Photograph by Bob Krist
Rome may be a city of high fashion and expensive tastes, but its rich history and art offer plenty of culture that won't cost you a dime, including churches and most monuments. You don't have to look far for free activities in the Eternal City.
The oldest standing domed structure in Rome, the Pantheon was built in 27 B.C. as a temple honoring all the Roman gods, then was converted in A.D. 609 to a Christian church. The famous architect Brunelleschi used it as inspiration when designing the cupola for the Duomo (cathedral) in Florence. Its most striking feature is the oculus, the open-air aperture at the top of the dome that lets in natural light. It is the burial place of several famous artists, including Raphael. Mass is held here Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m.
Stroll through the ruins of what was once the center of a powerful empire at the Foro Romano, the former commercial, governmental, and religious center of ancient Rome. It contains the remains of several temples and judicial buildings, and was the site of some of Rome's most important events.
The Arco di Constantino, located near the Colosseum, is Rome's largest arch. About 65 feet (20 meters) high,it was built in A.D. 315 to commemorate Emperor Constantine's triumph over Maxentius, after which he allowed the practice of Christianity in the Roman empire.
See the "wedding cake," as locals refer to it: Il Vittoriano, the large white-stone monument on Piazza Venezia near the Capitoline Hill, was constructed at the turn of the 20th century to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. The building houses the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an eternal flame burns. The massive monument is topped by a statue of Victor Emmanuel on a horse, accompanied by winged depictions of Victory. A museum inside details the history of the Italian Reunification. The large white columns around the building are sometimes called the "false teeth."
Test your luck at La Bocca della Verità ("The Mouth of Truth"). This grotesque sculpture of a wild-eyed face on the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin has a macabre reputation, made famous by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Legend has it that if you put your hand in its gaping mouth and tell a lie, you'll pull out nothing but a stump. 18 Piazza Bocca della Verità.
Walk off that gelato: The Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna make up the longest and widest staircase in Europe. Originally proposed by the French, this grand staircase leads from the Piazza di Spagna to the church of Trinità dei Monti (they became the "Spanish" steps after the Spanish embassy moved to the square). Once a hangout for artists, the steps are now abuzz with students, tourists, shoppers, and portrait sketchers.
The world center of the Catholic Church and the largest Roman Catholic building in the world, St. Peter's Basilica is also an astounding work of art. Entry to the main floor is free. The outside colonnade and the 90-foot-tall (30-meter) baldacchino, the staggering bronze canopy that shelters the Papal Altar, where only the pope may celebrate Mass, were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the greatest baroque sculptors. Don't miss the "Pietà," one of Michelangelo's most famous statues (now sheltered behind glass after an attack by a hammer-wielding maniac), and make sure to rub St. Peter's well-worn foot for good luck as you pass the bronze statue. There is a six-euro charge to climb up to the dome, designed by Michelangelo.
San Clemente, a church on Via San Giovanni, harbors three churches in one. The lowermost level contains a mithraeum, an ancient worship site; this is the best preserved of 12 similar sites discovered in Rome. Above the mithraeum is the first version of the church as a Christian worship site, with a sanctuary dating to the fourth century A.D. The fresco depicting St. Sisinus dates between the eighth and 11th centuries. The top level is home to a sanctuary built in the 12th century that contains some spectacular mosaics. Via San Giovanni in Laterano at Piazza San Clemente; 39 06 77 40 021.
The Vatican Museums are free of charge on the last Sunday of every month, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (the last admission is at 12:30 p.m.). 39 06 69 88 33 33.
The Gallery of the National Academy of San Luca houses works by members of the academy, including Guido Reni. Admission is free. Piazza dell'Accademia di San Luca 77; 39 06 67 98 850.
Converted from the former Nazi headquarters of the SS Kommandatur, where many leaders of the Roman Resistance were tortured and imprisoned, the free Historic Museum of the Liberation of Rome (Museo Storico della Liberazione) chronicles the events that occurred in Rome during World War II. Via Tasso 145; 39 06 70 03 866.
