Churches of Rome
Narrowing down the nine hundred
Anyone who has spent time in Rome would tend to agree that, in this copiously cultural Capital city, it seems that you can scarcely turn a corner without stumbling across at least one of its 900 churches. From the elaborate architectural feat of St Peter’s Basilica to the small and simple Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s treasure trove of churches from across the ages each have a story to tell. Perfect for a peaceful pause from the clamor of the city, whether they are presiding over a piazza of their own or tucked down a side street, you simply cannot come to Rome without checking out its churches.
With so many to tick off your sightseeing list, here is a short guide to get you started:
St. Peter’s Basilica
Starting with the big one because, honestly, you can’t miss it. Whilst this may not be quite the serene sanctuary you’re after, due to the hoards of tourists flocking here every day, it goes without saying that they come here for a reason. With its iconic dome one of the most recognizable members of the skyline of Rome, this architectural accomplishment was by no means a solo effort. In 1506 Pope Julius held a competition to seek out a design for his planned ‘grandest building in Christendom’ and Donato Bramante came out victorious. However, following the Pope’s death just 7 years later, Bramante was replaced by Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo and Raphael (who was later replaced by Baldassare Peruzzi after his premature death at age 37). Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, and Domenico Fontana also made significant contributions to the dome whilst the façade was designed by Maderno. This Renaissance masterpiece was then carried forward to the Baroque with additional flair added by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Today, it’s no wonder that the Basilica San Pietro remains such a popular site. It’s free to explore the mesmerizing interior (though mind the queues!) where you can gaze in awe at Bernini’s striking baldacchino high above the altar and Michelangelo’s masterpiece of the Pietà. You can also pay a small fee to climb up to the cupola above and see unparalleled 360-degree views of the Piazza San Pietro and Vatican gardens.
This 5th-century church is found on the Aventine Hill and is classed as a minor basilica. Slightly away from the crowded center, the Aventine neighborhood is a popular residential area and therefore this church is a great spot for some peace and quiet amongst locals. Constructed by Dalmatian priest Peter of Illyria, the church takes its name from Santa Sabina after having been built on the site of what is said to be her imperial house. Sabina was beheaded under Roman rule for being converted to Christianity and was later declared a Christian saint. Today the large but simple exterior remains largely unchanged since its construction, though the interior underwent a significant renovation by Domenico Fontana in 1587 and Francesco Borromini later in 1643. As well as Taddeo Zuccri’s fresco depicting Christ flanked by two thieves, inside the church you will find a framed hole in the floor showing what is thought to be a remnant of the Roman Temple of Juno, which dates back to 396BC. As if that’s not enough, just a few steps away from this church is the villa of the Cavalieri di Malta with its famed keyhole where you can get an unadulterated view of St Peter’s Basilica framed by the villa gardens.
Santa Stefano Rotondo
As suggests the name, this church’s individuality comes from its unexpected circular interior plan set behind its flat exterior façade. Located on the Caelian Hill, the original commission for the church was at the end of the 5th century, though of course, as is often the case, much work has since been done. In the following century it was embellished with mosaics and colored marble and in the 12th century, Pope Innocent II had it restored. Today, the church is Hungary’s national church in Rome after Santo Stefano degli Ungharesi was torn down in 1778 to make way for the St Peter’s Basilica. As far as churches in Rome go, this is perhaps not an obvious one but being a little off the beaten track and totally unique makes a visit to Santo Stefano Rotondo all the more worthwhile.
Santa Maria in Trastevere
Next, is a trip across the river Tiber to Trastevere, Rome’s hub of all things wining and dining. The church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is said to take the prize as Rome’s oldest church as the foundations can be dated way back to the 3rd century! With an unassuming exterior it sits quietly in Piazza Santa Maria, but don’t let this church pass you by. Upon entering you are greeted by 22 granite columns apparently taken from the Baths of Caracalla as well as a wealth of 13th-century mosaics.
Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
Tucked behind the impressive centerpiece fountain of Piazza della Repubblica is this small, 16th-century basilica church built inside what was once the frigidarium (cold section) of the Roman Baths of Diocletian. Unlike many of Rome’s best-loved churches, Santa Maria degli Angeli does not have an elaborate façade, in fact, it’s ancient exterior could quite possibly be passed over as yet another remnant of antiquity. However, this rustic shell houses a wonder within. One of its unique features is the meridian line executed by Francesco Bianchini, an astronomer, mathematician, archaeologist, historian, and philosopher. Pope Clement XI wanted to give Rome a meridian line to match that of Bologna and being southerly facing with walls high enough to allow a long and precise tracking of the sun, this church the perfect choice.
