The Best Things in Life are Free.
Well, not always. Rome can be an expensive city to visit as it has a staggering number of museums and private galleries to see but fear not if you are on a budget this article is full of great free things to do in Rome without burning a hole in your wallet.
Rome is essentially a living museum; around every corner you will find something with rich cultural history from ancient monuments to the piazzas and the churches. Ancient monuments like the Colosseum, part of the Roman Forum and the imperial forums can be viewed from the outside. The Circus Maximus is essentially a large field between two hills, but it has a beautiful view of the buildings up on the Palatine hill.
Simply wandering around the city, you will find endless Piazzas with beautiful fountains to discover, tiny backstreets that take you back to a simpler time…. there are churches galore with priceless artwork inside and you could even go on an obelisk treasure hunt! Aside from all this here are some of our recommendations for the best free things to do in Rome.
Best free things to do in Rome
Go to the market
Campo dei Fiori has a daily market Monday to Saturday which closes mid-afternoon. Here you can find fruit and vegetables, varied pasta and oils to take home for presents to clothing, handbags and hats. The square itself is in the oldest medieval part of town and is a pleasure to explore the winding cobbled streets
Porta Portese is a weekly market selling everything from second-hand clothes to antiques. This takes place in Trastevere on Sunday mornings, but you should get there early to find a bargain!
Slightly further afield is Testaccio, which has an indoor market with numerous stalls selling vegetables, homemade pasta, clothes and other interesting little stalls. This is a good place to take a self-guided food tour, stopping at each stall to taste a different local specialty. Here, if you want to go really native you could stop at Mordi & Vai famous among locals for Roman street food and have a Panino con la trippa (tripe sandwich).
If you like slow food or the Zero km concept where you buy food directly from small local producers then the weekend market of Campagna Amica near the Circo Massimo is for you! Open Saturday and Sunday mornings until 3, you can buy local produce including bread, cheese, cold meats, and even home-made wine! You can even taste before you buy! If you don’t fancy to take away, they have a food court where you can taste a limited menu of fresh seasonal dishes. I suggest buying a selection and having a picnic in the Circus Maximus nearby.
Go to Church
Rome has a zillion churches… ok the official count is 986, even if you are not religious you should check out a few because you never know what stunning artwork you may find by famous artists. Rome is unique in Italy in that every single church is FREE (except the Sistine chapel). Also, because they are mostly covered in marble on the inside, they are often the coolest places in Rome in the blistering summer heat. Be sure to take scarves with you to cover knees and shoulders as a certain dress code is expected inside catholic churches. Here is a list of churches not to miss and the reason why:
Basilica San Pietro despite being in Vatican City is still free. However, in high season you should expect long queues unless you go very early or very late in the day (or as part of a guided tour). Here you will numerous artworks in the private chapels, the most well-known is, of course, the Pieta by Michelangelo, he also designed but never completed the dome. The Baroque sculptor Bernini also adorned many chapels with elegant sculptures, but the most impressive of his work inside is the huge bronze baldechino, a 30m canopy that stands over the tomb of St Peter. You can also visit the papal tombs below.
San Luigi dei Francesi contains three pieces by Caravaggio: The inspiration of St Matthew, the Calling of St Matthew and the Martyrdom of St Matthew. You may have to spend €1 to light up the paintings if it is a dull day!
Santa Maria del Popolo in Piazza del Popolo also contains works by Caravaggio and Bernini among others including Algardi, Pinturicchio and a dome decorated by Raphael. For Dan Brown fans this church is a must as it features in the movie Angels and Demons:
• Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter by Caravaggio
• Creation of the World by Raphael
• Habakkuk and the Angel and Daniel and the Lion by Bernini
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva behind the Pantheon is a deceptively large church, inside you will find a statue of Christ by Michelangelo. Standing in front of the church you can also marvel at the elephant and obelisk by Bernini. This church also shows us some historical information, on the side of the church you will find a number of plaques from the 15th and 16th centuries showing the height of floodwaters in Rome. This is the lowest part of the city and so was often flooded when the Tiber burst its banks.
Put your hand in the mouth of truth
On the porch of the church Santa Maria in Cosmedin is the Bocca Della Verita or ‘mouth of truth’, a large marble disk with the design of a face on it. According to legend dating to medieval times, if you placed your hand into the mouth and told a lie, your hand would be bitten off. Made famous by the movie Roman Holiday, there is often a line today and a small cost of €2 to enter. Rest assured you will not lose your hand; many tourists and some Romans don’t know they are actually putting their hands in an ancient sewer cover YUK!
