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 Apple 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:
  • Arcibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano (Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran)
  • Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano (Basilica of Saint Clement)
  • Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (Basilica of St. Peter in Chains)
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major)
  • Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs)
  • Chiesa di San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane (Church of St. Charles at the Four Fountains)
  • Chiesa di Sant' Ignazio di Loyola (Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola)
  • Pantheon
  • Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Basilica of Saint Mary above Minerva)
  • Tempio Maggiore di Roma (Great Synagogue of Rome)
  • Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin (Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin)
Arcibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano (Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran)

1) Arcibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano (Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran)

St. John's Archbasilica, not St. Peter's Basilica, holds the distinction of being Rome's cathedral. Emperor Constantine commissioned the construction of this grand church, predating the establishment of St. Peter's, making it the primary ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope. Throughout its history, the edifice has faced challenges such as vandalism, earthquakes, and fires, leading to extensive restorations in the 16th and 17th centuries. Notably, the interior was artfully designed by the renowned Baroque genius Borromini. Standing tall on the impressive facade are colossal statues representing the 12 apostles, Christ, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary.

While much of the structure has undergone restoration, fragments from earlier periods remain. Adorning the left portico stands an ancient statue of Constantine, while the central portal boasts ancient bronze doors transferred from the Curia in the Roman Forum. Inside, the altar features a magnificent Gothic tabernacle, dating back to 1367, which is believed to house the revered heads of St. Peter and St. Paul. A captivating sight awaits in the last chapel of the left aisle, where a cloister adorned with 12th-century cosmatesque mosaics can be admired. Just around the corner, Emperor Constantine's octagonal baptistery stands as one of Rome's oldest Christian structures. Despite multiple restorations, a 17th-century redecoration, and even a car bombing in 1993 associated with the Mafia, the baptistery has preserved its ancient form, serving as a testament to its enduring significance.

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

Don't miss the opportunity to visit the cloister behind the archbasilica. Although there is a small fee, it grants you access to a collection of authentic antiquities dating back to pre-Roman times, as well as a selection of intriguing Catholic relics.
Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano (Basilica of Saint Clement)

2) Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano (Basilica of Saint Clement) (must see)

San Clemente is a most impressive archaeological site in Rome, renowned for its unique triple-decker structure. At its pinnacle sits the present-day basilica, erected in the 12th century. Below it lies a 4th-century church, built upon the remnants of a 2nd-century pagan temple dedicated to the god Mithras and ancient Roman apartments dating back to the 1st century. In 1857, Friar Joseph Mullooly initiated excavations beneath the basilica, unveiling these fascinating layers of history. Today, visitors can descend through time and explore all three levels, immersing themselves in the rich heritage preserved within.

The upper church, located at street level, exudes charm and splendor. Its apse features a radiant 12th-century mosaic depicting Jesus on the cross, transforming into a vibrant tree. Delicate green acanthus leaves dance across the mosaic, adorned with intricate scenes of daily life. The 4th-century marble choir screens showcase early Christian symbols, including doves, vines, and fish. Within the left nave, the Castiglioni chapel reveals frescoes created around 1400 by the Florentine artist Masolino da Panicale, renowned for his contributions to realism and perspective in Renaissance painting. Notable frescoes within the chapel depict the Crucifixion, scenes from the lives of Saints Catherine, Ambrose, and Christopher, and the Annunciation above the entrance.

Descending the stairs to the right of the sacristy and bookshop, visitors are transported to the 4th-century church, which remained in use until 1084 when it suffered irreparable damage during a siege led by Norman prince Robert Guiscard. Despite the passage of time, vibrant 11th-century frescoes depicting stories from the life of St. Clement have endured. Of particular interest is the final fresco on the left, once part of the central nave. It showcases a captivating quote, including the unexpected phrase "Go on, you sons of harlots, pull!"—a rare and intriguing inclusion in a religious painting and an early example of written vernacular Italian.

Descending further down a set of stairs unveils the Mithraeum, a sacred shrine dedicated to the god Mithras. The cult of Mithras originated in Persia and gained popularity in Rome during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. These underground chambers served as a place of worship, mirroring the belief that Mithras was born in a cave. Stone couches, visible within the Mithraeum, served as seats for initiates who would gather to share meals. It is worth noting that many pagan shrines in Rome were dismantled by Christians, who often repurposed the sites by constructing churches atop them.

