Rome has no shortage of awe-striking churches that will take your breath away. Most folks know about the Vatican but there are many, many more churches in Rome worth visiting that unfortunately fly underneath the radar.
You can spend a full day walking and perusing different churches in Rome and be further enthralled by each one. It feels like you can’t throw a stone in Rome without hitting a beautiful church that’s begging you to visit.
The striking stone facades give way to magnificent ceiling frescoes, artwork by the Renaissance’s most famous artists and an imposing array of relics and little nuggets of history.
The stories of Rome and the Catholic Church are intertwined. So if you want to get the full Roman experience you should swing by a few churches.
Now before you click off this post, I need to tell you I’m not trying to convert you to Catholicism. I’m not even catholic myself. With that said visiting churches in Rome is par for the course! And I’m here to help you pick which ones are most worth your time.
I’ve made it a point to swing by any church with its door open during my multiple month-long visits to Rome and have been thoroughly impressed. It’s led me to investigate places I wouldn’t have otherwise, and that I think are worth sharing.
Even if you view it purely as a historical excursion (like a museum) it’s totally worth it. Not to mention, churches in Rome are (usually) free to visit so it’s like getting admission to world-class galleries around every bend.
But hey – enough of the small talk. Ready to talk about the most famous churches in Rome? Because I am!
Understanding the different type of churches in Rome
It should be no surprise that the most famous churches in Rome are predominantly Catholic. Considering the church was founded in the first century, Catholic’s have had plenty of time to build imposing houses of worship.
But understanding the terminology and titles churches in Rome use can be just as difficult as learning a new language. What’s the difference between a basilica and a cathedral? Why are some names so similar? Why are some churches associated with foreign countries?
I’ll answer some of these questions below by defining the different type of Catholic churches in Rome:
- Basilica: A title given by the pope to churches thanks to their history, architecture, or spiritual significance. There are four major Catholic basilicas, all of which are in Rome. (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major’s, and the St. Paul Outside the Wall.) Plus several thousand lesser basilicas spread across the globe.
- Cathedral: A Catholic Cathedral is a church that is the seat of a bishop. Bishops report once every five years to the pope and are responsible for larger areas than a typical church. Think of it like this: if the Pope is the CEO, and priests are the worker-bees, bishops are management. So a cathedral is like regional headquarters.
- Titular Church: A Titular Church is a church that has been assigned to a Cardinal (a senior member of the clergy, elected by the pope). Cardinals are also who elect a new pope whenever one passes or retires.
- National Church of (X): At one point in history nations and wealthy individuals could fund and build churches in places other than their homeland. These became National Churches, where migrants from those countries could congregate and build a community. National Churches were also an opportunity to flash status and wealth. So countries would purposely build imposing churches like ads to showcase their might.
Architectural structure of most churches in Rome
You may notice that most churches in Rome follow a similar floor-plan. When you enter you’re greeted into a lobby that leads into a long aisle filled with pews, known as the nave. At the end of the nave is the sanctuary, usually home to the altar.
Behind the altar is the apse which is usually round, and often where the choir sits. On either side of the sanctuary are chapels that usually have artwork depicting saints and kneelers for folks to light a candle and pray.
Now as I’m explaining this to you it’s hard to visualize the purpose behind this design. But imagine the nave, sanctuary and chapels from a birds eye view. It forms a cross.
The architecture behind early Christian churches is impressive to say the least. In fact, the floor-plan can trace its origins all the way back to the churches in Rome built by Constantine the Great in the fourth century!
Tips for visiting churches in Rome
Almost every church in Rome you come across is a functioning house of worship. It’s important to remember basic courtesy when visiting since we don’t want to offend anyone. Here are a few tips you should know before heading out to visit the most famous churches in Rome.
- Cover up: The best and often most overlooked tip I could give you is to dress modestly when visiting churches in Rome. A general rule of thumb (for both men and women) is to cover your knees and shoulders. Also, take off your hats before stepping inside and avoid shoes like flip-flops. Some churches (like St. Peter’s Basilica) will turn you away if you’re not dressed appropriately! (Pro-tip: bring a shawl or scarf on hot temperature days so you can cover up during your visit and take it off when you leave).
- Visit on days not used for mass: Every church in Rome is a little different but most have mass on Sundays. If you’re planning to visit churches in Rome but don’t want to participate in a service my suggestion is to visit on weekdays. Normally If the door is open it’s safe to assume the church is open to the public.
