Much of Rome resembles an open-air museum; major sights, from St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the Pantheon in the centro historico, are free to enjoy. But even the paid attractions, nightlife and, of course, the dining scene can be enjoyed on a strict budget if you know where to look. If you’re visiting with more enthusiasm than cash, this is a budget guide to Rome, from the local experts who know the city best.
Rome has many draws for visitors – the history, the culture, the art – but perhaps the most universally enjoyed is the food. And in the Italian capital, you don’t have to spend a fortune to feast like a king.
Maria Pasquale, blogger and broadcaster at HeartRome, writes on food in Rome for CNN, USA Today and others, and always knows where to find the best budget bites. She says, “Eating well in Rome doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the bank. For street food like the classic Roman supplì (deep-fried rice balls) head to I Supplì in Trastevere. In the same neighbourhood, you’ll find the gourmet pizza haven that is Sue Pizza Illuminati (Via Angelo Bargoni), and my favourite trattoria, with the best carbonara (pasta with bacon and egg) in town, is Da Enzo. While you’re in that part of town, don’t miss some of Rome’s very finest artisanal gelato at Otaleg. That’s pizza, pasta, street food and gelato covered. And with change to spare!”
Along with her husband Steve Brenner, Linda Martinez runs the boutique Roman hostel The Beehive and is well-accustomed to directing travellers seeking a great value (and great tasting) meal to the best restaurants in the area. One of her top picks is Panificio Roscioli near Piazza Vittorio, which is a bakery and a tavola calda – an eatery that serves pre-made but incredibly authentic food, such as pasta and vegetables, to hungry office workers seeking a quick filling lunch. For those arriving in or leaving Rome at irregular hours, Martinez recommends the Mercato Centrale food court in Termini station, which scorns fast food in favour of delicious deli meats, cheeses and other traditional Italian dishes.
A Roman resident who works in the civil service and knows how to seek out a bargain, Massimo Mossarelli suggests several places in the heart of Rome’s upmarket shopping district, close to the Spanish Steps. He says, “Pastificio Guerra (Via della Croce 8) offers three types of pasta, a hearty portion inside a plastic tub with a glass of wine. It’s a ridiculous price, and good, rustic but quaint. Eat inside if you find space or out on the pedestrianised street. If you still have room, just opposite, there is a branch of Pompi, with its tiramisu in various flavours. For pizza al taglio (by the slice), I recommend the Alice Pizza chain. Forno Campo de’ Fiori is the other go-to for pizza by the slice.”
It’s easy to walk around the compact historic centre of Rome, and with another beautiful sight waiting around every corner, it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t want to explore the city on foot. If you need to hop on a bus or a metro, you can buy a BIT ticket for €1.50 (£1.30). The ticket lasts 75 minutes from its first validation and allows for transfers between metro, buses, trams and urban trains, making it simple to venture into the outskirts of the city.
Agnes Crawford, a qualified Rome guide with nearly 20 years of experience, runs Understanding Rome and is full of ideas for seeing the city on a budget. Her top tip? “All churches in Rome are free!” Not only are they free to enter, many contain masterpieces that would be revered in any gallery across the world. You can find Caravaggio paintings in churches such as Santa Maria del Popolo and San Luigi dei Francesi, and Michelangelo’s beautiful Pieta sculpture, showing Mary with the dying Jesus across her lap, is free for all to see in St Peter’s Basilica, as is his Moses in St Pietro in Vincoli. Santa Maria in Trastevere is gilded with beautiful mosaics, and Santa Sabina dates from the fourth century and features ancient Roman columns. The Pantheon, once an ancient Roman temple, is also a church, and it’s free to enter this much-copied dome, which houses the tomb of Raphael.
Rome’s piazzas also hold splendid monuments, such as Piazza Navona with its central fountain sculpted by Bernini; Piazza del Popolo, which centres on an ancient Egyptian obelisk; or the Piazza di Pietra, which is dominated by the columns of the ancient Temple of Hadrian (embedded in the wall of Rome’s Stock Exchange).
The Trevi Fountain is another major sight – a fantastical, foaming tableau that almost fills its small piazza – and anyone can climb the imposing Spanish Steps to see superb views from the top. To feel as though you’re escaping the city, head to Villa Borghese – bucolic parklands that once belonged to the powerful Borghese family.
As well as the big attractions, there are many off-the-track charming places that you can explore for free as well. As Rome resident and blogger Iana Nekrassova De Paolis, AKA ‘Rome Insider’, says, “One of my many favourite places in Rome is Villa Aldobrandini, a small cosy park in the very centre, just above Via Nazionale and Piazza Magnanapoli, with free entrance.”
Rome is built across seven hills; for incredible, Instagram-worthy views of the city without dipping into your savings, Crawford recommends, “Views over the forum from the Capitoline Hill are ace and, of course, totally free!” Other viewpoints that offer some of Rome’s most spectacular sights include Pincio, Gianicolo and Aventino.
For a viewpoint that feels hidden away, peek through the Aventino Keyhole in the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. This tiny keyhole frames a perfect view of… well, go and have a look for yourself.
Italian museums usually have around 20 days per year when they’re free to enter, which used to be the first Sunday of the month, but some museums in Rome have switched in an attempt to prevent queues and overcrowding. However, many places, including the Colosseum, are still free to enter on the first Sunday from October to March. The Vatican Museums are free on the last Sunday of the month, but they get extremely busy. To check when the free dates are, look up the individual sites or visit this site (available in Italian only – the perfect opportunity for brushing up on your language skills before you go on holiday).
To escape the crowds, Crawford recommends, “The Musei in Comune, which are free, small museums – the first seven are central”. Her top picks are the Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica (which holds the donated collection of Giovanni Barracco, including magnificent works of Egyptian and Assyrian art) and Museo delle Mura (an archaeological museum that allows visitors to walk inside one of the most well-preserved areas of the Aurelian Walls).
Alexandra Bruzzese of Food Around Rome is an American living in the Italian capital, writing on food and life in the city for Lonely Planet and others. Her top tip for saving money? “The water from Rome’s nasoni (big noses), or small water fountains scattered throughout the city, is clean and drinkable. Instead of buying water bottle after water bottle, save money and be environmentally friendly by filling up a canteen with water from the nasoni.” Skip paying for water and save your money for a glass of vino instead.