When in Rome: The top ten churches for your spiritual journey

Santa Maria del Popolo church

Beyond the cavernous splendour of St Peter's, the Eternal City has an incomparable wealth of beautiful churches. But the typical first-time tourist is apt to make the wrong choice of visits, writes Ute Junker for traveller.com.au.

Here's where most-first time visitors to Rome get it wrong: they head straight for St Peter's Cathedral. St Peter's is a magnificent building, containing superb works of art; however its size – not to mention the size of the crowds – can be so overwhelming, visitors don't set foot in another church for the rest of their visit.

And that's a shame, because for 1600 years, building churches is what Rome did. If you wanted your church to get noticed, you had to make it pretty extraordinary, which is why today, there are churches built into and over Roman ruins, decorated with human bones, and hung with museum-quality art. 

Here are our 10 favourite churches in Rome. Some are well known; most are off the tourist trail; but you won't have to queue at a single one.

For ancient ruins Visit Basilica di San Clemente

Rome is like millefeuille pastry, where the past is piled layer upon layer. Stick a shovel in the ground and you are literally digging up history. The 12th-century Basilica di San Clemente, for instance, sits above a 4th-century church, built in turn above a 2nd-century pagan temple and a 1st-century Roman house.

What makes San Clemente special is that here you can explore one layer after another. Take a walk around the street-level basilica first: particularly lovely is the striking mosaic showing Christ on a crucifix that turns into a living tree.

Take the stairs on the right side down to the fourth century church, damaged beyond repair during a Norman attack in the 11th century. The frescoes you see depict scenes from the life of Saint Clement, and are 1000 years old. From here, another set of stairs takes you down to the shrine of the Persian god Mithras, whose altar depicts the god slaying a bull. The sound of running water comes from drains dating back to the Roman republic.

For glittering mosaics Basilica di Santa Prassede

The small but sumptuous Basilica di Santa Prassede, one of Rome's oldest surviving churches, is remarkable for its dazzling Byzantine mosaics, and for the medieval power plays that lie behind them. 

Santa Prassede was part of a 9th-century building boom launched by Pope Paschal, in a campaign to replace the city's decrepit churches, many of which were by then 400 years old... 

Read full article: Rome's 10 best churches to visit for tourists: The ultimate Catholic gilt trip (traveller.com.au)

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