from the commercial to the eclectic. Main venue is the Auditorium – Parco della Musica (www.auditorium.com), architect Renzo Piano’s audacious, and hugely popular, arts and concert venue in the northern Flaminio district.
One of the best times of year for seeing Roman Rome, rather than the tourist city, the winter months are perfect for civilised long weekends of eating, drinking and museum-going, interspersed with the odd bout of shopping – especially in the January sales (which generally start on the first Saturday in the month, unless this happens to fall on the 1st). It’s also a good time of year to find bargain hotel rates and special offers.
But don’t imagine that because this is Italy it’s going to be warm: winter temperatures occasionally fall below freezing point, and there can be plenty of rain in December and January. On the other hand, it’s not rare to wake up to a day of sun and sharp blue skies, when Rome looks washed and scrubbed for its Sunday outing and the view from the panoramic of viewpoint of the Gianicolo is a magnificent diorama backed by snow-capped mountains.
Christmas in the Eternal City is a surprisingly low-key affair – but it can be refreshing if you’re keen to escape the festive season’s more commercial side. On New Year’s Eve, the city explodes in a huge firework bonanza, as Romans let off rockets and firecrackers from rooftops, balconies and gardens. It’s a show best watched from a high vantage point – not just for the view, but to avoid the falling debris.