The best part of most travel experiences is simply soaking it all in. I recently wrote how you can save money and time doing just that by skipping the inside of the Colosseum. It’s easier to appreciate from the outside anyway, and skipping the big sites can mean more and better travel. This strategy is perfect for the ultra budget traveler and is easily applied to Rome because its hills offer awesome free views of some of its most spectacular ancient ruins.
Here’s our guide for some of Rome’s best free views of ancient ruins:
The Forum is the heart of ancient Rome. It is a large rectangular compound filled with the empire’s most important government buildings including the Senate House (Curia Julia), a public meeting house for the people (Basilica Julia), and various temples and monuments to the gods and caesars. Most of it now is in various states of romantic ruin.
You have to buy a ticket to enter the Forum and wait in line to walk on designated paths through the complex. However the best views are actually free from outside the site. The Forum sits in a small valley, and much of it is edged with streets that offer spectacular views looking in. Simply look at a map and walk the perimeter of the complex to find them. I took these pictures of the Temple of Saturn (above) and the Arch of Septimus Severus (below) from one of my favorite free overlooks. It’s on the short street Via della Curia, right next to Chiesa dei Santi Luca e Martina.
Enjoy the free views, but do yourself a favor and skip the fake gelato at the tourist ice cream stands. Instead use our guide to spot real Italian gelato and avoid the imitations.
The Colosseum, where gladiators used to fight to the death against man and beast, is an ancient Roman architectural marvel. It also requires a purchased ticket and generally has long lines. However, similar to the Forum, it is also best appreciated for free from the outside. Because it’s circular, there are an infinite number of places to catch a great view of the famed Roman ingenuity. One of my favorites is actually from the new-ish pedestrian bridge that spans Via degli Annibaldi between Via del Fagutale and Via Vittorino da Feltre.
Circus Maximus is where the chariot races were held. It’s a much larger site than the Colosseum. However, the site itself is not as impressive in terms of ruins — it just looks like a long open oval field. But it’s still great because there’s no entry fee and it’s always open. Plus it’s one of the best places to get free views of Palantine Hill.
Palantine Hill is the oldest part of Rome. According to mythology this is where Romulus and Remus were found in a cave and raised by a wolf. It’s where the original city was built, and thousands of years later, where Roman emperors built their palaces. Unlike the Forum, the best views of Palantine Hill are actually from within the complex, in part because it’s on a hill and hard to see from the streets below. Unfortunately, it requires a purchased ticket and can get crowded especially at the good viewpoints. Luckily, there are still some great panoramic views that can be found for free from the far side of the Circus Maximus along the street Via del Circo Massimo.
The Pantheon is an ancient Roman temple that is incredibly well-preserved because it has been in continuous use since it was built nearly 2,000 years ago. Originally built to worship Roman gods, it has been used as a Catholic church for 1,500 years. It’s always free and always crowded. But the lines get inside quickly and even when it’s shoulder to shoulder you can still look up and easily see what makes the structure so famous: it’s dome and oculus.
The Baths of Diocletian.
To skip the crowds at the Pantheon but still see some amazing free ancient Roman architecture, check out the Baths of Diocletian. This sprawling complex was the site of an enormous Roman bath. Much of it is gone or has been incorporated into other architecture over the years. The ruins of the frigidarium (or “cold room”) were converted into the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martini during the Renaissance and are the best preserved portions of the complex. It also houses one of the oldest Meridian lines and a peaceful restful retreat from the hubbub of the city.
More free ancient Roman sites.
There are tons of other great free views of Roman ruins in Rome including Trajan’s Column, the Arch of Constantine, and more. One of our favorite places was called Area Sacra on an old 2010 map. What makes it unique is that in addition to being a Roman excavation site, it is also completely overrun by a colony of ferral cats. According to googlemaps it is also known as Largo di Torre Argentina.
In the end, one of the best ways to find your own awesome free views is by simply wandering around. Rome is an incredibly rewarding city to explore on foot. Here’s an excellent online interactive map of some of the major Roman sites as a starting place. (Click the numbers to find out the specific names of ruins and more info about them).
— Laura Rowley