When visiting Rome, you’ll find that art, culture and history literally (or, rather, metaphorically) leap at you from every corner. If you happen to be on a budget, there’s no reason not to enjoy the very best the city has to offer: from parks to museums, from renaissance squares to archeological sites, some of the finest, world-famous landmarks and attractions can be visited for free. Rome will welcome you with open arms and allow you to enjoy some of the most iconic artworks in human history free of charge.
1. Piazza Navona
If you want to behold Italian Baroque at its glorious best, there’s no better place to start than Piazza Navona. The Fountain of the Four Rivers is probably the best known feature of this historical square. It is a masterpiece of both sculpture and architecture, commissioned to Lorenzo Bernini by Pope Innocent X, and it represents the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile and the Rio De La Plata. Here you will also find the magnificent church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, designed by Bernini’s alleged “rival” Francesco Borromini. The square was originally designed as a stadium, so that it could be sealed off and flooded, to host mock naval battles.
2. Trevi Fountain
This is the spot that every single tourist in Rome wants to visit, therefore it is advisable to avoid rush hour if you want to enjoy it properly and take a few good photos. It is also incomparably more romantic to throw your coin in the fountain under the moonlight, after a delicious roman dinner in one of the many nearby trattorias. This fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi and it is encased in a historical building known as Palazzo Conti di Poli. Bonus tip: we all love Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but that doesn’t mean that your are allowed to bathe in the fountain. Please, don’t.
3. The Rose Garden
This is a little known public garden, only open to the public in springtime, when the roses are in bloom. It is located on the Aventine Hill, a short walk from the Circus Maximus, and it contains over a thousand different varieties of roses from all over the world. This is a stunning place to visit, despite being usually overshadowed by better known parks and gardens such as Villa Borghese and Villa Pamphili. Its 10.000 square meters are divided into sections, each section containing different types of roses, from shrubs to hybrids, from miniature roses to climbers.
4. Caravaggios. Caravaggios everywhere
There are several places in Rome where you can admire Caravaggio’s masterpieces and three of them happen to be churches, which means you can visit them for free. In San Luigi dei Francesi, close to piazza Navona, you will find the well known tryptic of St Matthew. These three paintings – The calling of St Matthew, The Martyrdom of St Matthew and St Matthew and the Angel – were commissioned for the Contarelli chapel and they were instrumental in making Michelangelo Merisi one of the most admired painters of its time. In the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, you will find two more of Caravaggio’s masterpieces: the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter. Both these paintings – and this also happens to be the case with St Matthew and the Angel – are second versions. The first attempts were rejected by the commissioners as too realistic and therefore unfit to the representation of sacred subjects. In the Church of St Augustine you will find the Madonna di Loreto (also known as the Madonna of the Pilgrims), which was commissioned by the Cavalletti family when Caravaggio was at the apex of his career and fame. This painting became a special favourite of the people of Rome, because of the simple and unassuming representation of the Virgin Mary, who is depicted clad in humble clothes, not too different from those of the pilgrims kneeling at her feet.
5. Michelangelo’s masterpieces
If you are visiting Rome for the first time, you simply can’t miss the best known statue in the world, located in the best known church in the world. Michelangelo’s Pietà, a heart-rendingly human representation of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ, is located in St. Peter’s Basilica, at the heart of the Vatican City. This masterpiece of renaissance art is currently protected by bulletproof glass, due to past attempts to vandalise it. Near the Colosseum you’ll find the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, with Michelangelo’s celebrated Moses statue, sculpted for the tomb of Pope Julius II – which was the most generous patron of the arts and directly funded some of the age-defining masterpieces of the artistic and historical period that we call the Renaissance. Julius II was eventually buried in St Peter’s, but this monumental sculpture, with the characteristic “horns”, was left in its original location.
6. In conclusion: allow Rome to surprise you
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the things you can do and see in Rome for free. Several museums have free admission days – usually on the first or last Sunday of each month – and many archeological sites such as the Appia Antica and Via dei Fori Imperiali are by all intents and purposes open-air museums which you can visit at your leisure on foot or by bike. If you have the luxury of time, you could just pick a starting point in the city centre, such as Piazza Venezia, Trastevere or Piazza Farnese and start walking: allow the beauty of Rome to surprise you.