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Top 16 (and a half) Free Things to do in Rome

There are lots of free things to do in Rome. I chose 16 things must-see things, which happen to be free. Some of them overlap with each other, so maybe you can kill 2 birds with one stone!

Free Things to do in Rome - What Do you Want to See?

I have broken down my list of Free Things To Do in Rome into these categories:

  • Monuments Squares and Fountains
  • The Vatican (and more)
  • Ancient Roman Ruins
  • Art Masterpieces (Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Bernini)
  • Panoramic City Views
  • Churches

If you want to know what the half-thing is, well it's not really a thing to do per se. But it's a free thing in Rome, and definitely to be enjoyed! Click here to go to the bottom of the page and find out.

I did include a few fountains and squares because, even if it's obvious that they are free, the ones on this list are sites not to miss in Rome.

Free Things to do in Rome - Monuments, Squares and Fountains

Some of the best things in life are free, and this includes the outdoor museum that is Rome.

You can just walk around the historic center and in a very small space and a small amount of time, visit these must-see piazzas, fountains and monuments. (Yes we have so many more, but these are the things not to miss, especially if it's your first time in Rome.)

1) The Pantheon

The pantheon may be tops on my list of free things to do in Rome. I am always amazed that this incredible monument is free and everyone can just go in and enjoy it. In fact, technically it's a church. And for now, visiting churches in Rome is free.

Tip - if you get a chance to see the pantheon in the pouring rain, you should. The rain comes in through the oculus. 

Details and how to get there:

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2) Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain is a gorgeous piece of Baroque (and Rococco) art, right in the center of Rome. You can't miss it and you absolutely should not miss it! 

Tip - If you really want to see this fountain with hardly anyone around, late night is not best, as everyone finds it romantic to visit it at night. Try very very early morning...or in the dead of winter.

Details and how to get there:

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3) Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is one of the best free things to do in Rome because it's a virtual museum of amazing art and sculpture, all on its own.

You want sculpture? There is Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain...but how about the other two fountains on the ends? Yep, one of them was by Bernini also.

And architecture? The church of Sant'Agnese in Agone was designed by Francesco Borromini, but don't miss the façade of the palazzo Pamphilj (today the Brazilian embassy.)

And there is even a bit of ancient Rome you can see here as well. Piazza Navona was originally a stadium about 2000 years ago. You can see some of it (for free) from street level just on the outside western end of the piazza. (To go inside is not free, but it's only 3€ and it's worth it because the exhibit is really well presented. Plus there is a very clean nice bathroom in there!)

Tip - There is even more art on Piazza Navona. Look up into the windows of the Brazilian embassy, which is in fact the Palazzo Pamphilj. You can see the gorgeous ceiling of the gallery vault, with paintings by Pietro da Cortona.

Details and how to get there:

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4) The Spanish Steps

This outdoor monument is not to be missed, and of course it's free. It's also one of the most central monuments in Rome, and it's at a metro stop, so it's very easy to get there.

Tip - try to get views of the staircase from both the bottom and the top. And, if at the top, visit the church, Trinità dei Monti.

Details and how to get there:

Click here to read more about the Spanish Steps.

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Free Things to do in Rome - the Vatican

Of course, the Vatican is not actually IN Rome, it's a separate state. But if you are visiting Rome, you will almost certainly not want to miss a visit to the largest church in the world. And it's just across the river and easy to get to. 

5) Saint Peter's Basilica

Saint Peter's Basilica is a church, so it's free. The Basilica is open every day from 7.00 to 19.00, April to September and from 7.00 to 18.00, October to March. You can visit the church, go up into the cupola, visit the tombs of the popes below, and certainly, stand in Saint Peter's Square and admire Bernini's gorgeous design.

Tip - Another free thing to do in Rome is the Papal Audience. Held Wednesdays, either in the square, in warm weather, or inside during winter, the pope addresses the crowds, and it's free to attend. But you must reserve a spot. +39.06.69883114 – +39.06.69884631; or fax +39.06.69885863.

