A Guide to Rome's Papal Basilicas: Everything you Need to Know

Aggiornamento: mag 9

Rome is a city of churches. And while many of these smaller churches are worth visiting – you never know when you’re going to stumble across a Caravaggio or a macabre relic – it’s the papal basilicas that are truly outstanding. These four major basilicas are not only places of pilgrimages for Catholics from all over the world, but also fascinating cultural attractions for anyone interested in art, history and religion. From the exquisite 5th century mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore to the awe-inspiring architecture of St Peter’s, each basilica is full of treasures to discover. St Peter’s Basilica is best experienced on a Vatican tour, but make sure you don’t miss the other papal basilicas. These sacred places are some of the most beautiful buildings in the Eternal City, with nearly a millennia of rich and turbulent history.

History of the Papal Basilicas Visiting St Peter’s Basilicas Visiting St John Lateran Visiting Santa Maria Maggiore Visiting St Paul Outside the Walls Further Reading Tips


There are hundreds of churches in Rome, but the four most important churches to see on your Rome tour are the major basilicas or papal basilicas: St Peter’s Basilica (San Pietro) in Vatican City; St John Lateran (San Giovanni) in the San Giovanni neighborhood of the city center; Santa Maria Maggiore in the Esquilino neighborhood of the city center; St Paul’s Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mura) in the suburban San Paolo neighborhood, south of the centre While St Peter’s is the most famous and receives the most visitors, St John Lateran could actually be considered the most important; it’s the seat of the Pope, and the oldest of all the basilicas. As well as having enormous significance for Catholics, many of whom make pilgrimages to Rome to visit the basilicas, these four churches are major attractions for their spectacular art, architecture, and ancient history.

History of the Papal Basilicas

The oldest of the basilicas, St John Lateran, was built in the 4th century on the site of an Ancient Roman cavalry fort. The land was given to the Bishop of Rome by the Emperor Constantine I, and was declared to be the “Domus Dei” (“House of God”) by Pope Sylvester I. When the papacy moved to Avignon, the Basilica fell into decline, and was ravaged by fires. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it was restored and enriched by the work of Baroque artists and architects such as Borromini.

St Paul Outside the Walls was founded in the 4th century and built over the supposed burial site of St Paul. It underwent various periods of construction work and expansion over the centuries. Legend has it the ancient basilica was even grander than the old St Peter’s basilica. Tragically, the actions of a careless workman in 1823 led to a catastrophic fire that almost completely destroyed the basilica. Donations were sent from all over the world; including alabaster from Egypt, precious jewels from Russia. Today, the vast majority of the basilica, from the artwork to the neoclassical façade, is a product of the 19th century restoration work.

Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the 5th century and is known as ‘Our Lady of the Snows’, because of its association with a legend about a miraculous snowfall in August. It was built on the site of a previous basilica, known as the Liberian Basilica after Pope Liberius. Santa Maria Maggiore was one of the first churches built in honor of the Virgin Mary, and its opulence is a reflection of its symbolic importance (as well as the wealth of the Church at that time). The church still retains its original structure, and periodic restoration work has helped to preserve its splendor.

The present-day St Peter’s Basilica is completely different from the original 4th century basilica, which was built on the site of St Peter’s burial on the orders of the Emperor Constantine. By the 15th century the old basilica was in desperate need of renovation, and Pope Julius II decided it would be better to demolish it, replacing it with a larger, grander basilica, to house his tomb.

Building work took place over 120 years, and involved the contributions of numerous artists and architects, including Michelangelo, who designed the dome. The travertine façade was designed by Maderno, while Bernini contributed important artistic details including the vast baldachin over the altar. The basilica that you’ll see on your Vatican tour is therefore mostly a Baroque creation, and the grandest of all the papal basilicas.


How to get to St Peter's Basilica

St Peter’s Basilica within Vatican City and so is easy to get to by bus or metro. The nearest metro is Ottaviano (Line A), only a 10-minute walk away. Buses 40 and 64 go from Termini to the Vatican (via the historic center), but you can also take any bus that stops in Piazza del Risorgimento, or the nearby Lungotevere.

Tickets & Entry to St Peter's Basilica

St Peter’s Basilica is open 7.00-18.00 daily. Entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free, so you can’t buy tickets in advance – prepare to queue! The lines are particularly long in peak tourist season (April-September). One way to avoid the queues is to join a Vatican tour, which will allow you to enter the basilica directly from the Vatican Museums.

What to see at St Peter's Basilica

  • Before entering the basilica, make sure you admire the extraordinary design of St Peter’s Square, which is one of the most beautiful public spaces in the world. The piazza was redesigned by the Baroque genius Bernini and is remarkable for its graceful symmetry. Take a walk under the vast colonnades that represent “the maternal arms of Mother Church”, embracing the square, and take a moment to notice all the interesting architectural details, from the Ancient Egyptian obelisk in the center to the statues of saints lining the rooftop.

  • The undoubted masterpiece of St Peter’s is Michelangelo’s Pieta, which you’ll find on the right-hand side of the church. This moving statue – the only work Michelangelo ever signed – portrays a youthful Mary holding the body of the dead Christ. As an example of both classical beauty and naturalism, it’s one of the most significant works of the Renaissance, and as a depiction of maternal love and grief, it never fails to move.

  • As well as redesigning the piazza, Bernini was also responsible for the magnificent baldachin that rises above the altar. This vast Bronze canopy marks the burial place of St Peter and immediately catches the eye of anyone who enters the basilica.

  • After your tour, we recommend checking out the view from the dome. Yes, you’ll have to climb (551 steps in total, if you don’t use the lift for the first 320 steps), but it’s definitely worth it. From the basilica rooftop you have unparalleled views across the Vatican and Rome.


How to get to St John Lateran

The easiest way to reach the Basilica of St John Lateran (San Giovanni) is to take the metro (Line A) to San Giovanni; you can see the basilica as soon as you walk out of the station. The tram 3 and various buses also stop in Piazza di San Giovanni/Porta di San Giovanni. St John Lateran is walking distance from the Colosseum; just follow Via di San Giovanni in Laterano and you’ll be there in 5 minutes.