There are thousands of incredible Italian churches, all worth visiting. But if your time is limited, here’s where to begin for a deeper understanding of art, history and religion in Italy.
The most beautiful and historic Italian churches
- St Mark’s Basilica (Venice) – This is no ordinary Italian church. For some oriental exoticism, start with a visit to the most iconic building in Venice. St Mark’s is a spectacular example of Italo-Byzantine and Gothic architecture. The church is famous for its beautiful gold mosaics and relics from Constantinople.
- Milan Cathedral (Milan) – The Milan Cathedral (Duomo) took six centuries to complete. Its construction began in 1386, and the finishing touches were added in the 1960s. But it was worth the wait, and the beauty of the cathedral alone justifies a trip to Milan. There are a staggering 3,400 statues decorating the Duomo – more than any other church. Make sure you visit the rooftop for the full experience.
- Florence Cathedral (Florence) – There’s so much to see and admire on a visit to the Cathedral (Duomo) of Florence, but perhaps the most awe-inspiring achievement is Brunelleschi’s dome. The construction of this vast dome was an unparalleled feat of engineering, as you’ll discover if you take a tour. But make sure you go inside too, to see the stunning frescoes inside the dome.
- Siena Cathedral (Siena) – This beautiful 13th century Italian church in Tuscany is generally considered to be one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, with an incredible façade made up of colourful marble and Venetian mosaics. Inside, you’ll find beautiful sculptures by some of the most important Italian artists, including Michelangelo, Bernini and Donatello.
- Basilica of St Francis (Assisi) – A famous 13th century basilica in Assisi, Umbria, built to honour St Francis. The exterior is impressive enough, with a dramatic flight of steps leading to the church entrance. Inside you’ll also find some outstanding medieval frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue.
- Orvieto Cathedral (Orvieto) – A gorgeous Gothic cathedral in the hilltop town of Orvieto in Umbria. The façade is arguably one of the most beautiful of any Italian church. When you turn the corner and catch your first glimpse of the ornate façade, it’s truly breathtaking.
Churches in Rome
- St Peter’s Basilica (Rome) – No words can do justice to St Peter’s Basilica. It’s the largest church in the world; simply setting foot inside is a humbling experience. And that’s even before you begin to take in the details of the artwork, from Michelangelo’s Pieta to Bernini’s baldachin over the papal altar. St Peter’s has a unique significance not just for Catholics, but for anyone with an appreciation of art, culture and history.
- Archbasilica of St John Lateran (Rome) – While it’s less famous than St Peter’s, St John Lateran (commonly known as San Giovanni) is actually the mother church of Catholicism. Aside from St Peter’s, it’s probably the best place to start for a better understanding of religion in Italy. There’s so much to explore here, from the larger-than-life statues of the Apostles to the peaceful 13th century cloister.
Tip: Day trip from Rome
- Abbey of Monte Cassino (Cassino) – The vast hilltop abbey of Monte Cassino makes for the perfect day trip from Rome. It was the first Benedictine monastery, and it’s had a turbulent history, suffering damage from sackings, earthquakes, and then bombing during the Second World War. The re-built abbey is still well worth a visit, not just for its history and impressive size, but also for the wonderful panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
- Church of the Holy Cross (Lecce) – One of the finest examples of Baroque architecture is this extravagant church in Lecce, Puglia. The richly decorated façade features an astonishing array of figures, including grotesques and mythical creatures.
Visiting churches: learn more about Italian tradition and religion
The best way to understand religion in Italy and learn more about Italian tradition and art is undoubtedly to visit these churches in person. Despite the wealth of information online and in books, nothing can compare to the experience of stepping into a church, experiencing the sacred atmosphere, and seeing the artistic masterpieces in person.
If you’re currently unable to travel to Italy, you can take virtual tours of some churches, including this virtual tour of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But as soon as you can make the trip, we’d recommend visiting these churches in person. Only in person you can understand why these magnificent buildings have been dazzling visitors for centuries. Just think of Mark Twain’s reaction to the Duomo in Milan: “I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”
To make the most of your visit, book a guided tour of Rome or Florence with Roads to Rome Private Tours. Visiting these churches in the company of a personal guide will give you an even deeper insight into the art and history of Italian churches. To discover authentic Italian tradition, religion and culture, you have to go beyond the surface, and inside the door…
– Written by Alexandra Turney