Do you want to see some really special churches in Rome, sweet little gems, hiding in plain sight?
Rome has nearly a thousand churches. Most of them, even the small hidden ones, are worth a visit. I have not been to all of the churches in Rome, but in my years living here, I have discovered (and continue to discover) some absolute gems.
These special churches in Rome all have fascinating and beautiful things to explore: centuries of layered history; shimmering byzantine mosaics; or secrets that are just waiting to be seen and enjoyed.
It's hard to pick the absolute "best of" anything. I am leaving out a lot of really beautiful churches in Rome from this list. I'm also leaving out the big, famous basilicas.
This list of special churches in Rome is mostly about churches that are under-visited, little-known and typically an oasis of quiet and calm.
Also, I've mapped out a walking route so you can see them all in one morning (or afternoon.)
The basilica of Santa Prassede is easily overlooked but it shouldn't be. If you want to escape the crowds at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore just nearby, come over to this little basilica instead.
As with so many churches in Rome, it doesn't look like much from the outside. When you enter this church, you will be coming into it from an entrance that was added after it was originally built, and it's on the side. So you can't get the full effect of its beauty until you go in a few paces.
The apse is made entirely of tiny glass mosaics, byzantine style. The floor has a cosmatesque design, making it look like a rich tapestry.
There is also a special treat: the San Zeno Chapel, made entirely of Byzantine mosaics. It's worth going into this church just to go into this chapel (and pay the 1€ to light it up.) And finally, there is (supposedly) the piece of pillar that Jesus was tied to when he was beaten before being crucified.
San Prassede is named for Saint Praxedes, who, along with her sister, Pudentia, were daughters of Saint Pudens, supposedly Saint Peter's first Christian convert in Rome.
The story goes that the two sisters helped bury early Christian martyrs, which was against the Roman law at the time. They also were reported to have sponged up the blood of hundreds of martyrs. This sponge, along with the relics of the two sisters, is in the church's crypt (which is currently not available for visits.) The basilica of Santa Prassede was originally built in the 5th century. Later, in the 9th century, Pope Paschal I had it rebuilt to what is more or less its current form today.
If you look closely at the mosaic at the top of the apse, you will see that one figure has a square halo (nimbus.) This figure is Pope Paschal I himself, who commissioned the mosaic. But he was alive at the time, and living holy figures are depicted with square haloes.
There is another figure with a square halo. She is the mother of Pope Paschal, Teodora, to whom the chapel of San Zeno was dedicated. If you go inside the San Zeno chapel, look above the doorway. You will see an image of Teodora, who, since she was living when the chapel was made, also has a square halo.
Just off via Merulana near Santa Maria Maggiore. You can walk there from Termini train station and metro stop. Via di Santa Prassede, 9. 7 am – 12:30 pm, 4 – 6:30 pm.
Santa Maria in Domnica is another one of those special churches in Rome that does not look so interesting from the outside. But as soon as you walk in, you are taken aback by the very high decorated ceiling, the majestic, ancient columns on either side, and that sparkling 9th century mosaic over the apse.
This quiet, beautiful basilica is not far from the Colosseum. See how empty it is? It's mostly like that unless there is a baptism (as is about to happen in the above photo) or wedding. I took this photo in the morning, so the sun is beaming onto the glass tiles of the mosaic, but there is also a little machine near the entrance, where you can put in a coin and light up the apse for about 60 seconds.
Like Santa Prassede, Santa Maria in Domnica was built around the 4th century (or so; it's not clear), then rebuilt again by Pope Pascal I in the early 800's. Pope Paschal I was on a bit of a mission to re-build churches that were in disrepair, and he is responsible for the rebuilding, and the spectacular mosaics, of Santa Pressede, Santa Maria in Domnica and the Basilica of San Clemente nearby. The 18 columns lining the central nave were recycled from an ancient Roman temple. (If you look closely you will see they don't all match each other.)
Via della Navicella, 10. From the Coliseum, it's about a 10-minute walk up the via Claudia. This turns into via della Navicella. Open 9 am-12 pm, 3:30 pm-6 pm.