- Read the signage: This might seem like an obvious tip, but after visiting a handful of churches in Rome it’s easy to start glossing over the signage. Try not to fall into this trap, every church is unique and some may not allow things (like taking photos or talking) that others do. Also, the signage will often have helpful info that can give you a richer visit like dates of the artwork, the meaning behind details and the history of the church.
Most Beautiful Churches in Rome
Sant’Andrea della Valle
Many of you may have heard of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo and alluring thousands of visitors to the Vatican City Museums. What you may not know is that near Piazza Navona is one of the most beautiful churches in Rome, with its own ceiling full of frescoes to rival the renaissance artists’ work.
Sant’Andrea della Valle was completed in 1650 as a masterpiece of its day. Glimpses of golden accents shimmer as you take your time admiring the magnificent frescoes above and it’s breathtaking dome. Like many churches in Rome, there is a mirror in the center of its nave to save your neck from cranking back for too long.
The church is also significant in that it’s the resting place of two popes. Pope Pius II and Pope Pius III were both members of the Piccolomini noble family, originally buried in the Old St. Peter’s Basilica.
However, when construction began to build the current basilica their bodies were moved to Sant’Andrea della Valle in 1613. There are cenotaphs commemorating the two popes on display within the church.
You’ll also find a chapel (on the right side of the nave) with bronze copies of Michelangelo’s Pieta, Leah, and Rachel from 1616 by Gregorio De Rossi. Although not the originals, they still manage to leave a lasting impression.
Address: Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 00186 Roma RM
Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius
A mere two minute walk from the Pantheon is the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius (try saying that three times really fast -ha!). It’s undoubtedly one of the most revered churches in Rome.
Originally part of the Roman College, the church had many iterations before becoming what it is today. Allow me to explain. The Roman College was founded by Ignatius of Loyola, also the founder of the Jesuits, in 1551.
The college opened with little fanfare, but grew rapidly. In the early 1600’s there were more than 2,000 students and the college’s existing church (then named the Church of the Annunciation) couldn’t house them all.
When Ignatius was canonized as a saint in 1622 Pope Gregory XV (a student of the college himself) asked his nephew Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi if he would construct a new church and dedicate it to the founder.
Construction on the current church began in earnest on 1626 and it officially opened to the public in 1650. Bringing us into current day, it continues to be one of the most gorgeous churches in Rome today.
The frescoes that adorn the nave’s ceiling were painted by Andrea Pozzo around 1685, and still stop folks dead in their tracks in the present. By utilizing linear perspective and lighting Pozzo was able to give the paintings a near three-dimensional feeling.
They depict the works of St. Ignatius as well as him being welcomed into heaven by the Virgin Mary and Christ. If you look on the floor, there are markers telling you where to stand for the best views of the frescoes.
Address: Via del Caravita, 8a, 00186 Roma RM
Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round on the Caelian Hill
One of the most ancient churches in Rome, the Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round on the Caelian Hill was said to be built during the fifth century and dedicated to St. Stephen, the first martyr in Christianity.
As the name suggests (in the round), the Basilica of St. Stephen is one of the few churches in Rome built in a circular shape. In fact, during my research it was the only round Christian church in Rome I found, so if you know of any others comment them below!
Along the perimeter walls you’ll find an array of frescoes commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII during the 16th century, depicting an array of scenes of martyrdom. They also name the emperors who ordered the martyr’s death.
It’s a riveting feeling, staring at the pain that still somehow finds its way to the surface after 500 years. It goes to show that the churches in Rome aren’t only holy sites, but works of art.
Basilica of St. Clement
The Basilica of Saint Clement has worn many hats during its near 2000 year history. In fact, what makes this one of the most famous churches in Rome are the many layers of ancient ruins it houses beneath the surface.
At one point it was thought to be a first century warehouse destroyed during the Great Fire of 64 AD. It also became the villa of a nobleman and later a sanctuary to the Cult of Mithras, which was a religion during the first centuries.
But it wasn’t until the fourth century that the first basilica was built and named after St. Clement, the fourth Pope. This first basilica would be one of the major churches in Rome for centuries. However it wasn’t until the middle ages that the current version of the basilica would be erected.
If you visit the church in Rome today you’ll get to gaze upon one of the best examples of middle-aged architecture in Rome. The construction took place from 1108 to 1123 and has the appeal of a medieval house of worship.
Visiting this church in Rome is free, but accessing its excavations and exploring the breadcrumbs of the previous buildings will cost you €10. If you do choose to go underground (which I strongly encourage you to do) you’ll find catacombs, ancient art and even a glimpse into ancient plumbing techniques.
