Like any big city, things in Rome tend to cost a bit more than they do in the smaller towns of Italy. When I was studying Italian in Rome last Spring, I spent a lot of time thinking about my budget and how to make my funds last the entire three months I would be there. Therefore, "free" became my best friend. Here is a list of what I consider to be the top 10 free things to do in in Rome - all within walking distance if you're staying downtown.
1. Catch a Glimpse of the Pope
Every Wednesday, the pope makes his general audience appearance in Piazza San Pietro outside of St. Peter's Basilica around 10:30 AM. He stands up in his popemobile and makes a slow pass through the crowds, stopping to bless babies along the way. Even for someone who is not Catholic, the experience left me speechless.
To get this front row seat however, I arrived at the square three hours early. I especially recommend this if you plan on staying for the pope's service, as you may not want to be standing for an additional 60-90 minutes after the long wait to get in. Although, even if you decide not to stay the entire time, seeing the pope so close even for a minute or too is worth the wait.
For more information, visit the official site for the Papal Audience.
2. Gaze Up From the Inside the Pantheon
Almost 2000 years old, Rome's Pantheon is one of it's most well-preserved ancient structures. It's magnificent oculus at the top is open to the sky and is the main source of light for the building. While you're there, it may seem like the entire room is staring upwards. But if you can stand to peel your eyes away for a moment, make sure to check out the tomb of the famous painter Raphael (a.k.a. acclaimed ninja turtle).
Also, if you're looking for a sweet treat after your visit, make sure to check out the shops in this area. Right outside the Pantheon in Piazza della Rotonda, I discovered a cheesecake type of dessert called torta di pere. If there is one treat besides gelato I will return to Rome for, it's this one!
3. Watch the Sunset from Giardino degli Aranci.
Beautiful day and night, the Garden of Oranges sits atop a romantic Roman hill, boasting one of the best views of the city. Perfect places to sit with a friend or loved one, and take in everything you've seen and experienced that day.
This garden was also the first place I had ever seen orange trees! Coming from the Northwest in the U.S., oranges are one of those fruits that just seem to appear at the grocery store.
4. Get Lost in Villa Borghese
When I first visited this park, I literally got lost. At 148 acres large, it's difficult to see it all. However, spend a couple of good hours here and you'll stumble upon a collection of statues, an emerald green lake, and a zoo. The grounds here are perfect for stretching your legs or reading a good book.
If you decide you do have a little extra money to spend, check out the grandiose Galleria Borghese here. Home to some of the most well-known and stunning pieces by Caravaggio and Bernini, you'll feel almost as if you're intruding on history itself. This gallery is also a great place to escape Rome's crowds for only a select number of people are allowed in at any given time.
5. Ensure a Return Trip to Rome at Fonatana di Trevi
The Trevi Fountain is a "must" on your first trip to Italy's capital. Supposedly, if you toss a coin in you are sure to return to Rome one day. A second coin means you are seeking for love, and a third is for those seeking marriage. What I loved about the fountain though was the surprise it brought me when it appeared. The Trevi is tucked inside a maze of narrow streets and tiny alleyways, and is a landmark which you'll suddenly stumble upon.
6. Journal by the Tiber River
Whenever I travel I try to keep a journal. It helps me remember the fine details of my trip, and is the perfect place to store ticket stubs and maps. I also like to seek out somewhere peaceful to jot down my thoughts. For me, the winding Tiber River was the perfect spot!
It's inevitable that a traveler will cross it during their visit to Rome. It runs right though the city, and connects people via stunning bridges. If you have time, walk along the banks towards Isola Tiberina. This little patch of land is the world's smallest inhabited island, and has quite an interesting history.
7. Climb the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna
Near Villa Borghese, the iconic Spanish Steps are almost never empty. Filled with tourists and shoppers, most people here are either taking selfies or eating gelato. However, come in the early morning hours and have the place to yourself. It's the perfect place to get in a little exercise on your trip.
8. Sample Fruits and Cheeses in Campo de Fiori
This area will always be a special place to me. For the first month and a half of my trip, I lived in an apartment right here in the Campo. My room had one of those stunning balconies you only see in movies, and was the perfect spot to people watch. Each night a different musician would put me to sleep with the sounds of their playing in the square below.
The Campo also has a daily market which features everything from flowers, to funny shaped pastas. Located nearby is a popular little bakery called Forno Campo de' Fiori. They crank out the best pizza by the slice, which is paid for by weight. I highly recommend this place as I still dream about their pizza today. The Forno was a frequent stop for me between classes.
9. Visit the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary
Between Campo de Fiori and the Colosseum, you may stumble upon an odd collection of ruins plopped down in the middle of the city. These are referred to as Largo di Torre Argentina, and are full of cats! If you'd like to visit the sanctuary that takes care of them, walk around the edge of the ruins till you find a stairway leading downwards. Here is the entrance to the shelter, and about 150 fury bundles of joy.
10. Make the Walk to the Colosseo
Starting at Piazza Venezia, walk the length of the street known as Via dei Fori Imperiali. This road will take you straight to the Colosseum, with a few surprises along the way. You'll first see the large, columned Monument of Victor Emmanuel II. This white marbled beauty (also called Altare della Patria) gives impressive views of the Roman Forum, but only if you're up to hiking its large set of stairs. If not, no worries! You can catch a street-side view just a little further down the street.
Along with the Roman Forum, you'll pass ruins of the Trajan Forum and Forum of Augustus. When I was first on this street, I didn't know where to look. Every direction I faced was full of history and a new set of ruins or monument to take in.
Eventually though, you'll make it past these gems and find yourself face to face with the giant that is the Colosseum. Prepare to have your breath stolen - it's an incredible sight!