Italy has a long history of being at the very center of Catholicism and is home to many of the most awe-inspiring Christian sites in the world. Every Italian town and city has its own churches and cathedrals, as well as museums, local shrines and other Catholic sites of importance. This means that no matter where you go in Italy you’ll never be far from a local Catholic site of interest.
But if you truly want to understand the incredible heritage that Catholicism has bestowed on global culture, there are certain sites in Italy that you simply must see. To get started in your explorations of Italy’s premier Catholic sites, we’ve compiled some of the very finest examples to help you plan your trip.
As a general rule, you should always wear modest clothing when visiting any Catholic site in Italy. Women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees while men should wear long sleeves and trousers. You should also wear smart footwear – so avoid wearing flip-flops or excessively high-heels and stick to a pair of leather shoes or sandals instead.
While a strict dress code is not universally enforced, it is polite and shows respect to dress modestly when you visit any Catholic site. With that said, in some locations, such as the Vatican, the dress code is quite strictly enforced and you may be turned away if you are dressed inappropriately.
The Vatican City.
Technically the Vatican City is a country of its own and not part of Italy. Practically speaking, it is a small neighborhood of Rome, which is the capital of Italy. The Vatican City is the center of the Roman Catholic religious community and is the official residence of the Pope, the spiritual leader of the Catholic faith. As the spiritual heart of Catholicism, few places in the Christian world are as popular to visit as the Vatican City in Rome.
Catholicism has played a central role in Italy for centuries, but very few people realize that the Vatican City was only established in its current form, as an independent sovereign city-state, in 1929 following the signing of the Lateran Pacts. Even so, the main buildings that make up the Vatican are much older, including the Sistine Chapel which was built in the 1470s under the instruction of Pope Sixtus IV and St Peter’s Basilica which was built between 1506 and 1615.
Indeed, no trip to Rome would be complete without visiting the Vatican. The spectacular artwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel will leave you absolutely awestruck while the Vatican museums house many of Christondom’s most valuable works of art, sculptures and Christian relics. Saint Peter’s Basilica is one of the world’s largest churches and has more than 390 sculptures, 44 altars, 135 mosaics and almost 800 pillars!
It’s free for visitors to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica although if you don’t arrive early the lines can be quite long. If you’d like to learn all about the history and significance of the basilica and the artworks on display, you can join a guided walking tour of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums.
The Basilica Di Santa Croce, Florence.
Located in the historic center of Florence, the Basilica di Santo Croce is a Franciscan neo-Gothic church that was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and built between 1294 and 1385. The beautifully elegant church has a distinctive white marble façade and is the burial place of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini, among other famous Italians.
The Basilica di Santa Croce is one of the biggest Franciscan churches in the world and is made up of 16 chapels and 3 cloisters, including one designed by Brunelleschi and others that are decorated with stunning frescoes by the master artist Giotto. In the Saint John the Baptist and John the Evangelist Chapel Giotto also painted magnificent scenes from the life of Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan church. It also includes a lovely gilded altarpiece, many Renaissance paintings and heavenly stained glass windows.
When you visit the Basilica di Santa Croce you buy a ticket in advance and skip the line to enter, or join a private guided tour to really immerse yourself in the history and art of this remarkable Catholic site. Your ticket to the basilica includes access to the cloisters, the baptistery, the crypt and the nearby Museo dell’Opera.
The Cathedral Duomo Di San Vigilio, Trento.
Dedicated to Saint Vigilio, the basilica, also known as Trento Cathedral, is a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture at its very finest and is a significant site of Catholic pilgrimage. Saint Vigilio was born in the 4th Century and is credited with bringing Christianity to the Northern Italian regions. Sadly, he was martyred for his faith and this picturesque basilica stands as a testament to his religious devotion and life’s work in bringing Christianity to new communities.
The Cathedral Duomo di San Vigilio is a part of the traditional pilgrimage routes and is connected to the Cammino San Vili which follows many of the routes that San Vigilio himself walked as he spread Christianity in Northern Italy. Surrounded by the spectacular scenery of the Dolomites, the Cathedral Duomo di San Vigilio is one of Italy’s most popular sites of pilgrimage and remains an important site for Catholics.
The Cathedral Of Saint Martin, Lucca.
The Holy Face of Lucca, known locally as the ‘Volto Santo’, is one of the most unique relics in Christendom. The Holy Face is a wooden carving that was created by Nicodemo, who helped Joseph of Arimathea to place Jesus in the tomb after his crucifixion. The remarkable carving is said to accurately represent the actual features of Christ himself. This allows visitors to see a true representation of the face of the Savior and marvel at the excellent craftsmanship of the impressive carving.