Basilica di San Clemente
Despite being located just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum, this ancient basilica is lesser-known among tourists. Brimming with 2000 years of history, exploring Basilica di San Clemente is a real excavation as you are able to step further and further back in time and take a tour of the two lower levels. These include the original 4th-century basilica lying below that of today and deeper still, you will find the remains of an earlier 1st-century building! Excavations in the early 20th century have suggested that the foundations plunge even lower to a fourth layer of buildings destroyed by the fire of Nero in 64 AD. However, up on street level, the main attraction is the extraordinary collection of Byzantine mosaics. The 12th-century gold mosaics in the apse glitter and gleam as they depict the common Byzantine theme of the Triumph of the Cross. Ditch the sweltering queues of the Colosseum and make your way to this multi-layered feast of history.
Archibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano
A few years older than the first St Peter’s Basilica, San Giovanni in Laterano is another of the four papal major basilicas. Its current imposing white marble façade was overseen primarily by Domenico Fontana in the late 16thcentury after the original site had been reduced to ruins due to centuries of fires, earthquakes, and vandalism. A striking feature is the 15 giant white statues that preside above the façade, recalling those found atop St Peter’s. Upon entering this palatial papal church, you will be met with Francesco Borromini’s 17th century interior renovations. Though considered somewhat conservative compared to typical Baroque architecture, the sheer volume, intricacy, and grandeur is sure to impress. Borromini’s 12 niches, which were empty for years, were eventually filled with larger than life sculptures of the Apostles, at the request of Pope Clement XI and Benedetto Cardinal Pamphili in 1702.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva
This modest church is yet another example of a site rich in culture and history that has been overshadowed by its nearby tourist attraction; in this case, the Pantheon. Nestled just around the corner in the more tranquil Piazza della Minerva, is the 14th century Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The interior highlights include the 15th-century frescoes by Filippino Lippi in the Carafa Chapel and Giacomo della Porta’s Aldobrandini Chapel with its altarpiece of the Communion of the Apostles by Federico Barocci. Moreover, this inconspicuous church also houses the work of a true great. Michelangelo’s Cristo della Minerva is another of the church’s treasures and is found just to the left of the main altar.
Santa Maria della Vittoria
Located on Via Venti Settembre just north of Termini station, the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria is best known for housing the Bernini masterpiece Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. This sensual baroque piece depicts a swooning Saint Teresa during her encounter with an angel and subsequent religious ecstasy and was deemed controversial at the time of its execution. The structure church itself was designed by Carlo Maderno and whilst the façade was the work of Giovanni Battista Soria, it is evidently influenced by Maderno’s nearby Santa Susanna. Santa Maria della Vittoria became a tourist hotspot after it was featured in Dan Brown’s celebrated novel Angel and Demons.
Trinità dei Monti
This late Renaissance Roman Catholic church is situated in the ever-powerful position atop the Spanish Steps. Surveying the hive of activity below in Piazza di Spagna, Trinità dei Monti is a 16th century church under the responsibility of the French State. In front of it stands one of Rome’s numerous Egyptian inspired obelisks, this one being Obelisco Sallustiano whose hieroglyphic inscriptions were copied from that of the Flaminio Obeslik found in Piazza del Popolo. Like many other churches of the time, during the Napoleonic Occupation, much of its art and decoration was plundered. Thankfully it was restored in 1816 and today, we can once again enjoy the array of frescoes and sculptures.
Santa Maria Maggiore
One final ‘Santa Maria’ (though there are many, many more!), Santa Maria Maggiore is the biggest of them all and holds the status of a Papal major basilica. Legend has it that Pope Liberius of the 4th century had this spectacular church built after experiencing a vision of the Virgin Mary asking him to build a church in her honor. The next morning, in the height of the heat of a Roman summer, it is said that, by way of an instruction from the Virgin Mary of the location of the church, there was snowfall over the spot where the basilica still stands today. This enchanting legend is known as ‘The Miracle of the Snows’ and is celebrated each year on 5th August when white petals or artificial snow is sprinkled magically over the basilica. Inside the basilica is a wealth of glittering mosaics depicting the entire Old Testament up until the coming of Christ, at which point the story is continued with the birth and childhood of Christ illustrated by Byzantine mosaics. The basilica has its own Sistine Chapel (not to be confused with that of the Vatican) outside of which is found the tomb of distinguished Baroque architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his family.
In a unique little piazza just off of the bustling Via del Corso is the 17thcentury church of Sant’Ignazio. Originally founded as a church for the prestigious Roman College, today it is known for the ceiling by Jesuit priest Fra Andrea Pozzo. It’s a bit of a neck workout as your eyes are glued to Pozzo’s ceiling frescoes portraying Saint Ignatius and his entry into paradise. The individuality of this ceiling comes from the tromp l’oeil (a sort of illusion created by art) effect at play. From the central nave aisle upon looking up, it will appear that the ceiling is rising above you, however, from any other point, the columns will seem to be collapsing. This same illusory effect goes for the celestial dome, which takes on peculiar proportions depending on your viewpoint.
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