6) Vatican Museums (free only once a month)

Normally, a ticket to the Vatican museums costs 16 Euros. But, on last Sunday of every month, there is free entrance from 9 am to 12.30 pm. 

Caveat - Since the museums are free only the first Sunday of the month, that is the day they are most crowded. Also the hours are shorter so you have limited time to go this day.

Details and how to get there:

Click here to read more about the Vatican and Vatican Museums.

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Free Things to do in Rome - Ancient Roman Ruins

I walk around Rome a lot. I see Roman ruins everywhere I go, just lying about.

Yes, they are protected, and I am sure they have been studied and cataloged. I don't even know what many of them are.

Rome today is a city sitting on top of lots previous versions of itself. There are ruins underneath us, and often they are exposed. (This is why we don't have an underground metro system in the center of Rome - whenever they dig, they come across more ruins.)

Here are some free things to do in Rome that allow you to get a glimpse of part of its ancient history.

7) Largo Argentina - where Caesar was killed

In the 1920's, they were going to renovate this area of Rome. They came across some huge pieces of ancient marble statues, and thought it would be a good idea to excavate. And this is what they found: 4 temples from the Roman Republic (509 - 27 BC), and also, the remains of the theatre of Pompey. This is where Julius Caesar is thought to have been assassinated.

You cannot go down inside the ruins, but you can see them from all sides. On two sides, there are diagrams with explanations of what you are looking out, and pointing out the building where Caesar was killed.

Tip - The ruins are also home to one of Rome's largest cat sanctuaries, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. If you like cats, you will see lots of them in the ruins. You may also go down the stairs to their shelter and visit, and even adopt, some of the cats there.

Details and how to get there:

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8) Ancient Roman Forum

It's not actually free to go inside the Roman Forum. However, you can see the ruins quite well from outside if you like. 

If you walk down the via dei Fori Imperiali towards the Coliseum, you will see ruins from Trajan's Forum on the left hand side. On the right, you will see a sloping hill going up towards the side of the Roman Forum. You can take this hill and view the forum from the side. And/or, you may go to the Campidoglio, the plaza at the top of Capitoline Hill, and gaze down on the ruins of the Forum from above. It's your best photo op in Rome!

Tip - If you decide you want to visit the Roman Forum, note that the ticket to get in is the same as the ticket to the Coliseum and to the Palatine Hill. It's one ticket and it's valid for 48 hours. Happy exploring!

Details and how to get there:

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9) Appia Antica

The Appia Antica, or Appian Way, was one of the ancient Roads leading into and out of Rome. It's full of ruins, including aqueducts, mausoleums, temples, castles and several catacombs.

While walking along this wonderful stretch of road is free, it may not be convenient to get here without some form or paid transportation such as a combination of metro + bus, or just bus, or, taking the Archeobus. Also, if you want to go inside any of the monuments along the Appia Antica, including the catacombs, tombs, etc, there is an entry fee for these.

But, walking along it is free. I do it often since I live near it, and I never get tired of it.

Tip - a popular Roman thing to do, especially on Sundays and holidays when traffic is closed on this road, is to rent a bike and ride around out here. It's a huge outdoor park with so much to see, and lots of places to plunk down in the grass and have a nap.

Details and how to get there:

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Free Things to do in Rome - Masterpieces

So I just happen to live in the city where some of the most gifted artists in the world hung out, and made things. Aren't I lucky? Yes I am and I know it. I try to take advantage as much as I can!

You can visit many things by these well-known artists, all for free.

Of course, there are many other artists responsible for art and architecture in Rome. And there are other works by the below artists in Rome, that are not free (for example inside the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery and the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, to name a few.)

I singled these out as must-sees...and in this list of free things to do in Rome, they are absolutely not to be missed if you are an art-fan!

