Guide To Free Art in Rome
Updated: May 19
Are you an art lover looking for an affordable vacation in Rome Italy? Look no further! Here's my guide to seeing the best free art, sculpture, and architecture in Rome.
Traveling in any city as large and popular as Rome can be very expensive. And many of Rome's best museums have hefty entry fees, which can add up.
Most significantly, Rome's churches open their ornate doors for free. Inside, you'll find stellar art from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including works by such luminaries as Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, and Caravaggio. It also costs nothing to wander in Rome's piazzas and parks, where you'll find even more art on display.
Rome For Free: The Best Places To See Free Art In Rome
Let's take a tour of the free art and architecture you can't miss in Rome. These amazing sites in Rome will satisfy your craving for world class art but won't burn your budget.
Here's my list of the 30 best places to find amazing art in Rome without spending a thing. Some are well known sites, like St. Peter's Basilica, while others are secret spots that only locals may know.
1. First Sundays
All of Rome's state museums are open to visitors for free on the first Sunday of the month. Sure, they get crowded unless its off season. But it's still a fantastic opportunity, if you're traveling on a budget.
Some of Rome's most famous sites participate in this initiative: the Vatican Museums, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, the Capitoline Museums. Even Rome's revered Borghese Gallery can be visited for free (although a 2 € reservation is still required). Click here for the complete list of participating museums.
2. The Contarelli Chapel in the Church of St. Louis of the French
San Luigi dei Francesi, or St. Louis of the French, is a small church just one block from Piazza Navona. It's absolutely worth a stop. Inside is the spectacular Contarelli Chapel.
The chapel houses an in situ triptych about the life of St. Matthew by Baroque master Caravaggio. (In situ just means the art is shown in the host site for which it was created.) The three paintings, which are all massive, are:
The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)
The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1600-1601)
St. Matthew and the Angel (1602)
You can see the paintings up close and personal under perfect lighting conditions. In each one, a seemingly regular person is caught in a dramatic moment.
Address: Piazza di S. Luigi de' Francesi
3. Santa Maria del Popolo: Chigi Chapel & Cerasi Chapel
The church of Santa Maria del Popola is an impressive, and sadly overlooked, site in Rome. It's a treasure trove of Renaissance and Baroque art. It not only features sculptures by Bernini, but paintings and frescos by Caravaggio and Raphael.
Sienese banker Agostino Chigi was the richest man in Rome in his lifetime. He lived in the Villa Farnesina in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood, which was frescoed by Raphael. He also had Raphael design his chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, the Chigi Chapel.
The Chigi Chapel has two sculptural groups by Bernini from 1655-61, Daniel in the Lions' Den and Habakkuk and the Angel. They reflect Bernini's late style, with slightly more elongated figures characteristic of Mannerism. Daniel is the superior one. In it, a young Daniel reaches his arms toward heaven, praying to escape the lion.
And then there's the Cerasi Chapel. In 1600, Monsignor Cerasi commissioned Caravaggio to create two paintings for the church's Cerasi Chapel. Both paintings are austere and intense.
The Crucifixion of St. Peter is full of bold choices. In it, Peter looks like an ordinary man, not a glorified saint. One of his executioners even has dirty feet. In this way, Caravaggio effectively put biblical characters on the same level as ordinary citizens.
The Conversion of St. Paul is also powerful. It shows Caravaggio’s masterful use of light. A warm glow washes over Paul as he falls from his horse and emerges from the darkness in an ecstasy of revelation. Ever the iconoclast, Caravaggio thumbs his nose at contemporary conventions and, mostly, paints a picture of a horse.
Address: Piazza del Popolo 12
4. Santa Maria della Pace
In the heart of Rome, just minutes from Piazza Navona, lies a secret church with a Baroque facade, Sant Maria della Pace. Inside, there's art work that you wouldn't expect for such a small and relatively unknown church, including works by Renaissance masters Raphael, Peruzzi, and Orazio Gentileschi.
There's another Chigi Chapel, commissioned by Chigi and decorated with a fresco of the Sybils by Raphael. The fresco shows four sibyls, the oracles of ancient times, accompanied by attendant angels. The sibyls bear a similarity to Michelangelo's sibyls in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. The beautiful Raphael fresco was just restored in 2020.
Annexed to the church is Bramante's Cloister, an architectural gem. It was the first building completed by the great Renaissance architect, Donato Bramante. Once a tranquil internal cloister, the space is now used for special exhibitions.
