I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- if I do nothing but visit different churches on my next visit to Rome, I’ll be happy.
When traveling around Europe, I try to make sure that I visit a church or two- they’re like jewel boxes of art and architecture scattered throughout the city. Even better, they’re often free! For travelers on a budget, these can be a perfect way to pad out an itinerary without dipping into the finances.
It’s important to note that most of these churches are still active, so please be respectful of the parishioners and maybe try to avoid visiting on the weekends since churches are usually busy for services and weddings.
We had a pretty action-packed visit to Rome- I’m talking upwards of 30,000 steps per day, every day, but we still made sure to squeeze in some visits to these gorgeous works of art!
St. Peter’s Basilica
My number one church to visit in Rome is, of course, St. Peter’s Basilica! This is one of the few churches I paid entry for- I ended up on a tour of the Vatican since I didn’t plan ahead. You can read about my tour in more detail here.
As the legends go, St. Peter is buried beneath the high alter of the Basilica- intentionally chosen from the Bible phrase “on this rock I will build my church” (with the rock referring to Peter). Since this site was so important for both religious and political reasons (the Pope was traditionally a ruler in his own rite), the Basilica had to reflect that importance.
To this day, it’s the largest church in the world by interior measure, and it’s size truly cannot be grasped by photos alone. According to National Geographic, it can fit 60,000 standing worshippers at once!
Definitely budget for time to explore all the different nooks and crannies of the Basilica- the ceilings are my favorite! Keep an eye out for Michelangelo’s La Madonna della Pietà just to the right of the entrance.
Also within Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel is another must-see. Although Michelangelo was extensively involved in St. Peter’s Basilica as well, his frescos are the most famous part of the Sistine Chapel.
The work was beautiful, but I found the visit to be a bit of an odd experience. Neither photos nor talking was allowed within the Chapel, the former ostensibly to protect the artwork but actually because the Vatican traded exclusive photo and video rights to an outside company in exchange for the funds to restore the chapel, and the latter to keep the volume down- the acoustics are great for church services but not so great with large crowds of tourists!
There were repeated announcements in Italian and English to avoid photography and speaking- the broadcasted “shhh!” always made me laugh.
Basilica of St. Augustine
We wanted to check out this church for the Raphael painting we’d heard was displayed in one of the naves. Unfortunately, the front of the church was roped off for a church service so we weren’t able to reach our target Raphael. We were, however, pleasantly surprised to realize that in addition to that painting, Caravaggio also had a work displayed here- and that one was available to see!
Both artworks are located on the lefthand side of the church, with Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto being located a little closer to the basilica entrance.
I was a huge fan of this basilica not only for it’s artwork but also the stunning colors worked into the architecture.
San Luigi dei Francesi
We were lucky to squeeze in a quick visit to this church and it’s famous cycle of paintings from Caravaggio. Although we had about five minutes to admire the paintings before we were kicked out to prepare the church for a wedding, the cycle certainly made an impression on me.
Although the chapel was initially intended to be decorated by a sculpture artist, that artist had been preoccupied by his papal commissions, and Caravaggio swooped in to take over the contract instead, cementing his artistic talent.
Caravaggio quickly became a favorite artist of ours, and we got to see quite a bit of his work on our travels, so it was cool to see the place where the master got his big break!
I was particularly drawn to these works when it was pointed out that the subjects the in the paintings were intended to appear as if they were lit but the natural light sources within the church itself!
Basilica di Santa Francesca
We stumbled upon this church trying to see if there was a way to sneak into the Roman Forums (if there is, I don’t know about it), and it’s totally worth a visit if you’re around the Coliseum!
It was a bit gloomy inside when we visited, but there was just enough light to shine beautifully off of all the gold accents.
Saint Francesca Romana has been named the patron saint of cars, so those roadtripping around Italy may want to make a quick stop here!
I really enjoyed the experience of visiting all of the churches we managed to squeeze in to our itinerary. I only wish I had more time to to check out a few more- you can never tell what sort of gorgeous interior is hiding on the inside!