Rome boasts over 900 churches making it easy to get a little overwhelmed with religious art and architecture during your trip to the Eternal City. However, some of the city’s most beautiful, fascinating, intriguing and unexpected features are tucked away behind the church façades and no visit to Rome would be complete without just a little church-going.
Here is our pick of some of the most unique churches in Rome:
Admired for its impressive architectural design and perfect proportions (the width and height of the building are the same meaning that a perfect sphere would fit inside), the Pantheon is the best-preserved ancient building in Rome. Originally a Roman temple ‘to all gods’ it was built by Hadrian in the 2nd century, but after the fall of the Empire in Rome was consecrated as the Church of St Mary and the Martyrs in 609 AD. This saved the building from abandonment and destruction through the middle-ages and helped to preserve many of the ancient features including the incredible dome complete with an open oculus to let in the light. The Pantheon also happens to be the final resting place of two Kings of Italy as well as the celebrated Renaissance painter Raphael.
This unique church located a short walk from the Colosseum. The current basilica was constructed in the 12th century and by itself is a fascinating site, with spectacular mosaics and frescoes. But descending the steps takes you to a previous church dating from the 4th century and a further flight of stairs leads to the lowest level, a 1st century Roman house and a 2nd century pagan temple dedicated to the cult of Mithras. These three levels of history make San Clemente the ideal place to discover Rome’s complex past which has built up, layer by layer, over the centuries.
Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
Built by Pope Urban VIII in 1626, Santa Maria della Concezione is perhaps best known for its somewhat creepy crypt. Just underneath the church there are six chapels filled with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin friars, many of them decoratively arranged along the walls and even used to make light fittings and sculptures. This uniquely macabre attraction is nevertheless a stark reflection of ‘memento mori’, topped off by a sign in the last chapel which reads ‘What you are we once were, what we are you will be’.
Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola
Situated in a beautiful Baroque piazza, Sant’ Ignazio hides an awe-inspiring tromp l’oeil secret behind its façade. The ceiling frescoes by Andrea Pozzo seem to stretch right up to the heavens, depicting not just the scene of St Ignatius Loyola being welcomed into the heavens, but also a fake dome (funds didn’t stretch to the construction of a real one) which, when viewed from the entrance creates a marvellous trick of perspective.
San Pietro in Vincoli
It is well worth a walk up the Oppian Hill to visit the church of St Peter in Chains. The church was first consecrated in the 5th century and has seen many restorations but still houses the miraculous chains of St Peter. Legend says that when the chains which imprisoned St Peter in Jerusalem were combined with those of his final imprisonment in the Mamertine Prison in Rome they fused together. This sacred relic is still today kept under the main altar of the church. However, most people make there way here to see the spectacular Michelangelo statue of Moses, sculpted for the tomb of Pope Julius II and famously depicted with horns, which sits imposingly at the back of the church.
Santa Maria del Popolo
The unassuming exterior of Santa Maria del Popolo belies the wealth of wonders within. The list of artists, architects and sculptors who contributed to the interior reads like a veritable who’s who of the greatest Renaissance and Baroque artists ever to work in Rome. Highlights include the Raphael-designed Chigi Chapel, adorned with breathtaking Bernini sculptures, and the Cerasi Chapel with its beautiful altarpiece of The Assumption of the Virgin by Carracci, which is flanked by two of Caravaggio’s most celebrated works, The Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter.
Basilica di San Pietro
The grandaddy of them all, St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is a jaw-dropping wonder of a church made all-the-more magnificent by Bernini’s enormous piazza and sweeping colonnade. The interior is an almost overwhelming mass of marble, gold, mosaic and opulence. From the striking bronze baldacchino over the high altar, to Michelangelo’s achingly beautiful statue of the Pietà there is a wonder around every corner. If you have the energy, make your way to the top of the dome for an unrivalled view across the rooftops of the Eternal City.
It just doesn't get any better than this!!!
WOW!!! Let me say it again: WOW! I had the responsibility of planning an entire 2 week, first time trip to Italy for 6 of us (3 couples) which was a lot of pressure... When starting my research, and trip planning, the options were overwhelming! If you are reading this review and whether it is your first trip to Italy or a return trip, you can stop right here and contact "Miles and Miles"!
Fabulous! First Class!! Fun!!!!!
I just returned from Rome and my fifth experience using Miles&Miles....wow!!!! Each time is better than the last! I'm amazed at how many hidden gems of Rome that I walked past without knowing it....until another tour with Miles&Miles revealed these wonderful secrets and surprises! Their service is a great value, especially when one has limited time in Rome.