Cheapo (even free) stuff to do in Rome
Skint, but keen to explore the Eternal City? Sorted. From sublime ‘ceiling art’ and 80AD-constructed monoliths to villa frolicking and spontaneous catch ups with His Holiness, Rome offers a host of marvellously cheapo adventures. Andare avanti!
Museums & Galleries
Let’s start with the serious stuff. A lot of heavy action went down during Rome in World War II, so if you’re after a bit of a so-glad-I-wasn’t-around-then pondering, head for the Historic Museum of the Liberation of Rome, which houses photos and manuscripts charting the events of the time and the underground resistance. If you’re morbidly inclined, you can even take a peek at one of the former prison cells, complete with condemned prisoner graffiti scrawled on the walls.
No visit to Rome is considered complete without a visit to the Vatican Museums (over 16 million people a year do). Prepare yourself for a whirlwind tour of an immense collection of art (cunningly collected by a bunch of old popes), which includes classical sculptures and some of the most revered masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. Founded in the early 16th century, the Sistine Chapel houses a breathtaking example of ‘ceiling art’ lovingly nurtured by one of the greatest artists of all time, Michelangelo, over a frenetic four-year period. And admission is FREE on the last Sunday of every month. Holy dooley!
And for a couple of other not-too-shabby history lessons, head for the Palazzo Carpegna where you’ll find the Gallery of the National Academy of San Luca, which has a vast collection of sculptures and paintings from artists like Rubens and Raphael (an arrogantly unflinching rival of Michelangelo). Then pop on over to the Numismatic Museum of the Italian Mint (and no, it’s not the home of a revered Italian lolly), a feature of the Italian Treasury building, which contains a valuable collection of over 20,000 minting tools, medals and coins. Your cash isn’t required here either – just flash your ID and stroll on in.
Lace up your Diadora’s and prepare for a little outdoor action with a trip to Rome’s most famous park, Villa Borghese, an expansive oasis of landscaped greenery and must-explore nooks and crannies, perfect for a smorgasbord picnic.
There’s also a gallery here worth a visit and admission is free on the first Sunday of the month. Or try Villa Sciarra, which is filled to its beautiful brim with topiaries, statues, walled fountains and an exotic bird aviary, where a crumb or two of stale ciabatta will amply satisfy its hungry inhabitants.
If you’re looking to impress a travelling amante (love interest), head for Janiculum Hill, which rises up from behind the charmingly medieval Trastevere and reaches as far as St Peter’s Basilica.
Romance -laden Park Gianicolo is here, gifting breathtaking views of the city’s baroque domes, ancient ruins and rooftop tapestries. And if you’re feeling all kiddy-like, stop for the Teatro Verde puppet show, a centuries-old tradition performed daily that will soon have you giggling like a three year old.
History and Culture
Built between A.D. 118 and 125 (so it’s pretty darn old), the iconic Pantheon is the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built. Its most striking feature, the oculus, is an open-air aperture set at the top of the dome, which bathes its surrounds in glorious natural light. Prepare for the goosies though, several members of royalty and the odd famous artist (including Raphael) are buried here.
Seen Russell Crowe in his gladiatorial debut? One of the movie’s most mesmerising scenes is set here. It’s the Colosseum and it’s a must-see. Constructed in 80AD, this ginormous elliptical amphitheatre (the world’s largest ever) once held 70,000-odd spectators up top and a few thousand wild beasts in its caged bowels below, all salivating for a bit of limb-tearing action. Plan a visit for the first Sunday of the month for free entry.
Grab a portrait sketch at Europe’s widest and longest staircase, the Spanish Steps, then toss a coin or two over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain – legend has it that you’ll then be guaranteed to return to Rome.
And who wouldn’t want to return, with sites like St Peter’s Basilica? An astounding work of art and the world centre of the Roman Catholic Church, it features a 27-metre high canopy that shelters the papal altar where His Holiness celebrates Mass. Be sure to check out one of Michelangelo’s most famous statues, the Pieta, and rub the well-worn foot of the bronzed St. Peter for good luck. Entry to the main floor is free.
And if you’re itching for a bit of a stroll in between late afternoon aperitivos, auto-pilot your way to trendy Trastevere, whose street markets, abundant squares and cobbled laneways harp back to classical medieval times. Once home to merchants, fisherman and artisans, it’s renowned for its spectacular gardens and immense villas, inhabited by none other than Julius Caesar. Hang around after dark too and watch the metamorphosis unfold – this spot literally explodes at night with a cacophony of lively restaurants and boutique bars.
Other fun stuff
If you’re an animal lover, don’t miss the furry felines at the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, where hundreds of them frolic and lounge amid the ruins of four ancient temples. Long distance cat adoptions are also welcome. Seriously.
And at the Church of Saint Eusebio around January 17, watch the ancient tradition of the Blessing of the Animals, where hundreds of pet-mad locals unite to have their furry friends anointed by a real-life priest.
Love festive festivals? During August’s Feast of the Assumption the streets come alive with dancy-types flaunting their expert moves and piazzas erupt with nimble footed ballroom, hip-hop and tango artists. In September, catch the International Urban Theater Festival, with acting, dance and music performances spontaneously appearing on every corner, and during Rome’s main summer festival, Estate Romana, you can spend a balmy evening catching some dulcet tunes on the steps of a palazzo or feast your eyes on a range of book fairs, art displays and theatre performances.
And finally, back to the Pope (well he is Rome’s most famous resident). Francis kindly hosts free weekly audiences on Wednesday mornings and for an unforgettable celebration of religious fervour, hang around St. Peter’s Basilica or St. Peter’s Square on Christmas Eve or during Easter for a glimpse of the mighty man himself.