Address: Arco della Pace 5
Without a doubt, the Pantheon is the best preserved building from ancient Rome. You'd don't have to wrinkle your brow or struggle to conceptualize anything, as with many ruins. It's all before you, and free to enter.
The Pantheon was a temple dedicated to all of the gods. It was originally built by Augustus' right hand man, Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC. In 120 AD, the Pantheon was rebuilt by Hadrian.
READ: Guide To Hadrian's Villa
A true Grecophile, the well traveled emperor reimagined it as an oversized Greek temple -- with 40 foot tall Corinthian granite columns from Egypt, a pediment, and portico. It was considered a masterpiece of engineering and mathematical precision.
The Pantheon's most emblematic feature is its perfect unsupported spherical dome. At the time, it was a major architectural breakthrough. The dome became the model for Michelangelo's dome for St. Peter's Basilica and for Brunelleschi's dome for Florence Cathedral.
The Pantheon is filled with tombs of important Romans, including the artist Raphael.
Address: Piazza della Rotunda
6. The Cavalletti Chapel in the Church of Sant'Agostino
A Caravaggio painting can be enjoyed for free in the Cavalletti Chapel of the Church of Sant'Agostino in Rome's Campo Marzio area. The chapel holds one of Caravaggio's most tender (yet still controversial at the time) paintings, Madonna di Loreto or Madonna of the Pilgrims.
In it, Caravaggio tests the boundaries between the sacred and profane. The Virgin Mary takes an utterly human form, with only the thinnest of halos glimmering in the dark toned painting. The pilgrims appear as filthy barefoot peasants.
By focusing on earthly life in the painting, Caravaggio may have provided validation for the everyday faithful who entered the church. Art historians dub this painting an example of "religious mysticism," in which Caravaggio simplified and humanized devotion.
The Cavalletti Chapel also has a fresco by Raphael, The Prophet Isaiah. The fresco shows a powerful Isaiah wrapped in robes and holding a scroll. He's flanked by two angels, in a posture reminiscent of Michelangelo's Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel.
Address: Piazza di S. Eustachio 82
7. Galleria Sciarra
This little architectural beauty is only minutes away from the Trevi Fountain, and worth the detour. The exterior is unremarkable. But step inside (for free during business hours) and your jaw will drop. Its beautiful courtyard is a living museum, transporting visitors back to the height of the Art Nouveau movement.
The wealthy Sciarra family commissioned the opulent courtyard in the late 19th century. Every inch of the arcade walls are adorned with colorful murals painted by Giuseppe Cellini. The theme is the "glorification of women."
The glass and iron ceiling lets sunlight spill into the courtyard, illuminating the details in the frescoes. When the sun goes down, lights turn on to bathe the courtyard in a warm yellow glow.
Address: Via Marco Minghetti 10
8. Michelangelo's Porta Pia
Pope Pius IV commissioned Michelangelo to design this city gate in the Aurelian Way. It was Michelangelo's last architectural project. He died shortly before it was completed.
The pontiff wished to burnish his legacy with a gate sporting his name. Built in 1551-56, the crenellated gate is focused more on the city of Rome, than on those entering the gate.
In building Porta Pia, Michelangelo departed from architectural norms, particular the "Virtruvian Rules." The gate has an eccentric secular design with fantastical elements of Michelangelo's architectural vocabulary - broken pediments, swags, masks, displaced fragments of the orders, overlapping planes, and juxtaposed facades.
A bronze plaque shows the artist's original plan, which was significantly altered (by Michelangelo and others) in the final version.
Address: Porta Pia
9. Michelangelo's Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
The Basilica of St. Mary of the Anglels is a fascinating church with a facade made of Roman ruins. It's a fragment of the frigidarium, or cold pool room, from the ancient Baths of Diocletian. In 1560, Pope Pius IV commissioned Michelangelo to transform the bath ruins into a church. It was to be his final work.
Romans took their baths seriously. Diocletian's Baths were meant to surpass the Baths of Caracalla and could accommodate 3,000 citizens. Stepping inside Michelangelo-designed church gives you an idea of their scale.
The basilica is the only Renaissance style church in Rome. The sensational interior contrasts sharply with the facade, which Michelangelo intentionally left unadorned except for bronze doors. The nave boasts massive granite columns, some from the Roman era and some imitations.
The church is also home to the Meridian of Rome. It was created in 1702 by an astronomer and placed on the church floor in the right transept. Until 1846, Romans used it to set the time. An opening in the church's roof causes sunlight to fall on the line precisely at noon.
