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11 must-see churches in Rome

On Sunday, all eyes will be on Rome, as one of the most popular popes of the modern era, John Paul II, along with Pope John XXIII, are canonized as saints. 

From Roman ruins to more than 900 churches, there’s no lack of historic and pilgrimage sites for travelers considering a trip to the Eternal City.

“It’s very special, because most of the churches in Rome are not round.”

- Steve Ray, tour guide with The Footprints of God

In fact, it can be overwhelming. So to help you narrow down the list, we asked the experts to pick their favorites in and around Rome and Vatican City.

Seeing the four major papal basilicas – St. Peter’s Basilica, the Basilica of St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside-the-Walls and St. John Lateran – is a no-brainer.

Teresa Tomeo, a national Catholic radio show host and author who frequently leads pilgrimages to Rome, says her favorite place to visit is St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world, and its surrounding square.

“I never get tired of walking into St. Peter's Square,” Tomeo says. “The square is designed to make pilgrims feel like they are surrounded by the arms of God and His Church, and that is exactly what you feel like when you step in the square.”

St. Peter’s, which features the Dome of Michelangelo and his sculpture Pietà, can accommodate up to 20,000 people. It does have a dress code, so leave your shorts and sleeveless tops in your hotel room.

Ken Nowell, author of the new guidebook “Rome and The Vatican,” says the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, is a top stop for its architecture. It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s only about a 10-minute walk from the Metro stop. Once there, pilgrims will find the remains of St. Paul, the author of many New Testament letters, as well as the chains that bound him during his final days.

With Mother’s Day approaching, San Agostino, or St. Augustine, is a great place to visit, says Steve Ray, a tour guide whose company, The Footprints of God, leads frequent pilgrimages to Rome.

The church pays tribute to St. Augustine and houses the remains of his mother, who famously prayed for his conversion to Christianity for more than 30 years. There’s a statue inside of Mary with the Baby Jesus, and women experiencing difficult pregnancies often come to pray. (Ray attributes this to the healthy birth of one of his grandchildren.) The church also houses famous paintings by Raffaello and Caravaggio.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, built in the 1620s, is a must-see for art lovers, says Sean Finelli, co-owner of the Rome-based tour company The Roman Guy. Its trompe l'oeil ceiling painting by Andrea Pozzo is often called the second most beautiful in Rome, after the Sistine Chapel.

Finelli says one of the most fascinating things about the ceiling is that it appears to be a dome, but up close you realize it isn’t; it’s a trick of the eye.

“It is something you need to see to believe,” he says. The church also offers a mirror on the floor so you don’t have to strain your neck to look up.

Art aficionados will also appreciate St. Mary of the Victory, named for a miracle that occurred in the 1600s when a blazing light blinded Protestants in Prague fighting Catholic Habsburgs, ensuring a Catholic victory. A wonderful example of Baroque architecture, the church is also home to a famous Bernini sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila. “You can’t go to Rome and not develop an appreciation of Bernini,” says Nowell.

A third must-stop for art lovers is St. Louis of France, or San Luigi Dei Francesi, which holds some of Caravaggio’s most well-known masterpieces. Many of these works were rejected by their original Church sponsors who commissioned the works, including a famous painting of St. Matthew, whose feet appear dirty, but today are recognized as important pieces of art.

St. Stephen’s in the Round is dedicated to Christian martyrs, including those who died in the gladiator games at the nearby Colosseum. “It’s very special, because most of the churches in Rome are not round,” says Ray.

Dating from the 5th century, the inner sanctum is filled with graphic oil paintings that depict many of the gruesome tortures endured by martyrs. It may not be the best place to take young children, but Ray says it’s a popular spot for weddings. St. Stephen, considered the first Christian martyr, is buried here, and it is believed that the Roman emperor Nero feasted at the site. “The church’s modest exterior and its off-the-beaten path location make it one pilgrims might consider skipping,” says Nowell. “But by doing so, they will miss a truly unforgettable experience.”

Another curiosity of Rome is St. Clement, which Finelli calls “one of the coolest things to do in Rome.” Built on top of a 4th century church that was built on top of a 1st century pagan temple, there is a 60-foot difference between the ground level today and the 1st century level. “San Clemente demonstrates that Rome was built, layer upon layer, in search of God,” says Nowell, who advises visitors to look for the side entrance, as the main entry is often closed.

St. Mary in Trastevere, which also combines Roman ruins with Christianity, was one of the first legal places of worship in Rome, Finelli says. The columns within – of all different shapes, sizes and colors – are recycled from Roman baths. The interior may be the natural draw, but be sure to head outdoors to visit its pedestrian-friendly piazza and the beautiful fountain by Carlo Fontana.

Nearby is St. Cecilia in Trastevere, which was built upon the preserved 200 A.D. home of St. Cecilia, a young martyr. The church includes a sculpture of her body as it was found when her casket was opened 13 centuries after her death. Spotting the church can be tricky, Nowell says, as you must pass through an outer façade before entering the church’s courtyard. A beautiful fresco upstairs is also available for viewing during limited hours for a small admission fee.

Interesting relics can be found at many churches across Rome and the Vatican, and perhaps one of the most intriguing is within St. Prassede, close to St. Mary Major. The church claims a marble fragment from the pillar upon which Jesus Christ was scourged. Some 2000 saints are buried at the site, and a spot marks where the blood of martyrs was poured on the floor. “St. Prassede was the daughter of St. Pudens, who was traditionally St. Peter’s first convert to Christianity in Rome,” Finelli says.

No matter what churches you visit, Nowell offers one piece of advice for when you’re in Rome:

“It’s not like Disney World,” he says, “where there’s signs pointing everything out.” Wherever you go, you should know what you’re looking for. Some major attractions may not be obvious, but you won’t want to miss them. 

Lyn Mettler is an Indianapolis, Ind.-based travel writer. You can find her at www.GotoTravelGal.com or on Twitter at @GotoTravelGal.

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