While I was writing about the above church, Santa Maria in Domnica, and thinking about other special churches in Rome, it occurred to me that quite a few of my favourites are these ancient churches, and many of them are near the Coliseum. So it would be relatively easy to visit many of these in one morning (I have actually done that more than once.)
Santi Quattro Coronati is a very under-visited monastery, which is sad for anyone who misses it. It's got a beautiful cosmatesque floor and a wonderfully-painted, over-sized apse.
But what makes it really special is the hidden cloister. All you have to do is knock on the little door on the left side of the church's interior, and you will enter this peaceful 13th century courtyard. The fountain in the middle is actually from ancient Roman times.
The original church was built in the 4th (or possibly 5th) century, and is dedicated to 4 martyrs who were put to death by the emperor Domitian (there are various stories about these martyrs and who they were and why they became martyrs.) They became saints, hence the name of the church Santi Quattro (4 saints). The last word in the church's name, Coronati, refers to the coronas, or laurel wreaths, the saints wore. The church's medieval bell tower (from sometime between 900-1200), was probably the first bell tower in Rome. The church was used for some time as a defensive structure (you can still see this today from its thick, fortified, tall walls.) It was burnt during the Sack of Rome in 1084, then rebuilt but much smaller. This is why the apse seems disproportionately large compared to the naves. In the 1500's, the basilica was given over to the Augustinian nuns, who still run it today.
When you go ask the nun to let you into the chapel of St. Sylvester, you may notice a kind of wooden-staved drum in the wall. It looks like a short barrel. In the Middle Ages, when these were much in use, they were called "Foundling Wheels", or ruote degli exposti. Today it's called a baby hatch, or culla per la vita.
The wheel was meant as a way to give a women another option when she had a baby she didn't want. the woman could place her baby in the wheel, and turn it, then ring a bell to alert the nuns. The nuns would either care for it, bringing it up in the convent, or try to find a home for it. Italians whose last name is "Esposito" have someone back in their family tree who was placed in such a wheel.
The wheel is no longer in use in this church (or anywhere), but there is now at least one modern version of this type of receptacle in Rome, in the Policlinico Casilino. It was put there as a pro-life, pro-immigrant measure, to promote women not abandoning their babies or worse, instead giving them a way to leave their unwanted babies at the hospital. It has been in place since December 2006, and in February of 2007, the hospital received its first child.
via dei Santi Quattro, 20 (Celio neighborhood, near the Coliseum.) From the Coliseum, walk about 10 minutes straight up via Santi Quattro. The church is open early morning, but the cloister is open: Monday - Saturday 10.00 - 11.45; 16.00 - 17.45. Sunday, only afternoon.
You're walking along the via dei Fori Imperiali, heading to the Colosseum, and if you blink, you will miss this wonderful ancient church. Santi Cosmo e Damiano is so easily overlooked and therefore so delightful when you do go in.
First you have the pretty little courtyard with the fish fountain the the middle. Then, when you enter the church, you will have to decide whether to look at the 6th century apse with its simplistic yet beautiful mosaics, or, whether to look to the right to see the ancient temple of Romulus below you.
The basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano was built in 527, commissioned by Pope Felix IV. The church was made of a combination of two buildings: a rectangular hall whose functions are not quite clear, and also a round temple, called the Temple of Romulus, which the emperor Maxentius dedicated to his son Romulus, who died as a boy.
This temple is thought to have been built on an earlier temple from 2-3 BC, called the Temple of Jupiter Stator. In any case, the temple is the second best-preserved round pagan temple in Rome after the Pantheon.
It was the first church to be built inside the Roman Forum. This was actually a big deal at the time. Although Christianity had taken hold, most Romans were still practicing pagan religions, and the building of this church inside the forum shows how much sway the church was beginning to have.
Santi Cosma e Damiano is named for twin brothers and saints from Greece, who were doctors, and of course martyrs.
