Rome is home to more than 900 Catholic churches. Many of the “Things to do in Rome” guides include only a handful of the most famous churches among them. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists flock to about 20 of these Roman Catholic Basilicas, Churches, and Chapels, leaving the rest of these house of prayer almost completely unexplored. But some of Rome’s best kept secret are these unexplored churches. Many of the churches in Rome are well worth visiting. Here are 10 lesser known Roman churches.
Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano
This simple basilica is located only a few blocks south of the Colosseum. Like the majority of churches in Roman, San Clemente Basilica has a humble 16th century facade. But don’t be fooled – San Clemente might be one of the lesser known Roman churches, but it has an amazing history behind that plain surface. The current 12th century basilica was built on top of earlier 4th century church, which had been the old site of a 1st century pagan temple. You can visit each of the architectural “layers” of the rooms while you’re there. It will help you to understand that Rome is built in layers of history. There is still an active water spring and cobblestone roads about 60 feet below the modern paved road.
A small fee is required to visit anything beyond the first floor of the basilica.
Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano (St Clement Basilica) (Google Map)
Via Labicana, 95, 00184 Roma RM, Italy
Santa Maria della Vittoria
The Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, or Our Lady of Victory church, was recently made famous by Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons. Although the facade of the church is not impressive, you will appreciate the highly decorated interior. Large candle holders and decorations are theatrically arranged inside the chapel. The interior setting of the church resembles a theater, with Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa sculpture as the main showcase. You can see the box office on each side of the Cornaro chapel, with members of the Venetian Cornaro Cardinals. They are watching the dramatic sculpture of a Seraph pierce St. Teresa of Avila with a golden shaft in the main stage.
Santa Maria della Vittoria (Google Map)
Via 20 Settembre, 17, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
The Church of Saint Susanna at the Baths of Diocletian is one of the oldest churches in Rome. There always has been a church on this location since the second century. It is located on Quirinal Hill. Interestingly, the neighborhood where it sits always have been associated with the United States of America. The heavily-guarded Palazza Margherita, the home for U.S. Embassy, is located nearby.
For more than 90 years, Santa Susanna was the home of the Catholic American Community of Rome. In mid-2017, the American parish was relocated to nearby Saint Patrick church. Santa Susanna’s interior is the only church in Rome that is completely covered in fresco. Its vibrant nave is definitely worth checking out, making it one of the more quaint churches of Rome.
Chiesa di Santa Susanna alle Terme di Diocleziano (Google Map)
Via 20 Settembre, 14, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Since 2017, Saint Patrick has been the new home for American Catholics in Rome. It is a very simple church with no famous artwork by important artists, so it is often overlooked by visitors. Its humble beginning date to 1656, when an Irish Augustinian order or nuns moved to this location. At that time, nuns were not allowed to study the priesthood in Ireland.
If you’re looking for tickets to the Pope’s weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the Catholic American Community in Rome offers them here. You’ll need to request a date by filling out their official request form. Read the directions carefully. If approved, you must pick up your tickets at Saint Patrick’s sacristy on Tuesdays from 5-6:45 PM – the day before your scheduled Papal Audience.
Because it serves the majority of American Catholics in Rome, Saint Patrick offers mass in English. Check their website or posted hours on the church door.
Saint Patrick in Rome (Google Map)
00187, Via Boncompagni, 31, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Santa Maria sopra Minerva is located next to the Pantheon. Unaware visitors often walk by its unimpressive facade without even realizing it. Don’t judge a book by its cover – this church’s vibrant interior finish is one of the most beautiful room design inside any Roman church. The current church was built in the mid-13th century on top of the ruins of the Egyptian Goddess of Isis, which was thought to be the Greco-Roman Goddess of Minerva.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva is the only Gothic style church out of all the churches in Rome. There are a few famous works of art stored inside. Additionally, the tombs of St. Catherine, painter Fra Angelico, and 16th century Medici family members are worth visiting. The church is also the home of Michelangelo’s famous “Risen Christ” (or “Christ Carrying the Cross”) sculpture. My favorite object in the church is located outside the main entrance, at the Piazza della Minerva. One of the most famous of Bernini’s sculptures is here – an elephant carrying an obelisk on its back.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Google Map)
Piazza della Minerva, 42, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Santa Maria in Cosmedin is an 11th century minor basilica in Rome, and is one of the few Greek Orthodox churches here. The most famous thing to see here is La Bocca della Verità – the Mouth of Truth. It is an ancient sewer cover with a human face, complete with a gaping open mouth. It is said that if you make a false statement while having your hand in its mouth, the jaw will clamp shut to severe your hand. So, if you want to follow this Roman tradition, do it at your own risk!
