Holy Sites Walking Tour, Rome

Holy Sites Walking Tour (Self Guided), Rome

As the cradle of the Catholic Church, one of the world's largest organizations, Rome has a large number of valuable, sacred places of worship. Crowded with architectural splendors from different periods of time, each of its churches and basilicas represent a significant part of culture and history.

Take this self-guided walking tour to discover Rome's magnificent religious heritage, starting with the oldest and highest of the four papal basilicas, named after St. John in Lateran. Even before entering, you will be stunned by its magnificent façade and grandiose statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles, created in the beginning of the 18th century by several prominent Italian sculptors.

Among other highlights is the San Pietro in Vincoli, again very beautiful and particular, though most of the attention will rightly be focused on the statue of Moses: impossible to fully describe in words, but there isn’t an art history book that doesn't mention it! Nearby Santa Maria Maggiore was the first basilica to be consecrated to Virgin Mary (in year 434 A.D.) and is one of the Seven Great Pilgrim Churches of Rome, which makes it very important and therefore a must-visit.

You will also pass by the baroque Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the ancient Pantheon, as well as lesser-known sights like Santa Maria sopra Minerva – the only true Gothic cathedral in Rome, which packs a large punch despite its small size.

For these and other places of worship packed with treasures, follow our walk and learn more about their history along the way.

Getting to Sight #1. The first tour stop (St. Peter's Square) can be reach by Bus: Bus: 23, 31, 49, 490, 40 Express and and 116 electric bus; Train: FL3, Metro: line A.
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from iTunes App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Holy Sites Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Holy Sites Walking Tour
Guide Location: Italy » Rome (See other walking tours in Rome)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 3 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 6.9 Km or 4.3 Miles
Author: audrey
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Archbasilica of St. John in Lateran
  • Basilica of Saint Clement
  • San Pietro in Vincoli Church
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
  • Santa Maria degli Angeli
  • Church of Saint Charles at the Four Fountains
  • Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola
  • Pantheon
  • Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church
  • Great Synagogue of Rome
  • Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Archbasilica of St. John in Lateran

1) Archbasilica of St. John in Lateran

The Basilica of Saint John Lateran was constructed in the 4th century BC and is the first church to be built in Rome. This cathedral is the official ecclesiastical seat of the Pope, and as such is the oldest and foremost building of the four Papal Basilicas. Although located outside the Vatican City, it has extraterritorial status because it belongs to the Holy See.

The basilica was built on the site of a fort put up by Septimus Severus in 193AD, the remains of which lie beneath the nave. During the early Roman Empire, the rest of the site was occupied by the Laterani – the emperors’ administrators. When the Basilica was finished it became the seat of the Pope and known as the Mother Church of the whole Catholic world. It holds the Papal cathedra and is more important than St Peter’s Basilica. During the Avignon Papacy, St John Lateran fell into disrepair and was twice damaged by fire. When the papacy returned to Italy, the basilica was in no state to receive the pope, in spite of renovations, and the Pontiff settled in the Palace of the Vatican.

The basilica has been renovated over the centuries and its present facade dates back to the 18th century. On the roof are statues of Christ and the Apostles. The central bronze doors come from the ancient Roman imperial forum. Beside the doors is a statue of Constantine I. The cosmatesque floor of the nave dates back to the 14th century while the statues of the Apostles in the nave were sculpted in the 18th century. 17th-century bas reliefs depict scenes from the Old Testament and the Altar of the Holy Sacrament is a table believed to have been used during the Last Supper.

Why You Should Visit:
Filled with the history of the early Catholic Church; splendid in its architecture, light, and artwork.

There is also a cloister behind the archbasilica, for which you'll be charged a small fee, but you will get to tour a random range of true antiquities dating to pre-Roman times, together with some odd Catholic relics.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 7am-6:30pm
Free admission
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Basilica of Saint Clement

2) Basilica of Saint Clement (must see)

Travel back 2000 years of history when you visit the richly decorated Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano. This ancient church was a private home that was the site of clandestine Christian worship in the 1st century. It become a grand public basilica by the 4th century, reflecting the emerging Catholic Church's growing legitimacy and power. The present church was built just before the year 1100 during the height of the Middle Ages.

In the 1st century AD the house of the Roman Consul Titus Flavius Clemens stood on the site of the basilica. In the cellars of the house was a Mithraeum with an altar shaped like a sarcophagus bearing a relief of Mithras slaying a bull, a bust of the god Sol and a statuette of Mithras. These relics can still be seen in the crypt of the church. In the 4th century, the first basilica was built on the site of Titus Flavius’ house, dedicated to Pope Clement I.