Address: Piazza della Republica
10. Trevi Fountain
No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the beautiful Trevi Fountain, an imposing late Baroque monument designed by architect Nicola Salvi. The fountain is 85 feet high and 65 feet wide, making it Rome's largest fountain.
In the center is the figure "Ocean." Water pours from 24 spouts. If you're superstitious, toss a coin over your shoulder to ensure your return to Rome.
Address: Piazza di Trevi
11. Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona is the most famous public square in Rome. And it's beautifully decorated, dominated by the magnificent Fountain of Four Rivers, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. It was designed by Bernini for Pope Innocent X. But Bernini almost didn't get the commission.
Bernini had many rivals. Initially, when Innocent X commissioned designs for the fountain from Rome's leading architects, he excluded Bernini. But after seeing Bernini's model in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, he observed: "He who desires not to use Bernini's designs, must take care not to see them."
So Bernini won the contest for the fountain. In it, you see four muscular statues representing the river gods. There's a lot going on.
The gods represent the four great rivers of the world: the Danube, the Ganges, the Rio del Plato, and the Nile. They gather around an Egyptian obelisk. The fountain is festooned with palm trees and animals. A dove representing the Doria Pamphilj family sits atop the obelisk.
12. Borromini's Church of Sant'Agnese
On the Piazza Navona, you'll also find Borromini's Church of Sant'Agnese. Borromini was an Italian architect who helped launch Roman Baroque architecture.
Borromini's works combine classicism with passion. He used concave and convex forms to animate his buildings and eschewed over-decoration.
Borromini was eccentric man, who some thought psychotic in his last years. He was an intense and embattled loner. He was rancorous and quick tempered. Borromini eventually committed suicide by falling on his own sword at age 67.
Sant'Agnese Church is one of his best works. Everyone goes to Piazza Navona and admires the striking concave facade. Most people don't step inside the church. Do it, it's free!
The church is dedicated to the martyr St. Agnese. She was killed during Diocletian's persecution of Christians. Pink and white marble covers the walls. The bright and simple interior is filled with Baroque statues. Beautiful frescos decorate the dome.
Address: Via di Santa Maria dell'Anima, in the Piazza Navona
13. Piazza Spagna
The Spanish Steps are a photogenic stone staircase of 138 steps. As of 2019, you can no longer sit on the Spanish Steps, as they're now classified as a national monument.
At the foot of the Spanish Steps, you'll find Bernini's Barcaccia or the Fountain of the Leaky Boat. Urban VIII commissioned it as part of his initiative to place a fountain in every public square of Rome. Bernini worked on it with his father Pietro.
The unusual fountain was inspired by a boat that washed up on the piazza during one of Rome's floods. The fountain was intended to supply Romans with pure drinking water; it wasn't purely decorative. It was restored in 2014, so it's sparkling white.
At the very top of the Spanish Steps, you'll find the Baroque Chiesa della Trinita dei Monti, located near the shopping mecca of Via Condotti. Pop inside and take in the spectacular works of art, including frescoes, an astrolabe, and wall paintings that appear to change entirely depending on where you stand.
The highlight is one of Rome's prized masterpieces, The Deposition, by Renaissance painter Daniele da Volterra. Volterra was the painter who famously painted the "underpants" on Michelango's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Address: Piazza di Spagna
Address of the church: off Via Condotti on the Piazza della Trinita dei Monti
14. St. Peter's Square
St. Peter's Square is one of the world's most famous piazzas. In 1656, Pope Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to build a vast square worthy of St. Peter's Basilica. Bernini created an elliptical plaza with spectacular two semi circular colonnades, consisting of four rows of Doric columns.
The colonnades represent a pair of stretched and embracing arms, welcoming pilgrims to the basilica. If you stand on the foci (marble plates) near the fountain designed by Carlo Maderno, the columns line up perfectly behind one another.
On the balustrade at the top of the columns are 140 statues of saints, martyrs, and popes crafted by Bernini's workshop. At the center is is an Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula around 37 AD.
The paving stones of the square are cobblestone and travertine marble. They radiate from the central hub of the obelisk. The square is a magnificent entry point to the basilica.
Address: Piazza San Pietro
15. St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica is itself a sight to behold. Its dome was designed by Michelangelo. The semi-circular colonnaded square was created by Bernini. Inside, there are even more treasures.
When you walk in, Michelangelo's famous Pieta is immediately to the right. It's behind a sheet of bullet proof glass after Laszlo Toth attacked the statue with a hammer in 1972.