The entrance to the church, from the via Fori Imperiali, was never its original entrance. You were meant to enter from the Forum. But the current entrance was added much later, and today, you cannot go inside from the forum, although you can see the exterior of the original temple of Romulus, with its huge original bronze doors. The key to open those doors still actually works today.
Via dei Fori Imperiali 1. As you walk down the via dei Fori Imperiali, towards the Colosseum, the church's doorway will be visible on your right, about ⅔ of the way down the street. At the moment, it's just before all the major construction. Open 9am - 1pm, 3pm - 6:50pm.
Santi Giovanni e Paolo is another one of my favourite special churches in Rome, maybe because I get to see it a lot. What I love about this church is the setting: To get to it, you have to come down (or up) a little-visited street, and once you enter this street, you already get a sense of being lost in time. Come up the via Claudia from the Coliseum. On the right, you will come to an ancient Roman wall and archway. That street will take you to this church. (This street is right before the basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica, and the street that takes you to Santo Stefano Rotondo, so as I said, you can easily visit at least these churches all together.)
As you walk, you will pass a vine-covered wall on your left, and private villas to your right. All of a sudden, you come upon this wide open plaza. There is a really tall, perfectly intact Romanesque bell tower, and to the left, also sitting pretty on the plaza, the church.
You can visit the ruins of the temple of Claudius under the bell tower. Then you can visit this church with its rich cosmatesque floor and uniquely painted apse.
And, if you really want the most special treat of all, you can spend another 30-60 minutes visiting the Roman Houses at Celio, underneath the church. It is really a wonderful experience, allowing you to see incredibly intact buildings from Roman times, with bright frescoes, a wine cellar, a religious altar, and much more. And at the end, you can see one of the best-designed archeological museums in Rome, even if it is small. But even just visiting the church itself is worthwhile.
Piazza dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, 13. It's quite easy to walk here from the Coliseum. Walk straight up the via Claudia. About half way up the street, on the right side, you will see a street with an arch (a gateway.) This is via di san Paolo della Croce. Take this street and you will easily spot this beautiful church taking up half the plaza on the right. Open daily from 8.30am - 12pm (Sundays until 12.45pm), 3.30pm - 6pm.
The first time I visited Santo Stefano Rotondo, I had no idea what to expect. I'd heard it was the largest circular church in Rome, and that it was really special. But nobody told me in advance about the artwork I'd find on the walls.
The first thing that struck me was the special shape, and how I could see the church and its enormous internal columns all around me. The ceiling is especially tall and a lot of light streams in, giving the whole interior an ethereal look. I note this every time I go, no matter what time of day.
But as I walked around the church to get a closer look, I was taken aback by the paintings. On every wall of this church are depictions of hideous executions, of the kind we cannot even fathom. And the most bizarre thing to note is the look of happiness and peace on the face of the martyr accepting his or her fate. Visiting this church is not for the faint-hearted, but if I can do it, anybody can. And the beauty of the church is not to be missed. Scenes of some of these paintings will follow, be warned.
Santo Stefano Rotondo (full name in Italian: Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Celio) was built at the end of the 5th century by Pope Simplicius. The church was dedicated to Saint Stephen. Originally the church had three concentric sections but in the 12th century the outer-most section was removed.
At one point the building fell into complete disrepair but in the 15th century it was revived and restored. In fact, the church suffers from humidity and when you visit it, you can see that the frescoes are in constant need of restoration.
During the years of the Grand Tour, it was thought this church was built on a pagan Roman temple, but actually, the original building was always a church.
In 1583 Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the frescoes you see on the rounded walls today. They portray the martyrdom of the Apostles and other early saints.
Santo Stefano Rotondo is now the National church in Rome of Hungary.
Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo, 7. From the Coliseum, walk up via Claudia. On the left, you will see the remains of an ancient Roman wall. Take that street to the left. The church will be almost immediately on the right hand side. Winter hrs: Tues-Sat 9.30-12.30, 2-5pm. Sundays 9.30-12.30. Summer hrs: Tues-Sat 9.30-12.30, 2-5pm. Sundays 9.30-12.30. Closed Mondays. Also closed most of August.
