You won't be surprised when I tell you there are a lot of churches in Rome. It is the center of the Catholic world after all. But seriously folks, there are A LOT of churches in Rome. Over 900, according to the 30 seconds of internet research I just did. Yowza! You can't possibly see that many churches in one visit!
Well, to help you out, here are my five favorites, which contain some stunning architecture, beautiful works of art, some interesting history, and even a little science!
#5: Santa Maria degli Angeli
Once you walk inside, however, it just completely opens up. The sheer immensity of the space almost smacks you in the face and you are overwhelmed by the amount of air and light inside. This sensation is helped by the fact that there is little else in the church beyond the walls. Many other churches are so full of columns altars, and pews that they seem claustrophobic. But that's not the case here. This church is wide open, and you can appreciate the size of it.
It also has some nice sculptures and paintings on the walls, including a few pieces of more modern artwork, but that's not the main reason it's on this list...
But how does it work? I'm glad you asked. There is a small pinhole (containing a small prism) in the top part of the right wall of the church, which lets in a tiny beam of sunlight. Every day at solar noon, the beam of light projects onto a line (a meridian line - coincident with 12 degrees 30 minutes east longitude) on the floor that runs diagonally across the right side of the church. At the summer solstice, the light will shine on the end of the line closest to the pinhole, then is spends the next six months traveling slowly down the length of the line until it finally reaches the other end at the winter solstice. Then it turns around and comes back. The line has measurement markings all along it to denote the sun's position, and also has pictures of the various zodiac signs so you can tell which star sign the sun is currently in. The pictures of cancer and capricorn are found at either end, since the solstices occur during those two signs. There are also marks along the line showing the positions of various stars, which can be determined by switching out the prism in the pinhole.
The sundial has been operational for over 300 years, and will continue to function for many years to come. Not something you'd expect to find in a church, but there it is!
#4: San Clemente
The uppermost church (the 11th century one) is free to enter, but to go downstairs to see the other two costs five euros. If you're at all interested in history it's definitely worth the cost! It's an interesting contrast in architectural styles, and it shows how the city has changed over the centuries. Unlike many other Roman cities, Rome has been continuously inhabited since the days of the Roman Empire, and a visit to San Clemente can help illustrate that progression from ancient times to today. On the lowest level, you can even hear running water, which is actually flowing through a portion of the old Roman sewer system.
Unfortunately, I don't have photos of my own to show you, since you are not allowed to take photos inside San Clemente. This is one of my biggest travel pet peeves, since you know they only have that rule so they can sell more postcards and guidebooks! But alas, there were too many staff members around for me to break the rules, so I will refer you to this website for additional photos: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/rome-san-clemente
#3: San Giovanni in Laterano
This one's got a great exterior facade, with tall columns, and statues of saints on top of it and everything. Only, uh, that's not actually where you enter. You have to go around the building on the right side towards the back to find the actual visitors' entrance.
In front of the side entrance is an Egyptian obelisk. There are several obelisks scattered throughout the city (those ancient Romans sure did love relocating Egyptian obelisks!), but this one has the distinction of being the world's largest standing obelisk.
The basilica was first consecrated in the year 324, but has undergone several major reconstructions over the centuries. Most of what you can see today dates to the baroque era, built in the 16th and 17th centuries. The baroque style is known for its heavily ornamented details on every available surface, and San Giovanni certainly lives up to that standard. Everywhere you look there is something to see.
#2: Santa Maria sopra Minerva
What makes this church special, is what it lacks: the Baroque embellishments that you'll find on many other churches in Rome. In fact, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which was consecrated in the Gothic period in 1370, is the only remaining Gothic church in Rome that didn't undergo a major renovation in the Baroque period. And I for one am glad it didn't. Compared to the ornate business of churches like San Giovanni, Minerva seems quite simple and serene.
One of my favorite features is the midnight blue ceiling. Blue is not a color that you see a whole lot of in churches, but it makes the ceiling here become reminiscent of the night sky (complete with stars) and really adds to the feeling of serenity in the church.
In front of the altar stands the statue of Christ the Redeemer, a lesser-known work by Michelangelo (yes, that Michelangelo). So look for that if you're a Michelangelo fan.
There are also quite a large number of tombs in this church, including several popes, wealthy nobles, and even a saint - Saint Catherine is entombed in front of the altar at the center of the church. Or, at least her body is. Her head in enshrined in Siena.
#1: Santa Maria della Vittoria
This is another heavily embellished Baroque church, even more embellished than San Giovanni, despite being smaller in size. Every wall and every corner just drips with grandeur. There is gold all over the place, and much of the upper reaches of the building are covered with white angels, which really stand out against the gold background.
The ceiling is dominated by a massive fresco of the Virgin Mary in heaven, leading the good angels to victory over the rebel angels.