Rome, Italy is the city known as the wellspring of the Roman Empire and for the breadth of political and cultural innovations that derived from this unique period of history. In addition, Rome known as the fount of the Roman Catholic religion, which has also had a worldwide, dramatic impact on culture and politics. Many of Rome’s churches are places of almost indescribable beauty and contain impressive artwork that can be found nowhere else in the world. The history of the churches in Rome mirror the ebb and flow of political power wielded by the Catholic Church and its popes during the centuries since its founding.
There are over 900 churches in Rome and each offers a unique snapshot of history and, in many cases, stunning architectural and artistic treasures. Join us as we tour just of few of these interesting centers of religious faith in Rome.
Touring Rome’s churches can be complicated, as there are so many to see that you will run out of time before you run out of opportunities to explore unique and, perhaps, unanticipated treasures. In order to simplify things a bit, we have selected only a few of Rome’s churches to try and whet your appetite to see more. Our list is clearly not exhaustive, although moderately selective. We will introduce you to churches that are important, interesting, beautiful, usually hundreds of years old and not too far off the beaten track. We are sure you will develop your own favorites, but if you have some spare time, each of these churches deserves a visit.
There are four Papal Basilicas in the world and all are in Rome. The Papal Basilicas include Saint Peter’s in the Vatican, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major and the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls . The most important of these is St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City by virtue of the fact that it is the Vatican’s principal church, although as Bishop of Rome, the “official” church of the Pope is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran.
Saint Peters (San Pietro)
Saint Peter’s Basilica is regarded by many Catholics as their most important church. St. Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles, was selected by Christ to lead his religion and, after Christ’s death, he migrated to the heart of the Roman Empire to continue this task. St. Peter, who was the first bishop of Rome (and Pope), was martyred during Nero’s reign in the mid-first century and is believed to have been buried with great secrecy in a crypt that is some distance beneath what is now the main altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
There have been at least two of churches built at this location in the past and the construction on the present St. Peter’s started in the 16th century with completion in the early-17th century. As can be imagined, the construction of Saint Peter’s occurred across the reigns of several popes and the plans for the basilica often changed when new pope’s began their reign.
Saint Peter’s is truly a glorious building and we direct you to our one-page guide to St. Peter’s Basilica for a detailed description of its interior and exterior.
For additional information on visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, see the official Vatican website.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is located in the Vatican City at the top of Saint Peter’s Square.
Basilica of Saint John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterno)
Saint John Lateran is the official cathedral of the church of Rome and the official seat of the Pope in his role as the Bishop of Rome. The church was built to honor both Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. The original church in this location was founded in the 4th century, but fell into disrepair and was damaged by fire when the Papacy of the Roman Catholic Church was moved to Avignon during the 14th century. The church was not restored to its former glory until the 18th century. Saint John Lateran is a beautiful building that is known for its excellent Baroque facade, which dates from the 18th century restoration.
The interior of the Basilica is dramatic and well worth seeing. Be sure to view the Scala Sancta (the Holy Steps), which are believed to include original components of the staircase ascended by Jesus Christ during his judging and sentencing by Pontius Pilate. Don’t miss the statues of the Twelve Apostles and take a quick look at the cloister that survives from a monastery that once graced the complex.
The obelisk in the piazza fronting the church was a creation of Thutmose III and designed for erection at the Temple of Amon-Ra at Karnak. It was re-discovered there by Constantine the Great who arranged its transport to Constantinople. However, he died before it could be shipped and his successor rerouted it to Rome where it was originally displayed at the Circus Maximus.
The Basilica of St. John Lateran is located on Piazza San Giovanni.
Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore)
Saint Mary Major, on the Esquiline Hill, is one of the most visited churches in Rome, as it is the major Papal Basilica dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of the Christ.
Portions of the basilica date back to the 5th century and the initiative to build the basilica dated from the Council of Ephesus, which proclaimed Mary the mother of God. Later in life, after the Crucifixion, Mary migrated to Ephesus, which became her final home.
Be sure to see the mosaics in the central nave, as well as the beautiful Borghese Chapel and the Sistine Chapel (not to be confused with its more famous version in the Vatican). St. Mary Major also sports an excellent facade by Fuga that becomes even more appealing at night when light spills out from the interior and highlights the beauty of the entrance.
The Basilica of Saint Mary Major is located in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.
Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mura)
In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine built a basilica outside of the Aurelian Walls at the purported location of the grave of Saint Paul the Apostle, who had been martyred during Emperor Nero’s reign in the mid-first century.