Santa Maria in Cosmedin has more than just a sewer cover, of course. It has a beautiful Romanesque bell tower. Inside the church, you’ll see that all of the columns at the main nave are different. These columns were recycled from ancient Roman temples and buildings from the Republic Era. If you want to attend a holy mass in Rome, you may wish to consider Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It is surely an experience you won’t forget. Orthodox Mass is offered on Sundays. The strong smell of incense combined with hearing Mass in a language you may not understand (Greek) will feel like to step back in time.
Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin (Google Map)
Piazza della Bocca della Verità, 18, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Sant’Ignazio church was completed in late 1680s by the Jesuits. Unfortunately, its planned grandiose Baroque style dome and architectural ceiling had to be scrapped due to budget constraints. Andrea Pozzo, a Jesuit Brother, was commissioned to fix the problem. He painted a forced perspective illustration on the ceiling, with stretched human figures and architectural columns to give an illusion of a grand, higher ceiling. It works – the main nave ceiling seems to be higher than its actual height. The painting inside of a dome has to be viewed from a particular spot though. Look for a mark on the floor to view the “dome” from the proper angle. Either way, you will be able to appreciate the beautiful and colorful ceiling of Sant’Ignazio.
Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio (Google Map)
Via del Caravita, 8a, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
With its unusual spiral tower, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza is easily identifiable and differentiated from all other churches in Rome. Baroque architect Borromini played with the shape of Star of David and circles for its floor plan. The interior of the church is a unique blend of typical church elements in the arrangement of a rotunda.
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (Google Map)
Corso del Rinascimento, 40, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Basilica of St. Bartholomew
Definitely see the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island. St. Bartholomew’s remains are here. The main attraction is the water fountain inside. It’s protected by a well curb that was sculpted in the 11th century and is one of the oldest structures in the church. There is an amazing mosaic that is, unfortunately, closed to the public. It’s located upstairs behind the loggia. You can ask any staff member to take you to see it, though it’s not a guarantee. We saw it from below and have heard stories about people being taken to see it by a janitor!
As you can probably guess from its name, this is the only Basilica in Rome that is also located on the only island. Tiber Island is not a big island, and it was once fully covered in marble to resemble a ship. If you need to find the basilica, just look up and around for the only Romanesque bell tower on the island.Definitely spend some time here on the island. It has so many amazing things to look at that typical tourists may miss.
Basilica di San Bartolomeo all’Isola (Google Map)
Piazza di San Bartolomeo all’Isola, 22, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins
Are you disappointed because you didn’t see any bones in the catacombs or the Colosseum? Don’t be. Just visit this macabre church, which houses the remaining skeletons of 4,000 Capuchin monks in an art arrangement around the church crypts. No photography is allowed, and there is a small fee to enter this church. (I took the photo above years before the “no photography” policy went into effect.)
Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Google Map)
Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
BONUS: Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Another basilica in Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo is actually one of the most visited Roman churches. And it’s become even more popular because of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons. I have to include this awesome basilica in the list, as this is a very cool church to visit while in Rome. Located in the Piazza del Popolo, one of Rome’s major piazzas, this Basilica is one of my favorite places to see in Rome. Its late Baroque design includes a lot of macabre details, such as skulls and bones that can be found in tombs and monuments inside.
The highlight of this Basilica is Raphael’s Chigi Chapel, to honor the family bearing its name. Keep an eye out for Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter painting, completed in 1601. Here, St. Peter’s is being crucified upside down, per his request. Pay attention to the dirty bottom foot of the worker. Gesture like this showing the realities of life were considered scandalous in the 17th century, but were also considered to be groundbreaking in the arts.
Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo (Google Map)
Piazza del Popolo, 12, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Make time for these lesser known Roman churches
Rome is perhaps the most famous city on the planet, and attracts millions of visitors each year. So it’s easy to get caught up in lists of the “most popular” things to see and do. Like any place, a lot of what makes this city unique doesn’t appear prominently in the guidebooks, so you have to do a little more research. Definitely see all the famous churches in Rome when you’re here, but take time out to see these lesser known Roman churches while you’re at it. You’ll be glad you did. It will make your visit to Rome unique! And that means you’ll have different stories to tell than most other people who visit.
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