Because of the splendour of the Vatican in Rome, you almost forget that there are hundreds of other churches in the Italian capital. These are the most beautiful churches and basilicas in the Eternal City.
Map of the best churches in Rome
12 most beautiful churches in Rome beyond the Vatican
#1 San Paolo Fuori Le Mura
There are four basilicas in the world that can call themselves ‘basilica major’ and you can find them all in Rome. Saint Paul Outside the Walls is one of them. You have to be willing to get outside the historic center for this basilica though. The church is built on top of the tomb of the apostle Paul. It’s just as old as the famous St. Peter’s Basilica.
There are many fun facts to tell about the church. The mosaic above the apse for example was once ordered by Pope Honorius III. Modest as he was, he also wanted to have an image of himself in the artwork (look for the figure that kisses feet). It’s also fun to look at the round mosaics of all popes, starting with from the apostle Peter. There are still some spaces open for future popes and legends say that the Day of Judgment will come when all places are filled. Another nice detail: the Dutch princess Irene was christened here in 1964.
Did you know that the Pantheon is a church as well? Pantheon literally means “dedicated to all gods.” The Roman emperor Marcus Agrippa built the temple as a place of worship for the Roman gods. You will see his name on the facade. The famous dome has an opening (the oculus) with a diameter of 8.7 meters. This opening is not just a fake one. You’ll see the proof of that when it’s raining. The floor is slightly curved to drain the rainwater. The opening is a unique solution for keeping the building “flexible” during earthquakes.
#3 Basilica Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Next to the Pantheon is the Basilica Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, one of my favorites in Rome. It is one of my favourites in Rome. It is one of the few churches in Gothic style and the deep blue ceiling with stars is unique. In front of the church is a cute elephant with an obelisk on its back. The designer of the elephant? None other than the famous Bernini. Another well-known name connected with the church is that of Michelangelo. The image next to the altar is his design.
And if you wonder: Minerva? How is that Catholic? Yes, it is indeed the name of the Roman goddess in the name of this Catholic church. The church was built on an ancient temple of Minerva, legends say. In reality, the Minerva temple was a few meters away and there was another building here.
#4 Santa Maria in Aracoeli
This church is right next to the Forum and Piazza Venezia. The monumental church is built on the remains of the old Capitol, a political center of the Roman Empire. You have to save some energy for the 124 steps to get all the way up to this church. And if the facade looks a bit bare to you? It was supposed to be decorated with mosaics, but they were never finished.
#5 Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore
This is also a ‘basilica major’. The church was once called Maria ad Nives (Maria-in-the-Snow), as Maria herself told the pope to build a church. But where? Right where he would find snow the morning, even though it was the summer. You can guess where that was. Centuries later we can still enjoy the result. Almost every corner of this beautiful basilica is decorated with gold or marble. You can also find Bernini’s grave in this church.
#6 Basilica di Santa Sabina
Santa Sabina is on the Aventine hill, one of the seven hills on which Rome was founded. This church excels in its sober style. After all that gold and lavish decoration around Rome, this church is just a haven of simplicity. The church is in my opinion especially a must-visit because of the gardens. As the Santa Sabina is on top of the Aventine you have a beautiful view of Rome from here. What to see? The Colosseum, Forum and Circus Maximus!
#7 Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Vittoria
This small church in the Trastevere district is popular for its famous Bernini sculpture. In the chapel of the Cornaro family is the Ecstasy of Teresa. It is one of Bernini’s masterpieces, though it did cause quite a bit of commotion. The sculpture shows Theresia of Ávila the moment an angel appears to her. Legend has it that the angel stabbed her several times with a lance, leaving her in ecstasy for God. Bernini’s translation has something sexual. Go look for the statue and decide what you think about it yourself.
#8 Santa Maria in Cosmedin
The church itself is perhaps not that special. Yet you will probably see a line here. Not for the church though, but for the Bocca Della Verita (translated: Mouth of Truth) in the porch. In the porch of the church is a large disk with a face in it. According to legends, you cannot put your hand in the mouth and tell a lie at the same time without losing your hand. If you only want to see the disk, you don’t have to wait in line. You can just peek through the fence and see how tourists put their hand in the mouth for a photo.
#9 Santa Maria Della Concezione
People visit this church mainly because of the crypt. The five chapels are decorated with depictions of death. In marble? Mosaic? No, it is decorated with human bones.
#10 Santa Maria del Popolo
This church is on the famous Piazza del Popolo. Visitors mainly come for the famous chapel of the Chigi family, made by Rome’s greatest architect Bernini. If you’re unlucky, the chapel is closed to visitors. The book by Dan Brown and its film version draws too many people to Bernini’s chapel.
#11 Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano
Second to the St Peter’s Basilica, this church is perhaps the most important one of the Catholic Church. The pope once even officially resided here and today there is still an important connection. The pope is also the Bishop of Rome and basilica is the center of that archbishopric. You’ll see a reference tot that on the façade: “mater et caput omnium ecclesiarum ” (mother and head of all churches).
And the design reflects this importance as well. The San Giovanni is one of the largest churches in Rome. Emporer Constantine already built the first version of the church here in the year 300. What we see today is a seventeenth-century design by the famous architect Borromini, a rival of Bernini. Striking is the beautiful ceiling that is quite out of place among all the marble, gold and mosaic. The pope himself orderded to preserve the old wooden ceiling from the old basilica.
#12 Scala Santa
Opposite the San Giovanni is the Scala Santa. This is the staircase that Jesus Christ is said to have climbed during his trial. The stairs can therefore not be entered on your feet: you can only go up on your knees and you should say a prayer on every single step. Next to the holy staircase is another staircase you can use to go up on your feet. At the top is the Sancta Sanctorum, once the popes’ personal prayer chapel.
Tip: we included pretty much all these churches in our itinerary for Rome in two days!