In 1084, the church was destroyed during the Norman sacking of Rome, and a second basilica was constructed in its place. The church has the second largest collection of early medieval wall paintings in Rome. The Episcopal Seat is to be found in the apse, which is extensively decorated in Byzantine arabesque mosaics. In the presbytery, a ciborium, supported by four marble columns, stands over a shrine of Clement, whose tomb is to be found in the crypt below. The beautiful stucco work, frescos and Ionic capitals, as well as the carved, coffered ceilings of the aisle and nave, date back to the 18th century.

Why You Should Visit:
A very interesting glimpse into the ancient past – below street level!

Bring a small flashlight to get a better look at the frescos and wall paintings.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 9am-12:30pm; 3-6pm; Sun: 12-6pm
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
San Pietro in Vincoli Church

3) San Pietro in Vincoli Church

The church of San Pietro in Vincoli ('St Peter in Chains') is to be found on the square of the same name and is one of Rome’s many minor basilicas. In 432 AD, a small church was built to house the relics of the chains that the Apostle wore while he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the Lord sent an angel who caused the chains binding Peter to fall and then the angel led him from his prison without waking the sleeping guards. Today, the chains are kept in a reliquary under the main altar.

The basilica was constructed around this shrine in 439 by Pope Sixtus II. The building was restored several times over the centuries: by Pope Adrian I in 790, again in the 11th century, and once more in the 18th century by Fontana, with the coffered ceiling and its central fresco depicting the “Miracle of the Chains” executed by Parodi. You can admire two paintings by Guercino (one of St Augustine and the other of St Margaret), and the monument of Cardinal Girolamo Agucchi by Domenichino, who also painted the fresco of the “Liberation of St Peter” in the sacristy.

The item that makes this church one of the most visited minor basilicas in Rome is the magnificent statue “Moses”, sculpted by Michelangelo in around 1505. It was commissioned by Pope Julius II, who intended it to be part of his funerary monument, along with various other religious figures. Unfortunately for the syphilitic pope, the master artist was occupied with repainting the Sistine Chapel and the monumental tomb was never realized. San Pietro in Vincoli inherited “Moses” and Pope Julius II was buried in St Peter’s Basilica.

Why You Should Visit:
Understated exterior, incredible interior; a Michelangelo must-see.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 8am-12:20pm
Free admission
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

4) Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (must see)

The Papal Basilica of St Mary Major is one of the four ancient major basilicas and the largest Marian church in Rome. According to legend, Mary, the mother of Christ, appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius in August of 356 and told him to build a church in a place where a miracle would take place. The next day, news of a strange snowfall on Esquiline Hill was announced to the Pope and he hurried to the top of the hill to sketch in the snow the design for the new church.

The present basilica was constructed nearly a century later, commissioned by Pope Sixtus III, and although the facade was renovated in the 15th century, the interior still bears the original 5th century mosaics in the nave, depicting Moses leading his people out of Egypt and the Egyptians being drowned as they tried to follow him across the Red Sea.

The Triumphal Arch, raised to Pope Sixtus III, dates back to the 5th century, but other decorations, such as the cosmatesque pavement by Paparone, the Nativity scene by Di Cambio and the coffered wooden ceiling by Sangallo, are from the 13th and 14th centuries.

The church has numerous chapels, commissioned by various popes, cardinals and noblemen. The most beautiful is the cappella sistina – not to be confused with the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II inaugurated the Basilica Museum, dedicated to the history of the museum and the spread of Catholicism throughout the world. Here you will see ecclesiastical paintings, ritual vestments, scores from the choir and manuscripts detailing church events.

Why You Should Visit:
Central, easy to access, and grandiose both outside and inside.
Marble, gold, relics, wall paintings and sculptures – you have them all here.

Make sure not to miss the small tours of the church’s treasures.
Visiting the balcony loggia is also worthwhile since you get to see more of the beautiful church.
At night, you can sit by the fountain and enjoy the view of the building all lit up!

Opening Hours:
[Church] Daily: 7am-7pm
[Museum] Daily: 9:30am-6:30pm
It is also possible to visit the "Loggia delle Benedizioni" and the "Presepe of Arnolfo di Cambio" in the Sistine Chapel with a tour guide.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Santa Maria degli Angeli

5) Santa Maria degli Angeli

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs (Italian: 'Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri') is a titular basilica church in Rome, built inside the frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian in the Piazza della Repubblica. The basilica is dedicated to Christian martyrs, known and unknown.

By a brief dated 27 July 1561, Pius IV ordered the church "built", to be dedicated to the Beatissimae Virgini et omnium Angelorum et Martyrum ("the Most Blessed Virgin and all the Angels and Martyrs"). The impetus for this dedication had been generated by the account of a vision experienced in the ruins of the Baths in 1541 by a Sicilian monk, Antonio del Duca, who had been lobbying for decades for papal authorization of a more formal veneration of the Angelic Princes. A story that these Martyrs were Christian slave labourers who had been set to constructing the Baths is modern. It was also a personal monument of Pope Pius IV, whose tomb is in the apsidal tribune that culminates the series of spaces.

