(CNN) — When you think of Rome, the Pope and Vatican City often come to mind. But the Italian capital is also home to one of the most historic and vibrant Jewish quarters in Europe.
Though Catholicism has dominated the country, the history of the Jews in Rome stretched back long before Jesus’ era. Like many immigrants, the Jews came to Italy looking for a better life, while some were prisoners of war when the Romans invaded Judea.
For the most part, the Jewish community lived freely and peacefully until the Dark Ages when they were forced into the Jewish ghetto and walled up until the late 1800s.
It’s this very ghetto, in the area near Campo dei Fiori that’s become the lively Jewish quarter today with locals welcoming tourists to learn about their history and culture.
So, you know when Hanukkah rolls around (beginning December 12 in 2017), the famous neighborhood goes all out by hosting several festivities.
“The combination of great food and a chance to celebrate with a community which owes its origins to the Hanukkah story makes Rome the perfect place to celebrate this year,” Rome expert, Amiel Lindenbaum of Post Haste Travel Service, a Virtuoso Agency, says.
Here he reveals the five ways to celebrate the Festival of Light when you travel to The Eternal City.
The menorah lighting
Even if you weren’t trying to find a Hanukkah celebration, you can’t miss the one in Piazza Barberini.
It’s here that every year a giant (we’re talking 20 feet tall) menorah is lit every night. The illuminated spectacle attracts huge crowds and has become a hot spot during the festive holiday. The ceremony take place around 6 p.m. each night or 4 p.m. on the Sabbath and at the end of Hanukkah, there’s usually a big party with food, dancing, and, of course, wine.
If crowds aren’t your thing, you can head over to Piazza Bologna where a smaller menorah and lighting ceremony take place.
Both menorahs can be reached by Rome’s Metro.
The Hanukkah street party
Via del Portico d’Ottavia
Getty Images/Elizabeth Beard
On December 17, the party really heats up. At 3 p.m., head to Via del Portico d’Ottavia in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto for a Hanukkah party where the entire Jewish community comes together for a lively street party.
“There is dancing and revelry as the different local Jewish organizations set up booths and march in procession, creating an intimate small-town atmosphere,” says Lindenbaum.
Visit the Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue of Rome was built in memory of the city’s ghetto.
The Great Synagogue of Rome hosts dreidel playing, arts and crafts, and children singing Hanukkah songs. Everything in the ghetto stays open for the proceedings. Linger a while for a public Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at 5:45 p.m. in Piazza San Bartolomeo all’Isola (in front of the Great Synagogue) for a chance to hear the Great Synagogue’s choir.
Eat fried food
Roman classic: Carciofi alla giudia.
“Rome has no shortage of classic dishes cooked in oil,” says Lindenabaum. “But, it’s even more special during Hanukkah.” While in the Ghetto, visit restaurants serving delicious kosher Roman fare. Be sure to try the famed carciofi alla giudia (fried artichoke) or eggplant fried in garlic and olive oil at one of the kosher eateries like Bella Carne or Ba’ghetto Meat.
Get a Fritelle de Chanuka
For dessert, Rome has its own version of the jelly doughnut enjoyed during Hanukkah. Fritelle de Chanuka is a sweet dough fritter mixed with raisins and anise seeds, fried in oil and topped with hot honey.
This definitely makes for a decadent holiday treat and can be enjoyed at Yotvata Dairy.
Bella Carne 51 Via del Portico d’Ottavia
Ba’ghetto Meat 57 Via del Portico d’Ottavia
Yotvata Dairy 70 Piazza Cenci
Great Synagogue Lungotevere de’ Cenci, 00186
Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a freelance writer covering travel, food and wellness, and is also an avid truffle lover. Follow her on Instagram at @welltraveler.
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