Here we go, our first top 10 list of churches. Well… it’s our first top 10 of anything for that matter!
We chose churches, aka – Chiesa, Cattedrale, Duomo, Basilica for our first top ten list because they are the central attraction of any city, town or village throughout Italy. You’ll be hard pressed to pass by these magnificent symbols of faith without taking at least one sneak peak inside. The need to see what lies behind their impressive doors is hard to ignore.
A beautiful thing about these churches is that they are welcoming to all travellers regardless of your own personal faith. All that is required is for visitors to be respectful while they are inside and to speak softly since there are many who have come to worship.
There is one common denominator that many of the churches on our list share… they are awe inspiring.
Most have incredibly ornate ceilings which are supported by redwood sized columns with walls decorated in artwork and colorful stained glass windows. Some are more mesmerizing than others in the way they are decorated, but all will reward you for taking the time to enter. One thing for certain, you will at some point get a stiff neck from the unavoidable upward gazing you’ll be doing.
The criteria we used to rank the churches went as follows…
- Did our jaws stay in the dropped open position for long periods of time?
- How many OMG’s did we utter?
- Did we spend a lot of time in and around the church before moving on?
- How much did we talk about the visit after we left?
- Last but not least, how many photos did we take?
Let’s get this Top 10 list started. Counting down from number 10 we start with…
10. Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta in Positano – Campania
We love this church for it’s beautiful green, gold and red tiled dome and for it’s incredible location. It is located steps away from the Tyrrhenian Sea and is nestled at the base of the surrounding steep faced mountains of the Amalfi Coast.
Whether you enter Positano by sea or arrive by car via the scenic coastal hairpin rich road, Santa Maria Assunta will grab your attention as soon as it comes into view. Fair warning – if you are prone to motion sickness, the bus ride from Sorrento is hard to stomach!
The facade of this church is somewhat humble, but the tri-colored dome shines bright under the Italian sun.
As you enter the nave, a wonderful space greets you with its white domed ceilings and white walls. Everywhere you look there are fine accents of gold gilded trim and stained glass windows. It is a visually pleasing and inviting Chiesa.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photos of the interior but we’ll post some pics from other travellers on our Pinterest board. Follow this link to our Santa Maria Assunta board to have a look inside.
9. Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore in Roma – Lazio
You never forget your first time… and our first introduction to Italian churches was Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore. We found this grand church at the end of via Merulana in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.
There is nothing like stepping into one of these beautiful churches to witness first hand the work of artisans who crafted such beautiful creations to help tell the story of this culture. It became clear very quickly that we were in for a great treat discovering what was yet to come. See more of Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore here.
8. Cattedrale di Pisa in Pisa – Toscana
On its own the Cathedral of Pisa is a great site to see but throw in the Leaning Tower and Baptistery and you have one great triple play.
As luck would have it, our timing was off and the church was closed to viewings, so we didn’t get a chance to see what treasures lay behind its great doors. Oh well, this just gives us a good reason to return to Pisa to right the wrong.
Worry not, check out these photos on our Pinterest board of Cattedrale di Pisa from other travellers who were more fortunate with their timing. It’s worth a look.
7. Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi in Assisi – Umbria
This for me is one of the most imposing looking churches on our list. It has the presence of a fortress perched safely on a hillside ready to defend its people.
Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi consists of an upper and lower basilica. The upper basilica has a beautifully decorated cross vaulted ceiling that is painted dark blue with gold stars. There are large frescos that depict the stories of the bible painted on the walls. Sadly many of the frescos were damaged during the earthquake of 1997. Nevertheless, what was spared remains to be inspiring.
A large sign with Silenzio written on it informs crowds that noisy chatter is not appreciated. For those that missed the sign, a strong voice will ring out over the speaker system ordering “Silenzio, Silenzio.”
The lower basilica was built with a highly decorated, ribbed, vaulted ceiling and was designed to be a huge crypt. Like the upper basilica, the walls are covered with frescos.
In many of the churches you’ll visit, interior photographs are not allowed. Guards here will loudly chastise you if they catch you snapping photos. I resisted the temptations to sneak a shot so you will need to see pics from other travellers in our Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi board that we’ve pinned.
The good news is that they have racks of postcards for you to buy to help you remember what you saw on your visit!
6. Basilica di Santa Maria in Assisi – Umbria
We found this basilica not through research, but by looking out of our room to the low lands of the city. Basilica di Santa Maria dwarfs any of the buildings which surround it. It beckoned us to come and visit, so we did.
Basilica Santa Maria is a two for one deal. First, you get the hugely impressive structure that is visible from miles away. This in itself is worth a look, but it’s what’s tucked under the dome that makes this basilica unique.
This church has all the usual features that impress and draw in parishioners and visitors alike, but the jewel under the dome comes in the form of a very small 9th century church called the Porziuncola. St. Francis rebuilt this little chapel and formed his Order from here. St. Francis died steps from his little church in 1226 AD. His good works live on.
No photos allowed inside so follow the Basilica di Santa Maria in Assisi link to see interior images.
5. Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence) – Toscana
You may be saying to yourself, “WHAT… they only ranked the Duomo in Florence in 5th?”
