Rome is a city where the doors of the art-laden churches are flung open to all, where ancient architectural wonders await around many corners, and it costs nothing to roam (pun intended) the historic streets, piazzas and parks.
A surprising number of the famous sights in Italy’s magnificent capital city are completely free to visit, and we can show you how.
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1. Gaze upwards in the Pantheon
This impeccably preserved 2000-year-old temple, which is now a church, is the best preserved of Rome’s ancient monuments. Built by Hadrian over Marcus Agrippa’s earlier 27 BCE temple, the Pantheon has stood since around 125 CE.
It is a unique and exhilarating experience to enter the Pantheon’s vast bronze doors and gaze at the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built. A visit to the Pantheon should be on everyone’s Rome bucket list if only to be reminded that before Rome was the seat of Catholic power, the people here honored a different set of gods.
2. Admire the riches of St Peter’s Basilica
And to be reminded where the power lies today, the city’s largest, richest and most spectacular basilica leaves all other churches in its shadow and is completely free to enter.
There will probably be a queue to enter Rome’s showstopping St Peter’s Basilica, but after taking 126 years to build, maybe a little wait to see this opus isn’t so bad. St Peter’s Basilica is home to three of Italy’s most celebrated masterpieces, Michelangelo’s Pieta, his soaring dome and Bernini’s 29m-high (95ft) baldachin over the papal altar.
3. Watch the street artists on Piazza Navona
Come in the early morning before the crowds, or after dark when the fountains, like Bernini’s iconic, are illuminated to enjoy Piazza Navona at its most alluring. Or better yet, come when it’s crowded to watch the street performers and tourists come and go and hang out until dusk.
Long a hub of local life in Rome, Piazza Navona hosted Rome’s main market for nearly 300 years. Now there is a Christmas market during the holiday season and plenty of activity year round.
Planning Tip: Need to quench your thirst? Fill your water bottle at the nasone (big nose) drinking fountain in the north of the piazza.
Watch life go by around the Spanish Steps © Apostolos Giontzis / Getty Images
4. Climb the Spanish Steps to the Convent of Trinità dei Monti
People are no longer allowed to sit on the Spanish Steps, but you can still climb them. At the very top of the city’s most famous staircase perches Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti. Duck inside and take in spectacular works of art, including frescoes, an astrolabe, and a duo of anamorphoses, wall paintings that appear to change entirely depending on where you stand.
5. Toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain
The gorgeous over-the-top rococo Trevi Fountain depicts wild horses, mythical figures and cascading rock falls. It’s an unforgettable sight any time of day but is particularly spellbinding after dark when it’s all lit up. According to legend, tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain will ensure your return to Rome.
Planning Tip: It’s a rite of passage for tourists to part with a coin at the fountain – on an average day about €3000 is chucked over shoulders into the water – but with all that money comes crowds of people, so don’t be surprised to be jostling for space. It might be slightly quieter if you visit late in the evening.
6. Soak up the artistic vibes of Via Margutta
Take a stroll down the charming, ivy draped and prettily cobbled, Via Margutta. Picasso worked at gallery No 54 and the Italian Futurists had their first meeting here in 1917. Frederico Fellini even lived here for a while. It was also where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck rendezvoused in silver screen classic Roman Holiday (1953). It is truly picture-perfect.
The shady oasis of Villa Borghese is perfect for a picnic and a romantic stroll © Giordano Cantone / Shutterstock
7. Wander the paths of Villa Borghese
Locals, lovers, tourists, joggers – no one can resist the lure of Rome’s most famous park. Villa Borghese is an oasis of shaded walkways, verdant corners and excellent museums to be explored. The lovingly landscaped Giadino del Lago features a copy of a Roman Temple on the lake’s artificial islet.
Planning Tip: For panoramic views of St Peter’s walk up Pincio Hill and head for the terrace.
8. Pay tribute in the Jewish Ghetto
This atmospheric area is studded with artisans’ studios, kosher bakeries and popular trattorias. Dating back to the 2nd century BCE, this is one of the oldest Jewish quarters in Europe. While some Jewish people came as business envoys, most came as enslaved people.
As you stroll around look for a series of brass cobblestones. These are memorial plaques commemorating the city’s Holocaust victims: each one names a person and gives the date and destination of their deportation and death. They are placed outside the victims’ homes.
9. Tip generously on a “free” walking tour
New Rome Free Tour runs daily themed walking tours of the historic center. The guides will lead you through the tightly packed tangle of cobbled alleyways, Renaissance palaces, ancient ruins and baroque piazzas all the while narrating the deep and storied history of Rome. It is truly a theatrical experience.
Planning Tip: Book your place in advance and remember that while there’s no charge for the tour tips are expected at the end.
Sightsee at your own pace on the Via Appia Antica © ValerioMei / Shutterstock
10. Explore the Via Appia Antica
Antiquity’s most famous road, Via Appia Antica, has been one of Rome’s most exclusive addresses since 312 BCE. The most pleasant way to explore is on foot, making it perfect for a free experience. Its a beautiful cobbled thoroughfare flanked by grassy fields, Roman structures and towering pine trees. It was here that Spartacus and 6000 of his slave rebels were crucified and it was here that early Christians buried their dead.