Why You Should Visit:
A mysterious and fascinating place, which also houses some fine contemporary works.

Don't miss the chapel within the chapel, and the thornless rose garden with its interesting story.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 7am–6:30pm
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Church of Saint Charles at the Four Fountains

6) Church of Saint Charles at the Four Fountains

The Church of Saint Charles at the Four Fountains (Italian: Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane also called San Carlino) is a Roman Catholic church in Rome. The church was designed by the architect Francesco Borromini and it was his first independent commission. It is an iconic masterpiece of Baroque architecture, built as part of a complex of monastic buildings on the Quirinal Hill for the Spanish Trinitarians, an order dedicated to the freeing of Christian slaves. He received the commission in 1634, under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, whose palace was across the road. However, this financial backing did not last and subsequently the building project suffered various financial difficulties. It is one of at least three churches in Rome dedicated to San Carlo, including San Carlo ai Catinari and San Carlo al Corso.

The monastic buildings and the cloister were completed first after which construction of the church took place during the period 1638-1641 and in 1646 it was dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo. Although the idea for the serpentine facade must have been conceived fairly early on, probably in the mid-1630s, it was only constructed towards the end of Borromini's life and the upper part was not completed until after the architect's death. The site for the new church and its monastery was at the south-west corner of the "Quattro Fontane" which refers to the four corner fountains set on the oblique at the intersection of two roads, the Strada Pia and the Strada Felice. Bernini's oval church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale would later be built further along the Strada Pia.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola

7) Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (commonly known as Jesuits Order), this 17th-century Baroque church was inspired by the Church of Gesù in Rome, built in the late 16th century.

The inner layout of the church is a common "Latin Cross" with the main section and side-chapels elaborately decorated. Because of the lack of funds to build a dome, a painter was hired to create an optical illusion thereof here. Pursuant to that, all the ceilings had been painted with an ingenious technique producing a visual perspective that virtually pushes physical boundaries outward. As a result, one can hardly imagine that the paintings above are actually flat. Standing in the circle marking the center of the main floor will allow appreciating this effect in its entirety. The elaborate painting on the main ceiling, depicting entry of St. Ignatius into Paradise, is sure to give one a stiff neck gaping at it. To avoid this, a large mirror is placed on the floor.

The other eye-grabbers here are a huge stucco statue of St. Ignatius, as well as the colored marbles, extensive gilding, and richly ornamented altars. The church is free to enter and is usually quiet. It overlooks the eponymous Loyola square, one of the nicest in Rome, which is also an attraction in its own right.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 7:30am-7pm; Sun/Holidays: 9am-7pm
Free admission

8) Pantheon (must see)

The Pantheon is one of Rome’s key attractions whose dome and columns have been an inspiration to architects for centuries. The first ever temple on this spot was built in 27 BC under the consulate of Marcus Agrippa. It was destroyed by fire and lightning several times during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, but each time was rebuilt, gradually acquiring its present round shape. Under Emperor Hadrian, the temple was dedicated to “pan theos” – all the gods of Rome – thence the word “pantheon”.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Pantheon remained in the possession of the Byzantine emperors, although they no longer had real power in the city. One of them donated the temple to Pope Boniface IV in the 7th century, who turned it into a Christian church and dedicated it to St Mary and all the Martyrs. For that reason, the Pantheon was never demolished unlike the majority of other non-Christian Roman temples.

Starting from the Renaissance period onward, the Pantheon was used as a burial place for prominent Italians like Raphael, the artist, and Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Italy, among the best known. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Pantheon is the unsupported concrete dome – the largest of its kind in the world, which looks quite as good as new and is most stunning when glaring in the sunlight. The drains on the Pantheon's floor are also ingenious works of engineering allowing to withdraw rainwater quite effectively even today, which is particularly remarkable given that the floors are original, just as the massive bronze doors each weighing over 20 tons.

Visitors are allowed inside the Pantheon for free. Many people, however, feel just as comfortable sitting outside on the steps of the fountain in La Piazza della Rotonda, eating gelato, watching passers-by, and gazing at this magnificent edifice as part of their Roman holiday experience.

Why You Should Visit:
Italian baroque meets Roman architectural excellence!
Surely among the world's most amazing free attractions.

Incredible at night (on the outside), especially if you enjoy musicians with talent and engagement... but be aware of pickpockets.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 8:30am-7:15pm; Sun: 9am-5:45pm; Public Holidays: 9am-12:45pm
Free admission
Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church

9) Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church

Situated just behind the Pantheon in Rome, the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, is more than just a temple but a true hidden gem packed full of art. The former Roman headquarters of the Dominican order, if there is only one thing in particular for which this church is worth visiting, it is the Michelangelo's statue Cristo della Minerva and the late 15th-century (1488–93) cycle of frescoes in the Carafa Chapel by Filippino Lippi.