10) Michelangelo

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, usually called just Michelangelo, (1475 -1564), was responsible for a lot of art and architecture in Rome. You probably know he designed a lot of art for the Vatican as well (he painted the Sistine Chapel, and the Last Judgement; he designed Saint Peter's Basilica, and more.)

You can see quite a bit of Michelangelo's work in Rome for free. Here is a short list:

  • Christ the Redeemer (sculptor)
  • Moses (sculptor)
  • Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (architect)
  • Saint Peter's Basilica (architect)
  • The pietà inside of Saint Peter's Basilica (sculptor)
  • Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio) - architect

Since I already included the Saint Peter's Basilica (where you can see some of Michelangelo's art for free), I'll just briefly explain the others in the list above.

Christ the Redeemer

This small but very clearly Michelango sculpture is inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra la Minerva, right behind the pantheon. The loin cloth was added in the 1600's, to try to mask the nudity. 

Details and how to get there:

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This wondrous sculpture of Moses is said to be Michelangelo's favourite piece of work of his. Seeing it in person, I can understand why (although I personally am in complete awe of the pietà inside Saint Peter's).

The carving of the body is exquisite, the tufts of hair on Moses' beard are infinitely detailed and life-like, and the look on Moses' face is one of pure joy. He is seated as Michelangelo often sculpted and painted important figures: half sitting, half seemingly about to stand. In other words, in a position to impart wisdom.

There are lots of debates about why Moses has horns on his head. Mostly it comes down to a probable misinterpretation of Hebrew texts. The bottom line is that Michelangelo probably meant to portray Moses as glowing with joy from seeing God.

Tip - Once you are in this church, called San Pietro in Vincoli - or, Saint Peter in Chains, then you will also see the chains that held Saint Peter.

Details and how to get there:

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Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Michelangelo helped with the design of this basilica, which was made from the ruins of the Diocletian baths. Michelangelo designed the vaulted ceilings when he was 89 years old. It was the last piece of architectural work he did before he died.

Tip - Another wonderful thing to see in this amazing church is the Octagonal Hall, built into the Diocletian Baths, behind the sacristy.

Details and how to get there:

Click here to read more about Santa Maria degli Angeli e Dei Martiri on my page about Special Churches in Rome.

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Campidoglio - Capitoline Hill

Thousands of visitors a day go to the Capitoline Hill, to gaze upon the ruins of the Roman Forum, or to visit the Capitoline Museums, or just to climb the ramp and go up there and look around. Not many people realise that the square itself was designed by Michelangelo.

He designed the shape, the orientation (turning it away from ancient Rome, to face Papal and Christian Rome), and the facades of the buildings around the square, with the goal of creating harmony and equilibrium. Most of his designs were not completed until longer after his death, but he is the one responsible for the beauty of this most important piazza in Rome (today where city hall is, and by the way, where I got married!)

Details and how to get there:

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11) Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, usually known as just Caravaggio, is one of my favourite painters of all. He was a young, gifted, and troubled man, who had an amazing talent to paint things in a new light - literally.

He was known for creating a kind of style called chiaroscuro, meaning "light on dark." When you look at a Caravaggio painting, you will see what I mean. 

He was also famous for being one of the first artists to use real people as models for his paintings. Like Roman prostitutes and beggars...with dirty feet, wrinkles and warts.

In fact, for this reason his paintings were not always accepted, appreciated or understood at the time. There is so much more to be said about this wonderful artist but for now, I'll leave you with a list of the three churches in Rome where you can see his art for free:

Santa Maria del Popolo

Santa Maria del Popolo is right on Piazza Del Popolo, not far from the Spanish Steps. The Caravaggio paintings are in the back chapel, on the left-hand side. You will need to put in a coin to light them up, but I find someone has usually already done so by the time I get there.

You cannot really look at the paintings straight on: they are one each side wall, so you have to kind of lean in and peer at them. But take your time. They are typical, artful, story-telling paintings, told so well by Caravaggio.

