Rome is the seat of the Catholic Church and as such its streets abound with churches. In every corner of the Eternal City it is easy to come across a church or a small chapel. Spiritual and artistic temples that are well worth a visit as an essential part of the places to visit in Rome.
But among all the churches in Rome, four in particular stand out as having a higher rank than all the others: the Major Basilicas.
St. Peter's Basilica
Visiting the Vatican City and all the wonders it houses is the dream of many travellers who land in Rome. One of them is St. Peter's Basilica and the dome, the largest temple in Christendom.
Besides being a spiritual symbol for Catholics all over the world, it is also a masterpiece of the arts. As much a masterpiece of painting and sculpture as it is of architecture. In fact, the dimensions of St. Peter's Basilica were so colossal that building it was thought to be an unfeasible project.
The work went on for almost two centuries and involved artists of the stature of Michelangelo, Bernini, Bramante, Giacomo Della Porta and Carlo Maderno to fulfil the commission of Pope Julius II, who wanted to build a great temple on the necropolis where the apostle Saint Peter was buried and where the emperor Constantine also erected a basilica that remained standing for more than a millennium until it was demolished to build the present one.
- Address: Piazza San Pietro, 00120. Vatican City.
- How to get there: Metro, line A, Ottaviano station.
- Hours: From October 1st to March 31st, 7 AM to 6 PM and from April 1st to September 30th, 7 AM to 7 PM.
What will you see during your visit?
- Outside St. Peter's Square and its famous colonnade, one of the largest and most beautiful squares in Europe.
- Inside St. Peter's Basilica you will have the chance to see wonderful works of art such as Bernini's Baldachin, Michelangelo's Pietà, the Nave of the Basilica or the statue of St. Peter on his throne by Arnolfo di Cambio, among many others.
- And you can't miss the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica. In the post Visit St. Peter's Basilica you will find out how to get the most out of the experience, so I advise you to read it before buying your tickets.
St. John Lateran Basilica
The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the most important of the four Major Basilicas of the Eternal City (above St. Peter's) as it was the first church to be built in Rome back in the 4th century AD when Emperor Constantine put an end to the persecution of Christians by the Edict of Milan.
That is why this temple is so important in the history of Rome. Moreover, it is the cathedral of the city and the place where not so long ago all the Popes were proclaimed.
It is also one of the most beautiful. The interior is a marvel and everything is richly decorated, from the floor to the ceiling. If you are passionate about sacred art and architecture, there is no doubt that you will enjoy a visit to such a jewel as St. John Lateran. And if you have some time to spare, I recommend you enter its medieval cloister in Cosmatesque style because it is one of the most romantic places in Rome.
- Address: Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, 4
- How to get there: Metro, line A, San Giovanni station.
- Opening hours: Open every day of the week from 7 AM to 6:30 PM.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
Another of the most important churches in Rome that you must visit during your stay is Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the world and the largest of all the churches in the city. Along with those mentioned above, it is one of the four Major Basilicas of Rome and has a curious origin. Did you know that Pope Liberius ordered this church to be built on the top of Mount Esquiline as a result of the "miracle of the snow" that covered this hill in the early hours of the morning of the 5th of August in 358 AD?
If you are travelling to Rome in the summer I recommend that you go to the basilica on that day because there is a special celebration to commemorate this miracle by throwing white petals into the air from the top of the temple. It is a beautiful sight to see!
Inside Santa Maria Maggiore is a marvel. Of all the major basilicas in Rome, it is the only one that has kept its original early Christian floor plan intact, which together with its 5th century early Christian mosaics make it a historical relic worth seeing. Apart from this, little remains of the original temple as it has undergone numerous modifications over the years. As a result, it now presents a variety of architectural and decorative styles, although with great harmony and taste.
- Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.
- How to get there: By metro, line A, Termini station.
- Opening hours: Every day of the week from 7 AM to 6:30 PM.
Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
Just as the Emperor Constantine ordered the Basilica of St. Peter to be built on the site where the first Christian pope was buried, so he wanted to do the same for the apostle St. Paul, who also suffered martyrdom in Rome and whose tomb was located outside the city at that time.
The original basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls became an important place of pilgrimage in Rome from the 1st century onwards and soon became too small to accommodate so many of the faithful. For this reason several emperors decided to replace it with a larger one, which was the one that existed until the 19th century when a catastrophic fire destroyed part of the temple.
It was later rebuilt to give this basilica the splendour it once had and so it has survived to the present day. I recommend you to visit San Pablo Extramuros because it is a beauty. The interior is decorated with beautiful golden mosaics and large alabaster columns. It also has a medieval cloister that is a jewel. During your visit to St. Paul Outside the Walls you can also see the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle, which is under the altar of the basilica.
- Address: Piazzale San Paolo, 1.
- How to get there: Metro, line B, Basilica San Paolo station.
- Opening hours: Every day of the week from 7 AM to 6:30 PM.
What are the Major Basilicas of Rome?
The Major Basilicas are by papal designation the most important temples of Christianity. This is because in the 14th century Pope Boniface VIII established by means of the bull "Antiquorum fida relatio" a holy year and indulgences to forgive sins to those who confessed them and who visited the tombs of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Outside the Walls.
Pope Clement VI later added to these conditions the visit to the basilica of Saint John Lateran and later joined Saint Mary Major.
In fact, visiting all of them is still a requirement for the Roman Jubilee indulgence today.
What is the difference between the Major Basilicas and the Minor Basilicas?
The word "basilica" means "notable church" and refers to a Christian temple that, because of its antiquity, majesty or because of the services held there, enjoys certain privileges.
While the Major Basilicas are located in the Vatican and Rome, there are four of them and they can be counted on the fingers of one hand, the Minor Basilicas are more than a thousand and are spread throughout different countries of the world.
What privileges and attributes do the Major Basilicas of Rome have?
- High Altar: Only the Pope and his special delegates can celebrate mass on the altars of the Major Basilicas.
- Holy Door: Each of Rome's Major Basilicas has a Holy Door that is always sealed except in Jubilee years, when it is opened for pilgrims to pass through and gain a plenary indulgence.
Are all the Major Basilicas of Rome worth seeing?
Absolutely! Whether you are a religious person or not, visiting these very special temples is one of the highlights of your trip to Rome, as well as a fantastic opportunity to discover the more spiritual side of Rome, to learn about the roots of Christianity and to admire the architecture and art of past eras.
Moreover, because of their history and origins, a visit to the Major Basilicas is the perfect complement to other tours such as the tour of the Catacombs of Rome.
How much does it cost to enter the Major Basilicas in Rome?
Admission to the Major Basilicas of Rome is free. However, when visiting St. Peter's Basilica I advise you to buy a skip-the-line ticket or book a guided tour to avoid the long queues at the entrance.
Tips for visiting the Major Basilicas of Rome
- Clothing: Apart from being precious works of art, the Major Basilicas of Rome are also sacred places where Christianity is practised. For this reason, all visitors must follow a strict etiquette of wearing clothes that cover both shoulders and knees and removing a cap or hat when entering if you are wearing one.
- Photography: If you wish to take photographs inside the Major Basilicas, my advice is to first check whether flash photography is allowed indoors, as some temples do not allow it in order to protect the works of art.
- Donations: Although entrance to the Major Basilicas is free of charge, donations are always welcome for charitable works and to carry out the conservation and restoration work of the temples. If you wish to make a donation, you can leave it in the church's brush or light a candle.