4 Major Basilicas to visit in Rome

If you have been to Rome, you have likely visited St. Peter’s Basilica. Interestingly enough, it’s one of the four major Catholic Basilicas located in Rome, with the other three being St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The major basilica is the title given to these four highest-ranking Roman Catholic Church buildings, all of which are also called “Papal Basilicas.” The two things that the four basilicas have in common are the holy doors and for being prescribed as destinations for pilgrimage. Only the Pope and his delegates may celebrate mass at the high altar of Major Basilicas. Even if you are not a pilgrim, it’s worth seeing all four Major Basilicas while in Rome because of their outstanding historical and artistic value. So here you go!

St. Peter’s Basilica

Official name: the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the VaticanSt. Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest buildings in the World and is the largest of the Papal Basilicas. The building measures 218 meters in length and 136 meters in height, including its dome. It has an area of 23,000 square meters. The construction of the present St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century, but before that, there was another basilica built by Emperor Constantine in 319. Constantine ordered that the basilica be constructed in the place where Saint Peter had been buried. The immense church serves as a highlight for art lovers as the entire building is an artwork in its own right. Some of the most impressive structures within the basilica are the altars. Another impressive structure is the relic of the Chair of St Peter’s and the stunning, golden structure built by Bernini that surrounds it. It’s positioned above the altar in the basilica’s apse. One of the basilica’s most iconic parts is the dome built by Michelangelo. The dome symbolises the separation of heaven and earth and rises over Peter’s tomb to heaven.St Peter’s Basilica also houses a range of smaller artworks, the most notable of which is Michelangelo’s the Pietà. It was carved from a single block of marble and depicts the body of Jesus in the lap of his mother, Mary, following his crucifixion. Did you know that Michelangelo was only 24 years old when he sculpted La Pietá?Make sure to climb to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica’s dome. Once at the top, soak in awe-inspiring views of Rome, its popular landmarks, and the surrounding hills.How to get to St. Peter’s?Board metro on Line A and alight at the Ottaviano station located right outside Vatican City. From here, St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica can be reached in less than 5 minutes on foot. If you take bus 40, alight at Piazza Pia from where St. Peter’s Square is at a short walking distance.

Saint John Lateran

Official name: the Major Papal and Roman Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in Lateran, Mother, and Head of All Churches in Rome and the WorldMost people probably think that St Peter’s is the Pope’s main church in Rome. In fact, Saint John Lateran as the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, containing the papal throne (Cathedra Romana), ranks above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church. There is an inscription in Latin on the façade of the basilica that reads: ‘’mother and head of all the churches of Rome and the world.’’  St. John Lateran is the oldest church in the western world. Built according to the wishes of Emperor Constantine, it was consecrated in 324 AD. The Basilica of St. John Lateran has played an important role throughout history as all popes were enthroned there up until 1870. Nowadays, the Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, celebrates Holy Thursday Mass at Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. The present Lateran Basilica was erected in the middle of the 17th century. On top of its façade are 15 large statues representing Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and twelve Doctors of the Church. The great statues of the Apostles in the niches inside the basilica were made by sculptors of the late baroque at the beginning of the 18th century. Above the sacramental altar, there’s a fragment of the table on which Jesus consumed the last supper. The cathedral also exhibits Jesus’ blood, brought to Rome by centurion Longino. Numerous are the chapels of noble families like Orsini, Torlonia, Massimo, among the others. They are made by some of the best artists of the different epochs. While St Peters’ Basilica in the Vatican houses the tombs of dozens of former popes, Saint John Lateran is the final resting place of 6 popes. Make sure to stop at San Giovanni in Laterano Square and admire the oldest obelisk in Rome, which is also among the tallest in the world. Built in the 15th century, it’s 45.70 metres tall, including the cross on top.How to get to the Saint John LateranTake metro line A and get off at the San Giovanni stop. From there, it is about a five-minute walk.

Santa Maria Maggiore

Official name: the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary MajorThe Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was built on the place of a pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele. The current construction was finished at the end of the 16th century under the orders of Pope Liberius. The basilica’s 16th-century coffered ceiling was gilded with the first shipment of American gold, a gift from Isabella of Spain to the Spanish pope, Alexander VI.The basilica displays varied architectural styles, from early Christian to Baroque. The entire building was restored and renovated during the 18th century, so the façade and much of the interior date from that period. Despite this, the church retains the bell tower, some mosaics and marble floors from the medieval period, and some Ionic columns from other ancient Roman buildings, as well as splendid 5th-century mosaics.How to get to Santa Maria MaggioreThe closest metro stop is Termini on lines A and B. Buses: 16, 70, 71, and 714.

St. Paul Outside the Walls

Official name: the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the WallsThe Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls was the largest church in the world until the construction of St Peter’s in the 16th century. The old church was damaged several times by earthquakes and fire. In 1823, the basilica was burnt to the ground entirely. The reconstruction was carried out following the original design, and the new building was consecrated 30 years later. The way to the church leads through a colonnaded atrium and a narthex, decorated with 19th-century mosaics on the upper part of the façade, and onto the Holy Gate, the inside of which is adorned with the original bronze door, cast in Constantinople in the 11th century. The centre of the portico houses a colossal statue of St. Paul.The interior of the Basilica of St. Paul is magnificent, with enormous marble columns and beautiful gold mosaics. The building still houses some mosaics from the 13th century, a large 12th-century chandelier, or the marble tombstone under which the remains of St. Paul lie. Take time to admire the series of mosaic portraits of popes starting from the 5th century. Two sets of stairs lead to the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle housed below the altar and still encased between various layers of brick, stone, and marble, just as it was when it was found. How to get to St. Paul Outside the WallsMetro Line B, stop St. Paul’s Basilica. Bus lines 23 and 271 are going to St. Paul Basilica directly.

Practical information

It’s possible to see all 4 basilicas in one day. There will most likely be queues at St. Peter’s, so start with it in the morning, then continue your way to Santa Maria Maggiore and Saint John Lateran, and finish with St. Paul Outside the Walls. Check also the map enclosed. 

Entrance in all 4 Major Basilicas is free. Be prepared for a security check before entering. Many of the churches in Rome have dress codes, so don’t wear flip-flops and be sure to cover your knees and shoulders.Love sacral architecture? Think about visiting Siena and its Cathedral!Like it? Pin it! 

What did you think? Have you visited Rome and its Major Basilicas? I’d love to hear from you so please add your comment below.

  • Published by Anita on October 29, 2021

    Author: Anita Sāne