I like to visit churches. I am not religious but churches are for me like museums and a perfect representation of all forms of art. The churches of Rome are like free museum with great artists like Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Borromini and Bernini. Now, let me get you in on a widely known secret: Rome is full of churches. You cannot turn one street corner and not find a church in Rome. It’s easy to get church-struck in Rome. Which churches of Rome to visit? Which churches are worth your time? I’ll give you my 9 most memorable churches of Rome and explain you why you need to visit these.
1. Santa Maria in Aracoeli
As you’ll probably want to climb the Capitol Hill, you might as well pop into this lovely church. The Santa Maria in Aracoeli, translated as the Maria with the altar in the air, dates back to the 6th century AD. Main attractions are the fresco by Pinturicchio, the main artist before the arrival of Raphael to Rome. Another top piece is the “Santo Bambino”, a Christ figure carved from wood from one of the olive trees from the garden of Gethsemane. Whenever anybody writes a letter to the Christmas child, it will be delivered to this little statue.
2. Il Gesù
I included Il Gesù because this is one of the rare Jesuit churches you’ll find. Il Gesù was built in the 16th century as an example of Baroque art. The facade of the building is an example of grandeur. If you have the chance, pop in and check out the colomns with gold and lapis lazuli at the chapel of Sant’Ignazio.
3. San Clemente
Now this is a real beauty for all history lovers alike. I did not fancy the church that much, it’s more what lies beneath it all. San Clemente basilica is a real peek into the different layers of Rome’s history. At the top level, you’ll find a 12th century church devoted to Saint Clemens who was banished and thrown in the water tied to an anchor. You’ll find depictions of this story throughout the church.
Go down and you’ll find the remains of a 4th century church and go down even further and you’ll find the worship place for 1st century Mithras culture. This male religion came from ancient Persia and rivaled early Christianity.
4. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
The Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is easily overlooked. People make a run for the Pantheon which is nearby or just look at the lovely statue of Il Elephante at the square in front of this church. The Sopra Minerva might be an interesting gem among the churches of Rome. You’ll find loads of greatness in this gothic 13th century church. It was built on the remains of the ancient temple of Minerva and now houses numerous pieces of Italian art. Forget the museums but marvel at the graves of Catherina of Siena, Pop Leo X and Clemens VII. It is here, where you’ll find a Christ’s statue by the hand of Michelangelo and a bust by Bernini.
As we continue our route, we’ll see the crowds flock around the Pantheon. The Pantheon was originally a temple for all the gods. Erected in the 1st century AD by Emperor Hadrian, it was transformed into a church during the Middle Ages. The Pantheon is not special because of its function as a church, but more for its form. When you enter, you’ll see the 43,3 meters wide dome. The dome is just as high as it is wide. In the middle you’ll find the Oculus, the eye of the dome. Here, the rain will enter the Pantheon, or the famous beam of light.
Here, you’ll also find the famous grave of Raphael and the graves of the first rulers of modern Italy, like Victor Emanuel.
6. Sant’Agnese in Agone
This church dominated the Piazza Navona and its exterior might well be more interesting than the interior of the church. The church of Sant’Agnese in Agone was built in the 17th century under supervision of the great Borromini. He designed the facade, the dome and the interior. He was the first to tackle the biggest issue of the great church builders of his time. How to show the dome of the church, when you’re on standing on the street in front of the church. He did an excellent job, with the 1 story high facade, showing the dome above it.
7. St. Giovanni of Laterano
This must be my top 3 for churches of Rome. I remember vividly walking inside for the first time. We took the side door and I didn’t understand the whole building. The 2nd and 3rd time I visited the San Giovanni of Lateran, I grew to appreciate Borromini’s hand in the interior.
But let’s start with the beginning. In the 4th century, this land was private property from the Laterni family. After they lost all their money, the pope took over their land and made it a papal residence. In the 17th century, Mr. Borromini was commissioned to restyle the interior and so he did. You can see clearly his baroque hand in all the statues.
Until 1870, all the popes were crowned here and the pope will serve the mass on White Thursday every year. Some key features of the building:
- Papal altar with in gold, the heads of Petrus and Paulus. It is said, the Arc of Covenant is situated in a locked chamber underneath it.
