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Rome's best cathedrals

In Rome you can see an infinite number of churches, but the most important of them all are the Major Basilicas or Papal Basilicas - there are only four in the world!

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

8 min read

Rome's best cathedrals

St. Peter's Square, Vatican City | ©Sonse

Rome is the seat of the Catholic Church and as such its streets abound with churches. In every corner of the Eternal City it is easy to come across a church or a small chapel. Spiritual and artistic temples that are well worth a visit as an essential part of the places to visit in Rome.

But among all the churches in Rome, four in particular stand out as superior to all the others: the Major Basilicas.

1. St. Peter's Basilica

Façade of St. Peter's Basilica| ©Mike McBey
Façade of St. Peter's Basilica| ©Mike McBey

Visiting the Vatican City and all the wonders it houses is the dream of many travelers who land in Rome. One of them is St. Peter's Basilica, the largest temple in Christendom.

Besides being a spiritual symbol for Catholics around the world, it is also a masterpiece of the arts. As much of painting and sculpture as of architecture. In fact, the dimensions of St. Peter's Basilica were so colossal that building it was thought to be an unfeasible project.

The works lasted for almost two centuries and involved artists of the stature of Michelangelo, Bernini, Bramante, Giacomo Della Porta or Carlo Maderno to fulfill the commission of Pope Julius II, who wanted to build a great temple on the necropolis where the apostle St. Peter was buried and where the emperor Constantine also erected a basilica that remained standing for over a millennium until it was demolished to build the current one.

St. Peter's Basilica is a place full of history, art and spirituality. To get to know it in depth, nothing better than paying it a visit. In the post Visit St. Peter's Basilica you will discover how to get the most out of the experience, so I advise you to read it before buying your tickets.

What will you see during the visit?

Outside St. Peter's Square and its famous colonnade, one of the largest and most beautiful squares in Europe. Inside St. Peter's Basilica you will have the opportunity to see wonderful works of art such as Bernini's Baldachin, Michelangelo's Pietà, the Nave of the Basilica or the statue of St. Peter on his throne by Arnolfo di Cambio, among many others.

Oh, and you can't miss climbing the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica- the views of Rome are breathtaking from here!

  • Address: Piazza San Pietro, 00120. Vatican City.
  • How to get there: Metro, line A, Ottaviano station.
  • Hours: From October 1 to March 31 from 7 AM to 6 PM and from April 1 to September 30 from 7 AM to 7 PM.

Book a visit to the dome of St. Peter's Basilica

2. The Basilica of St. John Lateran

Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome| ©Cristian Martinez
Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome| ©Cristian Martinez

The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the most important of the four Major Basilicas of the Eternal City (above St. Peter's) as it was the first church to be built in Rome back in the fourth century A.D. when Emperor Constantine put an end to the persecution of Christians by the Edict of Milan.

That is why this temple is so important in the history of Rome. In addition, it is the cathedral of the city and the place where not long ago all the Popes were proclaimed.

It is also one of the most beautiful. The interior is a marvel and everything is richly decorated, from the floor to the ceiling. If you are passionate about sacred art and architecture, there is no doubt that you will enjoy a visit to such a jewel as St. John Lateran.

And if you have some time to spare, I recommend you to enter its medieval cloister in cosmatesque style because it is one of the most romantic places in Rome.

  • Address: Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, 4
  • How to get there: Metro, line A, station San Giovanni
  • Hours: Open every day of the week from 7 AM to 6:30 PM.

Book a guided tour of Christian basilicas

3. The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls

Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls| ©Warren LeMay
Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls| ©Warren LeMay

Just as Emperor Constantine ordered the Basilica of St. Peter to be built on the site where the first Christian pope was buried, so he wanted to do the same for St. Paul the Apostle, who also suffered martyrdom in Rome and whose tomb was located outside the city at that time.

The original basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls became an important place of pilgrimage in Rome from the first century and soon became too small to accommodate so many faithful. For this reason several emperors decided to replace it with a larger one, which was the one that existed until the nineteenth century when a catastrophic fire destroyed part of the temple.

Later it was rebuilt to give this basilica the splendor it once had and so it has reached our days. I recommend you to visit San Pablo Extramuros because it is a beauty. The interior is decorated with beautiful golden mosaics and large alabaster columns. It also has a medieval cloister that is a jewel.

During the visit to St. Paul Outside the Walls you can also contemplate the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle, which is under the altar of the basilica.

  • Address: Piazzale San Paolo, 1.
  • How to get there: Metro, line B, Basilica San Paolo station.
  • Hours: Every day of the week from 7 AM to 6:30 PM.

