As anyone who has been to Rome can tell you, it’s a secretive city, alternately displaying its treasures with great pomp and then hiding other jewels in quiet places where travellers may stumble into them unawares. Although leaning heavily towards being an expensive city, the devoted wanderer will be thrilled to find that some of the best spots in Rome are, thankfully, of the completely costless variety. And in 2015, there’s no need to stumble anywhere unawares. Here, our Rome local Flavia fills you in on her top ten free things to discover in Italy’s capital.
1. Go Caravaggio-hunting
One of the most incredible things about this city is that art is everywhere. And by art I actually mean Art; the types of works that are so historically important that you’re left disbelieving that the pieces in question aren’t behind several inches of glass or, preferably, being guarded by burly, serious-looking men. In actuality, Rome will present some of her masterpieces to you in churches all over the city, where you can sidle right into (and up to) history and see them as they were intended, originally placed and without the lines or the cost of a museum.
One of Italy’s most famous painters was Michelangelo Merisi, known to the world as Caravaggio. Although he died in 1610 at the tender age of 38, Caravaggio was nevertheless one of the greatest influences on Baroque painting and was, interestingly enough, apparently quite a dramatic character himself. There are quite a few spots in Rome where you can find original Caravaggio paintings, however my two favourites are the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where you can find two of his most important works, and the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where you’ll find three stunning paintings, each featuring St. Matthew.
Photo credit: jaime antonio alvarez arango
2. Visit museums on a Sunday!
On the last Sunday of every month, the Vatican Museums swing open their doors, completely free. This being said, since Italians aren’t always the most organised of people, it’s worth a call ahead to ensure that the museums will, in fact, be free of charge on your date of choice. Tip: get in line super early on these days. Trust me on this one – everyone else has the same idea.
For a little outdoor museum/ruin action, check out Villa di Massenzio (Villa of Maxentius) on Via Appia Antica (Ancient Appian Way), originally created in celebration of the Roman Emperor Maxentius. Today, these beautiful open-air ruins include the remains of the Circus as well as the Mausoleo di Romolo (Mausoleum of Romulus).
Photo credit: Paolo Fefe
3. Discover a variety of sculptural masterpieces
I know, we can talk about these all day, and there are so many of them in Rome that it can be overwhelming. So, our plan of attack is to kill two birds with one stone/merge the masterpieces. For example, an absolute must-see is Michelangelo’s La Pietà, his first and undoubtedly one of his most famous sculptures (and also the only one that he signed). Michelangelo was barely older than twenty when he created his sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Christ in her arms just after his death, and it’s conveniently situated inside of St. Peter’s Basilica, which you also don’t want to miss on your visit to Rome. La Pietà was vandalised in the 70s and so now rests behind a glass panel, but you can walk right up and see the unbelievable detail of the young sculptor’s work. Another tip: if you can in any way avoid it, don’t visit these very popular sights during the summer (July/August); not only will they be incredibly crowded, but you will suffer deeply from the heat in the long lines, hardy traveller though you may be. St. Peter’s especially inspires lines so long in the summer that people have to wait hours to get in, and there’s nowhere to take shelter from the sun.
Okay, I can’t help myself, just a few more amazing free sculptures! You can check out Michelangelo’s Mosè in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli on Via Cavour, and if you’re a fan of Bernini, don’t miss swinging by the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria on Via XX Settembre to see his Transverberazione di santa Teresa d’Avila.
Photo credit: Andrea Vergata
4. Set out for the Giardino degli Aranci and the Keyhole of the Knights of Malta
I want some fresh air, you say? I couldn’t agree more! In keeping with our two birds, one stone concept, a short walk from Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) is the beautiful Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of the Oranges), the informal name for Parco Savello. This little park is delightful as it’s lined with beautiful orange trees that people lean up against during the warm months in order to read or simply laze about. And if you walk to the end of the park (easily visible from the entrance as it’s not one of Rome’s bigger ones), you can enjoy a fantastic view of the city.