St. Peter's also boasts many incredible works by Bernini and his workshop. The show stopper is the ornate Baldachin or altar canopy. commissioned by Urban VIII. It's an elaborate and curvaceous bronze canopy covering the high altar. The bronze is so dark it looks like wood. At the top, there are four large angels in each corner.
There are many other Bernini sculptures in the basilica. The Tomb of Urban VIII was commissioned by the pope himself. Carved in white marble, the pope wears the papal tiara (a triple crown), his arm extended in a blessing. The figure of Charity is possibly portrait of Costanza.
The (rather overwrought) Chair of St. Peter is in the apse near the front of the basilica. Bernini's sculpture glorifies the chair as symbol of power. The chair hovers and is received (but not supported) by four aristocrats. Above the chair is an oculus of light, with cherubs and the holy spirit in its center.
But perhaps the most impressive of Bernini's St. Peter's sculptures is the Chigi tomb. The Tomb of Alexander VII is one of Bernini's last works. It's set in a large niche like a freestanding monument. The pope is at the top praying, surrounded by four virtues -- Charity, Truth, Prudence, and Justice.
Address: Piazza San Pietro
16. Mosaics in Santa Maria de Maggiore
The beautiful Santa Marie Maggiore is a UNESCO-listed site in Rome's Monti area. The church's 18th century exterior gives no hint of the the ancient treasures inside. The church has a perfectly preserved Byzantine interior, with 5th century mosaics on both sides of the nave and 13th century mosaics in the apse.
If you take a guided tour of the church, you'll get to see a secret spiral staircase designed by Bernini. It's in a residential apartment attached to the basilica.
It's an architectural curiosity because there's no central supporting rail. Bernini's tomb is also in the church, if you want to pay your respects.
Address: Piazza di S. Maria Maggiore
17. The Ruins of Marcellus Theater
Located in the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood of Rome, the Theater of Marcellus is easily overlooked by most tourists. But I walked past it everyday on the way home to my Air Bnb in Trastevere on my last visit. The monument isn't far from the gigantic white Monument of Victor Emanuel. And it looks like a mini-Colosseum.
The Theater of Marcellus is truly ancient. Julius Caesar launched construction and his heir Augustus inaugurated it in 12 BC. It could seat 20,0000. As you walk around it, you'll see both Doric and Ionic columns. There are ruins piled up all around it.
Unfortunately, you can only admire the exterior and walk along the amphitheater edge. In the 4th century BC, the theater started to crumble. Thereafter, it was used as a stone quarry and repurposed, like so much else, for other buildings in Rome. In the summer, there are sometimes concerts outside.
Today, the Theater of Marcellus is a building that's half private and half public. If you look at the photo, you'll see luxury apartments lining the top.
Address: Via del Teatro di Marcello
18. St. Peter in Chains | San Pietro in Vincoli
This Monti church isn't far from its more famous neighbor, the Basilica of Santa Marie Maggiore. But it boasts something more unique -- Michelangelo sculptures.
In 1505, Pope Julius II, art collector extraordinaire, commissioned Michelangelo to build a three story marble tomb to be placed in St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo slaved away on it for years. But his work was halted when Julius ordered him to paint the Sistine Chapel instead. When Julius died, funds for the project dried up and Michelangelo never finished it.
His assistants tried to piece together parts of the tomb. But some of the sculptures disappeared. Michelangelo's Slaves are now in the Louvre, for example.
But there is one magnificent sculpture left, that of a horned Moses on the bottom level. Moses has just returned from his meet up with God when he learns that his followers have been worshipping false gods. Though sitting, he's is full of movement -- a characteristic of Michelangelo's sculpture.
Address: Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli
19. Church of Saint Mary Immaculate
This small church on the Esquiline Hill has a recently authenticated Caravaggio painting, The Meditation of St. Francis. It's located in the sacristy of the church.
Like the painting of the same name in the Palazzo Barberini, this one shows St. Francis with his hands wrapped around a skull. It's a bit darker and gloomier than the Barberini version.
Address: Via Emanuele Filiberto 137
20. Coppede District
If you're a fan of architecture, the unexpected Quartiere Coppede is perfect for a couple hours of aimless strolling with no crowds. If you have a visit planned to the fantastic Borghese Gallery (not free), come here afterward. Coppede sits between Via Salaria and Via Nomentana. You'll know you've arrived when you spot the dangling black iron outdoor chandelier hanging in an arch on Via Tagliamento.
The Coppede district is known for its fantastical over the top architecture. The area was designed and built by architect Gino Coppede from 1913-27. He used a mix of styles -- ancient Greek, Baroque, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau. You may feel like you've stepped into a fairytale, it's so unique and beguiling -- an unexpected delight in Rome.