Book a tour of the Basilica of St. Clement and others

4. The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore| ©Pierre-Selim Huard
Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore| ©Pierre-Selim Huard

Another of the most important churches in Rome that you must visit during your stay is Santa Maria Maggiore, the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the world and the largest of all the churches in the city.

Along with those mentioned above, Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the four Major Basilicas of Rome and has a curious origin. Did you know that Pope Liberius ordered this church to be built on top of Mount Esquiline following the "miracle of the snow" that covered this hill in the early morning of August 5, 358 A.D.?

If you travel to Rome in summer I recommend you to go to the basilica on that day because a special celebration is held to commemorate this miracle by throwing white petals into the air from the top of the temple. It is a very beautiful experience to see!

Inside Santa Maria Maggiore is a marvel. Of all the Major Basilicas in Rome it is the only one that keeps intact its original paleochristian floor plan, which together with the paleochristian mosaics from the 5th century that it possesses make it a historical relic worth seeing.

Beyond this, little of the original temple is preserved because over time it has undergone numerous modifications. As a result, it currently presents diverse architectural and decorative styles, although reflected with great harmony and taste.

  • Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.
  • How to get there: By subway, line A, Termini station.
  • Hours: Every day of the week from 7 AM to 6:30 PM.

What are the Major Basilicas of Rome?

Touring the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome| ©Raffaele Pagani
Touring the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome| ©Raffaele Pagani

The Major Basilicas are by papal designation the most important temples of Christianity.

This is because in the fourteenth century Pope Boniface VIII established by the bull "Antiquorum fida relatio" a holy year and indulgences to forgive sins to those who confess them and visit the tombs of the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul in the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

To these conditions Pope Clement VI later added the visit to the Basilica of St. John Lateran and later joined St. Mary Major.

In fact, visiting all of them is still the requirement to obtain the Roman Jubilee indulgence today.

How do the Major Basilicas differ from the Minor Basilicas?

Dome of St. Peter's| ©Aldo Loya
Dome of St. Peter's| ©Aldo Loya

The word "basilica" means "notable church" and refers to a Christian temple that because of its antiquity, majesty or because of the services celebrated in it enjoys certain privileges.

While the Major Basilicas are located in the Vatican and Rome, there are four of them and they are counted on the fingers of one hand, the Minor Basilicas are more than a thousand and are spread throughout different countries of the world.

What privileges and attributes do the Major Basilicas of Rome have?

Basilica of St. John Lateran| ©Ana Rey
Basilica of St. John Lateran| ©Ana Rey
  • High Altar: Only the Pope and his special delegates may celebrate Mass on the altars of the Major Basilicas.

  • Holy Door: Each of Rome's Major Basilicas has a Holy Door that remains sealed at all times except in Jubilee years, when it is opened so that pilgrims can pass through it and obtain a plenary indulgence.

Are all the Major Basilicas of Rome worth visiting?

Inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore| ©Michiel Jelijs
Inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore| ©Michiel Jelijs

Absolutely! Whether you are a religious person or not, getting to know these very special temples is a fantastic opportunity to discover the more spiritual side of Rome, to learn about the roots of Christianity and to admire the architecture and art of bygone eras.

Moreover, because of their history and origins, the visit to the Major Basilicas is the perfect complement to other tours such as the one to the catacombs of Rome.

How much does it cost to enter the Major Basilicas of Rome?

Calculating Payment| ©Karolina Grabowska
Calculating Payment| ©Karolina Grabowska

Admission to the Major Basilicas of Rome is free. However, when visiting St. Peter's Basilica I advise you to purchase a skip-the-line ticket or book a guided tour to avoid the very long lines at the entrance.

Buy skip-the-line tickets to St. Peter's Basilica

Tips for visiting the Major Basilicas of Rome

Visiting the Basilicas in Rome| ©Spencer Davis
Visiting the Basilicas in Rome| ©Spencer Davis
  • Dress: Apart from being precious works of art, the Major Basilicas of Rome are also sacred places where Christianity is practiced. For this reason, all visitors must follow a strict etiquette that consists of wearing clothes that cover both shoulders and knees and remove the cap or hat when entering if you are wearing one.

  • Photographs: If you wish to take pictures inside the Major Basilicas, my advice is to first find out if you can use the flash indoors, as some temples do not allow it in order to protect the works of art.

  • Donations: Although the entrance to the Major Basilicas is free, donations are always welcome for charitable works and to carry out the conservation and restoration of the temples. If you wish to make a donation, you can leave it in the church's brush or light a candle.