Updated: Nov 15, 2021
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.
THE PAPAL BASILICAS
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.
VISITING ST PETER'S BASILICA
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.
VISITING ST JOHN LATERAN
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.
Tickets & Entry to St John Lateran
St John Lateran is open daily 7.00-18.30. Entry to the basilica is free and queues are usually short.
What to see at St John Lateran
Borromini’s niches were left empty until they were filled with the statues of the apostles in the early 18th The statues were created by a range of distinguished sculptors, including Camillo Rusconi and Pierre-Etienne Monnot, and their larger-than-life sizes creates a theatrical effect.
The ancient baptistery was for many years the only baptistery in Rome and is notable for its octagonal form and legendary history; Constantine I was supposedly baptized here. The opulent interior provides a striking contrast with the plain brick exterior.
There was once a monastery attached to the basilica, but today the only part that survives is the 13th century cloister. Overlooked by many visitors, the highlight of tours of St John Lateran is a visit to the atmospheric cloister – an oasis of calm in the heart of Rome.
Just across the road from the basilica are the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa), a flight of steps that pilgrims climb on their knees. According to legend the stairs were brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, and are supposedly the steps that Christ climbed on the way to his trial. The Holy Stairs must be climbed on your knees as an act of devotion, but if you prefer to walk you can climb a parallel staircase.
The Lateran obelisk, which stands in the square in front of the Lateran Palace, weighs 455 tons and is the largest standing obelisk in the world. It was shipped from Egypt to Rome under the orders of Constantius II and used to stand in the Circus Maximus.
VISITING ST MARY MAJOR
How to get to St Mary Major
Santa Maria Maggiore is a short walk from both Termini station and Piazza Vittorio metro station (Line A). Alternatively, look out for buses stopping at Termini (such as the 40 or 64) or along Via Cavour (75). As a centrally located major landmark, it’s easy to get to. Tickets & Entry Santa Maria Maggiore Santa Maria Maggiore is open daily 7.00-19.00 (9.30-12.00 on Sundays). Entrance is free and queues are short.
What to see at St Mary Major
The stunning 5th century mosaics, which fill the nave and the triumphal arch, are the highlight of any visit to Santa Maria Maggiore. The mosaics are breathtakingly beautiful and intricate – most are even more impressive when you admire them up close. They contain some of the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary in Christian art and had a profound influence on subsequent artwork.
The Crypt of the Nativity (also known as the Bethlehem Crypt) was designed to resemble the cave in Bethlehem where Christ was born. Inside the reliquary is some wood that was supposedly part of Christ’s crib. St Jerome – the man responsible for translating the Bible into Latin in the 4th century – is buried here.
One of the most important icons in Christianity is located at Santa Maggiore. Known as the Salus Populi Romani (The Protectress and Health of the Roman People), this sacred Byzantine icon is regularly venerated by popes and carried around Rome during religious processions. It’s believed to be around 1,000 years old, and according to legend was painted by St Luke himself.
VISITING ST PAUL OUTSIDE THE WALLS
How to get to St Paul Outside the Walls
The suburban San Paolo neighborhood is not really walking distance from the center. To reach St Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mura) take the metro (Line B) to San Paolo. From the metro station it’s just a two-minute walk to the basilica. You could also take a bus that goes along Via Ostiense, or a taxi, but the metro is the simplest option.
Tickets & entry: St Paul Outside the Walls
St Paul’s is open every day 7.00-18.30. Entrance is free, and there’s usually no queue. Entry to the cloister costs €4.
What to See at St Paul Outside the Walls
Although most of the basilica was destroyed during the fire of 1823, it was restored to spectacular effect, and some original details remain, such as the beautiful mosaics of the triumphal arch. Another survivor is the intriguing 5 and a half meter tall candle stand, which dates back to the 12th century and is decorated with carvings of Biblical scenes. Look out for the Whore of Babylon riding a monster at the base…
There’s a mosaic masterpiece on the ceiling of the Apse, depicting Christ surrounded by Peter, Paul, Andrew and Luke. Designed by Venetian artists in the early 13th century, it’s one of the main attractions on a tour of St Paul Outside the Walls.
The walls of the basilica are lined with mosaic papal portraits. Every single pope is represented here, and rumor has it that when all the blank spaces have been filled, the world will end. In other words, just a few more popes till the Apocalypse!
It’s worth paying the small entry fee to visit the charming medieval cloister. It has been described as “one of the most beautiful of the Middle Ages” and contains fragments of the original basilica, as well as some ancient sarcophagi.
Dress appropriately! This point cannot be emphasized enough, especially for St Peter’s. Basilicas are sacred places, and visitors are expected to cover up – no shorts, short skirts, low-cut tops or uncovered shoulders. If you’re wearing a strappy top or vest you can cover up with a scarf or shawl but avoid shorts and short skirts altogether. This is particularly important for St Peter’s, where inappropriately dressed visitors will be turned away at the entrance no matter how long they’ve been waiting in line.
Recent terror attacks in Europe have led to increased security measures. Be prepared to go through scanners, have your bags checked, and queue a little longer before entering.
To make the most of your visit, take a guided tour of St Peter’s and the other papal basilicas. An expert guide will provide valuable historical context and point out fascinating details you might have otherwise missed. By joining a St Peter’s tour you’ll also be able to visit the basilica, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel without having to queue.
St Paul Outside the Walls is the least crowded by far. If you’re visiting Rome in high season and getting sick of the crowds, a trip to the peaceful cloister of St Paul’s could be the perfect solution.
Before your Rome basilicas tour, learn more about their history and what there is to see at each church: St Peter’s Basilica Virtual Tour A View on Cities: St Paul Outside the Walls Sacred Destinations: St John Lateran Sacred Destinations: Santa Maria Maggiore