They say the best things in life are free. Clearly, that’s not true: Guns N’ Roses tickets aren’t complimentary and a kebab when you stumble out of the Walkabout pub at 2am sets you back at least two quid.
But in Rome, at least, the saying is pretty much spot-on. There are few other European destinations where you can take in so many world-famous landmarks and hidden gems without handing over a penny.
The cosmopolitan Italian capital has grown up around ancient marble monuments and noble old buildings, so for starters, a stroll down the streets is as good as a visit to any museum. Entry to all of Rome’s 700-plus churches and basilicas is also free, meaning you can duck in and out of whichever ones take your fancy as you meander around town.
With the main sites in walking distance, you don’t even have to fork out for transport. Thirsty? Top up your water bottle from the many fountains that pour out fresh drinking water from the giant aquifer under the city.
Top of the list of free attractions is the Pantheon, a massive dome designed to be the ultimate temple. It’s dedicated to every god in the pantheon (hence the name) and was installed with a state-of-the-art drainage system so the blood from sacrificial animals could flow away easily. Head inside and gaze at the different colours of marble, which slaves hauled to Rome from as far away as Africa.
Among the many gratis holy houses, the Church of St Ignatius deserves a mention, for its – believe it or not – roof. Covered in frescos that create a dizzying optical illusion, the entire biblical scene appears to be in 3D.
If you’re going to visit any one church, though, make it St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. If you skip the dome (and the endless line of sweating tourists queuing to climb it), it won’t cost a thing to wander at your leisure around Rome’s greatest holy house.
Alternatively, grab a quiet spot on the main square to absorb this awesome structure.
Of course, there’s much of Rome that can be appreciated from the streets. The magnificent Trevi Fountain comes at no cost, unless you follow the tradition of throwing a coin over your left shoulder to ensure your return to Rome (or two coins to score an Italian lover).
Then there’s the Colosseum. Entry costs €11, but seeing this ancient, towering arena from the outside is spectacular in itself.
You need to be a bit more clever with the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. Visitors are allowed in free on the last Sunday of every month, but arrive early because it gets packed with fellow freeloaders.
Just a 10-minute walk from the Vatican you’ll find the Villa Borghese. This sprawling park, free to all, is the perfect place to have a snooze on the soft grass after a hard day of sightseeing.
Or, if you’ve still got some energy, climb from Via Garibaldi to the Janiculum Hill for a view over Rome’s main monuments. From here you can admire the city and point out all the places you’ve managed to sneak into for nicks.
Time to get the wallet out
Some things in Rome are worth paying for, but even then you can usually get away with handing over just a few coins.
Gelati it’s too good to miss – the gelati in Rome is as good as ice cream gets.
Ostia Antica It’s not as spiffy as the ruins of Pompeii, but Ostia Antica does have well-preserved homes, a market and port dating back to the Roman Empire. It only costs €1 on the train line.
Lido di Ostia Rome’s closest beach is served by the city’s rail network, so you can get there for just €1. Break the monotony of sight-seeing and rip off your clothes for a swim and a change of pace.
Trastevere All that sight-seeing builds up a thirst. You’ve saved your pennies, now it’s time for a few vinos – so head to Viale Trastevere to sample Rome’s best after-dark precinct.
• Trevor Paddenburg went to Rome with Intrepid Travel (020-7354 6169; www.intrepidtravel.com), which specialises in small groups and ethical travel using local transport, hotels and restaurants.