Basilica of Saint Sabina at the Aventine
Built in 432, the Basilica of Saint Sabina at the Aventine overlooks both the Tiber River and the Circus Maximus. As one of the best preserved early churches in Rome, the basilica is popular among Catholics and history buffs alike.
The traces of old-Rome are visible from the second you arrive. One of the church’s most famous draws are its 1,500+ year old doors that can be admired from the second you arrive.
The door consists of 28 panels carved in cypress wood depicting scenes from the Bible. This includes the first, public depiction of the crucifixion of Christ. Although small in size it’s huge in significance. I mean think about it – most of us have seen an image of Christ on the cross, and this was the first one?!
In a sea of grand and palatial basilicas, the Basilica of Saint Sabina manages to remain one of the most humble churches in Rome. I don’t mean that it’s small, but because of its age the Basilica of Saint Sabina lacks the heaps of golden accents and colossal frescoes from the Renaissance.
If you’re looking for one of the best preserved, old churches in Rome the Basilica of Saint Sabina is one you can’t afford to miss.
Address: Piazza Pietro D’Illiria, 1, 00153 Roma RM
Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere
Situated in Trastevere is the first church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In fact, this is one of the oldest Christian churches in Rome, period.
Around the year 220 Pope Callixtus (who is buried under the church’s altar) established a house-church at the site of what would later become the Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere. Eventually an actual house of worship was constructed around 350. However it was partially destroyed by fire during the Sack of Rome in 410.
After a time of rebuilding the new church was finished around 430, and it was officially dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. It also underwent two more, major renovations in the fifth and eighth centuries.
It wouldn’t be until the 12th century, under the supervision of Pope Innocent II, that the church would be completely rebuilt following the foundation from its first structure. This is the version of the church still standing today.
Interestingly, the Pope also opted to use material from the ruins of the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla. The facade of the church was redone by Carlo Fontana in the 17th century. This is the same man who restored the fountain in the square in front of the church, which is said to be the oldest in Rome.
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, 00153 Roma RM
Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
If you’re visiting Rome odds are you’ll have at least one visit to the Piazza del Popolo. It’s one of the most famous squares in the city, found just inside the northern gate of the Aurelian Walls.
It’s also home to one of the most famous churches in Rome, the Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo. Since it was just inside the ancient walls it was the first church in Rome that a visitor to the city would come across.
The quick history of the Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
The genesis of the basilica is much more ominous than thankful voyagers thanking God for safe passage. The tale goes that the evil Emperor Nero (who some early Christians considered the antichrist) took his own life and was buried in his family’s mausoleum on the Pincian Hill.
After a landslide Nero’s tomb was further buried under the rubble, and a walnut tree began to grow over his tomb. The tree was said to be haunted by evil spirits that would posses and even kill Christians.
In the year 1099 the newly elected Pope Paschal II knew he had to do something. He fasted and prayed for three days. Then, in a dream, the Virgin Mary came to the pope giving him instructions on how to be rid of the demons.
The pope then marched on the walnut tree and performed an exorcism. He struck it causing the evil spirits to flee in agony. When the whole tree was removed, they found Nero’s tomb and threw it in the Tiber River.
Finally, rid of the demons and evil spirits, the pope laid the first stone to what would become the altar of a new church in Rome. He consecrated and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary, who helped lead his people to safety.
The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo is also one of the most breathtaking churches in Rome. It’s adorned by the best works of legendary artists like Bramante, Caravaggio and Raphael.
The basilica is like a completely free museum. Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus and Crucifixion of Saint Peter are especially breathtaking, thanks in large part to the artists’ use of darkness.
Address: Piazza del Popolo, 12, 00187 Roma RM
Church of St. Louis of the French
Only a block away from Piazza Navona, The Church of St. Louis of the French looks like a palatial estate. The white facade emanates a low glow on a sunny day and inside is even more breathtaking.
Upon entry it’s hard to know where to look. If you look up? Stunning. Look straight to the altar? Stunning. Look into the rows of chapels along the nave? Stunning! The Roman church is full of artwork that could be in a museum.
The most renowned of the chapels is the Cappella Contarelli, also known as the St. Matthew Chapel, thanks to three striking paintings by Caravaggio. They depict the life of St. Matthew in order from left to right. You’ll see The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew and the The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
With all these works about St. Matthew you might be wondering why the church is named after St. Louis of the French. It’s because when construction began in 1518 it was meant to be a church for the French community. To this day is the national church in Rome of France.
