What’s Outside the Wall – Top 5 Churches in Italy Outside the Vatican

Italy has earned an international reputation for being a land of grand architecture and religion, with an estimated sixty thousand plus churches scattered throughout the country. Since religion is such an integral part of Italy’s past, present, and future in terms of architecture and history, touring these basilicas and churches is frequently at the top of the wish list for tourists putting together an Italian vacation of a lifetime. But with thousands of stunning examples of history to visit and only days to a couple of weeks to explore, what are the top churches to see in Italy that are outside the Vatican wall?

There is little dispute that one of the most notable religious icons in Italy is the Vatican. It is a relatively small complex to pack as much historical, artistic, and religious punch as it does. Tourists flock to the Vatican in droves to see sights such as Saint Peter’s Basilica, Saint Peter’s Square, the Sistine Chapel, and more. While the area is certainly worth an Italian guided tour, it is not the only church in Italy.

One of the most charming things about Italian churches is their celebrated architectural and historical differences. Basilicas, cathedrals, and churches here can run the gamut in terms of square footage, design, and history, all of which can play an integral part in deciding which top churches in Italy should make the cut on your trip itinerary.

The Top 5 Churches in Italy

The following churches are often considered to be among the top churches in Italy because of their history, design, or a combination of the two. The Vatican is excluded from this list as it is already a universally known destination for tourists. Some of the churches of Italy listed below may be lesser known but are absolutely worth visiting during your trip.

  1. Mark’s Basilica in Venice
  2. Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi
  3. Santa Maria Assunta in Positano
  4. Siena Cathedral
  5. Basilica di Santa Croce in Lecce

St. Mark’s Basilica

This basilica’s stunning structure makes it one of the most frequently visited sites in the city of Venice and one of the top churches in Italy. The opulent design of the church is lavish, with grand arched entryways and an extravagantly artistic roof on the exterior, and a marvelous showing of ancient golden Byzantine mosaics on the interior.

Points of Interest for St. Mark’s Basilica:

  • The church’s nickname is Church of Gold in honor of the thousands of square feet of Byzantine mosaics it features.
  • Breathtaking mosaics are prominent on the exterior and interior of the building, with enough square feet of mosaics to cover an American football field.
  • The Narthex of the church is home to gorgeous religious mosaics featuring key Biblical people and events.
  • The Pala d’Oro Altarpiece is an elaborate work with gold detailing that depicts Biblical people and events.
  • The church’s marble floor is a masterpiece in its own right that is colorfully and intricately patterned.

Basilica Di San Francesco

The Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi is not as obviously grandiose as that of St. Mark’s, but is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that pays homage to one of Italy’s most celebrated saints. The thirteenth-century structure is located in the region of Umbria on the side of a hill. The exterior of the building is impressive but simple, largely mirroring the work of the saint it is named after. The interior of this Italian church is simply stunning with high arched ceilings, intricate details, and hundreds of colorful frescoes.

Points of Interest:

  • The basilica was named and built in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi.
  • The lower church features magnificent frescoes depicting Saint Francis’ and Christ’s lives, and historical fifteenth-century choir stalls.
  • A thirteenth-century altar and a number of colorful frescoes shine brilliantly in the bright and airy upper church.
  • This Italian basilica offers fantastic panoramic views of the lush, green valley below.

Church of Santa Maria Assunta

Amidst the colorful villas and buildings of Positano on the Amalfi Coast, sits the Church of Santa Maria Assunta. The church sits at the base of a hill just yards away from Marina Grande Beach in what is considered the heart of the city. The church’s exterior is largely simple with mostly clean straight lines, except for its iconic dome. This beautiful Italian church’s colorful backdrop of Positano often makes it a wedding destination of choice.

Points of Interest:

  • The church’s dome stands out among its surroundings with tiles of blue, green, and yellow that gleam in the sun.
  • The interior of the church is rich in gold and white Neoclassical design and an iconic Byzantine artwork of the Virgin Mary.
  • The legend of how the Virgin Mary artwork arrived at the church is captivating and is a huge part of its history.
  • This Italian church offers tranquil seaside views of the beach and Mediterranean Sea below.
  • The Festival for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary takes place annually in August.

Siena Cathedral

This thirteenth century cathedral of Siena dominates this small town, with a largely white and black exterior of hard lines and sharp points and a tall bell tower that features black and white striping. The theme of black and white striping, which has deep religious meaning, is continued in the interior to the columns and archways. This Italian church is unique in that much of the artwork is found on the floor rather than the ceiling.

Points of Interest:

  • Almost five dozen marble panels steal the show in the Duomo’s aisles and nave.
  • Renowned artists such as Nicola Pisano contributed magnificent sculpture works to the Duomo that can be seen throughout the cathedral.
  • Visitors can expect to see vibrant frescoes by the likes of Ventura Salimbeni and paintings such as the Madonna del Voto.