Extra goodies - the apse of this church was designed by Bramante. There is a side chapel on the left side, as you walk towards the Caravaggios, that showcases 4 exquisite Bernini sculptures. If you stand in the middle of this chapel and look straight up, you will see a mosaic on the ceiling, designed by Raphael.

Details and how to get there:

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San Luigi dei Francesi

This gem of a church is tucked just between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, and is worth going in to gaze at the baroque interior of the church itself. It was recently renovated so looks almost sparkling new, especially with so much gold inlay.

But of course the main attraction is the chapel with the triptych by Caravaggio: the Life of Saint Matthew. It's another place that requires a coin to light it up, but I have never needed to do so, as many times as I have gone in.

Details and how to get there:

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Sant'Agostino may be one of my favorite of the Caravaggio churches because it's so hidden away, and also because the painting of Madonna di Loreto is so jaw-droppingly gorgeous, so Caravaggio. It is a perfect example of his chiaroscuro technique, and is famous for his use of real people as models. The look on Mary's face is so expressive and beautiful. This is one of Cavaraggio's paintings I spend the most time staring at.

Details and how to get there:

Click here to read more about Sant'Agostino on my page about Special Churches in Rome.

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12) Bernini

Of the three artists I list here, Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the one most responsible for so much of what you see in Rome. He was an architect and sculptor and even a painter. His architecture can be found in many places, most notably Saint Peter's Square and the church itself. Some of his most beautiful sculptures can be seen only by visiting the Galleria Borghese (museum.)

The list of free Bernini things to see in Rome would be very long, so I will leave you with a very short list of my favourites, not covered in some of the other categories already on this page:

Piazza Barberini

At Piazza Barberini, you can see Bernini's fountain Tritone, or Triton. It's recently (end of 2013) been completely cleaned, so it's strangely new-looking, but always magnificent.

A little known fact is that also on piazza Barberini, you can spot a little drinking fountain, with a half-clamshell and two bees. The bees represent the Barberini family, for whom Bernini made the fountain. You can even drink this water, and I always do!

Saint Teresa in Ecstasy

Ponte Sant'Angelo, or the Angel Bridge

Free Things to do in Rome - panoramic city views

I suppose this is also an obvious thing to list, but these views are all so worthwhile that I think it's a good way to round out the list of free things to do in Rome. Getting a panoramic view of Rome so worthwhile, and here you have 3 different possibilities.

13) Pincio

14) Gianicolo

15) Aventine

Free Things to do in Rome - Churches

16) Churches in Rome

Of course churches are free things to do in Rome. The thing about churches in Rome is that almost all of them are little museums of architecture and art in and of themselves. They are also free, cool places to sit down.

There are so many beautiful churches in Rome and you can come across some gems just by popping into one when you see it. But, of course there are some really special ones. I have mapped out my favourites on another page.

You can click here to visit my page about Special Churches in Rome.

Free in Rome - water, water everywhere

16 ½) - Rome's drinking fountains

Drinking water in Rome is not really a "thing" to do, but since water in Rome is everywhere, and free, I thought I'd tack it on to the end of this list. Also, I find it fun and interesting to test out the different drinking fountains all over Rome.

First of all, some of them have odd shaped spouts.

Second of all, the water comes from some different sources, and I have learned to tell the difference in taste between them. It's pretty crazy the stuff you get familiar with when you live someplace isn't it?

Anyway, the water in Rome comes from the mountains outside Rome. It comes over the aqueducts (yes those aqueducts), and arrives at the many fountains you see in Rome...including all the little drinking fountains called Nasone. (This means literally, "big nose.")

Typically these fountains are a bit anonymous, and I like to say to make sure not to drink from any of the big Bernini Fountains in Rome...but, if you go back up the page, you will find there is one Bernini Fountain you can drink of: the fountain of the bees in Piazza Barberini. My favourite.

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