One of the biggest reasons people travel to Rome is religion. Hosting the seat of Christianity in its heart, it’s only natural that the most famous churches in Rome are also gorgeous landmarks that attract curious tourists and in-the-know travelers.
Alongside museums and notable palaces, the churches of Rome are the places where you can see a huge wealth of its artistic and cultural heritage. Artists like Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Bernini, and Borromini have always worked for Popes and high-ranking members of the clergy from whom they looked for commissions, protection, and introduction to well-heeled local families.
Being worship places, the entrance is free of charge, making it a fantastic way to soak up in the local culture and history while traveling to Rome on a budget. In this article, I compile an extensive list of the most beautiful churches in Rome and the real must-sees for first-timers. But if you have already seen some of them and are interested in delving deeper into the city’s spirituality and past, you can check out our comprehensive study on the lesser-known and least-visited Rome churches, equally beautiful, utterly fascinating.
How Many Churches Are There in Rome?
Roughly, we can say in Rome there are around 900 churches. Some sources say they are slightly more than 900 but less than 1000. Rome’s churches are an important piece of the history of the city and most of them enshrine the artwork of leading artists, painters, and sculptors. Churches and basilicas are usually devoted to a saint and are often the place where relics of Christianity are kept.
What Are the 4 Major Churches in Rome?
But what are the papal basilicas? They are the “highest-ranking” basilicas in the Catholic world. There are six of them, although the four most important are the ones in Rome and two minor basilicas are the ones in Assisi.
What tells apart a papal basilica from an ordinary church is that it features a Papal Altar where only the Pope can perform a function and a Holy Door that the Pope opens from time to time and leaves open for a whole Holy Year (Anno Santo) such as the Jubilee. Pilgrims cross the Holy Door to ask for full forgiveness of their sins (Plenary Indulgence). Whether you are religious or not, these four main churches of Rome are a must-visit because of the legacy they have been carrying for centuries.
Which Is the Most Important Church in Rome?
When thinking about the main church in Rome, Saint Peter’s Basilica is the first that crosses our mind. It’s actually not entirely correct. So, which is the most important church in Rome and Christianity in general? That would be St. John in Lateran, Rome’s Cathedral.
Why is St. John in Lateran Rome’s most important church? Being Rome’s Cathedral and the official ecclesiastic seat of Rome’s Bishop (the Pope), San Giovanni in Laterano Basilica is the most important church of the Catholic world.
The Must-See Churches in Rome
St. Peter’s Basilica
Even though located inside the Vatican, so officially in another state, St. Peter’s Basilica is Rome’s most famous church and one of the most important in the city and in Christianity. A giant Renaissance masterpiece inside out, the basilica we can visit today lies on top of the former 4th-century basilica built by Emperor Constantine, the Roman ruler who put an end to the persecutions against Christians and allowed and promoted the circulation of Christianity.
Most of the treasures enshrined in St. Peter’s Basilica can be seen for free, including Michelangelo’s world-famous La Pietà, St. Peter’s Baldachin by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the monument to Clement XIII by Antonio Canova, and obviously Bernini’s St. Peter’s square. If you don’t mind paying, for a more complete visit, book a climb to St. Peter’s dome, independently or with a private tour, and descend to the fascinating necropolis under the basilica.
Where: St. Peter’s Square. Get there by metro (Cipro, Ottaviano), train (Stazione Roma San Pietro), bus (64, 40).
Further reading: The best things to see and do in the Vatican
San Giovanni in Laterano Basilica
Founded in the 4th century when Constantine the Great donated to Pope Melchiade the land previously owned by the Lateran family in the southern part of Mount Celio. Fires, earthquakes and lootings made several renovations throughout the centuries inevitable, so the church shows the imprint of several leading artists and architects such as Francesco Borromini, Giacomo della Porta, Domenico Fontana, and Alessandro Galilei.
Located in the southern part of Mount Celio the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is the official ecclesiastic seat of the Roman Diocese, while the Lateran Palace, the official residence of the Pope until the 15th century, is where in 1929 the Lateran Treaty between the Italian Kingdom and the Catholic Church was signed. It’s believed to be the place where relics of the heads of Saints Paul and Peter are kept.
Where: Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. Get there by metro (San Giovanni), by tram (8), and by bus (16, 81, 87, 665).
