We have never met someone who visited Italy without stepping inside at least one church to marvel at the art and architecture on display. Churches in Italy are among the world’s most impressive buildings. Their interiors and exteriors embody the history of Italy and remain some of the most jaw-dropping monuments in the country.
Though there are thousands of Cathedrals, churches, and chapels in Rome alone, let alone all of Italy, some stand out above the rest based on their size, their art, the elegance of their design or their ability to awe and inspire those who step through their doors.
20 Must-See Churches in Italy
Santa Maria Assunta (Duomo di Siena), Siena
Santa Maria Assunta is another massive Duomo dedicated to Saint Mary of the Assumption, but it has a few features that really make it stand out. For one, Siena’s cathedral has our vote for the most all-around beautiful church in Italy inside and out.
While the facade drips with beautiful stonework, the inside is a treasure trove of frescoes, paintings, and gothic/Romanesque architecture. Don’t forget to look down: the floor is inlaid with intricate marble mosaics that are among the best of there kind anywhere in the world. If these things aren’t enough, the cathedral also contains the the Piccolomini Library (packed with illuminated choir books and frescoes), a crypt, a baptistry and a museum, all of which merit visits.
Interested in climbing to the top of Siena’s Duomo? Then the best way to see this church is the “Gate of Heaven” tour to see both the inside and outside from a birds-eye-view!
Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
Like most cathedrals in Italian cities, Florence’s main cathedral is more often called, simply, the “Duomo.” Unlike most cathedrals in Italy, however, the actual Dome of this Duomo is a historical and architectural wonder!
Though construction on the Cathedral started in 1296, the structure’s dome wasn’t begun until the 15th century, some 200 years later. The problem was that no one on earth in the 13th century knew how to build a dome large to fill the space left for it, which ran 150 feet wide and 180 feet off the ground. The winning solution came from a goldsmith – and boy genius – Filippo Brunelleschi. The artist suggested building two domes, one inside the other to make up for not only how large the space was, but also the pressure inherent in such a large structure.
Brunelleschi began work on the project in 1420, and today the magnificent outcome stands proud in the center of Florence, an enormous brick masterpiece, visible from nearly every corner of the Renaissance city. Along with Rome’s Pantheon and St. Peter’s Basilica, Santa Maria del Fiore can rightly be considered a building that changed the course of architectural history.
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Though technically in the Vatican City, the tiny city-state that shares the riverbanks with Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica is one Cathedral you absolutely can’t miss. The biggest cathedral in the world and the heart of the Catholic Church, St. Peter’s is the superman of churches, and impressive enough to awe any villain.
Supposedly built on the tomb of St. Peter’s, an original Apostle of the Catholic Church, the Basilica that you see today is actually the second church to occupy the site, but far more remarkable than the first, with a dome designed by Michelangelo, a colonnade and baldachin designed by Bernini and decorations from a Pantheon of Great Italian artists.
When you step inside, “awe” only begins to describe what you feel. Every major Catholic feast day is celebrated here by the Pope himself.
Santa Maria Nascente, Milan
Though its style changed over the course of its 600-year construction, the gargoyles, spires and spikes decorating its white marble façade place it squarely among Italy’s most Gothic churches. Its also one of Italy’s biggest, taking up an entire city block!
Tour inside to see the massive pillars supporting the stained glass arches, then head up the stairs (or the conveniently placed elevator) to the Duomo’s terrazza, the cathedral’s roof, where you can view the gargoyles up close and look out over Milan clear to the Alps beyond.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
If Milan’s Duomo holds the title for most impressive Gothic facade in Italy, Santa Maria sopra Minerva has the most impressive Gothic-style interior.
One of the few Gothic churches in Rome, whose style tends toward Baroque, the 13th century church has some of the most stunning vaulted ceilings of any church in Italy. It’s covered in a luminous ultramarine and flecked with golden stars, as if the most vibrant night sky was directly above you.
It’s said the Basilica is built atop the ruins of a temple for Minerva (where it gets its name), one for the Egyptian goddess Isis and one for the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis but today it is one of Rome’s most important Basilica’s and even houses the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena, a patron saint of Italy.
The Pantheon, Rome
The Pantheon was originally built by the Romans in AD 124 as a temple to the citizens various gods. It was only converted into a Christian church in AD 609, but the austere architecture and eerie symmetry still give the building an unmistakably pagan air.
