Rome is a city with a spiritual aura that you can practically feel radiating off the cobblestone streets. We’re talking about the epicenter of Christianity, the city where St. Peter and St. Paul walked, talked, and changed the course of history. I mean, sure, you’ve got the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, the pièces de résistance of sacred sites. If you think that’s all there is to Rome’s spiritual tapestry, well, you’re in for an awakening–of the divine kind.
The Eternal City is teeming with churches that range from grandiose basilicas to humble chapels, each packed with a rich blend of history, art, and religious fervor. If you’re a seeker of spiritual elegance or a connoisseur of historical architecture (or heck, even just a traveler with a keen eye for beauty), Rome’s churches offer a dimension of exploration that goes beyond the typical tourist circuit.
From Byzantine mosaics that make your jaw drop to relics that ignite your inner Indiana Jones, Roman churches offer an all-access pass to a world of unparalleled splendor and profound devotion. Here we’re going on a pilgrimage of our own, right through the hallowed halls of Rome’s must-see churches. So light a candle, take a breath, and prepare to elevate your Roman holiday from great to heavenly.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is located right inside Vatican City, an independent city-state inside the heart of Rome. This Basilica is not only one of the most beautiful churches in Rome but also the largest Catholic church in the world, making it an absolute must-visit for anyone coming to the Eternal City.
The origins of St. Peter’s Basilica date back to the Renaissance period when the popes commissioned some of the greatest architects (including Bramante, Michelangelo, and Carlo Maderno, to name a few) to create a masterpiece worthy of being the spiritual center for the Catholic Church. Fun fact: St. Peter’s is not a cathedral; rather, it’s a major papal basilica holding a special rank in the Catholic hierarchy. The actual cathedra (seat) of the pope as bishop of Rome is in Saint John Lateran.
Let’s talk about the artistic awesomeness of St. Peter’s Basilica. The moment you step foot into the Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square), you’ll be blown away by the massive dome designed by Michelangelo himself. The basilica’s interior is equally breathtaking – it houses some of the most exquisite artworks from the Renaissance and beyond. Here are just a few highlights of this beautiful church:
- Michelangelo’s Dome: Michelangelo designed the iconic dome in the basilica, which is a masterpiece of engineering and artistry. You can even climb up the 551 steps to the top for an unbeatable view!
- Bernini’s Baldacchino: A massive bronze canopy decorated with twisting columns and incredible details, this masterpiece by the sculptor Bernini serves as the centerpiece of the basilica over the papal altar.
- The Tombs of Popes: St. Peter’s Basilica holds the tombs of numerous popes, including the first pope, Saint Peter himself. Keep an eye out for them as you explore the church.
St. Peter’s Basilica is a must-visit when in Rome, offering history, architectural brilliance, and incredible artistic works under one roof.
San Giovanni In Laterano
The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is an absolute gem in Rome. Did you know that it’s actually the Cathedral of Rome, and it ranks higher than the famous St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican? That makes it an essential stop on your Roman itinerary.
While you’re there, take a moment to admire the stunning architecture and the ancient mosaics that adorn this magnificent cathedral. It was initially built on the site of the old church of San Salvatore, which was erected by Constantine after he declared Christianity a legitimate religion within the empire.
Definitely check out the Lateran Palace during your visit to the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, located in Rome. This palace has some deep connections to the Catholic Church, as it has been historically the residence of the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope). The Lateran Palace underwent some reconstructions and renovations throughout the years. Now, though it doesn’t function as the Pope’s residence anymore, it still holds great significance and is an impressive sight to see.
Another must-see spot near San Giovanni in Laterano is the Scala Santa (Holy Stairs). These stairs are believed to be the ones Jesus ascended in Jerusalem before he faced trial by Pontius Pilate. They were transported to Rome during Constantine’s time and are considered to be pretty sacred in the Catholic Church. You’ll find people climbing these steps on their knees as an act of devotion, but it’s not compulsory. Just soak in the spiritual atmosphere and admire this piece of Christian history.
Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore is home to some seriously stunning artwork that you just can’t miss. The most impressive feature, hands down, has to be the mosaics that adorn the apse, triumphal arch, and nave. Created during different periods of history, they truly showcase the evolution of art and craftsmanship in Rome. Don’t forget to check out the Renaissance ceiling and the inner chapels, where you’ll find masterpieces by some of the greats of the Renaissance era.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore has roots stretching back to medieval Rome. Built in the 5th century, this church has stood the test of time and undergone several transformations over the centuries. It’s a historical gem with a ton of stories to tell. Despite being overshadowed by St. Peter’s Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore is every bit as spectacular and is definitely worth your attention in Rome.
For those on a pilgrimage, visiting Santa Maria Maggiore is a must. It’s one of the four Papal Basilicas, together with St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is also nearby, making your pilgrimage journey even more meaningful. As you explore the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore and its surrounding area, you’ll be tapping into centuries of religious devotion and faith.
Originally constructed as a Roman temple, this architectural masterpiece was transformed into a church by Emperor Constantine in the early 7th century. The Pantheon is one of the most well-preserved Ancient Roman buildings, showcasing both the grandeur of a temple and the serenity of a church.
As you stroll through the Pantheon, you’ll be amazed not only by the architecture but also by the stunning artwork that adorns its walls. One of the most famous tombs here is that of the Renaissance artist Raphael. Be sure to pay homage to his eternal resting place, and marvel at the various other masterpieces inside this fusion of a Roman temple and a Christian church.
In addition to the tombs and artwork, don’t miss the oculus, an opening in the center of the Pantheon’s dome that symbolizes a connection with the heavens. Stand beneath it and take in this architectural marvel, which is also the biggest coffered concrete dome ever built.
Basilicas And Other Churches
You’ll find the Basilica of San Clemente just a few blocks from the Colosseum. This unique church is named after St. Clement, the third pope after St. Peter, and is built over four layers of buildings, with a mix of various architectural styles. Below the present church, you can explore other churches and a Christian home destroyed in a fire in 64 AD.
Santa Maria in Trastevere
Located in the lively Trastevere neighborhood, this Santa Maria is one of the oldest churches in all of Rome. The stunning mosaics and artworks inside give testimony to its rich history. Be sure to check out the bell tower and attend a mass if you have the chance, as it offers a glimpse into Rome’s religious culture.
San Paolo Fuori le Mura
Another must-visit is San Paolo Fuori le Mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls), one of Rome’s four major basilicas. Its impressive façade and enormous interior are complemented by some stunning mosaics and elaborate artwork. As a bonus, you can explore the museum and baptistery for a deeper understanding of its historical significance.
Santa Maria del Popolo
In the bustling Piazza del Popolo, Santa Maria del Popolo is a fantastic example of a Baroque-style church. Feast your eyes on the breathtaking artwork, including paintings by Caravaggio and other famous artists. Don’t miss the Chigi Chapel and take time to study the intricate sculptures and details throughout.
Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Santa Maria in Cosmedin is a must-see, located near the ancient Roman Forum. Famous for the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth), this church also features a beautiful bell tower and medieval artwork. Make sure to visit the nearby ruins of ancient Rome, just a few steps away from the church itself.