Saint Paul Outside the Walls
Even though one of the most important and famous churches in Rome, San Paolo Fuori le Mura Basilica is located in the Garbatella district, quite far from the city center, the reason why it’s hardly included in a classic Rome itinerary.
The second-largest amongst the Papal Basilicas in Rome, Saint Paul Outside the Walls was built by Constantine the Great and has been enlisted as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980 together with Rome’s Centro Storico and the Holy See.
Under the main altar are kept the remains of Saint Paul and the Basilica has been a pilgrimage and Jubilee destination since 1300. Heavily damaged by a fire, much of the church was rebuilt in a Neo-Classic style.
Inside, we can admire beautiful mosaics and a 13th-century cloister, while in its undergrounds lies the interesting archaeological site that includes the remains of a monastery, a working site, and a portico that connected to the Aurelian Walls.
Where: Piazzale San Paolo. Get there by metro (Basilica S. Paolo) and by bus (23, 769, 792).
Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica
Santa Maria Maggiore, located in the Esquilino neighborhood, is the only one of the four Papal Basilicas that preserved its early-Christian structure and features. According to a mystic tradition, this church was built on the site the same Virgin Mary pointed at and where snow fell on the 5th of August.
The undergrounds of the basilica, open to visitors, show important archaeological relics such as remains of Roman walls and a 2nd-century calendar, but no traces of the first, most ancient construction as mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis book of Popes’ bios.
The Renaissance bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, commissioned by Pope Gregory XI upon his return from Avignon, measures 75 meters and is Rome’s tallest. Together with its spacious interior and large facade, it gives a monumental look.
Even though boasting the interventions of several artists across the centuries, the original construction dates back to the 5th century. This church is also famous for housing some of the most beautiful mosaics in Rome.
Where: Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore. Get there by metro (Termini, Vittorio Emanuele), by tram (5, 14), and by bus (50, 70, 71, 105).
Make sure you read our article on the most important buildings in Rome.
Santa Maria in Trastevere Basilica
One of the highlights to visit in the Trastevere neighborhood, Santa Maria in Trastevere is known as the first official Catholic church to be devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary and was probably also the first official church of Christian cult built in Rome. One of the most visited and oldest churches in Rome, its construction is a bit shrouded in mystery and definitely rich in tradition.
According to the legend, it was built by Julius I in the 4th century where Pope Calixtus I built a parish in the 3rd century, when Christianity was not officially approved or tolerated. Around the place where Santa Maria in Trastevere was built a mystical event happened: in 38 BC, a stream of mineral oil gushed out of from the land and later Christians saw the as a prophetic sign of the arrival of Christ. The Basilica is worth a visit for its history but also for the artwork it features, including the 12th-century bell tower, several mosaics, and the beautiful Avila Chapel.
Where: Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. Get there by train (Stazione Trastevere), tram (8), and bus (8BUS, H).
Pantheon (Basilica of Santa Maria ad Martyres)
If you are planning a stop at the Pantheon as an archaeological landmark you would be right. Built as the temple to all gods in the 1st century BC by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a Roman general, politician, and son-in-law of emperor Augustus. With the ancient world’s largest dome and one of the modern world’s largest concrete domes ever built, the Pantheon is easily one of the most iconic and photographed landmarks in the city, an ode to exceptional engineering and architecture skills.
In 608 Pope Boniface IV transferred the remains of many martyrs from Rome’s catacombs to the Pantheon, and this is why the former pagan temple became the Basilica of Santa Maria ad Martyres. Today, inside the Pantheon under the famous “oculus” you will see the tombs of some members of the former Italian royal family and that of famous Renaissance painter Raphael.
Where: Piazza della Rotonda. Get there by metro (Spagna) and bus (30, 70, 81, 87, 492, 628).
Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo
For its location in the central namesake piazza at the foot of the Pincio hill and terrace in Villa Borghese, Santa Maria del Popolo is one of those churches in Rome that you can hardly avoid. Coming from Flaminio metro station, step over the mighty threshold of Porta Flaminia gate, and on the left side, you will find the entrance to the Renaissance church.
Steeped in history and packed with precious artwork, according to tradition, this is the area of Rome once suburban and semi-desert where emperor Nero was buried and that he was haunting. Among the famous masterpieces kept in this Roman church are the Chigi Chapel designed by Raphael, the Cerasi Chapel containing two paintings from Caravaggio, the choir by Bramante, and the decoration of Della Rovere Chapel by Pinturicchio.
