5 Must-see churches in Rome (that are not St. Peter’s or the Pantheon!)
We know, we know. When you visit Rome (and Italy at large) you have just a few allocated days for your tours, visits and explorations.
So what you do is try and fit as much as possible in there, giving priority to the main monuments, thinking you’ll find the time, eventually, for a second trip to enjoy everything that has been left out from your must-see list: the Vatican, of course, with St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum…
Is there really, though, a “can skip” in Rome?
We’re puzzled when we read online forums with contributions suggesting that authentic masterpieces are considered to be skippable: seeing the Baths of Caracalla described at nothing special or the Spanish Steps as underwhelming is nothing short of hurtful.
While everyone is entitled to their opinions, obviously, one should really look at any landmark, not just Rome’s, in the context of when they were built: the lives lost in the process, the lack of modern technology, the effort and ideas behind every building, every statue, every paintings… and the non-obvious ways how they were preserved and got to the present day for us to enjoy.
The original museums of Rome
It’s with this in mind that we have been highlighting several “minor” monuments and landmarks in Rome since the inception of this blog.
And it’s with the same spirit that we now bring you a small list of must-see (as locals, our perspective will surely be different from yours!) churches you should really be visiting while in the Eternal City.
Why churches? Whatever your religious persuasion, these buildings are exquisitely decorated, and depending on the wealth of the families who commissioned them, they are completely comparable to a modern-day museum. Some of them hold masterpieces by the likes of Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael or Michelangelo, and astonishingly enough, you can visit them for free (unless, of course, you want to pay for a tour guide to show you around).
They also provide great photo opportunities (provided that you respect the decorum and respect rules that apply to any church) and they are safe havens in the city where you can stop to think, sit for a while and rest before continuing on to your next exploration. What’s not to like?
So, without further ado, here are some of our favorites churches to visit in Rome!
Church of Our Lady of Victory/Santa Maria della Vittoria
In an area seldom covered by mass tourism (famous gelato places are here, as well as stunning landmarks like the Baths of Diocletian), this church owes its name to the battle of White Mountain in 1620, during the Thirty Years’ War.
A stunning example of Baroque architecture, it was designed by genius architect Carlo Maderno, but the real masterpiece is inside, where the marble statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini depicting the “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” occupies a side chapel.
WHY GO: Queues are few and far between here, and after your visit you can explore other nearby monuments like the Porta Pia gate, designed by Michelangelo, the aforementioned Baths of Diocletian with Michelangelo’s Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs, or the Fountain of Moses.
Saint Ivo at the Sapienza/Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
Walking distance from many of our managed accommodations, the “knowledge” (“sapienza”) alluded to in the name of this church is a reference to the Sapienza University in Rome, the oldest in the city as it was founded in 1303. This area used to house a chapel for the students, and when it was torn down to build a more modern, bigger church, the new building retained its name.
The church itself, designed by Francesco Borromini, has an odd, concave exterior look as it accommodates the courtyard by another great architect, Giacomo della Porta.
WHY GO: You will only be able to access the church on Sundays, between 9 and 11 AM, but on every other day the façade of Sant’Ivo is the perfect backdrop to your Roman portrait!
Saint Mary above Minerva/Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Once again, the name of this church is a story in and of itself: “above Minerva” as in the Roman goddess whose temple is right below it. Right behind the Pantheon (and a number of our holiday rentals!), this building is another spectacular backdrop for your pictures and one of the few remaining Gothic churches in the city (most part of the shrines in Rome have a “dummy” Baroque façade, added when this particular style became fashionable – art historians will forgive us for oversimplifying!).
WHY GO: go for the elephant obelisk in the square outside, stay to observe the tomb of Saint Catherine or the statue of Christ the Redeemer by Michelangelo!
Basilica of Saint Sabina/Basilica di Santa Sabina
The oldest basilica in Rome to feature the original architectural elements of these Roman-inspired buildings, Santa Sabina is located on top of the Aventine Hill (guests who are staying at Via Annia Faustina will be delighted to learn they have one more landmark within walking distance from their accommodation). The church’s door is one of its main attractions – its wooden panels date to the 5th century CE. A bit of trivia: there are no pegs here, as it was in the early days of Christianity!
Santa Sabina is actually a convent – St. Dominic and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, famously lived here. If you want to visit the cloister or the Roman remains below the church, make sure you book your visit (for groups only, inquire directly with the church).
WHY GO: the Aventine Hill is peaceful compared to the rest of Rome, and this is a particularly quiet spot.
Basilica of Saint Praxedes/Basilica di Santa Prassede
A few minutes from the grandiose Basilica of Saint Mary Major (we’re halfway between the train station at Termini and the Monti district, with our Via Mecenate flat just around the corner) this is another Basilica that has seemingly nothing to to with its most well-known neighbor.
No fancy stuccoes and intricate ornaments: Saint Praxedes’ is a study in simplicity, an unassuming shrine decorated with art in the Byzantine style, which was so integral in the early stages of Christianity.
WHY GO: be humbled and awed by the “minimalism” of early Christian churches.