Come see more than 20,000 pieces on display and learn about former and current money-making techniques at the Numismatic Museum of the Italian Mint. Show your I.D. to obtain the free entrance pass. Ministero del Tesoro e del Bilancio, Via XX Settembre 97; 39 06 47 61 33 17.
Rome's national museums and other major galleries have deals that change constantly. Check with galleries individually before you go for any special admission prices. For a listing of museums in Rome, visit http://activitaly.it/musei.
At Park Gianicolo on Janiculum Hill, families can enjoy a panoramic view of Rome and several activities. One of the biggest attractions of this park is the free puppet show, a centuries-old European tradition, performed daily. Although most shows are in Italian, children from all nationalities enjoy the puppets' antics, which transcend language barriers.
Children might want to check out the only pyramid in Rome, an 87-foot-tall (27-meter) structure built in 12 B.C. to house the tomb of Caius Cestius, after Cleopatra made Egyptian style chic. One of the best-preserved ancient buildings in Rome, it even has its own metro stop (Piramide).
Watch the cats at Largo Argentina. This spot is home to a no-kill cat shelter, where the animals can be seen lounging and frolicking among the ruins of four ancient temples. Free tours are offered by the shelter are in English, and donations are welcome. In addition to the temples, this area houses another key part of history: It was near this area that Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by Brutus in 44 B.C. Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary: Via Marco Papio 39 15; 06 68 72 133.
Visit the gardens at Villa Borghese. One of the most expansive and beautiful set of gardens in Rome, this park is a great place to stop for a picnic; adults can relax and kids can explore. The adjoining Galleria Borghese is worth a visit, but admission is not free. Or you can try Villa Sciarra, which has a playground located next to an exotic-bird aviary. You can feed the birds if you bring your own bread.
And at Villa Ada, several organizations (like the World Wildlife Fund) offer free activities for children. In addition, the city holds free exercise sessions for adults at the pond on Sundays.
Older children will love the crypt of Cappuchin friars in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione, a monastery where, since 1631, the walls and ceilings have been elaborately decorated with the bones of 4,000 monks. Via Vittorio Veneto 27; 39 06 48 71 185.
Chase nymphs in Caffarella. This valley, extending from the south to the center of Rome, is a unique natural area where you can come across anything from chic city Romans on a stroll to herders guiding sheep. You can even find yourself alone in this expanse of fields that shelters the ruins of old Roman houses and temples. Children will be intrigued by the magical history of this area, where in ancient times, rituals were often held. One of the best-preserved ruins is dedicated to the nymph Egeria; legend has it that she lives in this temple, located next to the roadside.
Watch the blessing of the animals (Benedizione animali), a tradition dating back to the eighth century, held yearly on or around January 17 at the church of St. Eusebio. On this day, hundreds of citizens come to have their pets blessed by a priest; animals include everything from cats and dogs to fish and lizards. Or you can watch the blessing of the cars in March at the Santa Francesca Romana Church, near the Colosseum. Church of St. Eusebio: 12/A Piazza Vittorio Emanuele.
The Glass Hostaria restaurant offers a free beverage, like a glass of prosecco or Italian spumante, and an amuse-bouche (small appetizer) to patrons who make reservations through Top Table, an online dining site. Registration on the site is free. Vicolo del Cinque, 58 Trastevere; 06 58 33 59 03.
Hostaria Romana Ristorante offers free cookies, grappa, and after-dinner limoncello. Via del Boccaccio 1; 39 06 47 45 284.
Brunello offers to National Geographic readers a free glass of Italian prosecco with an appetizer. Via Veneto 70/A – tel + 39 06 42 1111.
Enjoy free happy hour appetizers (with drinks at regular prices) at Enoteca Ferrara from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Via del Moro 1/A – p.zza Trilussa 41; 39 06 58 33 39 20.
