Let’s be honest – anyone attempting to rank the “most” or “best” of anything is injecting a fair bit of subjective judgment into the mix. And yet it’s hard to argue with how appealing these lists can be – especially if they help us narrow down a long list of travel to-dos. So, we’d like to offer this list of some of the most beautiful churches in Italy with the understanding that your favorite may not appear, you may find something you think is more beautiful when you visit Italy, and we’re quite happy to have you disagree with what we’ve included. This is, after all, simply one interpretation of “most beautiful.” We welcome your interpretations in the comments below!
St. Mark’s Basilica – Venice
The church that serves as Venice’s centerpiece is a Byzantine marvel, all onion domes and golden mosaics, standing in bright contrast to the Gothic churches we’re so used to throughout much of Italy. The exterior of St. Mark’s Basilica is beautiful enough, but step inside and prepare to let your jaw drop in amazement (especially when the mosaic ceilings are lit). If you can spare a few moments of your gaze from the ceilings, spend some time admiring the floor mosaics, too. You’ll need to keep an eye on the floor regardless, as the sinking city has caused the tiles to buckle in places.
St. Peter’s Basilica – Vatican City
St. Peter’s Basilica is as imposing as it is beautiful – the largest church in Christendom, so immense in scale that you can’t quite fathom it until you’re inside, and even then artistic tricks of the eye let you believe it’s not quite as enormous as it truly is. The altar alone is a Baroque masterpiece, but anywhere you look inside the basilica your eyes are met with beauty – an alabaster window at the rear of the church, a perfect dome, elaborately sculpted tombs of Popes, and Michelangelo’s stunning Pieta. And from the roof of St. Peter’s, you’re afforded one of the most beautiful views of Vatican City and Rome.
Duomo – Florence
Florence’s Duomo, the official name of which is the Basilica of St. Mary of the Flower, resonates with people for a couple of reasons. First, the multi-colored marble on the facade, layered in stripes of white, red, and green, is a bit playful while still looking appropriately decorative. Second, the church’s incredible dome, covered in red tiles like the rooves of most of historic Florence, is so picturesque against the white marble of the church. And if you know the story behind the construction of the dome itself, it’s an even more beautiful experience to finally see it firsthand.
St. Vitale’s Basilica – Ravenna
Admittedly, the Basilica of San Vitale isn’t much to look at from the outside. The plain red brick on the exterior, however, gives way to some of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics you’ll see in Italy. Because the mosaics aren’t paint and don’t fade over time, the colors are still as vibrant as they were when they were first put into place in the 6th century A.D. The octagonal church isn’t very large, but Ravenna isn’t nearly as overrun with visitors as other cities in Italy, so you’re likely to have plenty of time to lean against one of the supporting pillars and soak in the glow of the mosaics overhead.
Cathedral – Palermo
Palermo’s Cathedral is a curious mix of architectural styles developed over many years of additions and renovations, so it’s by no means a classic beauty. Still, it’s the kind of beauty that tells a story of the city through its unconventional looks. Since Sicily was constantly being conquered by one group or another, and rule of the island changed hands multiple times, the Cathedral of Palermo showcases these changes beautifully. Plus, no matter which architectural style you prefer, you’re bound to find at least one part of the cathedral you like.
Duomo – Milan
One of the most elaborately decorated exteriors of any church in Italy is the Duomo in Milan, covered as it is in white marble spires. It’s the largest cathedral in Italy (remember, St. Peter’s is in Vatican City, a separate country), and visitors have the added bonus of being able to walk around on the roof among the spires. The interior is relatively sparse in comparison to the cacophony of decor outside, but since it’s free to go in you won’t feel cheated by simply taking a peek.
Pantheon – Rome
Rome’s Pantheon is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, but most people don’t realize it’s actually still a church. It’s called the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs, and masses are still celebrated inside. But what makes this church particularly beautiful is its history. The Pantheon has been in constant use since it was built in the 2nd century A.D., and walking on the marble floor gives us a beautiful connection to Rome’s past. Not only that, the simple and symmetrical dome high above has served as inspiration to countless architects and engineers over the years. It’s not a showy beauty, but it’s a beauty nonetheless.
Our Lady of Tears – Syracuse
And now for something completely different. Not all churches in Italy are old, nor are they classic designs. The Basilica of Our Lady of Tears in Syracuse on the island of Sicily is the kind of 20th century design you’ll either love or hate. The soaring conical tower looks futuristic, which may be a welcome change after seeing so many Gothic and Baroque churches. The church itself was built as a shrine after a plaster sculpture of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is said to have shed human tears in the 1950s – that sculpture is now part of the church’s altar.