In many countries, visiting churches may feel unorthodox, but in Italy, these sacred places are considered works of art. If you love visiting museums or experiencing culture during your travels, then you should dedicate a day to visit the many churches in Rome.
Churches in Italy are always free to visit, as they are places of worship. And we’re not just talking about St. Peter’s Basilica. Rome is home to over 900 beautiful churches, many of which are built atop ancient Roman ruins and temples. Some churches even house famous works of art by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Bernini.
Our 10 Favorite Churches In Rome
Churches are holy sites, so make sure to cover your knees and shoulder when visiting. You can bring a scarf or jacket to cover low-cut dresses and spaghetti straps. If you visit during mass, try to be as quiet as possible out of respect for those attending the service. You can take photos, but avoid being too disruptive. Be sure to check the church times, as many are closed between 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm. And don’t forget to head below ground to visit the crypts!
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
The Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere was established in the 5th century. This beautiful church is devoted to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Martyred under Emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander during the 3rd century, it is speculated that the church was built atop Cecilia’s home, which houses her remains today. Located in the charming Trastevere neighborhood, the basilica, with its beautiful 18th-century facade, is enclosed by a courtyard. Wander inside to admire ancient mosaics, columns, a fountain, and gorgeous rose bushes.
When you enter the church, you’ll find a beautiful 9th-century apse mosaic with Saints Paul, Cecilia, Paschal I, Peter, Valerian, and Agatha. Below that lies a baroque sculpture of Saint Cecilia herself by Stefano Maderno. This church also has a surprise beneath its marble floors.
Pay a €2.50 fee to the sweet Benedictine nun just inside the tiny gift shop to go down and see the crypt! Winding your way through the corridors of the ancient Roman house, you’ll soon come upon a small golden chapel. This stunning shrine is a sea of marble columns and vaulted ceilings with angels. Not to mention gorgeous cosmatesque floors and walls (featuring geometric decorative inlay stonework) floors and walls.
Basilica di Santa Prassede
If there is a site in Rome that will teach you not to judge a church by its cover, it’ll be the Basilica of Santa Prassede. Though it is located near the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (one of the four papal basilicas in Rome), this church is easy to miss. Its simple orange-colored facade sits low and flat, squashed between other buildings and alleyways. The interior, however, is gorgeous — with some of the oldest mosaics in the city. The church is devoted to Saint Praxedes and houses her relics, as well as those of her sister Saint Pudentiana.
Inside, you’ll find beautiful 16th-century frescoes illustrating the Passion of the Christ, cosmatesque floors (we can never get enough), and shimmering 9th-century mosaics. But it’s the tiny Chapel of St Zeno that deserves a standing ovation. Located just off to the right of the nave, this tiny space makes you feel like you’ve fallen into a golden jewelry box. Built by Pope Paschal I as a mausoleum for his mother, Theodora, the chapel boasts wall-to-ceiling mosaics. The ceiling mosaic depicts Christ in the center, with four angles stemming from the corners, upholding His image. So don’t let the understated facade of this basilica fool you. The Basilica di Santa Prassede is one of the most beautiful monuments in Rome.
Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
The Basilica of St. Mary and the Angels and Martyrs is another lesson in not judging a book by its cover. The church is located in the famous Piazza della Repubblica: a large rotunda often featured in Italian movies. Instead of being built on top of an ancient site, it was built within an ancient site! This church is set inside the ancient frigidarium — the cold bath chamber in Roman baths — of the next-door Baths of Diocletian (now an archeological ruin and museum). The unique concave shape of the baths acts as the facade for the present-day church.
The church was built in the 16th century and designed by Michaelangelo Buonarroti (yes, that Michaelangelo). Michelangelo worked for over a year to adapt a section of the bath structures to enclose the church. The inside is based on the shape of a Greek cross and expands horizontally, rather than vertically. You can admire red granite Roman columns, white vaulted ceilings, and a unique geographical feature. In the 18th century, Pope Clement XI commissioned Francesco Bianchini, an astronomer, mathematician, and archaeologist, to build a meridian line within the church, which you can still see today.
Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano
The Basilica of San Clemente has always reminded me of a Russian nesting doll. The church is a three-tiered complex of buildings: the present basilica was built in the 12th century atop a 4th-century basilica, that was built out of an ancient Roman home, that was built atop a Republican-era villa that was destroyed in the Great Fire of 64 AD. Even then, the basilica had many uses during the 1st and 2nd centuries. Today, you can see this mish-mash of structures by going down into the crypt.
When you enter the church, you will be greeted by the 13th-century Byzantine mosaics, cosmatesque floors, and spolia. Spolia are recycled elements taken from other structures, in this case, the antique columns in the nave are spolia. None of them match. When you’re in this church, don’t forget to look up! The carved and gilded coffered ceilings with gorgeous paintings are just as beautiful as the altar. When you’re ready, descend into the crypt to explore the ruins of an ancient home. Here you can admire the exquisite frescoes that depict the life of St Clement.
Santi Quattro Coronati
A short walk from San Clemente, Santi Quattro Coronati is another magnificent church that dates back to the 4th century. The church boasts two picturesque courtyards, a fortified palace, and a monastery that features an exquisite cosmatesque cloister. One of the church’s most unique features is the awe-inspiring Aula Gotica. Discovered by art historian Andreina Draghi in 1995, it is located in the Gothic Hall of the Torre Maggiore. The hall contains a stunning display of frescoes dating back to the 13th century. These frescoes represent allegorical depictions of the Twelve Months, the Liberal Arts, the Four Seasons, and the Zodiac. They were well-preserved under a thick layer of plaster added in the 14th century for protection against The Black Death.
