The Cathedral of Rome – Italy’s first church 

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The Cathedral of Rome – Italy’s first church 

The Cathedral of Rome is one of the city's most visited attractions

By Cynthia Graham

The chair of the Pope in the Cathedral of Rome

The Chair of the Pope

Also known as the Cathedral of RomeArcibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano is deservedly ranked fifth of historical attractions to see in the Eternal City. Although technically not part of Rome but an extension of the Vatican State, the cathedral is the seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome (only the Pope can use the high altar). 

The history of the Cathedral of Rome dates back to 312 AD when Emperor Constantine gave the land to the church (there is a statue of Constantine outside to the left of the entrance). According to an ancient tradition, Arcibasilica di San Giovanni is called “the Mother of All Churches Rome and the world ” and is the oldest church in the west. 

Inside (dress code in effect: no bare shoulders or short shorts), visitors are greeted by countless beautiful artworks and treasures, floor-to-ceiling, including the 12 larger than life sculptures of the Apostles located in the center nave. Two historical items to look for are the wood table in the high altar, believed to be the table that was used for the last supper. It is also said the silver container above the high altar holds the skulls of the Apostle’s Peter and Paul. Also worth seeing are the six surviving papal tombs. 

Before becoming too distracted, head to the front of the church and look for the desk near the main altar where you can rent an audio tour. These useful tools provide a treasure-trove of information and are available in five languages (English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish). You’ll learn fascinating facts such as how the church was in constant use from the 4th to the 14th centuries only to sit abandoned for many years before being completely restored by Francesco Borromini in 1650.  

Other highlights of a visit include the massive pipe organ at the front of the church. The largest pipe is eight feet tall and weighs more than 400 pounds. Currently, there are two organist and 32 singers in the choir.  

The Cathedral's San Giovanni nave

The Cathedral’s San Giovanni nave

Mass is held daily, with the possibility of special mass for groups of pilgrims (this needs to be arranged in advance, so visit their website for the full schedule and to arrange mass for groups of visitors). The church can also be visited virtually thanks to the 360° panoramas of the major points of interest found at this beautiful attraction, providing a perfect way to become familiar with the church before visiting. 

Across the street from the cathedral is Scala Santa where the 28 marble steps Jesus climbed are located. Known as the Holy Stairs, they were brought here from Jerusalem by Constantine’s mother. Many pilgrims choose to pray here and even climb the steps on their knees (no reservation required). There are also prayer books available in eight languages for a small fee (visit the Scala Santa website at for further details). 

To learn more about the Cathedral of Rome, visit the attraction’s website at 


Contributor Cynthia Graham is currently on a nine-month, 10-country tour across Europe. Her award winning blog is ranked in the top 1,000 travel blogs (currently # 221). Find her on Twitter at @lovetravelingto; Facebook:; and on her blog: 




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