Italy is justifiably famous for its natural beauty, compelling history, sumptuous foods and elegant culture. It’s also home to fascinating and magnificent churches and cathedrals, some of them the most famous in the world.
If you plan to visit Italy, we can guarantee you will see captivating churches. Even for seasoned travelers experienced in the majestic sights of Europe, churches in Italy are like nothing you’ve seen anywhere in the Old World.
The Duomo of Siena
It’s probably a fair claim that this is the most stunning cathedral in Italy. Construction lasted virtually half a century, from 1215 to 1263. What makes this cathedral incomparable is the exterior and interior design. You’ll find both decorated in stunning and contrasting colors of marble. That alone is enough of a reason to explore.
It’s a towering Romanesque-inspired church, adorned with works of art from timeless Italian artists who need no introduction, names like Michelangelo, Donatello, Pisano, Bernini and others.
Perhaps the most magnificent feature of the cathedral is right under your feet.
The entire floor of Siena’s Cathedral is one of the most stunning works of art in all the world: a spectacular inlaid marble mosaic floor, described by art historian and artist Giorgio Vasari as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made.”
This beautiful Gothic cathedral is the fifth largest in the world and the second largest in Italy. Taking more than 600 years to complete, it is acknowledged as a giant of Italian cathedrals. An interesting piece of its history is that the cathedral’s final completion was effectuated by the one and only Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805.
The French Emperor was so impressed that he ordered the cathedral finished and paid for by the French treasury. Napoleon was resolute that the cathedral be preserved.Today, with the effects of pollution, patrons are asked to adopt one of the gargoyles (used as drainage fixtures) that adorn that façade. Up for adoption are 135 gargoyles as of this writing. Perhaps your name will be inscribed below one of these eerie apparitions.
Basilica San Marco in Venice
There are at least two things you’ll instantly notice about this cathedral. One is the very obvious influence of Western and Byzantine styles. Secondly is the ostentatious degree of opulence on display, signaling the vast wealth of Venice when Italy consisted of separate, smaller republics.
Gold tiles and mosaics adorn the walls, ceilings and arches inside the building. Outside, it’s the mosaic covered domes that are the focal point. Scenes from the façade exteriors include the life of Christ and the Day of Judgment. At the southwest corner of the basilica, you can meet the statue of Four Tetrarchs, the co-rulers of the Tetrarchy established by Roman authorities in the third century.
That these statues were stolen from Turkey during the Crusades is proven by the fact that one of the statues’ feet was found in Istanbul in the 1960s—where it is still on display.
St Peter’s Basilica in Rome
This stunning Renaissance church is prominently featured in Vatican City. Not only is this church stunning architecturally, having been designed by famous artists Michelangelo, Donato Bramante and Carlo Maderno, but it’s also one of the holiest sites in Christianity. This is where Saint Peter, the first Pope, is buried.
It is a unique shrine in Christianity. The basilica also holds the burial sites of other popes and notables, and often these are adorned with works of art.
It boasts further of the title of the world’s largest church. There are many stunning features, from the front façade to an interior adorned with mosaics, statues and marble columns.
Visiting this cathedral is—by itself—full justification for visiting Italy. It is one of the greatest and most enduring ornaments on earth.
Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi
Located in the tranquil town of Assisi in the beautiful Umbria region, this basilica has particular significance in the Christian faith, often being used as part of a pilgrimage to honor the patron saint of Italy, St. Francis.
The most impressive aspect is its commanding location overlooking the bucolic town, like the spirit of the saint himself.
The upper part of this church is used to tell the story of St. Francis’ life with exquisitely decorated frescoes. The lower part of the church is used for religious services and rituals, so its tone and setting are more solemn.
The basilica sustained a violent earthquake in 1997. The church was closed for two years while restorations were made. Saint Francis himself is buried in the lower basilica, and if you descend to visit his grave, you will return home with your own “tale from the crypt.”
This is one of the most dazzling cathedrals in Italy. Construction began in the 13th century and wasn’t completed until the 15th century. You’ll find yourself awestruck by the frescoes designed by Giorgio Vasari and by the mosaic tiles that line the floors of the interiors.
The first thing that will grab your attention is the exterior of this building with its pink, white and green marble and 44 stained glass windows. You can also ascend to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome for an opulent and panoramic view of the entire city.
The bell tower is another distinctive feature. If you listen closely enough, maybe you can hear the distant echoes of the preachings of Savanorola. At the very top of the dome, there is a bronze ball that was worked on in 1600 by a young apprentice that you may have heard of: Leonardo da Vinci.
Santa Maria Assunta in Positano
The Santa Maria Assunta is located in the idyllic town of Positano on the incomparable Amalfi Coast. This church is definitely the most significant landmark in the town. Its position integrates perfectly into the hilly landscape that surrounds this town. This is a very romantic church in the region, famous for its many weddings.
The beautiful and large multi-colored dome is the most majestic feature, while also notable is the presence of a black Madonna. Legend has it that the icon from Byzantium was stolen. While being transported across the Mediterranean by pirates, the legend continues, a fierce storm kicked up, prompting the statue to speak, “Put down. Put down.” As the precious icon was loaded and transported to a small fishing village, the storm abated.
Miracle? You decide.
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
Venice has more than its fair share of awe-inspiring churches, this being among the most prominent. Its exterior is a little more subdued than other churches in Italy.
What does make this church impressive is the vast amount and diversity of artwork inside. Some of the most stunning art ever produced by Italian artists resides for all time within this church.
Think of artworks by artists like Titian, Antonio Canova, Donatello and more. This alone is reason to put a visit to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari on your bucket list.
This is arguably the most beautiful cathedral in Amalfi. The most striking feature of this cathedral is the steep flight of 62 stairs and the Arab-influenced exterior culminating in the main entrance.
The interior is also a sight to behold. Just inside the front entrance is a 13th century wooden crucifix and toward the back is a crucifix made of mother-of-pearl.
There is an interesting story around the crypt here. The crypt contains the relix—human remains—of St. Andrew, an apostle who knew Jesus personally. Mystery and conflict swirl around how his remains ended up here.
Italy has an abundance of most beautiful churches in the world, too many to mention here! But if you are traveling in Italy with limited time, the ones described above are a small but satisfying taste of humanity’s richest art and architecture.