Free Things to Do in Rome

We're in Rome Today (assuming we caught our train). You'll have to wait for a more personal update with photos and other goodies, but until then we figured we'd share our favorite free things to do in Rome. A full list can be found on the National Geographic website.

Rome may be a city of high fashion and expensive tastes, but its rich history and art offer plenty of culture that won't cost you a dime, including churches and most monuments. You don't have to look far for free activities in the Eternal City.

The oldest standing domed structure in Rome, the Pantheon was built in 27 B.C. as a temple honoring all the Roman gods, then was converted in A.D. 609 to a Christian church. The famous architect Brunelleschi used it as inspiration when designing the cupola for the Duomo (cathedral) in Florence. Its most striking feature is the oculus, the open-air aperture at the top of the dome that lets in natural light. It is the burial place of several famous artists, including Raphael. Mass is held here Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m.

Stroll through the ruins of what was once the center of a powerful empire at the Foro Romano, the former commercial, governmental, and religious center of ancient Rome. It contains the remains of several temples and judicial buildings, and was the site of some of Rome's most important events. The Arco di Constantino, located near the Colosseum, is Rome's largest arch. About 65 feet (20 meters) high, it was built in A.D. 315 to commemorate Emperor Constantine's triumph over Maxentius, after which he allowed the practice of Christianity in the Roman empire.

See the "wedding cake," as locals refer to it: Il Vittoriano, the large white-stone monument on Piazza Venezia near the Capitoline Hill, was constructed at the turn of the 20th century to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. The building houses the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an eternal flame burns. The massive monument is topped by a statue of Victor Emmanuel on a horse, accompanied by winged depictions of Victory. A museum inside details the history of the Italian Reunification. The large white columns around the building are sometimes called the "false teeth."

Test your luck at La Bocca della Verità ("The Mouth of Truth"). This grotesque sculpture of a wild-eyed face on the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin has a macabre reputation, made famous by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Legend has it that if you put your hand in its gaping mouth and tell a lie, you'll pull out nothing but a stump. 18 Piazza Bocca della Verità.

Walk off that gelato: The Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna make up the longest and widest staircase in Europe. Originally proposed by the French, this grand staircase leads from the Piazza di Spagna to the church of Trinità dei Monti (they became the "Spanish" steps after the Spanish embassy moved to the square). Once a hangout for artists, the steps are now abuzz with students, tourists, shoppers, and portrait sketchers.

The world center of the Catholic Church and the largest Roman Catholic building in the world, St. Peter's Basilica is also an astounding work of art. Entry to the main floor is free. The outside colonnade and the 90-foot-tall (30-meter) baldacchino, the staggering bronze canopy that shelters the Papal Altar, where only the pope may celebrate Mass, were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the greatest baroque sculptors. Don't miss the "Pietà," one of Michelangelo's most famous statues (now sheltered behind glass after an attack by a hammer-wielding maniac), and make sure to rub St. Peter's well-worn foot for good luck as you pass the bronze statue. There is a six-euro charge to climb up to the dome, designed by Michelangelo.

The Vatican Museums are free of charge on the last Sunday of every month, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (the last admission is at 12:30 p.m.). +39 06 69 88 33 33 .

Rome's national museums and other major galleries have deals that change constantly. Check with galleries individually before you go for any special admission prices. For a listing of museums in Rome, visit http://activitaly.it/musei/.

Visit the gardens at Villa Borghese. One of the most expansive and beautiful set of gardens in Rome, this park is a great place to stop for a picnic; adults can relax and kids can explore. The adjoining Galleria Borghese is worth a visit, but admission is not free. Or you can try Villa Sciarra, which has a playground located next to an exotic-bird aviary. You can feed the birds if you bring your own bread. And at Villa Ada, several organizations (like the World Wildlife Fund) offer free activities for children. In addition, the city holds free exercise sessions for adults at the pond on Sundays.

Piazza di Spagna, one of the most well-known piazzas in Rome, was once home to poet John Keats, who died in an apartment that looked onto the square (his quarters are now a museum). The square also sports the famous Fontana della Barcaccia ("fountain of the boat"), designed by Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The shopping around the Piazza di Spagna is some of the best in Rome.

Designed by Niccolo Salvi, the Fontana di Trevi is perhaps the most famous in Rome. The immense fountain was completed in 1762 and is the largest and most intricate of the baroque fountains of Rome, combining sculpture, nature, and architecture. Legend has it that if you throw a coin in over your shoulder, you will return again to Rome. Piazza Navona was originally a center for sporting events, including horse races, and then became the location of a major market. The main market has since moved to Campo de' Fiori, but the piazza is still a central location for street fairs, parades, etc. It also contains some of Rome's most famous artwork: Borromini and Rainaldi's Sant'Agnese in Agone Church and Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi), where each figure represents one of the four main rivers known at the time—the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, and the Rio de la Plata. Two other fountains on the square, the Fontana di Nettuno and the Fontana del Moro, were designed by Giacomo della Porta.

The Campo de' Fiori square is known for its morning flower and vegetable market, and its evening bar and restaurant scene. The name, given in the Middle Ages, means "field of flowers," referring to the fact that the square was once a meadow.For an authentic Roman walk, stroll through the trendy neighborhood of Trastevere. This area's narrow streets and numerous squares are reminiscent of classical Roman and medieval times. Once the home of artisans, fishermen, and merchants, Trastevere became known for its immense villas and beautiful gardens, which belonged to Julius Caesar. After hours, the area is known for its nightlife.

Starting at 7 p.m. every night, Irish-operated Angel Tours offers a free 30-minute tour of the Pantheon in small groups. Show up at the Pantheon and look for the tour guides holding umbrellas with angels on them. If coming with a large group, call ahead. +39 06 77 20 30 48 .

Sky Tours Rome offers free hour-long tours of Saint Peter's Basilica Mondays through Saturdays at 9 a.m. +39 34 72 84 08 28 .

In summer, the island in the middle of the Tiber hosts the open-air Isola del Cinema film festival. Music, dancing, and food and wine-tasting accompany cinema showings and celebrity sightings. Throughout September's International Urban Theater Festival, keep your eyes open for spontaneous dance, music, and acting performances throughout the city.