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

Bring a small flashlight for a closer inspection of the frescoes and wall paintings.
Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (Basilica of St. Peter in Chains)

3) Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (Basilica of St. Peter in Chains)

This basilica gained significant recognition thanks to Michelangelo's "Moses", a masterpiece sculpted in the early 16th century for Pope Julius II's unfinished tomb. Originally intended to be a grand structure featuring numerous statues and towering nearly 40 feet tall in St. Peter's Basilica, only three statues were completed—Moses and the flanking figures of Leah and Rachel—before Julius passed away. The subsequent pope, a member of the rival Medici family, had different plans for Michelangelo, leading to the abandonment of the unfinished tomb. Despite this, the intense power of the remarkable Moses sculpture remains unparalleled in its setting. Legend has it that Michelangelo's profile, as well as that of the pope, can be discerned in the intricate details, such as the lock of Moses's beard beneath his lip.

In the church itself, St. Peter takes a secondary role to the commanding presence of Moses. Under the main altar, an urn made of bronze and crystal houses the reputed chains that once bound St. Peter during his imprisonment in Jerusalem and Rome. Other notable treasures include a 7th-century mosaic depicting St. Sebastian, situated in front of the second altar to the left of the main altar, and the tomb of the Pollaiuolo brothers, two Florentine artists from the 15th century, located near the entrance.

Why You Should Visit:
Understated exterior, incredible interior; a Michelangelo must-see.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major)

4) Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major) (must see)

As the largest among the 26 churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major holds a significant place in history. Originally constructed by Pope Liberius in the 4th century, the church has undergone renovations and enhancements by successive popes while still retaining its early medieval structure. The colonnaded nave, an integral part of the original 5th-century building, offers a glimpse into its ancient origins. The medieval era contributed the captivating Cosmatesque marble floor and the delightful Romanesque bell tower adorned with intricate blue ceramic roundels. During the Renaissance, a new coffered ceiling was introduced, while the Baroque period left its imprint with twin domes and grand facades at the front and rear.

However, the true splendor of Saint Mary Major lies in its mosaics, which are among the oldest in Rome. The biblical scenes adorning the aisles date back to the 5th century, captivating visitors with their artistic depiction. The mosaics on the triumphal arch are particularly breathtaking, showcasing the skill and craftsmanship of the time. Among the medieval highlights is a magnificent 13th-century mosaic featuring an enthroned Christ in the loggia, adding to the artistic treasures within the basilica.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II inaugurated the Basilica Museum, dedicated to the history of the church 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:
Conveniently located and boasting a majestic presence, this grandiose church offers a captivating experience both inside and out, featuring by far the most successful blend of different architectural styles.

When visiting, be sure to take advantage of the small tours available to explore the church's hidden treasures. Additionally, don't miss the opportunity to visit the balcony loggia, which offers a unique perspective and allows you to admire more of the church's stunning architecture. As evening sets in, find a serene spot by the fountain and marvel at the illuminated beauty of the building.
Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs)

5) Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs)

Constructed atop the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels showcases a captivating blend of history and architectural brilliance. Conceived by Michelangelo in 1563, shortly before his demise, this magnificent edifice pays homage to both recognized and anonymous Christian martyrs, its imposing presence providing a remarkable glimpse into the grandeur and vastness of the original bath complex.

The distinctive crescent-shaped facade of the basilica stands as a testament to the former caldarium, while the expansive transept, now an integral part of the basilica, was once the tepidarium. Eight colossal pink-granite pillars, original remnants of the ancient structure, add a sense of awe-inspiring authenticity. In 1749, Luigi Vanvitelli undertook the task of reconfiguring the interior, skillfully capturing Michelangelo's visionary designs. The resulting ambiance is a harmonious fusion of artistic brilliance, paying homage to the artistic legacies of both architects.

Within the basilica, an intriguing feature awaits— the meridian. This diagonal line, traversing the floor of the south transept, once served as the official time regulator for the people of Rome. While its timekeeping role has faded, a daily cannon shot fired from Janiculum Hill at noon continues to echo the passage of time, carrying on a centuries-old tradition.

