As the seat of the Catholic Church, Rome is Italy's top destination for Easter week, or Settimana Santa, primarily because of the events led by Pope Francis in Vatican City. Those hoping to spend Holy Week in Rome should book their accommodation and reservations well in advance. While this is a wonderful time to experience the culture of the region, it becomes a magnet for tourism during Easter, so be prepared. Tickets are required for all events and should be obtained months ahead of time. They are, however, free of charge.
Palm Sunday Procession
Palm Sunday Mass is when the pilgrims make their way to Saint Peter's Square with palm leaves and olive branches (meant to welcome Jesus into their city) in-hand. This event draws about 40,000 people and if you want to be one of them, you should get there early. Be prepared to stand for a long period of time. The Blessing of the Palms, the subsequent procession, and mass take place in the morning, usually starting at 9:30 a.m. and altogether last about three hours. Visit the Papal Audience website for information on requesting tickets to see the pope during Holy Week.
Holy Thursday Mass
After Palm Sunday, there is a brief lull in events as Italians go back to work (or prepare for the holiday weekend, at least) for the remainder of the week. Things pick back up on Holy Thursday ("Maundy Thursday"), however, when the pope holds another mass to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus. This too is held in Saint Peter's Basilica, usually at 9:30 a.m. A papal Mass also takes place in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Rome's cathedral, at 5:30 p.m.
Good Friday Mass & Procession in Rome
On Good Friday, there is a papal Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at 5 p.m. In the evening, the ritual of the Way of the Cross, or Via Crucis, is enacted near Rome's Colosseum, usually starting at 9:15 p.m. During this time, the Pope visits each of the 12 Stations of the Cross, placed there in 1744 by Pope Benedict XIV. The bronze cross in the Colosseum was erected in 2000, the Jubilee year. On Good Friday, a huge cross with burning torches lights the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages. At the end, the Pope gives a blessing. The vibe here is mournful and it's typical for attendees to get emotional during the service. Unlike the papal Masses, this event is unticketed and open to the public. It does get extremely busy, though, so prepare for crowds and watch out for pickpockets.
Holy Saturday Vigil
On Holy Saturday, the day prior to Easter Sunday, the pope holds an Easter Vigil Mass inside Saint Peter's Basilica. It begins at 8:30 p.m. and lasts for several hours. Although there are thousands of attendees within Saint Peter's (the basilica can seat 15,000), this is still one of the more intimate ways to experience a papal Mass during Easter week. All attendees must go through a security screening in order to enter the basilica, so plan to arrive (with a full belly) several hours before the mass begins.
Easter Sunday Mass at St. Peter's Square
On Easter Sunday, a mass is held by Pope Francis in Saint Peter's Square, usually starting at 10:15 a.m. The square can hold up to 80,000 people, and it is typically filled to capacity on Easter morning. Tickets for this are in high demand and must be requested months in advance through the Papal Audience website. Even with tickets, though, your place on the square is not guaranteed, so you need to arrive early and expect to wait for several hours.
At noon, the pope gives the Easter message and blessing, called Urbi et Orbi, from the central balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica. Attendance here is free and unticketed, but only those who arrive early and wait will have a chance of getting close to the blessing.
Picnicking for Pasquetta (Easter Monday)
Pasquetta—also called "Little Easter," the Monday following Easter Sunday—puts a cap on Easter week celebrations. The ambiance on this day is much more jovial than the solemn events preceding it, with many of the locals taking their final days off work to escape to the countryside or the coast to have cookouts and picnics with their families. Within the city, people will be flocking to Villa Borghese, a sprawling park with lush gardens and marvelous buildings. Shop for your goodies at Campo dei Fiori, a fresh-food market south of Piazza Navona before you go.
Monday Night Fireworks Display
After a week full of religious gatherings and family time, Italians wrap up the holiday with a grand finale of sorts. They put on an impressive fireworks display over Castel Sant'Angelo—one of the grand mausoleums in Rome across from Vatican City—mirrored in the Tiber River below. The light show lasts about 40 minutes and is best observed from the opposite side of the water.
Easter marks the end of Lent, so food plays a large part in these celebrations. Traditional Easter foods include lamb, artichokes, and the special Easter cakes panettone (a traditional style of sweet bread that originated in Milan) and colomba (an almond-topped loaf formed into the shape of a dove). Mimosa brunches are not as much of a thing in Italy as they are in the U.S.—in fact, many restaurants in Rome will close for Easter Sunday—but you should be able to find places serving lunch or dinner. These eateries will most likely be offering meals in the form of a multi-course, set menu. Make like the Italians and plan to stay awhile.
Bunnies aren't as synonymous with the Easter holiday in Italy as they are in other parts of the world, so you won't find chocolate hares or run into any costumed characters on the streets. Holiday treats for kids usually consist of large, hollow chocolate eggs, which sometimes contain a toy. You'll see them, along with colomba, in many shop windows. If you want to try Easter cakes or other sweets, buy them from a bakery rather than a grocery store or bar. They may cost a bit more, but they're the real deal.