Basilica di Santa Croce

The Basilica di Santa Croce in Lecce is one of the crown jewels of the city. It features highly ornate architecture of sharp lines, columns, statues, circular windows, and hundreds of artistic details quickly draw the eye of visitors. Construction of the basilica began in the sixteenth century but was not completed until the early seventeenth century. The interior of this Italian church features grand decorative columns, chandeliers, and a main center aisle.

Points of Interest:

  • Don’t miss the unusual sculptures of griffins, lions, and other symbols on the building’s façade.
  • The interior is filled with paintings that colorfully depict key Biblical events and more than a dozen different altars.
  • The Baroque style seventeenth century altar designed by Francesco Antonio Zimbalo is widely considered to be one of the best expressions of Baroque sculpture in the area.

To venture outside the Vatican wall and discover some of the other top churches in Italy is to see into the country’s proverbial soul. The challenge for avid history and architecture lovers visiting Italy is not finding churches to visit, but finding time to visit all the churches. If your getaway is limited to only a short time, the above top churches in Italy can be a great starting point. For those who have the luxury of an extended stay, consider visiting at least one church in every destination you visit for a remarkable and unparalleled glimpse into the religious history of Italy.

A High-rise Forest in the Center of Milan

Busy cities are often referred to as “urban jungles”, but one of Milan’s modern high-rises gives a whole new meaning to this popular idiom thanks to some uncommon landscaping. In 2014, Italian architect Stefano Boeri unveiled his latest design in Milan’s rising Porta Nuova district; a skyscraper called Bosco Verticale. In English, Bosco Verticale means Vertical Forest, which is an appropriate name considering the construction is composed of two towers that between them incorporate more than 1,000 varieties of plants, shrubs, and trees. The buildings were born out of an ambitious and environmentally noble idea: creating sustainable living spaces that not only foster the natural environment of the city, but regenerate it.

Bosco Verticale’s two towers are of differing heights with the tallest measuring 360 feet and the shortest measuring 260 feet. Staggered balconies extend from every side of the towers to suspend 780 trees and 14,000 plants over the city. Each of the 113 living spaces in the complex includes a private garden with vegetation that not only serves to absorb carbon dioxide, but also to protect the space from dust particles, direct sunlight, harsh winds, and acoustic pollution. In addition, the views from the apartments are spectacular, providing panoramas of Milan, the outskirts of the city, and even the momentous Alps in the distance.

The location of the towers in the Porta Nuova district, near the center of Milan, is not a coincidence. The project aims not only to regenerate the Porta Nuova district, but to shift the planning of Milan’s city center towards a greener future. To aid in this vision, the parking areas for Bosco Verticale have been constructed underground in favor of a pedestrian and cycling area above them that spans 40 acres and features additional vegetation and public spaces. The location of the towers near normal skyscrapers also helps to aesthetically revolutionize the city’s skyline. Not only do the trees and plants of Bosco Verticale stand out amongst the city’s sea of grey, but their visual impact is dynamic; as the seasons change, so too will the buildings since the vegetation will adopt the distinct colors of each season.

Bosco Verticale won the International High-rise Award in 2014, an honor that recognizes the world’s most innovative and sustainable high-rises, which is granted every two years by the city of Frankfurt in conjunction with the German Architecture Museum. The Bosco Verticale design aims to be a new standard for sustainable buildings not only in Italy but throughout the world. Recently, Stefano Boeri announced that another tower in the style of Bosco Verticale, but with cedar trees, will be constructed in Lausanne, Switzerland. Currently, there are no plans to implement the design in other parts of Italy, but Parma, Siena, and Bolzano (considered to be three of Italy’s greenest cities) could be perfect candidates for the expansion of this architectural and environmental innovation.

Italian Monuments: Nuraghe Santu Antine in Sardinia, Italy

nuraghe, SardiniaThe Sardinia region has a distinct culture that sets it apart from other regions in Italy, as evidenced by the island’s particular cuisine, language, and traditions. These differences are mostly a result of geography; since the island is physically separated from the rest of the  Italian peninsula, its history has unfolded in different ways. One symbol of Sardinia’s unique culture is the nuraghe, an ancient cone-shaped structure composed of large stones that can only be found in Sardinia. The nuraghi were constructed by the Nuragic people, a prehistoric civilization that lived exclusively in Sardinia from the 18th century BC to the 2nd century AD. Though 7,000 examples of these massive structures can be admired in Sardinia today, not much is actually known about the nuraghi or the Nuragic civilization. Continue reading "Italian Monuments: Nuraghe Santu Antine in Sardinia, Italy"

Ponte delle Torri – A bridge between two fortresses

Spoleto_Umbria_Rocca_castle_bridge_of_the_Towers_blgIn a large gorge south of Spoleto, an imposing limestone bridge arises from a sea of lush vegetation. The precise, man-made structure juxtaposes with the wild, organic flora that surrounds it to create a breathtaking panorama unforgettable to those who have the chance to admire it. Spoleto’s Ponte delle Torri (Bridge of Towers) is not only the most iconic symbol of the city, but for centuries it has been an inspiration to countless poets and artists (from famed German writer Johann Goethe to British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, and many more).

Continue reading "Ponte delle Torri – A bridge between two fortresses"