Address: Piazza di S. Luigi de’ Francesi, 00186 Roma RM
Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins
Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins is one of the most famous churches in Rome, but not due to its altars, frescoes or chapels. Although beautiful and magnificent, the main attraction to the church lies below the surface.
Underneath the church is a crypt that houses 3,700 bodies that were exhumed and brought below the church in 1631. They’re believed to be mostly members of the Capuchin Order. They’re Catholic monks that follow Saint Francis of Assisi’s teachings in helping the less-fortunate.
As you work your way through the different chapels in the crypt you’ll find art made with the human remains, adorning the walls, hanging from the ceiling and laying on the floors.
It’s important for me to stress that the crypt is not meant to be amusing, funny or macabre. It was, and is a place for contemplation meant to demonstrate the short time we have on earth.
As you work your way into the last room you’ll find the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. It’s a display of mostly skulls, with a skeleton in the middle holding a scythe in its right hand and a scale in its left.
In the crypt there are plaques, each with the same phrase written in five languages (including English). It reads;
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”
Entrance into the popular Roman Church is free, but access to the Capuchin Crypts costs €8.50. Also – photos are not allowed inside this church in Rome.
Address: Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, 00187 Roma RM
Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
Plot twist, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is actually one of the most famous churches in Rome, but is dubbed in Jerusalem because it kind of is? Allow me to (briefly) explain.
According to Christian lore this was one of the first churches built to house relics from the Passion of Christ (no, not the movie, but the days before Jesus’ death). The relics were collected on a pilgrimage by St. Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.
Three fragments of the True Cross of Jesus’ Crucifixion along with a fragment of its title plaque, two thorns from the Crown of Thorns, and one nail are among the relics on display at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
And although it’s not a relic, there is a full size replica of the Shroud of Turin. The shroud was said to be the burial shroud used to wrap Jesus after his crucifixion. It bears a miraculous imprint of his face and body.
Relics weren’t the only thing St. Helena brought from the Holy Land of Jerusalem. They laid it out and built the basilica over it, so technically, the basilica is in Jerusalem. Think of it like a religious embassy.
Impressively the relics are on display and able to be viewed by the public free of charge. As you’d expect, thousands of Catholics consider it one of the can’t miss churches in Rome.
Address: Piazza di S. Croce in Gerusalemme, 10, 00185 Roma RM
Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains
The Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains was built during the fifth century to house the chains that bound St. Peter while he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. The chains were gifted to Empress Eudoxia from her mother, and she gifted them to Pope Leo I.
It’s said that when the pope held the chains near the chains from when St. Peter was imprisoned in Rome they fused together. In present day they’re on display inside a glass container behind the altar.
But the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains is one of the most famous churches in Rome for a different reason. It’s the home to Michelangelo’s Moses, one his signature sculptures.
Moses sits within an ensemble of sculptures, dubbed the Tomb of Julius. The work was originally commissioned in 1505 by Pope Julius II for his tomb. Here you will also find Michelangelo’s Leah and Rachel. The finished work was supposed to be placed in St. Peter’s Basilica, but instead found a home in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains.
Address: Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli, 4/a, 00184 Roma RM
Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is a sight for sore eyes. Found on the outskirts of the city center, the trip is well worth the metro or taxi ride.
Arriving at the basilica will have you second guessing if you’re in the right pace. It looks like it was copy and pasted out from magazine showcasing the Mediterranean coast.
The cloisters surround a perfectly manicured garden where a statue of St. Paul stands magnificently at its center. Behind it lies the basilica itself, over the tomb of where St. Paul was buried.
The brief (but memorable) history of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
It’s said that after St. Paul was executed by the Roman government his followers erected a memorial over his grave. Pilgrims would also frequent the site and it became one of the earliest churches in Rome.
As the years went on and the persecution of Christians ceased, Emperor Constantine the Great (the same emperor that built the Vatican) commissioned the first basilica in the fourth century.
As the years went on the basilica grew and grew under the leadership of various pope’s and emperors. At one point it was even more grand than the Old St. Peter’s Basilica.
Tragically in 1823 a worker that was fixing the roof and gutters on the basilica started a fire that destroyed nearly its entire, ancient structure. People from all over the world donated to its reconstruction (like the 2019 fire at Notre Dame). And the rebuild was largely complete by 1854 when it was re-consecrated by Pope Pius IX.
This is the building that folks tour and visit today. Inside it continues to be one of the most stunning churches in Rome, and there’s a bit of unique history.