The Holy Face is housed in a marble chapel that was erected in 1484 by Matteo Civitali to keep the sculpture safe within the Cathedral of Saint Martin complex. This sacred relic is one of the most unusual Italian Catholic sites and is a fascinating place to see. The town of Lucca is also a beautiful Renaissance town in Tuscany that is well known for its cobblestone streets and the Renaissance walls that encircle the city’s historic center. If you’d like to explore the town of Lucca and visit the Cathedral of Saint Martin with a local expert, you can join a guided walking tour.
The Holy Face has been a popular site of Catholic pilgrimage since it arrived in Lucca in the 9th Century. In fact, as one of the most mystical relics in Christendom, pilgrims have walked from as far away as Canterbury in England to visit the Holy Face for hundreds of years. The town of Lucca is also located on the Via del Volto Santo, a 200 km pilgrimage route that leads to Pontremoli in Lunigiana and takes you through some of the most iconic scenery in the province.
Saint Francis Basilica, Assisi.
Saint Francis founded the Franciscan domination of Catholicism and is famous for rejecting the trappings of his wealthy merchant family and living an austere life in the woods to better dedicate himself to the church. The enormous Saint Francis Basilica attracts millions of tourists and pilgrims each year and is considered by many to be one of the most important spiritual centers in Europe.
Built in the 13th Century, it’s the oldest Gothic Basilica in Italy and contains two churches, known as the Upper and Lower Basilicas. The Lower Basilica is designed in a Romanesque style while the Upper Basilica is an excellent example of the Gothic architecture that swept Europe in the coming centuries. The basilica is filled with amazing frescoes, important relics and has astounding views across the valleys below.
There are numerous small towns and villages in the surrounding countryside where you can stay amongst the rural idyll of Tuscany. If you’d like to learn all about the history of the UNESCO-listed Saint Francis Basilica you can join a guided tour.
The Turin Shroud, Turin.
As one of Christianity’s best-known relics, the Turin Shroud is a remarkable piece of cloth that was placed over the face of Jesus in the tomb. By a miracle, the shroud was left with an exact imprint of the face of Jesus and is still one of the most venerated and mysterious relics in Catholicism. In fact, for centuries, pilgrims have traveled from all over the globe to visit the Turin Shroud which is housed in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in the city of Turin.
The original shroud is not always displayed to the public anymore but a perfect copy is exhibited above the altar in the chapel. However, pilgrims and tourists are able to stay close to where the true Holy Shroud of Turin is kept and on certain occasions during the year the real shroud is brought out for public viewings. While you are visiting the Turin Shroud, you can also stop off at the Museum of the Shroud which is located about 10 minutes walk from the cathedral.
Lipari Island, Sicily.
Lipari island is situated off the Northwestern coast of Sicily and boasts one of Italy’s strangest sites of Catholic pilgrimage. Lipari island is home to a large volcano that has been venerated since Medieval times by Catholics because it was believed that the volcano’s crater was the actual mouth of hell. Despite the fact that the volcano hasn’t erupted for almost 800 years, it still attracts Catholic pilgrims to celebrate the Feast of Saint Bartholomew in August each year.
In modern times it’s easy to reach Lipari, by hydrofoil from Messina or Milazzo to enjoy the beautiful landscapes, have lunch at a local restaurant and take part in the festivities of the Feast of Saint Bartholomew if you visit in August. While you’re on Lipari island you can also visit the 16th Century Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew where relics related to his life are exhibited.
The Route Of Seven Churches.
This 16-mile pilgrimage is one of Italy’s most popular Catholic experiences and involves visiting the seven major pilgrim basilicas of the Eternal City. The pilgrimage is originally connected to the medieval custom of visiting the tombs of Saint Peter and Paul as well as the seven jubilee basilicas of Rome.
During the walk, pilgrims and tourists visit the churches of San Pietro, San Paolo Fuori le Mura, San Sebastiano, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura and Santa Maria Maggiore. For anyone who wants to experience a relatively short pilgrimage while visiting some of the most significant Catholic basilicas in the world, the Route of Seven Churches begins on Maundy Thursday each year.
The event usually takes 2 days to complete and incorporates time for prayer and free time to relax along the way. This means that anyone who is reasonably fit can complete the route alongside pilgrims, tourists and religious figures from the Catholic church.
Italy Has A Spectacular Catholic Heritage.
Any visitor to Italy will instantly notice that Italy’s Catholic heritage is deeply entwined into the life of every town and city. What’s more, according to Church statistics, around 95% of Italians are baptized as Catholics making Italy one of the most Catholic nations in the world.
But despite the near ubiquity of Catholicism in Italy, the Italians are extremely open-minded, welcoming and friendly, and do not discriminate against other religious groups. So nobody should feel out of place while exploring the fascinating Catholic heritage of Italy, even if you are not a Catholic or practice a different faith.