Is it huge?… Check! Is it architecturally stunning?… Check! Is it historically significant?… Double Checks! We thought long and hard about this, but after the dust had settled, for us, it didn’t have enough to push it closer to the top spot.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is a fantastic, must see church. You can walk around the perimeter of the Duomo multiple times and spot details you missed the first few trips around it. If art is your thing, the Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari dome mural along with a multitude of other works found throughout the wide central nave will please you.
If you like stair climbing and confined spaces, you’ll love the trip up Giotto’s Bell Tower.
After that, you can hike up an even higher staircase to get to the top of Brunelleschi’s red tiled dome. There’s one thing I can guarantee, both climbs are long and narrow. There are 463 steps to the domes terrace and 414 to the top of the bell tower, but it’s all worth the effort for the fantastic views that you’ll be rewarded with. There are no Sherpa to help you with your bags, so pack light. Also make sure to go through the baptistery as it’s well worth a couple euros to enjoy the mosaics within.
Good news… you are allowed to take photos in this church and the baptistery. See more here.
4. Duomo di Siena – Toscana
Now this was a hotly contested choice among the selection panel (the two of us). Which church would take 3rd place and which one takes 4th spot? There is a true skill to the art of debating. The ability to make your opponent submit to your will using only words is a powerful gift. As it turns out, I wasn’t up to the challenge and my choice takes the 4th position.
I love this church. From the black and white horizontal stripes, to the carving rich facade. This duomo is a gem.
The exterior of this church alone gets it on our top 10 list, but it’s the nave and library that vaults Duomo di Siena up to 4th place.
This is one church that we had to pay to enter, but don’t let that dissuade you from going in. Take solace in knowing that your entry fee helps keep this beautiful chiesa from falling victim to the ravages of time. Take a better look here.
3. Duomo di Orvieto – Umbria
I don’t feel too bad about having my choice bumped down to 4th spot. The Duomo di Orvieto is another absolutely stunning work of art and engineering. From it’s carved stone and marble detailing, to the frescos that relay the teachings of God in such a dramatic and visual way.
It’s when the sun is low in the afternoon sky that this church shines.
The hard stone walls take on a softer look due to the warming light of the late day sun. There are beautiful mosaics that adorn the front of this church. They seem super saturated with color in this evening light. Without a doubt, the reflective tiles of gold used as the background color are truly impressive when the sunlight touches them.
Being able to sit at a table across from the church, while eating a plate of pasta and sipping a glass of wine is good for the soul. We loved the experience! See more here.
2. Duomo di Milano – Lombardia
Wow… this church is visual overload at its finest. This is without a doubt, Gothic architecture gone wild! I can’t begin to imagine the scope of vision that was needed to make this wonder a reality.
If you like statues you’re in luck, there are 3400 of them here. You say you prefer gargoyles? Good news, 135 of them are waiting for you to visit.
The nice thing for those of you who may not be able to walk up flights of stairs to see the views from up high, there is an elevator that will get you most of the way up to the roof (for a small fee of course). You’ll be treated to a close up look at many of the statues, gargoyles and ornate carvings that trim out this church.
Now let’s talk about what’s waiting for you inside this marvel of craftsmanship. Entering this church is the closest thing to entering the Great Hall of Hogwarts. I’m sure if you look hard enough you will spot the sorting hat resting somewhere in a corner…
The dimly lit interior of this holy place is dominated by 52 massive pillars that draw your eyes toward the altar at the far end of the nave. The Gothic style of this church is intimidating and proved too scary for our 8 year old niece to continue the tour. Coming face to face with the statue of Bartolomeo the Apostle (the skinned alive martyr) is what made our little one head for the exit.
Duomo di Milano is a must see. More to see here.
Number 1 on Our Top 10 List of Italian Churches is…
St. Peter’s Basilica – Vatican City (yes, we know…it’s technically not in Italy)
We knew from the start that St. Peter’s was going to be our number 1. It boils down to this one thing, we always compare every other church to St. Peter’s. Once you step into the basilica you know you are in a special place of importance both spiritually and historically. Even for those of us that are not Catholic, the feeling of something higher touches you as walk through this Holiest of places.
To enter the basilica you will queue in an orderly line in the Piazza San Pietro (the square that fronts the Vatican.)
Depending when you go, the lines can be very long, but fret not, the lines do move along at a steady pace. Before you know it, you’re passing through the security scanners and you are on your way to see the wonders that wait inside.
What amazes me about this church is just how massive it is. Even though hundreds of people continually streamed past the doors to get into the basilica, it was clear to see that it could easily handle the volume of people coming in to witness the treasures within. See more here.
It’s easy to find yourself standing still in one place while looking straight up at the elaborately decorated ceilings for long periods of time.
As I mentioned earlier, you will at some point experience Basilica Neck. (A sharp pain in the neck caused by prolonged backwards head tilting.) To ease this pain, shift your gaze downwards to the floor, they are also incredible to look at.
What makes this top 10 list of Italian churches great is, it’s not carved in stone. 🙂
We’ve seen so many amazing churches on our trips to Italy so far. We know we’ve only seen a fraction of them as well. It will be hard to knock the top 5 off this list… but not impossible! We are excited to discover what wonders of devotion are out there just waiting to make it to our top 10 list. (the sequel)