Otherwise known as “Christ the Redeemer” or “Christ Carrying the Cross”, the marble sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti, to the left of the main altar, was finished in 1521. The work was commissioned in June 1514. Michelangelo worked on its first version around 1515, but abandoned it in a roughed-out condition upon the discovery of a black vein in the white marble.

A new version was hurriedly substituted in 1519-1520. Michelangelo entrusted the final touches to an apprentice, who, unfortunately, damaged the work. Despite that, the second version quite impressed the contemporaries, earning some of their most curious praises like “the [statue's] knees alone were worthy of more than the whole Rome”.

Originally, Christ was shown by Michelangelo unclothed in a standing pose. His sexual organs were exposed in order to demonstrate that his sexuality was uncorrupted by lust and completely controlled by his will, so that in his resurrected body he shows triumph over both sin and death. However, in 1546 a floating bronze loincloth was added, shielding the genitals from view.

Christ's leg is flexed and his head turned back, according to the principle of contrapposto. Compared to the first version, the more active pose allows more varied impressions when the statue is seen from different angles, "not only activating the space around him, but also suggesting an unfolding story".

While many other medieval churches in Rome have got Baroque makeovers, covering their Gothic features, the Minerva church has survived pretty much unscathed in its original guise, featuring several magnificent stained-glass roundels including that of Mary surrounded by saints – easily the best stained glass in all of Rome, and the ceiling painted deep blue with golden stars.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 7am-7pm; Sat: 10am-12:30pm / 3:30pm-7pm; Sun: 8:10am-12:30pm / 3:30pm-7pm
Free admission
Great Synagogue of Rome

10) Great Synagogue of Rome

The Great Synagogue of Rome is the largest synagogue in the city. It houses the offices of the Chief Rabbi and also the Jewish Museum. It is a beautiful building and well worth a visit. Life for the Jewish community in Rome, as in so many other countries, was often terribly difficult. Jews started to settle in Rome in the 2nd century BC and established trading centres in the city. Between 63AD and 135AD many Jews were brought to Rome as slaves in the aftermath of the Roman/Judean War.

Made to live in the Roman ghetto for centuries, the Jews were allowed one rather small synagogue. In 1870, after the unification of Italy, the ghetto was demolished and the Jews were granted citizenship. They began to plan the site for their new synagogue and finally settled on Lungotevere Cenci, not far from the River Tiber. The synagogue was constructed between 1901 and 1904 following designs by Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Armanni, who chose an Art Deco eclectic style to make it stand out from surrounding buildings. Its aluminum dome is square and a well-known landmark. The interior of the synagogue is delicate and very beautiful, with graceful columns, stained glass windows, with the bimah and six menorahs under the open dome.

In the museum you will see fragments of marble from the old synagogue in the ghetto, silver ritual items, jugs, bowls, 15th to 19th century textiles, photos and historical art from the ghetto. There are plaques commemorating the local Jews killed by the Nazis and by the PLO bombing in 1982. Photos are not allowed to be taken inside the synagogue and you will be asked to open any bag you bring with you.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin

11) Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Located at Piazza della Bocca della Verita, the Byzantine style Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin (Italian: Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin or de Schola Graeca) was built in the 6th century, later rebuilt in 1124 and got a new facade in the 18th century. The current interior has a nave with two aisles: these are divided by four pilasters and eighteen ancient columns. In the side walls, some of the old columns of the Statio Annonae are included. Other fragments of the ancient building can be seen in the crypt. Its bell tower is the tallest medieval belfry in Rome.

The church is home to the la Bocca della Verita, an ancient sculpture thought to be a drain covering, located in its portico; but it is worth visiting primarily for its exceptionally well preserved early medieval choir enclosure and its very fine Cosmatesque pavement. The 1st-century sculpture is believed to represent an ancient god of the Tiber River and was originally part of a fountain. It was relocated to Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the 17th century.

***Movie "ROMAN HOLIDAY" ***
The Mouth of Truth ('Bocca della Verita'), considered the funniest scene in the movie 'Roman Holiday', is where Joe Bradley puts his hand into the sculpture's mouth at Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin. According to legend, it would nip off the hand of a liar who'd put it in its mouth. In the film, Audrey Hepburn's reaction to the nipped Gregory Peck's hand was not an act, as he decided to pull a gag without telling her beforehand.

Why You Should Visit:
Most people come here to see the 'Bocca della Verita' (for a fee), but do take some time to visit the interior as well – you'll be amazed by the skill and beauty of the mosaic of tiles under your feet.
The exterior has a unique look, with its porches and slender bell tower.

Across from the church is more ancient architecture in a grassy park with a fine fountain.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am-5pm
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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