Second bird: a short walk upwards from the park (varying slightly depending on which entrance you took) will lead you to the headquarters of the Cavalieri di Malta (Knights of Malta), tucked in the back of the piazza of the same name, and a peek through the keyhole will display a beautiful garden path that frames a perfect view of St. Peter’s in the distance. Incidentally, the square and the priory are the work of Gian Battista Piranesi, one of Italy’s most well-loved 18th-century architects.
Photo credit: L.
5. Wander the Monti Vintage Market
I know we’re going for things that are free of cost, but Rome’s many pop-up markets, or mercatini, are worth it just to have a wander and get a taste for the everyday chaos that makes up Rome. The Monti Vintage market on Via Leonina is open most weekends and has a touch of everything, adding a vintage feel and many an opportunity for people-watching. The Monti neighbourhood itself is fantastic for a stroll; it’s one of the corners of the city that enjoys a quintessentially Italian feel, jam-packed with cute shops to browse in and cobblestone streets to get lost in. Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, just off the famous Via dei Serpenti, is one of Rome’s favoured meeting spots, and at any point of the day (but especially in the evening) you’ll find people milling about and sitting on the steps of the fountain to chat.
Photo credit: adaberto tiburzi
6. Climb up to Gianicolo
Gianicolo hill, reachable on foot from Trastevere (although be warned, it’s a hike), is adorned with a statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi and is another spot to enjoy a fantastic panorama. This is yet another evening rendezvous point for Rome’s younger crowd (teen years, mostly), who meet here to grab a beer or sandwich from the pop-up stands on the side of the piazza.
If you head up here in the late morning, stick around until noon; this time of day is greeted by the single shot of a cannon, a longstanding tradition to mark the middle of the day. Lunchtime!
Photo credit: Fabiana
7. Stroll it out, from the Colosseo all the way to the Trevi Fountain
There are a million and one places to see, but the beauty of it is that Rome’s historic centre is very much walkable. One of my favourite such walks starts at the Colosseo, passing the Fori Imperiali (Roman Forum), which leads you straight to Piazza Venezia and its Altare della Patria (or, as the Italians call it, the wedding cake). From there, the signs from Via del Corso will take you to the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona. Further sauntering will lead you to Piazza del Popolo.
8. Explore the Coppedè neighbourhood
This little-known neighbourhood, which expands around Piazza Mincio, is like walking into a fairy-tale. Its particular architecture starts with the fountain in the middle of the main piazza, known as the Fontana delle Rane (Fountain of the Frogs). From the Palazzo del Ragno (Spider building) to what is known as the little villas of the fairies, the neighbourhood, backdrop also of quite a few movies, is full of stone gargoyles and frescoes. With a secret at every turn, you’ll be enchanted by the details, so keep one hand on your camera. Coppedè, though not centrally located, is not far from one of Rome’s most beautiful parks, Villa Ada, which takes us to…
Photo credit: Dorli Photography
9. Relax in the Roman villas (i.e. massive parks)
If it’s the perfect day for a picnic, then pack a lunch and set out for one of Rome’s villas, which are in actuality parks dotted with monuments and majestic structures that now sometimes double as museums. If you’re craving the outdoors, the parks lend themselves beautifully to just being explored, whether by foot or on a bike: Villa Borghese, Villa Ada and Villa Pamhilj offer lakes, trees with lots of shade and, of course, each offers its own contribution to history.
10. Stick your hand in the Mouth of Truth
La Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth) is walking distance from Piazza Venezia and is the place to go for that picture. Most likely an ancient Roman manhole cover, this marble carving depicts the face of a man (local legend has it that it’s a depiction of the god of the river Tiber) with an open mouth, and you may know it thanks to the Hepburn/Peck movie Roman Holiday. It’s said that if you put your hand in its mouth and have lied in love, the mouth will close on your hand. Hence, that picture – where you put your hand in and smile, slightly flinching, hoping you won’t be the one to prove the legend right.
Photo credit: Tobias Abel
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Growing up bouncing back and forth between Rome and California, Flavia eventually moved back to the Eternal City to finish college and then decided she liked gelato too much to move away again. Today she splits her time between working for an international organisation, writing for YoungInRome.com, travelling and wandering around her beloved Roma in constant search of bookstores and the perfect espresso.