The Basilica was enlarged, expanded, restored and redesigned a number of times, with each action contributing an important addition to the church. The new mosaics, cloister, altars and frescos contributed to the beauty and mystique of St. Paul’s basilica.
In the early 19th century a fire destroyed the basilica, although it was rebuilt incorporating several sections that survived the fire. It was re-consecrated in the mid-19th century. The basilica complex includes the remains of a Benedictine Abbey dating from the tenth century.
See the official Vatican website for almost every detail you could ever hope to know about this Papal Basilica.
The Basilica of Saint Paul is located on Via Ostiense .
Santa Maria in Trastevere
Santa Maria in Trastevere (at the Piazza Santa Maria) is thought to be one of the oldest churches in Rome, although its exact age is indeterminate. Some believe that portions of the church date from the early third century, while others suggest that the construction started in the mid fourth century. Whatever the real date of construction, Santa Maria in Trastevere feels very old and is one of the most elegant churches in Rome. It is thought that the columns in the interior of the church were taken from the Baths of Caracalla, as well as other locations and, if you inspect them, you will see designs that are clearly non-Christian. Several of the interior mosaics are stunning and add to the ambiance of this attractive church. In addition, Santa Maria in Trastevere houses a relic known as the “Holy Sponge”, which is reputed to be a piece of the sponge that was used to offer Christ a drink during his crucifixion.
Before entering the church, be sure to examine the large mosaic over the top of the arcade, which dates from Medieval times, as well as the four statues of the saints above the entrance portal. The elegant facade was restored by Fontana in the early 17th century.
Santa Maria in Trastevere is located in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
Santa Maria del Popolo
Santa Maria del Popolo began as a Chapel that was built in the 11th century and later enlarged and modified to the structure we see today. Santa Maria del Popolo is a stunning church that benefits from works by Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, Bramante, Pinturicchio and other famous Renaissance artists and artisans. The altars, statues, mosaics, frescos and painting represent a virtual “who’s who” of Italian Renaissance Art.
The Chigi Chapel, which plays a role in Angels & Demons, was designed and worked on by Raphael, although finished by Bernini.
Santa Maria del Popolo is located in Piazza del Popolo.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a beautiful church constructed in the Gothic style and that distinction makes it one of the most unique churches in Rome.
It is believed that the original church on this site was built over a shrine to the goddess Minerva. The current church evolved in spurts of activity between the 13th and 15th centuries, although it has been dramatically altered since that time.
The exterior of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is bland and unimaginative, which is why many people walk by without a second look. However, there is more here than meets the eye. The interior is stunning and includes works by Bernini, Michelangelo, and others. The remains of St. Catherine of Siena, Fra Angelico and several popes are buried within the church.
The Dominican Convent attached to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is where Galileo was tried for his then heresy that the earth revolved around the sun. At other times, the convent was visited by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Dominic and other noted saints.
The church is close to the Pantheon and as noted above, its exterior is relatively nondescript. However, Bernini decided to grace the location of the church with a small but interesting statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk. Eye the elephant and then treat yourself to a quick tour of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. You will be glad you did.
Saint Maria Sopra Minerva is located at Piazza della Minerva.
Santa Maria ad Martyres
The Pantheon is one of Rome’s oldest buildings and many believe that it has remained intact because it was converted to a church in the early 7th century, several hundred years after it had been abandoned by the Empire. The church, which was dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, and all martyrs, is not famous as a church, but for the amazing building that forms its setting.
Unfortunately, while its adoption as a working church is reputed to have helped preserve the building, various popes harvested materials from the Pantheon for other purposes. For example. the much of the interior and exterior brass plating was removed from the Pantheon to mold cannons for Castle Sant’Angelo and for use in Bernini’s Baldachchino in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Pantheon and its church are used in the plot to the popular novel and movie Angels &Demons, so expect the crowds to be larger than usual.
Basilica di San Clemente
The Basilica di San Clemente has one of the most beautiful interiors of any church in the Eternal City. The apse consists of a half-dome richly appointed with colorful mosaics that are considered among the finest created during the Middle Ages. The altar is capped with a temple-like top that marks the crypt of Pope Saint Clemente (one of the first popes).The original church, which was destroyed by the Normans when they sacked Rome in the 11th century, dates from the 4th century. Interestingly, the earlier church incorporated the ruins of a Roman temple
The current church was constructed in the 12th century with a glorious attention to detail. The intricate, carved ceiling is a masterpiece, as are the mosaics and unique floor tiling leading to the altar. If you are in the neighborhood, don’t pass up a chance to see this gem.