Where: Piazza del Popolo. Get there by metro (Flaminio), bus (61, 89, 119, 120F), tram (2), and train (Stazione Flaminio)
Trinità dei Monti Church and Cloister
Dominating the view of the Spanish Steps and Piazza di Spagna, the French-managed Santissima Trinità dei Monti is an incredibly fascinating church to visit in Rome. It was 1494 when French monarch Charles VIII bought the land on the Pincio hill and launches the works of the Roman seat for the Order of Minim Brothers, founded by St Francis of Paola in the 15th century. After a century of negotiations and works, the church was consecrated in 1594. Completing the skyline with two bell towers, Trinità dei Monti was aimed at being the “Roman church of the French Kings”.
The church counts 17 chapels, each of them named after the family who was in charge of its patronage and each of them displaying their own artwork. Visiting the church is free of charge, but to access its fascinating cloister, the ticket is 12€ and prior reservation by email is required. The visiting hours are a little limited, but masterpieces such as the anamorphic frescoes, Mater Admirabilis chapel, and the astrolabe are worth the effort.
Where: Piazza Trinità dei Monti 3. Get there by metro (Spagna) or by bus (119).
Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone
One of the masterpieces of Borromini in Rome, Sant’Agnese in Agone is in Piazza Navona right in front of Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain. Apart from its privileged location, the legendary rivalry between Bernini and Borromini is probably what makes this one of the most well-known churches in Rome.
In the 12th century, Pope Calixtus II built a small basilica on the site where the young Sant’Agnese was allegedly martyred. The 17th-century, Baroque-style Roman church we can visit today is the result of the complete renovation Pope Innocent X ordered in 1651. Even though not one of the largest churches in Rome, Sant’Agnese in Agone preserves the relic of the head of the saint and features four chapels, a few altars, and the work of several artists. From the church, you can access the crypt with the tombs of several members of the powerful Pamphilj family, including Innocent X.
Where: Piazza Navona. Get there by bus (30, 46, 62, 64, 70, 81, 87, 492, 628, 916).
Church of San Luigi dei Francesi
Probably what makes Saint Louis of the French one of the most famous churches in Rome are the three Caravaggio paintings here preserved. Construction works started in 1518 with a project by Giacomo della Porta and the church was finally consecrated in 1589. The facade features pillars and the statues of Charlemagne and Louis IX of France.
Even though the church is known for its Caravaggios, visitors can also see the frescoes by Domenichino, the altarpiece by Guido Reni, and the beautiful organ by Joseph Merklin added in 1881. To turn on the light on the Caravaggio paintings, you will need to insert a coin.
Where: Piazza di San Luigi de’ Francesi. Get there by bus (30, 46, 62, 64, 70, 81, 87, 492, 628, 916).
Basilica di Sant’Agostino
Very close to Piazza Navona and the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Sant’Agostino Basilica is located in the namesake piazza and stands on top of a large staircase. Originally, this was one of the first Renaissance churches in Rome, dating back to the XIV century, but several changes were made throughout the centuries.
Some of the artwork you can see here is Caravaggio’s painting Madonna of Loreto and the fresco Prophet Isaiah by Raphael. The main altar was designed by Bernini and built in 1627 by local architect and sculptor Orazio Torriani. The Byzantine icon of the Virgin with Child was brought from the church of Saint Sophie in Constantinople, today Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, and placed on the main altar.
Where: Piazza di Sant’Agostino. Get there by bus (30, 46, 62, 64, 70, 81, 87, 492, 628, 916).
Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and of the Martyrs is located in Piazza Repubblica, a stone’s throw from Stazione Termini, and was built in the ancient Diocletian’s baths complex, now Museo Nazionale Romano. The external facade is quite simple and very much one-of-a-kind, but once inside, the interior is stunning.
The ambitious project of transforming part of the archaeological ruins of Diocletian’s baths into a glorious church required no less than genius, and this is probably why it was commissioned to Michelangelo. The all-around artist, already 86 years old at the time, built the church by preserving the original settings of the ancient Roman building. He set the apse in the natatio, the cold water pool of the baths, while the concave facade was carved out of the calidarium niche, the hall for the hot water in the baths complex.
Inside the church, you can see a fascinating multimedia installation that shows the ancient Baths of Diocletian and their “conservative” transformation by Michelangelo.
