Not all of Rome’s treasures are hidden behind closed doors and turnstiles. The city’s streets are studded with architectural gems, many of which don’t require standing in long queues for the ticket booth.
If you’re travelling on a budget and still want to experience the city’s fascinating history and architecture, check out these 10 free (& amazing) things to do in Rome.
Remember to pack a good pair of walking shoes as Rome’s cobbled streets are a bit nasty on the feet.
1. Hang out in Piazza Navona
One of Rome’s most beautiful squares, Piazza Navona is adorned with three beautiful fountains, each carrying its own cultural significance. The most famous of these masterpieces is Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) located in the middle of the square. Designed in 1651, the fountain’s marble giants represent the major rivers of the four continents known at the time, while its large Egyptian obelisk dominates the square.
Depending on the time of year, Piazza Navona can either be lively or pleasantly quiet. In December the square hosts the largest Christmas market in Rome, while artists and streets performers breathe life into the place throughout the rest of the year.
2. Marvel at St. Peter’s Basilica
You can’t go to Rome without stopping off at the Vatican City. The world’s smallest independent state, the Vatican City harbours an impressive collection of artefacts from ancient Rome and a wealth of masterpieces by Italy’s greatest artists.
While visiting the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel is not exactly cheap (although I still highly recommend it), entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free. Be prepared to queue for at least half an hour though. If time’s a big issue, you can go for a wander around St. Peter’s square and admire the magnificence of the basilica from the outside.
3. Go inside the Pantheon
This ancient pagan temple is just mind-blowing. Built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in 120AD, the Pantheon is a fascinating work of architectural engineering. In fact, its dome is larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Pantheon was the first pagan temple in Rome to be converted into a church, and during the Renaissance it was also used as a tomb. Among those buried in the Pantheon are the Italian kings Vittorio Emmanuele II and Umberto I, and the great Renaissance painter Raphael.
Getting inside the Pantheon is free. Whilst you’re there, make sure to gaze up at the great occulus in the dome, which provides the only source of light in the church.
4. Toss a coin in Fontana di Trevi
You’ve probably heard and read so much about it already, but seeing Trevi Fountain in real life will leave you speechless. Designed by the Italian architect Nicola Salvi and inaugurated in 1762, this Baroque fountain is around 26m high and 49 wide – so getting a full, tourist-free shot of this masterpiece might be a bit tricky.
Get there very early in the morning if you want to beat the crowds. Tossing a coin in the Trevi Fountain guarantees a return trip to Rome – sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s worth a try!
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5. Explore the Jewish Ghetto
This bustling neighbourhood is a joy to walk through, especially on an empty stomach. Established in 1555, the Jewish Quarter in Rome is believed to be the oldest surviving Jewish community in Europe.
For a truly Roman experience, head to the Jewish Ghetto at lunchtime. The kosher restaurants and bakeries are normally teeming with locals, which is always a good sign.
6. Absorb stunning city views from Gianicolo Hill
A great way to escape the crowds, climbing Gianicolo Hill is worth every drop of sweat. Not only is it a good workout after a hearty meal at the Jewish Ghetto, but this quiet hill is also one of the best photo spots in Rome
. You can spot most of the historic landmarks from the top, and if you go up the hill at sunset you get to see the city swathed in a golden glow.
7. Go for a passeggiata along the Tiber River
It’s what most Romans love to do in the evening. A stroll along the Tiber is a perfect example of the simple pleasures of life. To take a break from Rome’s tourist-clogged streets and heavy traffic, walk down to the riverside, which is generally very quiet and peaceful. Make sure not to miss the gorgeous sunset over Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica.
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8. Wander around Piazza del Popolo
There are two things that Rome is certainly not short of, and these are majestic churches and exquisite fountains. In Piazza del Popolo you’ll find at least three examples of each, including the famous twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto and two Valadier fountains. An Egyptian obelisk dating back to the reign of Sety I stands proudly in the centre of the square, the second oldest in Rome.
Piazza del Popolo had long served as a site for public executions, the last of which was carried out in 1826. The square is now a great spot for people-watching while having a cappuccino or a cornetto.
9. Go up Pincian Hill
Hills are another reason why you need comfy walking shoes for Rome. From Piazza del Popolo, go for a pleasant walk up Pincian Hill and through the Pincio Gardens. Stop for a few moments to absorb more staggering views of the city’s skyline.
If you stick to the main path you end up at Rome’s star attraction. Hint: Audrey Hepburn famously ate a gelato here.
10. Walk down the Spanish Steps
Yes, it’s the iconic Scalina Spagna, which has been inspiring artists, poets and writers since 1725. The English poet John Keats lived in a house at the foot of the steps until his death in 1821.
The best thing to do when visiting the Spanish Steps is to sit down and take in the splendour of the place. Oh, it’s also a great place for celebrity sightings, thanks to the numerous designer shops that line the nearby streets.
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