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.
Chiesa di San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane (Church of St. Charles at the Four Fountains)

6) Chiesa di San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane (Church of St. Charles at the Four Fountains)

During the year 1634, the Trinitarians, a Spanish order dedicated to the redemption of Christian hostages from Arab captors, enlisted the talent of Borromini to create a church and convent at the crossroads of Quattro Fontane. This remarkable church, often referred to as "San Carlino", holds profound significance not only as a tribute to Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, canonized in 1620, but also as a testament to Borromini's architectural genius.

Despite its modest dimensions, San Carlino showcases bold curves that infuse the compact space with light and vitality. The ingenious design includes an oval dome and a delicate lantern, demonstrating Borromini's ingenuity. The completion of the façade in 1667 marked one of Borromini's final endeavors.

Beyond the façade, San Carlo reveals further delights to its visitors. The playful inverted shapes in the cloister add a touch of whimsy, while the exquisite stucco work in the refectory showcases the mastery of craftsmanship. A small room adjacent to the sacristy holds a portrait of Borromini himself, donning the Trinitarian cross, serving as a poignant reminder of the artist behind this architectural marvel. Tragically, Borromini took his own life in 1667, and in the crypt, a small curved chapel intended for him remains unoccupied, serving as a solemn tribute.
Chiesa di Sant' Ignazio di Loyola (Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola)

7) Chiesa di Sant' Ignazio di Loyola (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 church follows a typical "Latin Cross" layout, with the main section and side chapels intricately adorned. Due to insufficient funds for a dome, a painter was commissioned to create an optical illusion of one. As a result, the ceilings were skillfully painted using a technique that creates a visual perspective, seemingly expanding the physical boundaries. The paintings above appear three-dimensional, defying their flat surface. To fully appreciate this effect, stand within the circle marking the center of the main floor. The grand ceiling painting depicting St. Ignatius entering Paradise is particularly captivating, although it may strain one's neck to gaze at it for too long. To alleviate this, a large mirror is placed on the floor.

Among the other notable features are a colossal stucco statue of St. Ignatius, as well as the vibrant-colored marbles, extensive gilding, and opulently ornamented altars. The church welcomes visitors free of charge and is typically tranquil. It overlooks the eponymous Loyola square, one of the nicest in Rome, which is also an attraction in its own right.

8) Pantheon (must see)

The Pantheon stands as one of Rome's key attractions, with its dome and columns serving as a timeless inspiration for architects throughout the centuries. The initial temple on this site was constructed in 27 BC during the consulship of Marcus Agrippa. Although it suffered from fires and lightning strikes during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, it was consistently rebuilt and gradually acquired its distinctive circular shape. Under Emperor Hadrian, the temple was dedicated to "pan theos", representing all the gods of Rome, which is where the term "pantheon" originated.

Following the decline of the Western Roman Empire, the Pantheon remained under the control of Byzantine emperors, despite their waning influence over the city. In the 7th century, one of these emperors donated the temple to Pope Boniface IV, who transformed it into a Christian church and dedicated it to St. Mary and all the Martyrs. This conversion ensured the Pantheon's preservation, unlike many other non-Christian Roman temples that were demolished. From the Renaissance onwards, the Pantheon served as a burial site for prominent Italians, including the renowned artist Raphael and Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Italy, among others.

One of the structure's most remarkable features is its unsupported concrete dome, the largest of its kind in the world, which remains remarkably well-preserved and exhibits a breathtaking beauty when illuminated by sunlight. The ingenious engineering of the drainage system on the Pantheon's floor continues to effectively divert rainwater, which is particularly impressive considering the originality of the floors. The massive bronze doors, each weighing over 20 tons, add to the awe-inspiring nature of this architectural marvel.

While entry to the Pantheon is free, many visitors find equal enjoyment sitting outside on the steps of the fountain in Rotonda Square ("Piazza della Rotonda"). Here, they can savor gelato, observe passers-by, and admire the magnificence of this ancient structure, becoming part of their unforgettable 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.
Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Basilica of Saint Mary above Minerva)

9) Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Basilica of Saint Mary above Minerva)

Tucked away just behind the Pantheon in Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva is a hidden gem that holds not only religious significance but also a wealth of art. As the former Roman headquarters of the Dominican order, this church boasts two exceptional masterpieces that make it truly worth a visit: Michelangelo's statue, "Cristo della Minerva", and the remarkable cycle of frescoes by Filippino Lippi in the Carafa Chapel.

