Rome has more than 900 churches. Yes, more than 900! This is the most of any city in the world, and it isn’t especially close. It is an overwhelming number, and given how many of them are considered beautiful or important – or both – seeing churches can become an all-consuming part of a trip to the Eternal City. So unless you plan on spending weeks here only seeing religious buildings and artifacts, you’ll have to prioritize. Well, I’m here to help. In my time in Rome, I visited roughly twenty churches and basilicas, and I have picked my eight favorites to share with you.
Note: these are my personal favorites. This does not mean they are the eight best, or prettiest, or most important. And let’s also note that I only visited twenty or so, not even including all those that are thought of using the aforementioned adjectives. So take all this with a grain of salt.
Before we start, one thing you’ll notice in Rome is how many churches are basilicas. So what is the difference? What makes a major papal basilica? And what is a cathedral?
For a church to become a basilica takes an act by the Pope, officially elevating the status. So yes, a basilica is technically more important than a basic church. A basilica is generally overseen by a bishop, of which there are just over 5,000 in the world. However, not all bishops oversee specific basilicas. (A cardinal, just for being complete in our little journey into church hierarchy, is basically a papal advisor. Most – but not all – cardinals are bishops, but there isn’t a specific requirement for that, only that the cardinal be an ordained priest. Cardinals vote on the new Pope when such things need voting. As of this moment, there are 222 cardinals, 120 of whom are cardinal electors.)
Most basilicas are minor ones. Four, all here in Rome, are defined as major papal basilicas. These have special status both religiously and politically. Religiously, they each have a papal throne, reserved specifically for the Pope, and a special lectern from which anyone other than the Pope can only speak with papal permission. Politically, as only one of the major papal basilicas sits inside of Vatican City, the other three are considered actual Vatican property. While Italian authorities handle basic security, once on church property, one is technically in another sovereign state, similar to an embassy.
A cathedral is the official seat of a diocese, so think of it as a basilica but one with a more administrative function. Here in Rome, the official cathedral for the diocese is called a basilica, though it is technically a cathedral. Thoroughly confused? Good. So let’s visit some churches.
St. Peter’s Basilica
If you see one church in Rome, it is like to be St. Peter’s. It is the largest church building in the world, and the centerpiece of a visit to the Vatican. Completed in 1626 after a staggering 120 years of construction on what was the original St. Peter’s built by Roman Emperor Constantine, it is magnificent done up in gold all over the interior, sitting atop the tomb of St. Peter himself.
A visit to St. Peter’s is overwhelming, as everywhere one looks there is something more beautiful and more fascinating. You certainly don’t want to miss Michelangelo’s Pieta, which sits just to the right as you walk in the main doors. One of my favorite details can be found on the floor as one walks up the central aisle. Here in the marble and mosaic flooring are names of notable Catholic churches all over the world, and how large they are in comparison to St. Peter’s, as measured from the back wall behind the altar.
St. John Lateran
St. Peter’s is a major papal basilica, but St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano) is the seat of the diocese, making it the official cathedral of Rome, and technically the Pope’s home turf church in his role as Bishop of Rome. Construction was completed in 1735, and while it isn’t as grand as St. Peter’s (but no church is), the interior is still stunning, featuring a beautiful ceiling and marble statuary. The original church was built in the year 324, making it the oldest public church in Rome, despite the new construction more than a millennium later.
Fascinatingly, since the days of Henry IV, the head of state of France has been the official “First and Honorary Canon” of St. John Lateran, meaning President Macron currently holds that title. I do wonder what would happen in the case of a non-Christian French President…
Santa Maria Maggiore
The third major papal basilica I visited was Santa Maria Maggiore. (I didn’t get to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.) Located just a couple blocks from Rome’s Termini Station, it is by far the easiest to reach, although as with St. Peter’s, it can have a fairly long line even during a weekday.
Completed in 1743, it also – not shockingly – has an ornate interior, although for me, the front external facade is the highlight. Intricate stone carvings and a stunning bell tower make Santa Maria Maggiore (Major) stand out.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli
There are a lot of Santa Maria churches in Rome, hence each one needing a second part to its name. This minor basilica sits on the Capitoline Hill (click here to read more about Capitoline Hill) but can only be accessed from below, up a number of marble steps, rather than from the rest of the hilltop attractions. Built in the 12th century, the exterior is plain brick, but the interior is exquisite.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli (literally Santa Maria of the Altar in Heaven) is home to some important relics belonging to Helena, the mother of Constantine. It is also the official church of the Roman city council, for whatever that is worth.
Santa Maria in Trastavere
This minor basilica is one of the oldest in Rome, as even the current building dates back to 1143. It is the centerpiece of Trastavere, a truly gorgeous district with some of Rome’s best dining just across the Tiber from the main tourist sights. (The best gelato I had in Rome was also in the square just outside the church.)
While as with most of the churches on this list, Santa Maria in Trastavere has a beautiful ceiling, the highlight is the golden mosaic of the central altar. Another golden mosaic adorns the front exterior facade, just beneath a faded – older – portion.
Santa Maria del Popolo
Another minor basilica, and another Santa Maria, this one sits on the Piazza del Popolo at the north end of central Rome, pretty near to the Spanish Steps. Completed in 1477, Santa Maria del Popolo is a church you’ll visit not for the church itself, but for two small side chapels.
First, take a view of the Cerasi Chapel, which holds two canvases by the great painter Caravaggio. Then head to the Chigi Chapel. This chapel, sponsored by the Chigi family, was designed by Raphael, and also features several works by Bernini.
Santa Maria del Popolo is an illustration of the reason many people don’t feel the need to visit art museums in Rome. So many churches in this city hold art by the most famous classical and Renaissance artists, as so much of that was commissioned either by the Church or by wealthy patrons who wanted to be on good terms with the Church. (I’m not saying not to visit art museums, and in fact in my upcoming Ultimate Guide to Rome, I’ll talk about a couple I do consider worth the entrance fees.)
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
The last Santa Maria on this list, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is just a block from the Pantheon. (Technically the Pantheon is also a church, but I refuse to include it on this list as it is just an example of the Catholic Church turning everything into churches.) Dating to 1370, this one features a sky-blue ceiling that stands in contrast to the intricate golden ones of just about every prior church on this list.
If that isn’t worth visiting, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva also holds a Michelangelo sculpture, Cristo della Minerva. This figure of Jesus was completed in 1521, and is one of the great artist’s lesser known works, meaning you won’t have to wait in a line to visit it.
St. Peter in Chains
The final entry on this list is yet another minor basilica. Dedicated to St. Peter, San Pietro in Vincoli, holds the – in theory – actual chains used to imprison Peter, hence the name. This is an old church, dating to the year 439, and the interior reflects that, being fairly plainly adorned compared to others. However, it has one of the most spectacular Renaissance art pieces in Rome.
In 1505, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to design his tomb, which would be placed here in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. While the entire tomb is lovely, the centerpiece is a statue of Moses, one of the most recognizable Michelangelo sculptures in existence. It is incredible, and more easily viewed than the Pieta, so detail is easier to see, like the veins on Moses’ hand holding the two tablets. There are also horns on his head, anti-Semitism being what it is and was (and a mistranslation of a line in the Bible leading to Moses with horns to start the whole thing).
So that is my personal list of my favorite churches I’ve seen in Rome. It is by no means comprehensive, but can be a starting point for you if you enjoy church visits. If you have other favorites, I’d love to hear about those in the comments!
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