The hometown of the Catholic Church naturally offers some of the best places of worship in the entire world.
Whether you’re religious or not, when in Rome one thing you have to do is go to church. After all, Rome is home to more than 900 churches, many of them architectural marvels with artistic masterpieces inside. Catholics come from far and wide to visit the Vatican, climb the Scala Santa, and light a candle in San Giovanni in Laterano. But you don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the beauty of these cathedrals and the Caravaggios, Berninis, Michelangelos, and other masterpieces inside them. These 10 churches are not to be missed.
Basilica di San Pietro
The world’s largest church and one of the world’s holiest places for Catholics, St. Peter’s Basilica was built on the site of Saint Peter’s tomb. The greatest architectural achievement of the Renaissance, it’s a testament to the Catholic Church’s wealth and power. Five of Italy’s greatest artists—including Raphael and Michelangelo—died while working on it. Michelangelo’s Pietà resides in the first chapel on the right, while Bernini’s bronze baldacchino rises above the papal altar. Those ambitious enough to climb to the top of the dome will be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the entire city.
Santa Maria del Popolo
It would be easy to pass by this church on the corner of Piazza del Popolo, but go inside and you’ll find artistic treasures. Raphael designed an entire chapel within the church, but perhaps the most amazing works are the two altar paintings by Caravaggio depicting the Crucifixion of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul. The church also contains 16th-century stained glass, which is rare in this part of Italy.
San Luigi dei Francesi
Among art lovers, the secret’s out about this small church dedicated to Saint Louis, the patron saint of France. Inside, the Contarelli Chapel is adorned by three Caravaggios, each one more splendid than the last. Gaze up at his three depictions of Saint Matthew (the Calling of Saint Matthew, Saint Matthew and the Angel, and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew) and you’ll understand why Caravaggio was the master of chiaroscuro.
San Giovanni in Laterano
Built by the Emperor Constantine 10 years before the Basilica di San Pietro was constructed, this monumental church is actually the ecclesiastical seat of the Pope. Before you enter, look up to admire the 15 monumental statues depicting the 12 apostles, plus Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. Inside, but don’t forget to look down. The intricate mosaic floors are the work of the Cosmati family. To learn more about them, join Personalized Italy’s Cosmatesque Tour of Rome led by a charming art historian who illuminates the incredible craftsmanship that went into this and other churches.
Originally a pagan temple and later consecrated as a church, the Pantheon counts itself among Rome’s most famous monuments for good reason. It’s considered the world’s only architecturally perfect building by some, because of its proportions (the diameter is equal to its height). Of Rome’s many ancient sites, it’s the best preserved. It’s also the final resting place of Raphael and other important figures from Italy’s history.
Devout Catholic pilgrims travel from far and wide to climb the Scala Santa—the marble staircase from Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem—on their knees. At the top lies the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), a small chapel ornately decorated with marble, elaborate frescoes and Cosmatesque mosaic floors, which was the Pope’s chapel before the Sistine Chapel. You can reach the top via the non-sanctified side stairs to admire the incredible chapel.
Basilica di San Clemente
The Basilica di San Clemente is known as the “lasagna church” because the deeper you descend, the farther back in time you go. The 12th-century church was built on top of a 4th-century church, which was built on top of a 2nd-century pagan temple dedicated to the cult of Mithras as well as a collection of 1st-century Roman houses. Pay the nominal entry fee to access the lower levels, where the mysterious cult once worshipped and you’ll feel like you’re peeling back the layers of ancient history.
Santa Maria della Vittoria
Bernini’s genius is on full display in this church near Piazza della Repubblica. Though the church’s architect was Carlo Maderno, Bernini was responsible for the Cornaro Chapel, where you can admire his somewhat controversial sculpture, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Meant to depict the saint abandoning herself to the divine love of God, her facial expression seems to resemble a rather earthlier pleasure. Pay this church a visit and decide for yourself.
San Pietro in Vincoli
The reason to visit this otherwise unremarkable church in Monti is to lay eyes on Michelangelo’s Moses. Pope Julius II had commissioned the statue for his tomb, but after he died, his successor—a rival from the Medici family—abandoned the tomb and left the statue here instead. Scholars debate whether the two things on Moses’s head are meant to be horns or rays of light. Either way, the statue is one of Michelangelo’s best.
This church tucked behind Piazza Navona contains a triple-whammy of incredible art. Not only is it home to Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Pilgrims, but also Raphael’s Isaiah, which may have been inspired by Michelangelo’s prophets on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (the artist snuck a peek despite orders of secrecy) and Sansovino’s sculpture St. Anne and the Madonna with Child. It’s definitely worth a detour.