Of the more than 900 churches you could visit in Rome, I've made a selection of my five favorites, ending with an absolute must-see. Maybe you can figure out which one is at the top, but I'm sure you'll discover other churches that you didn't even know about. Without further ado, here's a list of the 5 best churches in Rome.
1. The Pantheon
This building, built around 118 AD, was originally a temple dedicated to the Roman gods. The coexistence of pagan ways and the religion inherited from Hellenistic culture with the growing Catholic cult led the first Christians in the 7th century to transform the Pantheon into the basilica of Saint Mary and the Martyrs, also known as Santa Maria Rotonda.
The Pantheon is the best-preserved building of Ancient Rome, and its stunning architecture is simply jaw-dropping. The building was built with the idea of uniting the human being with the divinity and the emperor, and hence the proportions and structure of the Pantheon: a circular room that forms a perfect sphere with the dome, whose oculus at the zenith represents the Sun.
In the current basilica of Santa Maria and the Martyrs are housed the tombs of prominent monarchs of Italy, as well as the tomb of the artist Raphael, on which the daylight turns throughout the day, also illuminating a lavish decoration of sculptures, mosaics, and frescoes.
Many tours of the city of Rome pass by the Pantheon and then continue their itinerary to other major monuments of the city, an experience that I recommend if you want to explore the Eternal City in depth.
- Admission: Access to the Pantheon is free of charge.
- Hours: Monday to Saturday, from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sundays, from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
- How to get there: It is best to walk from Barberini metro stop (line A) or from Piazza Navona.
2. Santa Maria in Aracoeli
This small basilica, which I discovered almost by chance on my last trip to Rome, is a jewel located on Capitoline Hill, at the top of a staircase next to Piazza del Campidoglio where you can find the Capitoline Museums.
The rather uninteresting red brick exterior of Santa Maria in Aracoeli makes this church go completely unnoticed and it may seem like it's not really worth it going inside, but the surprise comes when you walk through the door and find yourself in front of the opulent treasure hidden within its walls.
The church is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, with three impressive naves illuminated by an endless row of chandeliers that cast dazzling colored reflections throughout the interior.
On the altar is the most important art piece of the church, a carving of the Child Jesus that, as the legend goes is carved in wood from an olive tree from the garden of Gethsemane. Here, according to the New Testament, Jesus prayed for the last time before being crucified.
- Admission: Admission is free.
- Hours: Open to the public from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 3:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., every day of the week.
- How to get there: The easiest way is on foot from Piazza Venezia or from the Campidoglio.
3. Santa Maria dell'Anima
Santa Maria dell'Anima is a German parish church, founded as a place of welcome for pilgrims from Germany and whose interior will leave you completely astonished.
The church takes its inspiration from northern European temples, with a Gothic style that extends through its eight chapels and its impressive altar that, when illuminated, you can't help but look at and wonder if it really is the work of a human hand.
During the Napoleonic occupation of Rome in the 18th century, Santa Maria dell'Anima suffered faithless looting and was used as a stable, but the temple still preserves some important works of art such as the funerary monument of Pope Adrian VI, an altarpiece by Giulio Romano depicting the Holy Family and a Roman sarcophagus in the inner cloister.
Moreover, a great excuse to visit it is that it is located in one of the most beautiful squares of Rome. I'm sure you'll pass it by, so don't think twice and go inside!
- Admission: Free of charge.
- Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day of the week except Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday mornings.
- How to get there: The Zanardelli bus stop, served by bus lines 70, 81, 87, 492, 628, 628, C3, C3, N6, N7, and N25, is very close to the church. You can also walk from Piazza Navona, which is just a stone's throw from Santa Maria dell'Anima.
4. Santa Maria in Trastevere
Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in Rome. The church is featured in most Rome guidebooks for the impressive Byzantine mosaics from the 12th and 13th centuries that decorate the interior apse and the exterior façade. The interior images show six moments in the life of the Virgin Mary, and the façade features an unusual scene of Mary on the throne with the infant Jesus and accompanied by ten women.
But for me, what is truly impressive is the history of this place: according to legend, in the year 38 BC, on the very site where this temple now stands, a stream of oil gushed from the earth and this was interpreted as an announcement of the coming of Christ. This spring was given the name of Fons Olei, and is now the presbytery of this church which was the first official place of Christian worship in Rome.
The church contains one of the most interesting chapels of all the churches in the Eternal City, the Avila Chapel, with an impressive dome in which there are four sculpted angels and whose illumination produces a unique effect of contrast on the sculptures.
The church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is a popular meeting point for tours of Trastevere, a great way to get to know this neighborhood and its charming corners.
- Admission: The entrance to Santa Maria in Trastevere is free of charge.
- Hours: Every day of the week, from 7:30 am to 9:00 pm.
- How to get there: To go directly, bus lines 23, 280 and 780 have a stop very close by. You can also walk from Campo de' Fiori or Palazzo Spada.
5. St. Peter's Basilica
The most important church of Christian worship worldwide, one of the architectural wonders of the West, and sometimes the only reason millions of tourists need to travel to Rome.
I could not end this list without naming St. Peter's Basilica, a must-see on any visit to Rome, even though it is technically located in Vatican City and not in the Eternal City. The main church of Christianity, designed by the celebrated artist Michelangelo and built over the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle, houses tombs of Popes, a sacristy, and a treasury, turned into a museum that you can visit.
On your visit, either on your own or by taking an official guided tour of St. Peter's Basilica, make sure not to miss the Michelangelo's Pietà, located in the first chapel on the right as you enter the basilica, examine the impressive Baldacchino above the high altar, look up and lose yourself in the dome and its beautiful frescoes, and marvel at the baroque sculptural display of the tomb of Alexander VII.
- Admission: Entrance to St. Peter's Basilica is free, but you can buy a skip-the-line ticket or book a tour to avoid waiting, especially at the busiest times. To go up to the dome you need a ticket, which costs € 10 if you use the elevator and € 8 if you choose to climb the stairs. The entrance to the Treasury museum costs € 6.
- Hours: The basilica is open from October 1 to March 31 from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and from April 1 to September 30 from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The dome is open to the public from October 1 to March 30 from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and from April 1 to September 30 from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
- How to get there: To get to St. Peter's Basilica directly it is best to take metro line A to Ottaviano station. Streetcar 19 has a stop nearby, in Piazza del Risorgimento, and buses 40 and 64 (Termini stop) and bus 23 (Transpontina/Conciliazione stop) will drop you off a short walk from the basilica.
6. Tips for visiting a church in Rome
Churches in Rome are sacred places where Catholic worship is celebrated, so they enforce a strict dress code that requires shoulders and knees to be covered regardless of gender. Since summers in Rome are very hot, my advice is to wear a large scarf or shawl to cover your shoulders and knees or wear very light long pants. You are also required to remove any hats or caps when entering.
Admission to the vast majority of churches in Rome is free. You will find many ways to leave a donation, although in no case will you be put under any obligation to do so.
Especially in the case of St. Peter's Basilica, I advise you to buy a combined ticket for the basilica and the dome or book a guided tour of St. Peter's Basilica, as it will save you the quite unpleasant experience of waiting in the humongous queue at the entrance.