This incredible structure has been studied by just about every serious architect since the Renaissance, making it one of the most influential buildings in the entire world. To this day, it boasts the largest unreinforced concrete dome on earth. Consider that for a second – unknown builders working nearly 2,000 years ago created a dome that has not been bettered, ever. This testament to the genius of ancient Roman builders (and the fickleness of Roman religious observances), is also the best-preserved ancient Roman building in all of Rome!
St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice
In a country full of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque churches, St. Mark’s is a uniquely Byzantine masterpiece.
This style of art originated in the Eastern Roman Empire, which counted Constantinople as its capital, and exerted political and social influence over much of Eastern Europe and the Near East. No other Cathedral in Italy has as much well-preserved Byzantine influence as St. Mark’s; consequently the church sports over 85,000 feet of golden mosaics.
The 11th-century Basilica stands as a tribute to St. Mark, an apostle and Venice’s patron saint. Under his aegis, Venice was instrumental in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 – a foray which filled their coffers with loot and contributed a lot of gold and art you see in the church today. Perhaps no other church in Italy represents the history and culture of its City as well as this magnifiscent Basilica.
Cattolica di Stilo, Stilo
Located in Calabria, right on the toe of the Italian peninsula, the 9th century church was built when the Byzantine empire still controlled Southern Italy. While St. Mark’s is full of Venetian Opulence, this gem is one of the best surviving examples of the austere Eastern monastic tradition.
Though the church is tiny and the façade unassuming, its diverse history – mixing byzantine, Roman Catholic, and arabic influences – is truly unique. Perched on the side of a mountain, its red and brown brick towers nearly blend into the slope, but the views it offer over the town, valleys and sea below are second to none.
St. Antonio Trullo Church, Alberobello
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and when in Alberobello, do as the Alberobellians – and by that we mean visit a trulli church!
Alberobello is a small town and UNESCO World Heritage Site in Puglia made famous by its traditional trulli houses, or ancient cone-shaped peasant houses. Naturally, the town’s churches are constructed in the same style. Though it’s a relatively young candidate on this list (it was finished in 1927) the St. Antonio (St. Anthony) Church is a perfect mix of Puglia’s ancient construction techniques and modern-day conservation sensibilities. It’s also a beautiful example of the cultural importance of Alberobello’s unusual architecture.
The Church of Curon, South Tyrol
This church in South Tyrol is located in Lake Resia. No, no overlooking it – its actually submerged in the lake! Today, only the 14th-century bell tower of the Church at Curon is still visible or visitable. The rest is under water.
The town, located on the border of Italy and Austria, was flooded to create a lake and the only visible remnant of it is the beautiful bell tower poking up through the surface of the placid lake. Depending on the water level you can also see a part of the semi-submerged church at times. Of course you won’t be attending a mass here anytime soon, but visitors in the winter can walk out to the bell tower when the lake freezes and the strange sight remains surprisingly beautiful, year round.
Santa Maria d’Idris, Matera
This church is located in Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its unique dwellings literally cut into caves in the side of a mountain.
Like many of the buildings in Matera, Santa Maria d’Idris is located in a small cave on top of a cliff. The atmosphere is certainly unique, if not a bit eerie. The ancient rock city actually has dozens of caves carved throughout it, many of which are used as churches. This one, in particular, overlooks the canyon of Matera and contains gorgeously frescoed “meditation chambers” that are a testament to the monastic lifestyle once lived within the bare stone walls.
Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna
Ravenna is renowned for the magnificent Byzantine mosaics scattered throughout the city. And the best of these mosaics can be found in the Basilica di San Viale.
Originally composed in the 6th-century, these incredible works of what is now considered a dying art, are without parallel in their skill and execution. The walls and ceilings are absolutely covered in glittering gold scenes and incredibly detailed motifs. Given the honorary title of “basilica” for its historical and religious importance, San Vitale is also one of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ravenna to visit!
Basilica di Santo Stefano, Bologna
The beauty and mystery of of Santo Stefano is that it’s actually many churches combined into one. Locals refer to as the sette chiese, or “seven churches” because of its original layout comprised (an estimated) seven churches, each built at a different time between the 4th and 13th centuries.
Catholic tradition has it that the complex sits atop a temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis. An even harder to prove legend states that the seven churches were each meant to represent locations of the Passion of Christ. After significant restoration projects over the years, only four distinct churches are visible today, but the Basilica is still one of the most interesting of Bologna’s religious buildings.
