I visited Rome this summer on a minuscule budget (having already spent the last of my student loan!), so most of the trip revolved around finding exciting but free things to do – here are some of the things I recommend!
One of the most awe-inspiring sights in Rome, the Pantheon was built in the early first century AD by Emperor Hadrian, to replace Marcus Agrippa’s Pantheon, which burnt to the ground in 80 AD. It is the biggest brick dome ever built and has no windows – the only source of light is a 9-meter diameter circular opening in the roof. It was converted into a church in 608 AD and is the burial place of many famous Italians, such as the painter Raphael and kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I. It’s one of my favourite sights in Rome.
Translating as “Field of Flowers”, this Piazza was once just that. Since the Renaissance times, it has been one of the busiest squares in the city – it is home to a market boasting fruit, vegetables and other local produce in the mornings, and becomes a lively hub in the evenings, boasting many restaurants and bars. It’s the perfect place to people watch and catch a glimpse of authentic Italian life. There’s no market on Sundays.
Legend has it that standing with your back to the fountain and throwing the coin with your right hand over your left shoulder will ensure your return to Rome – so I’ll continue to do it every time I go! Internationally famous, the Trevi is biggest fountain in Rome and has appeared in so many films it’s basically a film star in its own right. Admission is free and the only money you’ll spend is the coin you throw – and it’s good to know that the 3000-worth of coins are collected each night and donated to the Italian Red Cross charity. Unfortunately, as the Trevi is one of the most popular sights, it is very popular with pickpockets, and places to eat in the surrounding piazza are generally quite expensive and low quality.
I stumbled across a beautiful garden of orange trees on the Aventine Hill completely by accident when I visited Rome in June. The path leads out to a clearing with a breath-taking vista of the city and is the perfect place to watch the sunset over the skyline.
There are over 900 churches in the Italian capital and many are free to enter, while some expect a small donation. Although I’m not overly religious, I find the churches in Italy completely fascinating: they are almost like museums, full of captivating artwork that leaves you wondering how on earth anyone was able to paint such a huge masterpiece at such a tall height and awkward angle! I find churches are relaxing, cool places to escape the strong sun for a while (although some close for a couple of hours in the afternoon!) However, tourists and locals alike are expected to dress appropriately upon entering places of worship – some churches offer scarves for ladies to cover their bare shoulders with, others will refuse entry. It’s important to remember that Italians are very religious people and expect respect from anyone entering their churches: dress appropriately, talk quietly and take photos with the flash turned OFF!
One of the most elegant piazzas in the city, Piazza Navona boasts three beautiful fountains, including Bernini’s legendary Fountain of the Four Rivers, which is simply fascinating. The square was built in the first century AD is completely pedestrianised, offering a range of restaurants, gelaterias and street artists. Be sure to go inside the church that overlooks the Piazza (called the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone) – it’s just beautiful.
Something I would recommend to anyone travelling to Rome is to ditch the map for an hour or so while you aimlessly wander the maze of streets photographing what you see – the colour palettes of ice cream at the gelateria, the quaint authenticity of the cobbled piazzas, and the overpowering size of renowned monuments such as the Colosseum. The Eternal City is overflowing with historical sights and so much can be seen without spending a penny on admission fees. My favourite things to photograph (besides the other sights mentioned in this post) include the Colosseum, St Peter’s Square, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Vittorio Emanuele II monument (known locally as the ‘wedding cake’) and the Spanish Steps, as well as general local life in the piazzas and along the side streets. Be careful to avoid the men dressed in Roman costumes that generally linger around the top sights; they may offer to take your photo or to pose with you – but for a very steep price!
A very wonderful thing about Rome is that the water in (most of) the fountains is completely drinkable and completely free – useful information when a small bottle of water will typically cost around 2€! There are numerous water fountains dotted around the city, often built into the sides of buildings; the only ones to avoid drinking from are the larger fountains such as the Trevi, which may contain cleaning chemicals. The fountains are understandably very popular: you’ll see tourists filling up their bottles, locals cupping their hands to drink, and even dogs lapping up water from the basins below!
This one isn’t strictly “free” because although the tours don’t charge a set admission fee, it is expected to tip your tour guide anything between five and twenty euros. In my opinion these tours are worth every penny; not only do you benefit from a long, thorough walk through the heart of Rome, but the guides tend to have invaluable knowledge about the history of the city’s sights – so much so that the last time I took a tour, I got out my notebook to scribble down what my guide was saying! The guides are fluent in English as well as numerous other languages, and are genuinely happy to answer any questions you may have. They are a relatively cheap way to see many sights without having to keep your head stuck in a guidebook. http://www.romefreewalkingtour.com – This is the company that I used, but I didn’t book anything before I went – I simply turned up at Piazza di Spagna at 10am!
Again, this is not completely “free”, but… a) The gelato is amazing – the best in the world, I would say – and is very decently priced at around 2-3€ per cone or scoop. Founded in 1890, Giolitti’s is the oldest ice cream parlour in Rome and is one of the most popular with tourists, so is always very busy! A small cone costs 2.50€ and you can pick two scoops of ice cream. b) Walking around Rome at night is simply magical – the city transforms from an over-crowded, tourist hot spot, into a quiet, romantic, Italian città, so you are free to wander the cobbled streets alongside the local night-owls.
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