In Rome on a budget or have limited time to explore the Eternal City? Here’s a quick overview of some of the free things to do in Rome and they don’t cost a bean (or require much queuing depending on the time of the day). Many of these attractions are also within walking distance of each other, saving you a metro / bus fare, though at €1.50 a ride on either won’t break the bank. You could logistically do all of these in one day if you were keen.
Before you set off it’s a good idea to map out the route you want to take and where each attraction is located. If you’re on a tight schedule you don’t want to waste it wandering around lost!
1. Papal Address at St Peter’s Square, Vatican City
Every Wednesday morning at 10am the Pope holds a free papal address in St Peter’s Square. There is a standing section where you can see him on the video screens, or if your eyesight is really good, on the stage. While most of the address is in Italian, there is a summary given in a variety of different languages including English. Even if you’re not Catholic to receive the Pope’s blessing is a lovely experience and it’s great for people watching. I spotted a few nuns recording the address on their iPads.
There are strict security measures to get through into St Peter’s Square, so I would aim to be there at 9.30am to allow for some queuing and bag checking. From Ottaviano metro it’s a 15 minute walk to St Peter’s Square.
2. Scala Sancta, Piazza San Giovanni
After researching this experience for an Italy e-Book I decided it was something I had to try next time I was in Rome. Basically it’s a set of 28 marble steps located in part of the old Lateran Palace that were transported to Rome from Jerusalem in the 4th century by St Helena.
Apparently they were the steps that Jesus walked up to face his trial by Pontius Pilate. Today pilgrims walk up the steps on their knees to honour Jesus, which is what I did. I don’t recommend it if you have bad knees but if you take your time it doesn’t hurt too much as they’re actually covered by wood. Besides the pain is meant to make you think about what Jesus went through.
If you go up on your knees it’s free but you can walk up the alternative staircase alongside to get up to the Sancta Sanctorum, which is the personal chapel of the early Popes. I believe there is a small charge to walk up this staircase.
The closest metro is San Giovanni and the building is about a five minute walk from there. The building is quite unassuming so don’t mistake it like I did for The Lateran Basilica which looks much grander. It’s directly to the right of this.
3. Mouth of Truth, Piazza della Bocca della Verita
Anyone who’s seen Roman Holiday will recognise the Mouth of Truth, the ancient marble manhole cover that people in the Middle Ages believed would bite your hand off if you told a lie. Today it’s one of the free things to do in Rome that doesn’t take much time or hopefully involve amputation. If you’ve just been to the Scala Sancta you can walk there in around half an hour, the Aventine Hill is also in the vicinity so you can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
The Mouth of Truth is located in the entrance of Santa Maria Cosmedin, again it’s quite an unassuming building directly to the left of the carpark. You may get lucky like I did and only have to queue for five minutes. The line does move pretty quickly, but if it’s looking lengthy and you don’t want to wait, do number 4. on the list first and come back.
4. Keyhole Vatican, Aventine Hill
This small perfect view of the Vatican perfectly framed in a hedge-lined avenue can been seen through a special keyhole at the top of Aventine Hill, just a 10 minute walk from The Mouth of Truth. Aventine Hill is one of the seven hills on which ancient Rome was built. There were hardly any tourists up there when I went as I suspect it’s slightly off the beaten track, but it’s well worth going up for the views of the Vatican. Not only through the keyhole, but from the orange-tree garden of the Basilica of Santa Sabina which has a viewing platform taking in the Vatican and Capitoline Hill. The door with the keyhole is further on from the garden in the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. You can’t miss it, it’s the door with people lining up to bend over to look through the keyhole.
By the way it took me a few attempts to get this photo on my iPhone. My suggestion is to underexpose the shot and crop it severely afterwards to zoom in on the Vatican.
5. Pantheon, Pizza della Rotonda
The Pantheon and Fontana di Trevi are quite close to each other (a 10 minute walk) so once you get to one or the other you can easily trot to the next. I’m still amazed the Pantheon is one of the free things to do in Rome, and they haven’t started charging an entrance fee. It doesn’t take much time to pop in and have a look at this iconic monument in Rome and it still manages to impress me every time I see it standing in the middle of a residential block.
6. Fontana di Trevi, Piazza di Trevi
I was pleased that the Trevi Fountain was working again in all its splendour when I visited Rome. It had been under scaffolding for 17 months and was finally revealed in its glistening white glory in early November 2015. Since I was there just a few months later it was good timing. Perhaps that’s why it was so thoroughly packed with people. If you can get near the water, throw a coin backwards over your shoulder, it ensures your return to Rome.
7. Pincio Terrace, Villa Borghese Park
A 20 minute walk from the Trevi Fountain is the lively Piazza del Popolo which is always good for people watching. A Roman photographer who I’m following on EyeEm is always taking shots of the Piazza which inspired me to go there since I was staying near Villa Borghese park. The Pincio Terrace affords great views of the Piazza and also of the Vatican if you follow the path round, and the park itself has a number of attractions, a Bio Park, the National Museum of Modern Art and Borghese Gallery and Museum. However, I didn’t visit any of these as they weren’t free Rome attractions, I’ll save them for the next trip!