Church of Domine Quo Vadis (Santa Maria delle Piante), Rome
This 9th century church is located right on the Via Appia, or Appian Way, Rome’s famous ancient highway and another must-see Roman attraction.
Legend has it that this is the spot where Peter bumped into a vision of Christ when he was fleeing Nero’s persecution in 64 AD. He asked Christ, “”Domine, quo vadis?” or “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus indicaed that he was heading back to Rome, convincing, (or perhaps guilting) Peter to return as well and face martyrdom. Inside the church is the stone that supposedly has the footprints of Jesus.
Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Assisi
The 13th-century basilica is split into two levels, the upper and the lower, and each has been filled with impressive art. The upper level, or Basilica Superiore, is covered with 28 floor-to-ceiling frescoes by Giotto (with extensive help from members of his school) which are probably the main artistic stars of the church. Each fresco is a scene from St. Francis’ life. Though centuries old, the frescoes are still fabulously vibrant and historically jaw-dropping. Below, in the Basilica Inferiore, you can find work by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini, as well as St. Francis’ crypt, of course.
Monreale Cathedral, Palermo
One of the oldest churches on the list, 12th-century Monreale Cathedral in Palermo is also the best example of Norman architecture on this list. In it’s opulent interior and vibrant mosaics you’ll see a perfect mix between Byzantine and Sicilian influence. The entire interior is covered with the aforementioned mosaics, all in gold, covering 68,220 square feet in total. It’s said they are second only to the Hagia Sophia in size, though much better preserved and much less known.
After ogling the mosaics, the biblical reliefs, and the intertwined columns in marble and tufa, note also the enormous bronze doors, some of the only in all of Europe, then climb to the terrace for a panoramic view over the sea and the bay of the Conca d’Oro.
Santa Maria Assunta, Orvieto
Orvieto might be small, but you’d never know it looking at its cathedral. Its incredible façade was created over a 200-year-period and with at least five different artists. The Romanesque-Gothic architecture glitters with gold mosaics and perfectly carved marble. A jaw-dropping stained-glass rose window dominating the center. The Duomo is filled with detailed columns and elaborate frescoes detailing the life of Mary. Truly a design exaggeration for such a small town and a beautiful sight in the Umbrian hills!
St. Agatha’s Cathedral, Catania
St. Agatha’s Cathedral is a testament to the determination of man in the fight against nature. Built in the 12th century, the cathedral has been destroyed several times because of earthquakes and eruptions from nearby Mount Etna. Just a little over one hundred years after its construction it was destroyed by an earthquake, a later fire was followed by another earthquake that left the church in ruins.
Since being rebuilt in 1711, the church has weathered eruptions, wars, and even more earthquakes. Still, the white church stands proud and beautiful in Catania, composed largely of volcanic stones. It also boasts the third largest bell tower in all of Italy, after St. Peter’s Basilica and the Duomo of Milan.
Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, Florence
Standing atop the only hill in Florence proper, the San Miniato al Monte Basilica lords over the city. Local and visitor alike the hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo (it takes about 20 minutes though there are buses as well) in order to enjoy one of the best views over Florence!
The Basilica is joined by an adjacent monastery on one side and a cemetery on the other. Inside, the 13th-century church has changed little over the years, and even the atmosphere feels decidedly old. At dusk, you might be able to catch the church interior illuminated by candles!
Go before closing time (around 7pm, 8pm in summer) to tour the church, then stick around to watch the sun set over Florence, and the churches below turning on their lights.
Basilica della Santa Casa (The Basilica of the Holy House of Mary), Loreto
This Basilica of the Holy House was built in the 15th century atop a small shrine that is much, much older. It’s said that this shrine is the acual house of the Virgin Mary – not only where she lived, but also where Jesus himself was conceived and raised.
Catholic belief is that this house was miraculously moved by angels from its original location in Nazareth to Croatia to protect it during attacks by the Turks in the 13th century. Three years later angels saved the house again during the Muslim invasion of Albania, moving it to a town called Recanati in the region of Le Marche.
Its third and final move, the Basilica of the Holy House eventually arrived in its present location in Loreto. Modern investigations by the church have supported the claim that the house is in fact from the Holy Land, though historians tend to refute the role of angels in favor of more quotidian crusaders and wealthy benefactors who paid for the house’s various moves. One way or another this basilica houses one of Catholicism’s most important relics, not to mention a ton of history. Its an impressive sight for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Insider’s tip: Find out more about the jaw-dropping properties owned by the Catholic Church.
by Gina MussioView more by Gina ›
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