If you look up you’ll see golden medallions with names and portraits of every pope to have been elected. There’s a superstition that when all the empty medallions run out and the last pope has been written in, Christ will return in His Second Coming.
Address: Piazzale San Paolo, 1, 00146 Roma RM
Basilica of Saint Mary Major
According to Catholic lore, the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius on August 4, 352. She appeared at the very location where the Basilica of Saint Mary Major stands today.
She asked him to build her a church and that night, although it was August in the Mediterranean, there was a miraculous snowfall. The snow outlined the floor-plan of what would become the first version of the basilica.
The remnants of the fourth century church are still tucked away into the many layers of construction but you won’t see them at first glance. For starters, the church is massive, larger than any churches in Rome would’ve been +1,500 years ago.
It’s impossible not to walk into the Piazza of Santa Maria Maggiore (the square where the Roman church sits) and not feel miniature at the foot of its facade. It looks like the home of a world leader. Which is fitting since it’s the largest of the 26 churches in Rome dedicated to Mary the Mother of Jesus.
You’ll find monumental columns running down the church’s nave, culminating in a grand apse behind a papal altar. And speaking of the papal altar, it’s tradition for the Pope to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary every August 15 at this church in Rome.
Address: P.za di Santa Maria Maggiore, 00100 Roma RM
Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran
Here’s a fun fact for you, most folks think St. Peter’s Basilica is the official seat of the pope — but it’s not.
The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is in fact the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, more popularly known as the pope. That’s why it’s received the nickname The Cathedral of Rome, and of the Whole World.
The nickname is also less of a mouthful than it’s official name; Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran.
Like the previous three major basilicas in Rome, St. John Lateran was built by Constantine the Great. Indeed, founded in 324 it’s the oldest public church in Rome.
And the basilica still maintains the original design outlined by Constantine the Great. It’s the inspiration behind many of the other churches in Rome we’ve discussed in this article. Consisting of a long nave culminating in an impressive apse at the end, with aisles off-shooting from the sides to form a cross.
Attached to the basilica is the Lateran Palace, which was the pope’s official residency until the 15th century. And although the pope now lives at the Vatican he traditionally gives a mass on the night of the Last Supper (Thursday during the Holy Week).
While visiting take the time to explore the colossal structure. There is a breathtaking 13th century cloister, the Holy Steps that Jesus Christ walked on to meet with Pontius Pilate and what was for years the only baptistry in Rome.
Address: P.za di S. Giovanni in Laterano, 4, 00184 Roma RM
St. Peter’s Basilica
Isn’t she a beaut?
Completed in 1626, Saint Peter’s Basilica is regarded as one of the holiest shrines in the world for those of Catholic faith. The church was built atop the grave of Peter the Apostle. Saint Peter is considered the first Bishop of Rome (also known as the pope).
Saint Peter’s Basilica is breathtaking, which is saying a lot in a city as beautiful as Rome. It was designed by a handful of notable architects and artists. Not the least of which included Michelangelo and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Touring St. Peter’s Basilica is an absolute must, and there’s no excuse not to since it’s free. The only challenge is the inevitably long lines. That’s why I recommend visiting after 4pm for the shortest wait time.
We swung by right after touring the Vatican and the lines were minimal. We only waited 15 minutes before finding ourselves craning our necks at the grandeur of the interior of Saint Peter’s. You can’t afford to miss Michelangelo’s Pietà or the remarkable statues by Bernini.
Also, check out the crypt where the popes are buried, located right under the Vatican. Most tourists don’t realize the area is open to the public. It’s a pity because it was one of the highlights for us while visiting the churches of Rome.
Helpful Tip: Try to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica after 4pm for the shortest wait times. We visited at 5pm and only stood in line for 15-minutes and had until 7pm to explore the interior (the doors close at 7pm).
Stunning Churches in Rome (Post Summary)
In sum, these are the best striking churches and cathedrals in Rome.
- St. Peter’s Basilica
- Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran
- Basilica of Saint Mary Major
- Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
- Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains
- Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
- Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins
- Church of St. Louis of the French
- Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
- Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere
- Basilica of Saint Sabina at the Aventine
- Basilica of St. Clement Basilica
- Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round on the Caelian Hill
- Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius
- Sant’Andrea della Valle
Map of the most beautiful churches in Rome
And there you have it my friends – my roundup of the best churches in Rome. I hope you find the post useful in planning your trip! Let me know if I missed any of your favorites.
What do you think?