- Cloister garden with its unique twisted double colomns. You need to pay an extra fee to visit the cloister garden but I think it’s worth it.
8. Santa Maria Maggiore
Build on the place where snow was found in August, the church is full of surprises. The Santa Maria Maggiore is a well succeeded mixture of styles and times. The layout of the 5th century is still visible in the building of today. In the Middle Ages, the Cosmati flooring and the Romanesque Bell tower were added. During the Renaissance, the gold coffered ceiling was added with gold from South America. During the Baroque era, it was time to add the domes and the facade.
Make sure to check out the famous mosaics on the arch and apsis. Make sure to opt in on the tour. It’s only a couple of euros but you get to visit the loggia. Here you’ll see the traces of the fires and different renovations.
You’ll be taken to some private papal rooms, where you’ll get to see some ancient artifacts from the former popes. They even have liturgical vestments of St. Pius V, Pope Paul V and Urban VIII on display, which knocked me right of my socks. You also get a sneak peak at the spiral staircase designed by Rainaldi.
9. Saint Peter’s Basilica
And last but not least, the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. All the churches you have visited before the Saint Peter, will have prepared you for this visit. You have seen the different styles of churches of Rome and you’ve seen some Papal Churches like the San Giovanni of Laterano and the Santa Maria Maggiore. Now it’s time to visit the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
Don’t be alarmed by the long waiting lines. You can visit the church without having to wait and lose precious time in Rome. Visit at the end of the day or at the start of the day. Like we did. When we arrived at 7 o’clock in the morning, we didn’t have to wait at all. We were welcomed by an almost empty Saint Peter’s square and a peaceful Basilica.
Make sure to take enough time to take in the following features:
- Saint Peter’s square: the Colonnade by Bernini is embracing the square. You’ll find 284 colomns and 88 pillars, each 20 meters high.
- Entry to the church: here you’ll find the mosaic from the original 2nd century church and the entrance to the stairs to climb the dome. There two statues on each end, left Charles the Great, right Constantine the Great. Check out the 5 different doors, among them the Porta Santa which is only opened in a holy year.
- As you enter, you’ll see the famous Pietà by Michelangelo on your right. Michelangelo single handed selected the piece of marble and carved Maria and her dying son Jesus from it. Together with the David in Florence, also by Michelangelo, this is the most mesmerizing piece of art I have ever seen in my life.
- The Baldacchino by Bernini. This canopy over the papal altar is a real eye catcher and dominated the area below the dome. The twisted colomns are 20 meters high.
- The statue of Petrus. His right foot is worn down from the pilgim’s kisses.
- The dome. The main feature of the Basilica and a true piece of renaissance engineering. It was Michelangelo who made the design of the dome, following the dome of the Duomo of Florence. But it was Della Porta who finished the 136,50 meters high dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1590 AD. You can climb the dome. Make sure to take a minute at the round hall. Stand across from each other and whisper a message. The other person will hear you, even though, you’re 42 meters apart from each other. Check the amazing views from the terrace over the roof.
Have you climbed the Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica? I still have not managed to do so, but I’d love to hear from you if you did.
There numerous other interesting sites to see, like the sacristy underneath the church with the graves of famous popes and the treasury. Throughout the Basilica you’ll find vastly decorated tombs, sculptures and paintings.
My 9 favourite churches of Rome
And there you have it. My top 9 of favourite churches of Rome. If you’re preparing to visit Rome, you cannot miss these. You’ll see them from the outside and if you’re curious, you might want to see the inside. It doesn’t matter if you visit these 9 or all 900 churches of Rome. Whatever you do, do not go to Saint Peter’s Basilica on your first day as your first church in Rome. You have to save the best for last.
To help you plan a bit, I categorized the sites in Rome and you’ll find these 9 churches of Rome in my list and plenty more. Check my previous blog with my simple strategy to maximize your time in Rome.
Have you been to Rome? Which churches of Rome did you find most interesting? Did I miss any for the top 9? Which church would you recommend? Please share in the comment section below.