The highlight is the Villino delle Fate, the House of Fairies. The Piazza Mincio also features a whimsical fountain of frogs. The Beatles were rumored to have taken a late night dip in the fountain. If you'd like to dine in Coppede, try Il Gargliano, which specializes in seafood.
Address: Piazza Mincio
21. Church of San Francesco A Ripa Grande
This secret Trastevere church houses one of Bernini's greatest late works, the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. It's located in the Altieri Chapel, placed in the deep space above an altar. It seems like a companion piece to Bernini's St. Teresa (shown below).
Like St. Teresa, the Blessed Ludovica portrays a nun in the ecstasy of communing with God. For centuries, naughty observers have viewed it as carnal.
The sculpture undoubtedly has palpable erotic energy, with Ludovica's hand on her breast and head thrown back. It may seem odd that Bernini was praised for a sexual depiction of a religious moment. But, in the Baroque, the combination of the carnal and spiritual was seen as perfectly normal.
Address: Piazza di S. Francesco d'Assisi
22. Santa Maria della Vittoria
This church has perhaps Bernini's most famous sculpture, the risque Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel. It depicts the moment when an angel pierces Saint Teresa's heart with the golden arrow of divine love. St. Teresa wasn't your average saint. She was a Spanish nun who had full body mystical visions.
The sculpture is a complex ensemble, Bernini stagecraft at the height of his maximalist ethos. The sculpture hovers above in an elevated niche. St. Teresa is on a cloud with golden rays of light pouring down on the moment of intense emotion. On the walls of the chapel, members of the Cornaro family gather in "theater boxes" to witness the divine moment.
Address: Via Venti Settembre 17
23. Basilica of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte
The magnificent Castle Sant’Angelo Bridge is the most beautiful bridge in Rome and the main path to the Vatican. Dating to 138 AD, the bridge was built by Emperor Hadrian. In 1688, to put an exclamation point on the bridge, Pope Clement IX commissioned Bernini to decorate it with angels.
Bernini designed 10 fluttering sculptures, popularly known as the "breezy maniacs." 2 of the 10 Bernini carved himself, The Angel with the Scroll and The Angel with the Crown of Thrones. The pope deemed Bernini’s originals too precious to be exposed to the elements. So the sculptures lining the bridge today are copies.
You can find Bernini's two angels at the sides of the presbytery in the Basilica of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte. It's just off the Via Veneto, not far from Piazza Barberini.
Address: Via de Sant'Andrea delle Fratte 1
24. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Inside, you'll find paintings by Fillips Lippi and sculptures by Bernini and Michelangelo. Michelangelo's Risen Christ is in the choir. Bernini's best piece is the Memorial to Maria Raggi, a nun who performed miracles.
Outside in the square, you'll find the "Bernini Elephant" in the center of Piazza della Minerva. It's an eccentric piece. It consists of an Egyptian obelisk on the back of an elephant. Bernini designed the oddity, and it was sculpted by one of his assistants.
Legend holds that Bernini took liberties with the elephant's position. He deliberately sculpted the elephant smiling with its tail held to the side. The elephant appears about to leave a "gift" behind it, pointed at the house of a Bernini rival. Baroque Rome ... you have to love it.
Address: Piazza della Minerva 42
25. Piazza Barberini
Two of Bernini's fountains grace the very busy Piazza Barberini, the Fountain of the Triton and the Fountain of the Bees. Unlike the Trevi Fountain, you can even get up close to inspect them.
The Fountain of the Triton, dating from 1642, was Bernini's last public commission from Urban VIII. It marked the first time a decorative public fountain was ever seen in a European city center. The fountain was recently cleaned and is gleaming white.
The Fountain of the Bees is an homage to the Barberini family. It's a giant seashell with three bees drinking from the water spouts. Bees were the symbol of the Barberini family.
Address: Piazza Barberini
26. Via Dei Fori Imperiali
Instead of paying to enter the Roman Forum or Colosseum, take a stroll on Via Dei Fori Imperiali. This is a large modern road that connects the Colosseum with Piazza Venezia and the Altar of the Fatherland, crossing the Roman Forum in the process.
The Roman Forum is incredible. I highly recommend visiting it with a guide.
But if you're on a budget, a stroll along this road is a decent way to get an overview without spending a penny. You'll pass the Forum of Trajan, the Markets of Trajan, Forum of Augustus, and the Forum of Nerva. And see other archaeological excavations in progress.