Where: Piazza della Repubblica. Get there by metro (Repubblica), train (Stazione Termini), and bus (40, 62, 63, 64, 66, 70, 82, 85, 170, 590, 910, H).
Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli
Getting there might look scary and is actually a bit of a climb, especially for the unfit, but once at the top, it’s all about enjoying. What makes Santa Maria in Aracoeli Basilica, sometimes spelled also Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, one of the famous churches in Rome is both its location and its heritage.
Built on the northern side of Capitoline Hill, its location is where the pagan temple of Juno Moneta, the Latin expression for her capacity of warning, was erected here in the 4th century BC. The origins of Santa Maria in Aracoeli are a little lost in history, even though some sources mention it as founded by Gregory the Great in 590. Throughout the centuries, the church underwent several renovations and different styles overlap. In the Middle Ages, Santa Maria in Aracoeli was one of the most important churches in Rome for both religious and secular powers, but this stopped with French occupation when the church was deconsecrated and used as a stable.
Formerly rich in frescoes and mosaics, much of the opulent look of the church was sacrificed during the construction of the Vittoriano complex, a monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, that began in 1885. Among the artwork that you can see in the church is the beautiful Cosmatesque floor, pantings by Pietro Cavallini and the beautiful fresco by Pinturicchio in the Bernardino chapel near the entrance on the right.
Where: Scala dell’Arce Capitolina 12. Get there by bus (30, 40, 46, 64, 80, 81, 85, 87), tram (8) and metro (Spagna).
Basilica dei Ss. Apostoli
The Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles is one of the famous churches in Rome because of its importance and likely for its position near the Fontana di Trevi. Founded in the 6th century and heavily damaged by an earthquake in the 14th century, the church was renovated in the 15th century under the rule of Pope Martin V from the powerful local Colonna clan.
The only church that was not built on the site of ancient Roman buildings, it was initially devoted to the apostles Philip and James and only after the big earthquake to all the Twelve Apostles. Out of curiosity? Here lies the first tomb of Michelangelo, where he was buried in 1564, before being secretly transferred to Santa Croce church in Florence by Cosimo de’ Medici.
Where: Piazza dei Santi Apostoli 51. Get there by metro (Barberini), bus (40, 51, 62, 63, 64, 80, 85), and tram (8).
Basilica di Santa Sabina
So after you peeked the keyhole of the Knights of Malta headquarter in the Aventine Hill, duck into the gorgeous and very ancient Santa Sabina Basilica. An early-Christian basilica founded by Pietro d’Illiria in 425 on the “titulus Sabinae”, the residence of the Roman patrician Sabina who converted to Christianity and martyred around 120 AD, it features 24 pillars that were taken from the nearby temple of Juno Regina.
Considered the pearl of the Aventine, this ancient church was renovated several times and thanks to its high position from where it was easy to control the Tiber and the underlying area, it briefly played the role of residence of local wealthy families. By booking with a certified tour company or cultural association, it’s also possible to visit the undergrounds of Santa Sabina that show parts of ancient houses from imperial times, pieces of Servian Walls and also parts of the medieval fortress of the Savelli family. Some associations you can contact to inquire about the visit (and also if they run it in English) are Circuito Aperto, Itinera, and Sotterranei di Roma.
Where: Piazza Pietro d’Illiria 1. Get there by bus (23, 280), metro (Circo Massimo), and tram (8).
Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Built in the 6th century on the site of a temple of Hercules, Santa Maria in Cosmedin Basilica is famous mostly for the sculpture of the Mouth of Truth in its portico. If you get there, however, don’t limit your visit to a picture with your hand inside the mouth of truth because you would miss a fascinating piece of history. This ancient church was built on the site where were a group of pagan temples in what was known as Forum Boarium, an ancient sacred and trading area that originated in the depression in between the hills where Rome was founded, the Capitoline, the Aventine and the Palatine.
This medieval church was named with the Greek adjective “kosmidion”, meaning beautiful, for the stunning decorative patterns when it was erected. Today, the interior is pretty plain and unadorned, but among the remaining decoration we can still admire are the mosaic floor, the choir, the canopy and the seat of the bishop. History buffs shouldn’t miss the undergrounds showing the buildings of the Forum Boarium on which the church was built.
Where: Piazza della Bocca della Verità 18. Get there by bus (44, 81, 83, 85, 87, 170, 628, 715, 716), metro (Circo Massimo).