Also known as "Christ the Redeemer" or "Christ Carrying the Cross," Michelangelo's marble sculpture is located to the left of the main altar and was completed in 1521. The commission for this work was received in June 1514, and Michelangelo began working on the first version around 1515. However, upon discovering a black vein in the white marble, he abandoned the sculpture in an unfinished state.

A new version was quickly substituted in 1519-1520, with Michelangelo entrusting the final touches to an apprentice who unfortunately damaged the work. Nevertheless, the second version impressed contemporaries and garnered unusual praise, such as the remark that "the [statue's] knees alone were worthy of more than the whole of Rome."

Initially, Michelangelo depicted Christ unclothed in a standing pose, intentionally exposing his sexual organs to signify his uncorrupted sexuality, free from lust and under complete control of his will. This portrayal showcased his triumph over sin and death in his resurrected body. However, in 1546, a floating bronze loincloth was added to shield the genitals from view.

Christ's leg is bent, and his head is turned back, following the principle of 'contrapposto'. Compared to the first version, this more dynamic pose creates varied impressions when viewed from different angles, activating the space around the sculpture and suggesting an unfolding story.

While many medieval churches in Rome underwent Baroque transformations, concealing their Gothic features, the Church of Saint Mary above Minerva has largely retained its original appearance. It features several magnificent stained-glass roundels, including one depicting Mary surrounded by saints, which is considered the finest stained glass in all of Rome. The ceiling is painted deep blue with golden stars, adding to the church's enchanting ambiance.
Tempio Maggiore di Roma (Great Synagogue of Rome)

10) Tempio Maggiore di Roma (Great Synagogue of Rome)

Constructed in 1904, this synagogue has long held the distinction of being the largest Jewish temple in Rome, and its striking aluminum dome has become an iconic feature of the city's skyline. Within its walls, the synagogue also houses the Jewish Museum, a treasure trove of invaluable ritual artifacts and exhibits that tell the compelling story of Rome's Jewish community, which has endured for nearly 22 centuries.

Once esteemed members of Roman society, Jewish citizens held prominent positions as bankers and physicians to the popes, with synagogues receiving official permission for construction. However, the year 1555 marked a turning point when Pope Paul IV enforced the establishment of the Ghetto walls, confining the Jewish population to a small area and imposing a series of restrictive measures that lasted until 1870.

For security purposes, access to the synagogue is available exclusively through guided tours, with English-language tours offered twice a day. It is advisable to reserve your tour in advance online, and entrance to the synagogue can be accessed through the museum located in Via Catalana.
Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin (Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin)

11) Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin (Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin)

Built in the 6th century, this charming and unadorned church occupies the site where the ancient city's food market once stood. Over the centuries, it has undergone architectural additions and restorations that have shaped its current form. During the 12th century, an elegant Romanesque bell tower and portico were incorporated into the structure. However, in the 19th century, the Baroque façade was removed, allowing the church to be restored to its original simplicity. Within its walls, visitors can admire the exquisite craftsmanship of the Cosmati work, prominently displayed in the mosaic pavement, raised choir, bishop's throne, and the canopy adorning the main altar.

One notable feature can be found set into the wall of the portico—the Bocca della Verità, or the "Mouth of Truth". Its origins can be traced back to ancient times, possibly as a drain cover predating the 4th century BC. According to medieval tradition, the fearsome jaws of the Mouth of Truth would close upon the hand of anyone who told a lie, making it a peculiar yet intriguing tool for testing the faithfulness of spouses.

***Movie "ROMAN HOLIDAY"***
The Mouth of Truth ("Bocca della Verità"), considered the funniest scene in the movie 'Roman Holiday', is where Joe Bradley puts his hand into the sculpture's 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 "Mouth of Truth" (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. On the other hand, the exterior has a rather unique look, with its porches and slender bell tower.

Across from the church you'll find more ancient architecture in a grassy park with a fine fountain.

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