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Rome is notorious for being expensive to visit—there's so much to cram into your trip that the costs can add up quickly without you noticing. I've been three times now, both as a solo traveler and as part of a group, and each time I go I discover things new and interesting. Below is my top five list of things you can see for free whilst vacationing in the Eternal City.
Situated smack-bang in the middle of the Centro Storico, built over the ruins of the ancient Stadium of Domitian (some of which can still be seen from the street), Piazza Navona is an open space, amid a maze of narrow streets, that is popular with tourists and locals alike. The square is lined with restaurants, gelateria, museums and shops, and contains three ornate fountains. The central fountain, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, holds an obelisk brought to Rome from Egypt. The Chiesa de Sant' Agnese in Agone marks the spot where the Christian Saint Agnes was martyred in the Stadium of Domitian.
Pro tip: Visit at night when the fountains and palazzi are illuminated to get the best view of the architecture.
The Spanish Steps
Located northeast of the Centro Storico, a little further out than the main sights, at the convergence of the main designer shopping streets, Piazza di Spagna is named after the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican nearby, and contains a baroque fountain shaped like a boat at the base of the stone staircase that leads up to the Chiesa de Trinita dei Monti. The small square is busy with tourists and shoppers, and home to designer boutique stores. To one side of the steps is the Keats-Shelley Museum, where the Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Shelley stayed in the city, and to the other side is Babington's English tea room.
Pro tip: Visit between late April and early May to see the Steps decorated with flowering azaleas commemorating the foundation of the city of Rome.
The Trevi Fountain
In the Trevi District, immediately to the East of the Centro Storico, you will find the Trevi Fountain—the terminus of the ancient Aqua Virgo aqueduct. Built in Travertine stone on one side of the Palazzo Poli, this is arguably one of the world's most famous fountains. The small Piazza de Fontana dei Trevi is crowded both day and night, when the fountain is illuminated.
Pro tip: Don't forget to throw a coin over your left shoulder into the water to guarantee you'll return to Rome one day!
A short walk between Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain in the Centro Storico will find you in Piazza della Rotonda, home of the Pantheon. An ancient temple dedicated to all the gods, the Pantheon has survived from antiquity by being consecrated as a Christian church, Santa Maria Rotonda. Free to enter, the Pantheon has a concrete domed roof with a hole in the centre that lets in a shaft of light. It is a popular venue for weddings, tourists, and music recitals.
Pro tip: Come when it's raining (or snowing if you're lucky!) to get that all-important shot of the water coming through the Occulus in the ceiling.
St. Peter's Basilica
Dominating St Peter's Square, with colonnades reaching out like arms to the faithful and tourists alike, St Peter's Basilica sits directly over the spot of the martyrdom and burial of St Peter. The reliquary of St Peter can be seen on a trip through the ancient catacombs beneath the Basilica for a fee, but there's plenty to take in here without having to pay for anything. The rich decoration has to be seen to be believed, and includes Michelangelo's Pieta carved from a single piece of marble, and the elaborate bronze Baldacchino by Bernini.
Pro tip: Arrive early to avoid the queues, and visit on a Sunday to see the Pope give the Angelus Address at midday in St Peter's Square.
This is by no means an exhaustive list—as I said above, every time I visit I discover something new. Most of the major sites in the centre of Rome are within walking distance of each other, so you needn't fork out for transport and can enjoy a bit of exercise if the weather is fine!