Though Rome is one of the most culturally rich cities in the world, it’s perfectly possible to experience the city on a shoestring budget. Evocative piazzas and neighbourhoods offer ample opportunity for exploring, and you can visit some of the most famous sites free of charge.
Piazza Navona is one of the most famous and arguably the most beautiful of Rome’s many squares
Soak up the atmosphere in Piazza Navona
This opulent baroque square is one of Rome’s best-loved public spaces. Home to three elaborate fountains and an Egyptian obelisk, it’s lined with restaurants and grand terracotta-coloured mansions, and thrums around the clock with street artists, performers and camera-toting tourists. It’s the perfect place to sit and listen to talented musicians, watch the portrait painters at work, or simply immerse yourself in typical Roman life.
Stroll the Trastevere district
On the west bank of the Tiber, the bohemian quarter of Trastevere is characterised by its cobbled streets, medieval mansions and diminutive squares. Formerly a working-class district, the area is best-known today for its vibrant nightlife scene, as well as for its many decent trattorias and gelato stands. Head to the central Piazza di Santa Maria for a good sense of place, then peel off into the labyrinthine streets for a chance to get lost in this charming Roman neighbourhood.
Take a free walking tour
If you’re new to Rome, a free walking tour could be the best to way to get a handle on the city. Departing twice daily from the Spanish Steps (outside the Keats-Shelley Memorial House), the New Rome Free Tour includes many of the Eternal City’s highlights, including Bernini’s angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge, and the Andrea Pozzo trompe-l’oeil inside Sant’Ignazio church. The tours are open to everyone and last two hours.
St Peter’s Basilica
Brave the queues to experience the majesty of St Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. This Renaissance masterpiece is set within the papal state of Vatican City, and its interior is a mind-boggling mix of marble, gilt and mosaics. Look up at Michelangelo’s imposing dome and admire Bernini’s sculpted bronze baldachin canopy. The works of art here are too numerous to mention; just be sure to adhere to the strict dress code of no bare knees or shoulders to make sure you’re allowed in.
People-watch on the Spanish Steps
Rising from the Piazza di Spagna to another square above, the 135-step staircase named after the Spanish Embassy is one of Rome’s most bewitching people-watching spots. Ever since they were built, the steps have been a popular hangout for the city’s youth, and have featured in numerous songs and movies, including Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Dripping with colourful bougainvillea in spring, there aren’t many more photogenic spots in the city.
The Spanish Steps were built in order to link the Trinità dei Monti Church that was under the patronage of the King of France, with the Spanish square below
Explore Villa Borghese
Escape the traffic and recharge your batteries on a self-guided walking tour of Villa Borghese, Rome’s most popular public park. With English-style landscaping and manicured gardens, its nearly 200 acres are an ideal place to unwind. Established by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 1600s, the park is also home to a number of important museums and monuments, as well as a small zoo in the northeast corner. And, of course, there’s the famous Borghese Gallery, with works by Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens and Raphael.
Throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain
Overlooking tiny Piazza di Trevi, the Trevi Fountain is one of Rome’s most iconic attractions. Spanning an entire façade of the 17th-century Palazzo Poli, the lavish monument is best visited at night when it’s beautifully illuminated and marginally less thronged with coin-throwing visitors.
Admire the Pantheon’s dome
Dating from 125 CE, this extraordinary structure is one of the architectural wonders of the world. Built by Hadrian on the site of an earlier temple, it’s the most intact ancient building in Rome, with a vast unreinforced concrete dome that’s the largest of its type in the world. Wander inside through the gigantic bronze doors and look upwards to appreciate this Roman marvel. The only source of light is from a 27ft-wide oculus at the apex of the dome, which is said to represent the ‘all-seeing eye’ of the almighty.
The Protestant Cemetery is a powerful and moving experience
Wander the Protestant Cemetery
Set amid tall green cypress trees, the lovely Cimitero Acattolico – Rome’s famed cemetery for non-Catholics – is an oasis of calm in the Testaccio neighbourhood. Best-known as the resting place of the English poets Keats and Shelley, it’s also home to the graves of other notable creative types, including writers, painters, sculptors, architects and philosophers. Full of lush greenery and frequented by the odd feral cat, the cemetery offers the chance for some quiet reflection in the Eternal City.