The Basilica di San Clemente is located in the Piazza San Clemente
San Ambrogio e Carlo
Built to celebrate two Milanese saints (Ambrose and Charles Borromeo), this 17th century church is compact and visually pleasing. The colorful faux-marble support columns skinned with faux-marble pilasters and the abundance of bright frescos help make this church a delight to visit. The painting of Saints Ambrose and Charles behind the main altar is also quite impressive.
The windowed drum supporting the dome, adds a lightness to the interior and the glow radiating from the windowed barrel vault adds yet another dimension that helps make this modestly-sized church a favorite of many visitors to Rome. The church is also important to those who regard Saint Charles Borromeo as their patron saint, since his heart is preserved in a reliquary near the sanctuary.
Saint Ambrogio and Charles is located along Via Del Corso.
Trinita dei Monti
Trinita dei Monti is the inviting church at the top of the Spanish Steps next to the Piazza di Spagna. Although the church is not as popular or as famous as its neighboring attractions, it does compliment their setting.
The Trinita was built by the French King Louis XII and consecrated late in the 16th century. During Napoleon’s occupation of Rome, during the first decade of the 19th century, the church was damaged. In addition, its art was removed (looted) although returned after repairs had been made to the church. To be honest, the outside and the location of the Trinita are what makes it a favorite, but we thought you might like to know a little about its history and see a photograph of its interior.
The Trinita dei Monti is located on the Piazza Trinita dei Monti above the Spanish Steps.
The original church at this location dates from the early 5th century, although it was renovated and expanded in the late 8th century. In the 17th century the church was once again renovated, but was not restored to some of its original glory until another renovation in the 20th century. The simple, airy, almost empty look of this church is thought to reflect its original design. The large windows in the drum and the numerous windows above the nave serve to provide an airy, peaceful feeling that merges with the solemnity of the columns edging the nave.
The church has a number of interesting, modest frescos, although its mosaics appear to have disappeared during one of the many renovations. The cypress door to the church may date from the original construction. It consists of a number of panes (several are missing) that depict scenes and stories from the Bible.
Santa Sabina is located on Via Santa Sabina near the Piazza Pietro d’Illiria.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli
Santa Marie in Aracoeli, up the 124-step stairway to the left of the Cordonatta on Capitoline Hill, is the official church of the Italian Senate. It is thought that the location occupied by the church sits atop earlier temples or other types of monuments. The present church, which appears to date from the mid 13th century, was built over or incorporated parts of an earlier church that is thought to date from the 6th century.
The interior of Santa Maria in Aracoeli is divided into three modest naves and has many interesting features created by famous artists of the time. However, we think your attention will be attracted by the church’s columns, which were taken from other buildings in the Forums and used here.
The painted and gilded ceiling was offered as a tribute to the Blessed Virgin in the 16th century to commemorate the crucial Battle of Lepanto (1571), when a coalition of Christian fleets defeated the Ottoman Turk navy off the shores of western Greece, preventing the Ottomans from invading Rome and southern Europe.
The church hosts one of Rome’s most popular Christmas celebrations, when on Christmas Eve its stairway is illuminated with candles in preparation for a midnight celebration where a wooden statue of the infant Jesus (Santo Bambino) is unveiled and introduced to the crowd.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli is located on Capitoline Hill near the Piazza Campidoglio.
Santa Maria degli Angeli
Built inside the Baths of Diocletian in the 16th century, Santa Maria degli Angeli was designed by Michelangelo who incorporated many structural aspects of the baths into his architectural plan. The exterior has been redesigned over the centuries, although some sections still include the original walls from the Baths of Diocletian, while the interior, with some modifications, still reflects Michelangelo’s original design. The church was built to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christian slaves who were died constructing the Baths of Diocletian (constructing the Baths was their punishment for professing Christianity).
The church is known for pleasant interior, as well as its Meridian line, a long, brass strip embedded in the floor, which is illuminated by the sun shining through a small portal in the ceiling. The Meridian was created to help track the seasons and predict the dates of holy days.
Santa Maria degli Angeli is located on the Piazza della Repubblica.
Sant Andrea al Quirinale
A beautiful church that is regarded as a Baroque masterpiece, Sant’Andrea is considered one of Bernini’s finest works. The architecture of the Church and its interior decorations combine to create a powerful statement. The construction dates from the 17th century.
Sant Andrea is located on Via del Quirinale, near the Palazzo Quirinale.