San Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)

Address: Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, 00184, Italy
Telephone: 06 69886493

- Free


Rome's cathedral was Christianity's first ever basilica church.

Soon after legalising Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century, Emperor Constantine donated the land where San Giovanni stands to this new sect. Note the location: this was as far from the centre (and the centre of power) that you could get in the city without exiting through the walls – Constantine was clearly hedging his bets. But Christianity was here to stay, and this first basilica-church continues to be of prime importance. This is Rome's cathedral and the Roman (as opposed to the Vatican) base of the pope, whose titles include Bishop of Rome. 

San Giovanni's 18th-century facade, with its 15 massive roof-top figures of Christ, Johns the Evangelist and Baptist plus doctors of the church, is visible from all over Rome. But burnt to the ground, sacked and destroyed by earthquake over the ages, nothing remains of the original basilica; indeed little dates from before the 18th-century makeovers which gave it its current over-decorated barn-like appearance. There is, however, a fragment of a work by Renaissance trailblazer Giotto on the first column on the right and a 13th-century mosaic (much restored) in the apse. Loveliest of all, I think, is the 13th-century cloister (2 euros), accessed from the left aisle, with its delicate twisted columns.

Much more ancient altogether is the basilica's baptistry, on the north side, whose bronze doors are believed to have come from the Baths of Caracalla, and where the chapel mosaics date from the 5th to the 7th centuries. 

Also on this piazza is the Sancta Sanctorum (6.15am-noon, 3-8pm daily, 3.50 euros), containing the steps which Christ is said to have ascended on his way to defend himself before Pontius Pilate, plus what used to be the pope's private chapel. 

Value for money

Expert tips

On May 1, Italy's trade unions organise a huge free rock concert on the square outside the basilica.

Recommended for

  • Backpackers / Students
  • Culture vultures
  • Families with teenagers
  • First-time travellers
  • Seasoned travellers
  • Education