Rome's churches aren't just holy sites. They're treasure troves of painting and sculpture, mosaic and relics, even ancient ruins. Oh, and they're free.
Of course, there are also hundreds of them. Literally. Which can make it a little tough to figure out which ones you should visit.
Here, my list of 12 that, whether because of their ancient ruins or 12th-century mosaics, happen to fascinate me the most. And just to make everything even easier for you, here's a Google map of all of the churches' locations. Just make sure to double-check the opening times: There's nothing more disappointing than arriving at a Rome church midday, only to find it (or a key part of it) closed!
Basilica of Santa Sabina: A 5th-century church that still has its original, elaborately-carved wooden door and mosaic dedication, a cell belonging to St. Dominic that was turned into a chapel by Bernini, and underground 4th- to 2nd-century B.C. ruins. What more could you want?
San Lorenzo fuori le Mura: A 5th-century church with vibrant Byzantine mosaics, the remains of St. Lawrence, St. Stephen and St. Justin, 13th-century frescoes on the exterior (below), and the slab on which Lawrence was ostensibly grilled to death in the 3rd century.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva: One of Rome's only Gothic churches, meaning a completely different style (one much more like, say, Paris' Notre Dame) than the rest, it's also got a sculpture by Michelangelo, lovely frescoes by Filippino Lippi, and the body of St. Catherine of Siena.
Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere: What makes this church unusual is that it was built incorporating three ancient, Republican-era temples—and you can still see their columns in the exterior. Plus, for just two euros, you can descend into the underground to see the temples' podiums and even ancient money-changers' stalls.
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere: Built in the 9th century on the spot where St. Cecilia was martyred in the 3rd century, the church has a beautiful 9th-century mosaic, 13th-century frescoes by Pietro Cavallini, and excavations of two ancient Roman houses below that you can visit. It also has a famous sculpture by Maderno of Cecilia's body as it was found—incorrupt—when exhumed in 1599. Not to mention one of the prettiest courtyards I've ever seen (above).
Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere: Perhaps the first church in Rome in which Mass was openly celebrated, this 4th-century church boasts 12th-century exterior mosaics, 13th-century interior mosaics by Cavallini, and one of the loveliest, liveliest piazzas in Rome.
Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo: For strong stomachs only, this church is decorated with 34 16th-century graphic frescoes depicting martyrs in all stages of torture. It's also a 5th-century round church, modeled after the Holy Sepulchre, and still has a 6th-century mosaic.
San Giorgio in Velabro: Don't let its seeming simplicity fool you: This church is a gem. Built in the 5th-century, today it's a thoroughly Romanesque church, albeit one that boasts the bones of St. George and lovely frescoes from 1300. And, having survived a Mafia car bomb in 1993, it gets major points for endurance.
Basilica of San Clemente: Just up the street from the Colosseum, this church is a 12th-century basilica… built on top of a 4th-century basilica… built on top of first-century Roman buildings, including a Mithraic temple. Admire the gorgeous mosaic on the top floor, then descend below. It's one of the coolest underground sites you can experience without much fuss in Rome.
Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati: Although the church here is 12th century and has a lovely Romanesque cloister, the real seller is the Chapel of St. Sylvester, which has a gorgeous 13th-century cycle of frescoes that are in a remarkably vivid and well-preserved state.
Basilica of Santa Prassede: A 9th-century church that still retains its original frescoes and mosaics, this church is a gem that, literally, sparkles. (Bring some change to light up the mosaics). Built on the spot where tradition holds Prassede hosted St. Peter in her house, it also has the tombs of the saints Prassede and Pudenziana.
Basilica of Santa Costanza: Originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Constantine's daughter in the 4th century, this is one of Rome's oldest churches. And it still has its original mosaics from the period, meaning it's a fascinating stop for anyone interested in how Rome turned from paganism to Christianity.
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