Planning Tip: For more information and a map of the area stop by the Service Center Appia Antica at the northern end of the road.
11. Find peace in Cimitero Acattolico
A verdant oasis of peace, Rome’s non-Catholic cemetery is imbued with a kind of Grand Tour romance. Up to 4000 people are buried here, including poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
As you wander among the gravestones look for the Angelo del Dolore (Angel of Grief), a much replicated 1894 sculpture that US artist William Wetmore Story created for his wife’s grave.
12. Visit Bernini’s masterpiece at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria
The roadside Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria is the unlikely setting for one of Italian baroque’s great masterpieces, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa. It’s in the fourth chapel on the north side.
Planning Tip: This stunning major artwork is best viewed in the afternoon when it’s bathed in soft natural light filtering through a concealed window.
Hosting a huge market by day and revelry at night, you could spend the whole day in Campo de’ Fiori © Di Gregorio Giulio / Shutterstock
13. Browse the market at Campo de’ Fiori
Colorful and always busy, Campo de’ Fiori is a major focus of Roman life: by day it hosts one of the city’s best-known markets; by night its bars and restaurants do a brisk trade. The piazza’s poetic name (Field of Flowers) is a reference to the open meadow that stood here before the square was laid out in the mid-15th century.
14. Marvel at Renaissance architecture at Tempietto del Bramante
Bramante’s tempietto (little temple) is considered the first great building of the High Renaissance. It is a perfect little surprise squeezed into the courtyard of the Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio, on the spot where St Peter is said to have been crucified. Its classically inspired design and ideal proportions epitomize Renaissance zeitgeist.
Planning Tip: It is quite a climb up to the church, but it is an ideal stop on a walking tour of Gianicolo. The tempietto is reached through the Spanish Royal Academy entrance to the north of the church. If you can get access to the academy’s upper level, there are magnificent views of Rome.
15. Find the hidden square through Arco degli Acetari
For one of Rome’s most picture-perfect scenes, head to this dark archway just off Campo de’ Fiori. The arch in itself isn’t especially memorable, but go through it and you’ll emerge onto a tiny medieval square enclosed by rusty orange houses and cascading plants. Cats and bicycles litter the cobbles, while overhead washing hangs off pretty flower-lined balconies.
Piazza del Campidoglio is one of Rome’s most beautiful squares © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet
16. Head up to hilltop Piazza del Campidoglio
This hilltop piazza, designed by Michelangelo in 1538, is one of Rome’s most beautiful squares.
Planning Tip: There are several approaches to Piazza del Campidoglio, but the most dramatic is the graceful Cordonata staircase, which leads up from Piazza d’Aracoeli.
17. Learn about legends in Chiesa di San Pietro in Vincoli
This church was built to house the shackles of St Peter that are displayed under the altar. But the real star of the show at the 5th-century Chiesa di San Pietro in Vincoli is Michelangelo’s muscular Moses, which has its own interesting legend involving a mistranslation and a purposeful “‘mistake”.
Planning Tip: The church is accessed via a steep flight of steps leading up from Via Cavour and passing under a low arch.
18. Peer into Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta
You probably can’t go into the Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta but head over to the Sovereign Order of Malta anyway and peek through the keyhole. You’ll see one of Rome’s most celebrated views – St Peter’s dome perfectly framed at the end of a hedge-lined avenue.
19. Partake in the passeggiata
The passeggiata (traditional evening stroll) is a quintessential Roman experience. It’s particularly colorful at weekends when families, friends and lovers take to the streets to strut up and down, slurp on gelato and window-shop.
Planning Tip: To join in, head to Via del Corso around 6pm. Alternatively, watch the theatrics on Piazza di Spagna.
20. Marvel at religious artworks in Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi
Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi is home to three of Carvaggio’s earliest religious works collectively known as the St Matthew Cycle, which embodies down-to-earth realism. It uses stunning chiaroscuro (the bold contrast of light and dark) that the painter is known for.
Planning Tip: Before you leave the church, take a moment to enjoy Domenichino’s faded 17th-century frescoes of St Cecilia in the second chapel on the right.
21. See atmospheric architecture in Quartiere Coppedè
One of Rome’s most extraordinary neighborhoods, Quartiere Coppedè was conceived and built by the little-known Florentine architect, Gino Coppedè, between 1913 and 1926. It’s a fairy-tale series of palazzos with Tuscan turrets, Liberty sculptures, Moorish arches, Gothic gargoyles, frescoed facades and palm-fringed gardens centering around the magnificent Piazza Mincio.
22. Visit the landmark Trajan’s Column
The ancient landmark of Trajan’s Column towers over the Imperial Forums. If you can make them out, the reliefs depict Trajan’s military campaigns.
23. Attend the Pope’s weekly address
The Pope holds a weekly audience in the Vatican on Wednesdays, which is free to attend.
24. Some of Rome’s best attractions are free at specific times
Time your visit just right and you could be doing some of Rome’s very best paid-for activities for absolutely nothing at all. On the first Sunday of the month, the Colosseum, Palatino, and Roman Forum are free to visit. The Vatican Museums can be visited for free on the last Sunday of the month.
25. Rome’s May Day Concert is a free event
The May Day Concert on May 1 is a huge (and free) celebration in the city.