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Episode #145: Budget Friendly Ways to Explore Rome

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Rome on a budget is easier than you might think. With prices for travel increasing around the world, we have some tips to help you stretch your travel budget further while experiencing an incredible trip to the Eternal City. We share some of our favorite free things to do in Rome, that make for an amazing trip, even on a shoestring budget.

Show notes
Travel has never been cheap but we are seeing price rises of around 20-30% thanks to increased fuel and transport costs impacting so many parts of the tourism industry from hotels and airlines, to tour operators. Fortunately, however, Rome is one of those places that has plenty of free things to do and experience, and Untold Italy founder Katy Clarke shares her favorites today.

What you’ll learn in this episode

Monuments and Open-Air Museums

Walking through Rome is like walking through an open-air museum. Everywhere you go you are surrounded by history and you will find fascinating and iconic monuments around every corner. Here we list a few of our favorite places to go to enjoy the wonder that Rome has to offer:

  • Piazza Navona – A great place to start is Piazza Navona with its three magnificent fountains. You can just wander around this large piazza which is one of the places where they used to do the chariot races in ancient Rome, surrounded by of Baroque architecture including the Palazzo Pamphili
  • The Pantheon – the incredible and ancient Pantheon has stood the test of time for 2000 years and is not only free to admire from the outside but it is a church and it’s also free to enter. Go inside and just gaze up through the oculus, the open-air hole in the center of the building
  • Trevi Fountain – this Baroque masterpiece and incredible work of art has always just been there for everyone to enjoy, no matter what their station or how wealthy they are. It is an amazing sight to behold, but it is very popular so our tip is to go early in the morning
  • Spanish Steps – here you’ll find another iconic fountain, a beautiful atmosphere, and the majestic staircase that leads up to the Trinità dei Monti, the church at the top of the steps
  • St Peters and Vatican city – it may come as a surprise but this is all free apart from going inside the Vatican Museums. St. Peters, the basilica, and the Vatican City, the area around St. Petersbatilica, that’s all free to enter. You have the gorgeous Basilica itself and there are countless works of art inside St. Peters. You also, of course, have the magnificent piazza at the front and the fountains. For parents traveling with younger children, the Vatican Museum is not likely to be top of your list of things to do, but it’s great to just go wandering into St. Peters and look around for half an hour to an hour. You don’t need to pay anything unless you want to do something like go up the top of the roof or go down into the catacombs. You do need to line up for the security to go through. 
  • Piazza Venezia and the Altare della Patria – Sometimes known as the wedding cake, the Altare della Patria is filled with symbolism and history and it’s an amazing monument. A lot of people just stay milling around the bottom, but if you climb up the stairs to the higher levels, you get some incredible views of the city. There’s a nice cafe up there for a nice aperitivo if you’d like to do that. You can just go and explore the main areas and you don’t need to pay an entrance fee unless you want to go up to see the views from the top or to go to the museum.

There are countless other statues and fountains around Rome. Around virtually every corner, you’ll find a little statue or a fountain. The Turtle fountain and the Library fountain made with stone books are a couple of other great ones. There are lots of little ones all over the city with all kinds of styles and stories behind them. 

Inside museums and sights for free

If you don’t want to miss out on experiencing the inside Colosseum or the Vatican Museums then there are in fact options to see them for free!

Most major museums in Rome have a free opening day on the first Sunday of every month. This includes the Colosseum, Villa Borghese, and Baths of Caracalla. You may need to prebook your spot but there is no ticketing fee. Of course, as well as tourists, this is also a time when Italians and Romans themselves like to take advantage of and so it does get busy. 

The Vatican Museums is not included in the first Sunday of the month entry, but they do offer free entry on the last Sunday of each month when it doesn’t clash with any major religious services like Christmas or Easter. There are reduced opening hours and it is, again, very busy but if you’re on a budget it could be the way to go because visiting the Vatican Museums is fairly expensive. 

If you get your timings right, you could in fact visit Rome for 8 days over the end of one month and the start of another and really get your money’s worth.

The best free views

There are lots of places you can get fantastic views over Rome (with no fancy cocktail bar required). All you need to do is put on your walking shoes and go exploring the hills of Rome where you’ll find some magnificent vistas over the city. You’ll get to see a city rolled out before you that’s been there for thousands of years. All you need is your feet to walk there and your keen eye to soak up the views. These are the ones we recommend heading up to:

  • Pincio hill – with a view over Piazza del Popolo back towards Altare della Patria, Pincio Hill is near Villa Borghese and there’s a beautiful terrace where you can go up, take your photos, and admire the view. It’s a nice place where Romans like to meet up too, so it’s a lovely place to go and enjoy the scenes and do some people-watching in a gorgeous setting
  • The orange garden on Aventine Hill – The Aventine Hill is between the Jewish ghetto area and Testaccio on the other side. It’s a little bit of a hike up the hill but you get these amazing views back towards St. Peters and across to Trastevere. It’s a really peaceful garden with these huge trees that provide some shade, there’s some lovely fountains and lots of fun things to explore up there including the Aventine keyhole
  • Altare della Patria – Just can just climb up as high as you can without having to pay and you still get incredible views back over the Roman Forum and down towards the Colosseum. Some of the best photos you can take of the Colosseum and Roman Forum right down the Via dei Fori are from here
  • Giancolo Hill – also known as Janiculum Hill, is at the top of Trastevere with views towards St Peters and back over the neighborhood. You also get views back over to the centro storico, which is where you find the Pantheon and over the River Tiber. There’s a gelato van up there, you can get a coffee and you can just wander around up there and there’s a few little curiosities to enjoy
  • Piazza Trinità dei Monti – at the top of the Spanish Steps, you’ll get interesting views down Via dei Condotti towards Castel Sant Angelo and St Peters

Churches

There are over 900 churches in the city which are well worth exploring and mostly free. You could simply spend your days exploring them. Here are some to get you started:

  • St Peters –  Here you’ll find Michelangelo’s stunning sculpture Pieta and it has countless works of art. There’s Michelangelo’s dome that you can stare up at and it’s just a really great place to go if you want to get a little bit of an art fix. You can enjoy some of the most important artists that have ever lived for free
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore – its baroque facade hides one of the oldest churches in Rome, dating from 440BC. It has mosaics art and artifacts and is a very important church in Rome and a stopping point for many pilgrims
  • Chiesa di Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola – Baroque abundance at its best. Many describe it as the most beautiful church in Rome – it depends on your tastes but it’s certainly a wonder to behold – with frescoes, trompe l’oeil, and elaborate decorations
  • Santa Maria in Trastevere – a very old, small church with incredible golden Byzantine mosaics. There’s also ancient street art in the entrance dating back to Roman times – kind of like ancient graffiti from Roman times where they’ve recycled bricks and you get a kind of patchwork of bricks which people have put their stamp on throughout many ages
  • Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo – next to the Piazza del Popolo, this is a treasure trove of renaissance art with pieces by Raphael, Bernini, and Caravaggio. If you were going to a museum anywhere else in the world to see that art, you would be paying a hefty entrance fee
  • Basilica di Sant’Agostino – another church to visit if you’re an art lover. Here you’ll find Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Pilgrims which caused quite a scandal when it was first painted, for its gritty depiction of the Virgin Mary

There are so many churches in Rome to explore and mostly it’s all free. You might need to cough up a Euro to illuminate some of the art, but it’s nice to see it in its natural habitat anyway and you can, of course, make a donation, should you choose. 

Neighborhoods

One of the most incredible things about Rome is the different neighborhoods that you can explore, with each of them having its own feel and different characteristics. So one of the things that you can do for free is to go and explore these neighborhoods:

  • Trastevere – this is one of Rome’s most lively neighborhoods and is full of interesting churches, street scenes, bars, and restaurants. It has a local street market. We have a full guide for Trastevere available on our online store – it includes a suggested walking tour and map, to help you discover some of the most interesting places, and soak up the atmosphere next to the river in this very ancient and old neighborhood of Rome
  • Testaccio – on the other side of the Aventine Hill, and it’s kind of a treasure hidden in plain sight. It’s a typical Roman neighborhood, not really a touristy place, although there are some quite interesting things that you can go and see there. The local piazza is the center of the neighborhood. It’s got a lovely fountain made of amphorae, which is a nod to the district’s background as the food bowl of Rome. The neighborhood also has an Egyptian pyramid, which was a mausoleum for Gaius Cestius, as well as the non Catholic cemetery of Rome, the Cimitero degli Inglesi (English Cemetery) where some of the most famous poets of English literature are buried. A beautiful place to visit and it’s got lots of cats wandering around
  • Monti – a fabulous area around the Colosseum with a great local vibe – think vines trailing from colorful buildings
  • Jewish Ghetto and Isola Tiberina – an area that is close to the river, the Jewish ghetto area is very old. There’s a huge synagogue there and it’s got a really interesting past. It was one of the first major Jewish neighborhoods in any city in the world outside of Israel. Now, you find some amazing bakeries and restaurants and it’s got a really interesting vibe. The Isola Tiberina is a tiny little island right in the middle of the Tiber River. It’s got a hospital on it, there’s not much there, but it has a very important history in the history of Rome. During World War II many Jewish people were housed in the hospital to keep them safe
  • Campo de Fiori and Torre Largo Argentina area –  this thriving area is where Katy stays frequently for convenience and the vibe – with the hustle and bustle, with the market and lots of great restaurants. The Torre Largo Argentina is an area that’s got Roman ruins that are being excavated and restored at the moment and you’ll find a cat sanctuary there now