Imagine you are the artistic genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and towards the end of your amazing life and very rich career as a sculptor, architect, painter and more, your favourite piece of work, the one you think was your most perfect, is this church. And you still have time in your twilight years to sit inside it, contemplating what you did. Isn't that a lovely thought?
It's something I think of every time I go inside. I love to think that Bernini sat inside his masterpiece, looking around him at the wonder he created, and loving it as much as I do.
Sant'Andrea al Quirinale has to be one of the most easily over-looked, special churches in Rome, even though it's hiding in plain site. It's just across from the Qurinale palace on a very busy street, XX Settembre. But I often see people walking right by it without realising the magnificent work of art that it is.
If you look at the facade, you will already see why it's special, even from the outside. It's rounded front, and curved steps combine to make a unified movement that pleases the eye. Once inside, the elliptical dome, soaring columns, and symmetrical chapels and nooks all envelop you to make you feel like you are inside a hand-cut Fabergé egg.
Sant'Andrea was the third Jesuit church built in Rome (after the Gesù, and Saint Ignatius.) Initially Borromini (Bernini's rival) was to build this church, but by the time there was funding to build it, the pope at the time, Innocent X, said no to the project. He didn't want any large buildings next to the papal palace (the Quirinale.)
After Innocent X died, the next pope, Alexander VII, who was a big fan of Bernini and who did not like Borromini, put Bernini back on the project. But Alexander VII stipulated that the church must be built back from the street, and that a wall must hide it from street view. Bernini focused on building the interior and left the facade to last. Eventually Pope Alexander VII died, and by then, his decree was forgotten. The facade that you see today went up, with the Pamphilj's coat of arms at the top (Pope Innocent X was a Pamphilj, and it was his nephew Cardinale Camillo Pamphilj who eventually financed the church.)
The church of Sant'Andrea is one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Rome today.
Via del Quirinale, 29, just near the intersection of Quattro Fontane and XX Settembre, and right across from the Quirinale palace. Open 8:30am - 12pm, 2:30pm - 6pm. Closed Monday.
I used to tell our hotel guests, you have to go to Saint Ignatius to see the optical illusion. But I wouldn't tell them what the illusion was. It was so neat, I thought they should see it for themselves. Every time, people would come back and tell me they couldn't find it. It's that well done.
When you walk into Saint Ignatius (Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio), the first thing that grabs you is the amazing ceiling. It just seems to sweep you up into it. In fact, many people told me they thought that was the optical illusion I was talking about. The ceiling is painted with a lot of really well-done techniques, that make flat walls look like soaring columns of marble, and that make all the figures in the ceiling really look as if they are ascending.
And as you are standing there gazing at this ceiling, you will also notice a high dome, with light pouring through, closer to the apse. If you go stand directly under the dome, you will see it is completely flat. The dome is not there: the perfect trompe-l'œil (optical illusion.)
And, the reason this is on my list of special churches in Rome, is that like the other churches, it's nearly always quiet, and fairly empty, despite being in the center, and despite its optical illusion being fairly well-known.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, was canonized in 1622. This church was built, under the orders of Pope Gregory XV (and financed by his nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi.)
The fresco paintings on the ceiling of the central nave were painted in 1685 by Fr. Andrea Pozzo. He used formidable artistic skills to create the illusion that the sky is 3-dimensional above you.
Initially, the church was supposed to include a dome. However, once the church was near completion, the Jesuits found they were out of money to build it. To make the church look complete at least from the inside, Andrea Pozzo suggested he create a temporary dome on the 17-meter space where it was supposed to go. It's stayed that way ever since.
Piazza Sant'Ignazio (the piazza itself is simply beautiful. Most of the buildings on this rounded plaza are from the 1400's and 1500's.) While facing the Pantheon, walk down the left side until you see via del Seminario on your left. Take this street about 3 minutes' walk, and you will come to piazza Sant'Ignazio. Open daily 7.30am - 12.20pm, 3 - 7:20pm.