While the rest of the church is free to visit, you must book a reservation and pay 10 euros to visit these paintings. The reason being they cannot accommodate more than 20 people in the hall at once. You can book your guided tour on their website and pay when you arrive. Note: bring cash, as monasteries are not generally equipped to accept cards or Apple Pay.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
After almost three years of extensive renovations, the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is finally open to the public again! Despite its proximity to the Pantheon, this church is often overlooked due to its unassuming exterior. Located in Piazza Minerva, the church’s plain white facade features three rose windows and an entrance door. Before entering, take a moment to admire Bernini’s elephant statue in the piazza. This stone elephant, featuring one of Rome’s many obelisks, is another of the city’s hidden gems.
As soon as you step inside the church, you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported into a box filled with dazzling blue Lapis Lazuli. The vaulted ceilings of the nave are painted a brilliant blue hue, mimicking the night sky with paintings of saints and prophets. The church is also notable for being the burial site of Catherine of Siena, the patron saint of Italy. The famous early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico died in the adjoining convent and was also buried in the church.
If you’re lucky, the doors to the convent will be open and you’ll be able to peek inside the beautiful cloister and pet some friendly cats.
Santa Maria dell’Orto
Santa Maria dell’Orto, a gilded church in Trastevere, is located in an area believed to have been the encampment of the Etruscan king Porsena. This area around the church was originally used for farming and trading. The church served as a vital reference point for the local guilds or ‘Universities’ and consisted of grocers, butchers, artisans, and merchants.
This sanctuary is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Inside, you’ll be captivated by the exquisite depictions of the Virgin’s life. The frescoes feature scenes such as the Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation at the Temple, Marriage, and Visitation, adorning the walls. The Assumption into Heaven and Coronation are painted on the ceiling. Surrounded by thick golden garlands and white sculptures of angels, these gorgeous frescoes certainly add to the church’s grandeur. Despite the multitude of must-see monuments in Rome, we highly recommend taking some time to explore this breathtaking church and marvel at its splendor.
Chiesa di San Francesco a Ripa
Nearby, San Francesco a Ripa is a church devoted to Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy. Legend has it that St Francis once stayed at a convent adjacent to the church. Although it is relatively simple in design and often overlooked by visitors, this 17th-century church served as barracks from 1873-1943. It also harbors a beautiful surprise within its walls.
Located in the left transept (the two parts forming the arms of the cross shape, usually extending from the altar) lies the chapel of Paluzzi-Albertoni. In this chapel is one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th-century Baroque masterpieces: the sculpture of Beata Ludovica Albertoni. Although Bernini’s sculpture is my favorite, this church has many other notable artworks, such as the St Francis cycle by Pietro Cavallini.
Basilica Papale di San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura
The Basilica di San Lorenzo Fuori Le Mura (Saint Lawrence Outside The Walls) is a church visit I won’t soon forget. True to its name, the church is well outside the Aurelian walls that delineate Rome’s historic center. It lies in the eastern San Lorenzo neighborhood. However, it is well worth the trip. The church is devoted to Saint Lawrence, who was martyred in the 3rd century and is the patron saint of chefs and comedians. While that may seem completely random, it goes back to the story of his martyrdom. He was placed on a gridiron with hot coals beneath it and after a while, declared: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”
Like many other churches in Rome, this basilica has undergone many renovations and changes throughout the centuries. This includes the additions of the monastery and the beautiful 13th-century bell tower. In fact, the present church is the result of the fusion of two precious buildings.
Although it was bombed during WWII, the structure remains essentially unchanged. The entrance portico will immediately capture your attention, with its collection of six decorated medieval columns, sarcophagi, and marble slabs. Not to mention the beautifully painted frescoes on the walls depicting the lives of Saints Lawrence and Stephen. The interior is just as richly decorated. As you cross the threshold, you will be entranced by the beauty of the cosmatesque floors, the papal throne, the round arches of the gallery, and the luscious courtyard.
San Giovanni in Laterano
The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is another veritable onion, with a rich and long history of uses, restorations, and adjoining buildings. San Giovanni forms part of the Lateran Complex which comprises the Basilica, the Cloister, the Baptistery, the Lateran Palace, and the Holy Stairs, which enclose the Papal Chapel called Sancta Sanctorum. All of which you can visit, so it’ll be good to dedicate an entire day to this one if you can. The Basilica is the oldest and most important of the four major papal basilicas in Rome. While the building suffered severe fires in the 14th century, it was renovated in the late 16th century, and completed in 1735.
Basilica & the Baptistery
Of the complex, only the Basilica and the Baptistery are free to visit. The cloister and the Holy Stairs charge around 2 euros for admission. Adjacent to the Basilica is the Lateran Palace, which used to be the main residence of the popes before moving to the Vatican. Today the palace functions as a museum. Under the direction of the artist Borromini, the basilica standing today is a splendid sight to behold. Its coffered, gilded ceilings, white marble sculptures, cosmatesque floors, and glittering apse mosaic will make your trip a memorable one.
The baptistery, also adjacent to the church, is an octagonal building founded in 440 and built atop an earlier site. Around the central area, surrounding the basin, two levels of eight red porphyry columns form an octagon. And on the ceiling, lies paintings depicting the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 AD).
The rich history and artworks within these churches prove that Rome can indeed be experienced on a budget. And even completely for free! These beautiful sites are more than just places of worship, they were created to be works of art in and of themselves.