Walks

With all the open-air monuments, ruins, gorgeous buildings and fountains, Rome. is a great city to explore on foot and, of course, at no cost. You can wander neighborhoods freely or follow some suggested walking routes. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Walk along the Tiber and over the bridges admiring the views of Castel Sant Angelo, Isola Tiberina, and past Trastevere. You can go up one side and down the other. The bridges themselves are magnificent and you get some of the most stunning views of the city if you point your camera down river, towards the Castel Sant Angelo, which is the big castle with the angel on top, at the front of the Vatican City. It’s a really beautiful way to experience the city and understand it, because when there’s a river that runs through a city, you usually have very different atmospheres on either side. If you walk along the Tiber River you can do it for as long or as little as you like. You can go right from Trastevere up to Castel Sant Angelo, or you can just do a little chunk of it
  • The Villa Borghese gardens are a huge expanse of greenery right in the middle of Rome. You can rent bikes there, or you can just wander. There are a few fountains and little playgrounds so if you have kids, it’s a great place to go. It’s a very beautiful place to spend a few hours, especially if it’s really hot as there’s a lot of shade. Or if you just need a break from all of the art and history that’s around you – because that can happen – your eyes and brain get a little overwhelmed
  • Villa del Corso or the Via Condotti – the 2 main shopping streets are great for windowing shopping and people-watching – because of course, the Romans get dressed up for this activity and usually look fabulous. If you are going to shop then it’s best to stick to Villa del Corso as Via Condotti is where you’ll find the top fashion houses and that’s probably going to blow any budget
  • Via dei Fori Imperiali =- the road that heads up towards the colosseum is a great walk. You have the Roman Forum on your right, Trajan’s market on your left, and statues of roman emperors all the way along this amazing thoroughfare. You can just walk up and down and take your photos of the Colosseum – you don’t need to go in, you can see all of the incredible ruins laid out before you

All you need to do is pack your best walking shoes and prepare to generally wander, looking for fountains, monuments, and curiosities. This is one of the best things to do in Rome, regardless of your budget. You can pick up delicious snacks along the way, stop and admire the views and soak up the atmosphere. And if you get a bit thirsty then in Rome there is free delicious drinking water in locations all over town at over 2500 fountains. Just bring your water bottle and fill it up as required.

Other ways to save money when visiting Rome and Italy

if you’re looking for more budget-friendly tips for traveling in Italy, earlier this year I recorded a podcast with my good friend Corinna Cooke who writes the Glam Italia travel guides. In episode 116 we talk through a whole range of travel hacks to keep your trip in budget.

Places mentioned in the show

  • Piazza Navona – beautiful, central piazza in Rome
  • The Pantheon – former Roman temple and, since 609 AD, a Catholic church in Rome
  • Trevi Fountain – iconic monumental fountain
  • Piazza di Spagna / Spanish Steps – climb to the top of the steps to Trinità dei Monti for sweeping views of the city
  • The Vatican – the city-state surrounded by Rome, home to the Pope
  • Altar della Patria – monument to the Italian Republic with incredible views
  • Turtle fountain – fountain located in Piazza Mattei, built between 1580 and 1588 by the architect Giacomo della Porta and the sculptor Taddeo Landini
  • Library fountain/Fountain of books – created by Pietro Lombardi and can be found on Via degli Staderari
  • Colosseum – oval amphitheater and the largest ancient amphitheater ever built
  • Villa Borghese – the largest park in Rome
  • Baths of Caracalla – Rome’s second largest Roman public baths first build in early AD 200s and operated until the 530s
  • Pincio Hill – also known as Pincian, the hill overlooks the Campus Martius
  • Piazza del Popolo – large square in Rome which was just inside the northern gate of the city walls and from which the city’s main streets lead
  • Aventine keyhole – unique scene and line of sight through the rooftops of Rome to St Peters
  • Janiculum – ancient site on Janiculum Hill in Trastevere, Rome
  • Trastevere, Testaccio, Monti, Jewish Ghetto – Roman neighborhoods
  • Pyramid of Cestius – a Roman Era pyramid built as a tomb for Gaius Cestius
  • Protestant Cemetery – or Cimitero degli Inglesi (English Cemetery) a private cemetery
  • Isola Tiberina – tiny island on the Tiber which houses a hospital and a lot of history
  • Campo de’ Fiori – literally  meaning “field of flowers”, a square south of Piazza Navona famous for its market
  • Teatro di Marcello – 2,000 year old theater built before the Colosseum
  • Portico d’Ottavia – ancient ruins close to the Jewish quarter
  • Largo di Torre Argentina – the spot in Rome where Julius Caeser was murdered. Now a cat sanctuary.
  • Roscioli – fantastic restaurant in Rome
  • Castel Sant Angelo – initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family
  • Trajan’s Market – a large complex of ruins located on the Via dei Fori Imperiali

Resources

  • Pietà – famous sculpture by Michelangelo found in St. Peter’s Basilica
  • Raphael, Bernini and Caravaggio – painters, sculptors and masters of Rome during the Renaissance and Baroque periods
  • Stendhal Syndrome – a condition where people become physically overwhelmed when individuals feel over-exposed to artworks of great beauty
  • Nasoni – the free drinking water fountains that can be found all over Rome

Resources from Untold Italy

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