I keep thinking that each of these special churches in Rome is my favourite, but Santa Maria degli Angeli was probably the first to have this distinction for me. When I was first coming to Rome a lot to visit my then fiancé, I stayed near Termini station. And, on my walks towards the center, I'd pass Piazza della Repubblica. It did not take long for me to decide to pop into this church. Since that moment, when it completely wowed me, it has remained one of my all-time favourite churches in Rome.
Like so many churches in Rome, it was built onto something else - in this case, the ruins of the ancient Diocletian baths. Also, over the centuries, the entrance to the basilica was moved to what was one side, so now, when you enter it from Piazza della Repubblica, you don't get the full effect of the church until you are all the way in. And since basilicas are long, when you get fully in, the church stretches out to the left and right of you. But most of all, it has incredibly high ceilings, that let in so much light. So, for me, this church always has a serene, almost heavenly glow about it.
The church is called Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. This means, Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs. And the artwork reflects this (although it is not nearly as gruesome as the artwork in Santo Stefano Rotondo.)
The Diocletian baths were built between 298 and 306 AD, and were much larger than the Caracalla baths (Today, you can still see relatively intact ruins of the Caracalla baths, while the Diocletian baths have all but disappeared.) Over the centuries, the baths fell into decay and became over-run with vegetation and animals. In 1541, a young Sicilian priest named Fra Antonio Lo Duca, who was dedicated to the 7 archangels, had a vision of 7 slaves who had died building the church. He finally convinced Pope Pius IV to have a church to be built on the ruins of these baths, in 1561. The church would be dedicated to angels and martyrs. Michelangelo was assigned the task of turning the ruins into a church, and it was the last thing he did before he died at the age of 89, in 1564.
Piazza della Repubblica. Metro line A (red line.) The plaza (and the church) are easily reachable from Termini station, walking about 5-10 minutes. Open daily from 7am - 6.30pm; Sundays and holidays until 7:30pm.
If you are looking for Carvaggio paintings in Rome, you may have visited the slightly more visible and better-known churches of Santa Maria del Popolo, and San Luigi dei Francesi. But it seems to me that every time I go into Sant'Agostino (which I do every time I pass it and it's open), there is almost nobody there.
This breathtaking painting by Caravaggio (Madonna di Loreto, also called Madonna dei Pellegrini) makes the church of Sant'Agostino one of my favourite special churches in Rome, in part because it seems to just be "another painting". But pay the 1 Euro to light it up, and take a closer look.
It's Caravaggio doing what he does best: his uncanny use of chiaroscuro (using light and dark contrasts to make the painting's theme really stand out); and, using real people as models, showing all their human flaws: literally, warts and all. (Note also the bare feet, both of the Virgin Mary, and the dirty feet of the beggars, which caused a scandal at the time.)
The building of Sant'Agostino began in 1296, but was not finished until 1420. Sant'Agostino is one of the first Roman churches to be built in the Renaissance. The interior was designed and embellished several times over from the 1400's through the 1700's, and contains some works by some of the most famed artists of the time, including Caravaggio, Raphael, Guercino, and Sansovino.
In the late Renaissance, the church was noted for the high number of courtesans and prostitutes in its congregation. In fact, the painting by Caravaggio is in a way a tribute to these ladies, as the model he used for the Madonna was a Roman prostitute.
Piazza di Sant'Agostino, 80. Between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Exit Piazza Navona at the end where the Il Sogno toy store is located. Turn right and walk through an archway. That is via di Sant'Agostino. The church will be almost immediately on your left. Open daily 7.30am - 12pm, 4 - 7:30pm.
I have mapped out the best way to see these churches in one morning (or afternoon.) You could go from one direction or the other. Considering the hours of most of these churches, i.e. that some close at noon, I'd get as early a start as possible. The walk itself takes about 2 hours, without stops. But considering that the point is to see the interesting things inside these special churches in Rome, you should allow yourself an entire 4-hour block of time if you can.