A Dozen Free Things to Do in Rome, Italy

The Trevi Fountain
Dan Huntley Photography/Moment/Getty Images

You can enjoy Rome on the cheap. Yes, walking the streets doesn't cost a thing but there are things you can do beyond that. There are great attractions in Rome that won't cost a thing. Some are iconic tourist stops, some are grand museums, and some are just for fun, but all are worth your while when visiting Rome. 

Wander the Villa Borghese Gardens

Villa Borghese is the largest public park in Rome and access to gardens is free of charge.

There are several ways to access the gardens, but visitors particularly like the approach from the Spanish Steps. If you want to rent a bike to tour the grounds, they are available for a fee in several locations in the park. You'll also find places to grab a bite, from restaurants to ice cream vendors. The gardens are open from dawn to dusk.

The Villa Borghese Gallery is worth a visit but there is a charge. Since they limit the number of people who visit the art gallery per hour, it is necessary to buy a ticket online. Stroll around the gardens either before or after your visit to the Villa Borghese Gallery.

Walk the Ancient Appian Way

The Appian Way (Via Appia Antica) was Europe's first highway. Built in 312 B.C., the Appian Way connected Rome with Capua running in a straight line for much of the way. The part of the old road close to Rome is part of a nature and archaeological park, the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica.

Walk on the old road out of Rome on Sunday, when no cars are allowed. There are lots of ancient things to see on the peaceful walk, and the park has detailed routes and maps of the best walking and biking routes. While you are there see the ruins of Roman monuments, two major Christian catacombs, and the Domine Quo Vadis Church.

 In the nave look for the footprints reputed to be those of Jesus.

Place Your Hand in the Mouth of Truth

The Piazza Bocca della Verita (Square of the Mouth of Truth) is a square between Via Luigi Petroselli and Via della Greca. Outside of the Church of Santa Maria, you'll find the famous Mouth of Truth disk. Place your hand in the mouth and legend has it that your hand will be bitten off if you've lied. There may be a line and they close promptly at 5:30 p.m.

On the square there much more to see. Two Roman temples, the Tempio di Potuno and the Tempio di Ercole Vincitore, and a nice fountain, Fontana del Tritona, are worth some time.

Toss Three Coins into the Trevi Fountain

No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the beautiful Fontana di Trevi. Have a look at Nicola Salvi's late Baroque waterworks influenced by an earlier try by Bernini, then follow the Roman tradition of throwing a coin into the fountain to guarantee a return to the Eternal City.

The fountain dates back to ancient Roman times in 19 B.C. when the Roman aqueduct was constructed. The aqueduct brought water to the Roman baths and the fountains of central Rome. The fountain was built at the end of the aqueduct, at the junction of three roads.

The three streets (tre vie) give the Trevi Fountain its name, the Three Street Fountain.

Scale the Spanish Steps

The Scalinata di Spagna, steps extending from Piazza di Spagna to Trinita dei Monti, were originally named after the adjacent Spanish Embassy. From the top of the steps, you can get good views of Rome. The steps had a major restoration in 1996, and the once popular art of lunching on the steps is frowned upon and fines may be levied.

At the foot of the steps see the Keats-Shelley Memorial House (open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, admission charge). The area around the steps offers designer shops, restaurants, and bars.

Go to the Vatican Museums

While the Vatican Museums usually charge, you can visit free on the last Sunday of the month from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Also free is an interesting visit under the Vatican to see the excavations and the Wednesday audience with the Pope.

The Vatican Museums contain a vast store of artworks which range from the ancient to the contemporary, including the world-famous Sistine Chapel. As you might expect, there will be lines and crowds.

Partake of the Pantheon

Originally a pagan temple converted into a church in 608AD, the Pantheon is one of the important sites to visit in Rome. You'll find it in Piazza della Rotonda, a favorite hang-out for young folks in the evening. It's the best-preserved monument of imperial Rome, entirely rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian around AD 120 on the site of an earlier pantheon erected in 27 BC by Augustus's general Agrippa. The building is open Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m.- 7:30 p.m. and  Sunday 9 a.m.- 6 p.m.

Crawl the Piazzas

Piazza Navona and Piazza Campo dei Fiori are the two most famous piazze (public squares) in Rome. Piazza Navona, which follows the plan of an ancient circus (public event venue) and contains two famous fountains by Bernini, comes alive in the evenings. Piazza Navona is a wonderful pedestrian square where many locals take their evening stroll.

The Campo dei Fiori (the field of flowers) is best experienced during the daytime market hours. Numerous cafés, restaurants, and bars circle the Campo. You'll eat much cheaper around the Campo dei Fiori, where there are take-out stands and delis everywhere.

Stroll the Neighborhoods

Trastevere, the actual "Italian Quarter" of Rome is a recommended place to explore. The streets are narrow and sometimes winding, although more often than not they will eventually lead back to the Piazza Santa Maria, home to one of the oldest churches in Rome. This piazza is the undisputed heart of Trastevere, full of every kind of person imaginable—both stylish and unsavory (a firm "no" and a stern look will shake off any unwanted attention).

The church is famous for a Byzantine mosaic behind the altar, so drop a few coins in the lightbox (it will illuminate the mosaic for 60 seconds) and spend a few minutes there. It is well worth it.

Testaccio is an old neighborhood built around a hill of amphora (clay vessels) fragments discarded by Roman era merchants who docked nearby at the ancient Tiber port. Car repair shops and trendy clubs and restaurants have been carved out of the base of this hill. Testaccio is rapidly becoming popular with the young, clubby crowd. You can eat organ meats there as real Roman cooking is found in Testaccio

At the northeast corner of the Testaccio district, which it shares with the Aventine hill, you'll see the Porto San Paolo Gatehouse, the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius and the Museo della Via Ostiense and the Basilica of St. Paul.

Visit the Art at Galleria Nazionale Di San Luca

Located at the Piazza dell'Accademia di San Luca, this art gallery is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday. and the last Sunday of the month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Accademia di San Luca was founded in 1577 as an association of artists in Rome, with the purpose of elevating the work of artists in the eyes of the community. At the museum, you can enjoy selected works of Raffaello, Canova, and Van Dyck among other famous names. 

Discover a Hidden Treasure of Rome

The Aula Ottaganale is located at Via Romita (Piazza della Repubblica) and is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. This is one of the "hidden treasures of Rome," according to Select Italy. It houses ancient Roman sculptures in the "Octagonal Hall of the Baths of Diocletian," more commonly known as The Planetarium. This Roman Octagonal Hall was used as a planetarium and when opened in 1928, was dubbed the largest Planetarium in Europe. 

Take Advantage of Last Sunday Free Days

On the last Sunday of the month, you can visit a long list of popular Roman museums for free. Free admission participants include the Borghese Gallery, the Roman Forum, Terme di Caracalla (Caracalla baths), and the National Gallery of Modern Art (Galleria Nazionale Arte Moderna).