The bar in the Ludovisi Palace Hotel, a popular spot with the locals, offers free appetizers and two-for-one drinks during happy hour (6-8:30 p.m.). Via Ludovisi, 43; 39 06 42 02 03 96.
At closing time, most bakeries discard the goodies they haven't sold that day. If you happen to be near a bakery at closing time, ask the proprietor if you could give those baked goods a home instead. Many will hand over large amounts of delicious, baked-that-day Roman pastries!
Piazza di Spagna, one of the most well-known piazzas in Rome, was once home to poet John Keats, who died in an apartment that looked onto the square (his quarters are now a museum). The square also sports the famous Fontana della Barcaccia ("fountain of the boat"), designed by Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The shopping around the Piazza di Spagna is some of the best in Rome.
Designed by Niccolo Salvi, the Fontana di Trevi is perhaps the most famous in Rome. The immense fountain was completed in 1762 and is the largest and most intricate of the baroque fountains of Rome, combining sculpture, nature, and architecture. Legend has it that if you throw a coin in over your shoulder, you will return again to Rome.
Piazza Navona was originally a center for sporting events, including horse races, and then became the location of a major market. The main market has since moved to Campo de' Fiori, but the piazza is still a central location for street fairs, parades, etc. It also contains some of Rome's most famous artwork: Borromini and Rainaldi's Sant'Agnese in Agone Church and Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi), where each figure represents one of the four main rivers known at the time—the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, and the Rio de la Plata. Two other fountains on the square, the Fontana di Nettuno and the Fontana del Moro, were designed by Giacomo della Porta.
The Campo de' Fiori square is known for its morning flower and vegetable market, and its evening bar and restaurant scene. The name, given in the Middle Ages, means "field of flowers," referring to the fact that the square was once a meadow.
For an authentic Roman walk, stroll through the trendy neighborhood of Trastevere. This area's narrow streets and numerous squares are reminiscent of classical Roman and medieval times. Once the home of artisans, fishermen, and merchants, Trastevere became known for its immense villas and beautiful gardens, which belonged to Julius Caesar. After hours, the area is known for its nightlife.
Starting at 7 p.m. every night, Irish-operated Angel Tours offers a free 30-minute tour of the Pantheon in small groups. Show up at the Pantheon and look for the tour guides holding umbrellas with angels on them. If coming with a large group, call ahead. 39 06 77 20 30 48.
Sky Tours Rome offers free hour-long tours of Saint Peter's Basilica Mondays through Saturdays at 9 a.m. 39 34 72 84 08 28.
Throughout September's International Urban Theater Festival, keep your eyes open for spontaneous dance, music, and acting performances throughout the city.
All of Rome becomes a stage during Estate Romana, the main summer festival, dedicated to outdoor performances. Hundreds of concerts, film showings, dances, and art displays are staged, many of them free to the public. Spend a warm evening listening to a blues concert on the steps of a palazzo or watching a theater performance among the ancient ruins at Ostia Antica.
On the Feast of the Assumption (August 15), the streets come alive with dance for the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto. Piazzas become a stage for professional dancers to show off their skills, with each square in Rome home to a different dance performance: hip-hop, tango, ballroom, and more. Spectator participation is encouraged.
The White Night (La Notte Bianca) is part of a tradition observed by several world cities, including Paris and Brussels. Every year, on a selected September evening, the museums of Rome remain open all night, with free admission. The streets become a space for art installations, performances, and cultural events, and the evening usually culminates in a display of fireworks.
Watch the Miracle Players at the Forum. This English-language cosmopolitan theater troupe, recognized by the Italian Ministry of Culture for its funny and original plays, offers free public performances at the Roman Forum throughout the summer.
For More Information
Rome Tourism (includes map and suggested itineraries)
Rome Travel Guide (includes interactive map)
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.