Explore the Aventine
The Aventine hill is a wonderful tranquil area of Rome to discover. Behind the Circus Maximus, the hill leads up through the Rose Gardens of Rome to Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, here you will find the secret keyhole. Directly in front of the priory is the church of Saint Anselmo run by the Benedictines, you can visit the church and gift shop which sells liqueurs, chocolate and perfumes produced there.
The Rose Garden of Rome is a wonderful space in springtime when the roses are in bloom. Over 1,100 varieties of Rose are organised by species. Originally a Jewish graveyard, today the garden is arranged with pathways forming a large menorah to remember its former use. From the garden you can gaze at the Circus Maximus and the buildings of the Palatine hill behind. Top tip: Climb Rome’s seven hills to witness Rome’s dramatic skyline.
The Not so secret ‘secret keyhole’ is on the gate of the priory of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine hill. Put your eye to the keyhole and you will see a perfectly framed view that spans three countries. Standing in Italy, you look through the official territory of Malta to marvel at the dome of St Peter’s in Vatican City.
The Aventine hill also has an Orange garden with a viewing terrace overlooking the city. Beside the Orange Garden is an ancient church dating back to the 5th century AD, Santa Sabina. Often overlooked, it has a simple design with tombs laid directly into the floor and the original wooden doors.
See the Pope
Every Wednesday morning the pope makes a formal address in St Peter’s square, hundreds of chairs are lined up in the piazza to seat the public. Although it is free to attend you must get tickets in advance from the Swiss Guards at the “Bronze Doors” located just after security at St Peter’s Basilica. Tickets are available the day before the audience from 3-7 pm.
The old working-class neighbourhoods of Testaccio are off the main tourist drag, but it is a great place to explore ranging from ancient to thoroughly modern.
On the edge of the area is the Pyramid, yes Rome has a pyramid, but made of marble! It dates back to 12BC and is a tomb for Gaius Cestius, a magistrate and member of the priestly colleges who no doubt served in Egypt. He requested the construction in 330 days, if completed the slave labourers would be granted their freedom. It is 37m tall and entirely faced with Carrara marble.
You can marvel at the 3rd century Aurelian wall that seems to cut the pyramid in half and at the huge Stone gate flanked by two towers which is the ancient gate that led to Ostia the port of Rome(Porta Ostiense) Today the gate is called the Porta San Paolo after the Basilica to St Paul which is further down the via Ostiense.
Behind the pyramid is the Cimitero Acattolico or Non-Catholic Cemetery housing the graves of many notable foreigners who died in Rome. It is the final resting place of non-Catholics including but not exclusive to Protestants or British people. Most notable are the graves of English Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley and the German author Goethe. The graves are well kept amid Cypress and pomegranate trees and many of the gravestones are extremely beautiful.
If you take Via Galvani you will reach the Monte Testaccio – a manmade mountain of broken pottery dating back to Roman times. You can still see through the vegetation, carefully stacked broken amphora shards from the 3rd century AD – A 1700-year-old rubbish dump! Further down the road, you will find the modern covered market and some interesting street art.
Most museums in Rome require tickets but on the First Sunday of the month state museums and archaeological sites are free. The Vatican Museums opens on the last Sunday of the month also without a charge.
The following smaller and slightly quirky museums are always free:
Museo Storico della Liberazione records the Nazi occupation of Rome, through documents and photographs. The site of the museum was used by the SS to torture members of the Italian Resistance and was used as a command centre and prison. It also covers the Jewish persecutions and anti-Semitic orders of the time.
Museo Barracco or Barracco Museum of Antique Sculpture is a private collection of over 400 pieces given to the Italian state in 1902. It has a fine collection of Egyptian, Assyrian and Phoenician art, as well as Greek sculptures of the classical period.
Museo Carlo Bilotti is a modern art gallery set in the orangery in Villa Borghese. Named after the Cosmetics buyer and passionate art collector Carlo Bilotti. Here you will find works collected by various artists including Giorgio De Chirico, Gino Severini, Andy Warhol and Larry Rivers.
Museo Napoleonico as the name suggests this small elegant museum is dedicated to Napoleon and the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. Here you will learn more about his family, ties and influence in Rome in public and private.
Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen is dedicated to the Norwegian sculptor and artist Hendrik Christian Andersen moved to Rome in the 1890s and would stay for 50 years. It houses over 200 classically themed sculptures in marble and bronze and a collection of his paintings
Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi is dedicated to the decorative arts, clothing and Italian fashion. The museum is set in a villa with original furnishing tapestries, paintings and ceramics including Italian fashion from the 1900s to the present are on display.
Museo delle Mura or the Museum of the Walls is an archaeological museum in the Aurelian walls housed in the Porta San Sebastiano at the beginning of the Appian Way. Here you can walk on top of the walls and visit the museum explaining defence in the Roman empire and how the Aurelian walls of 275 AD protected Rome for over 1500 years.