Liepa Valiulytė

Exploring San Giovanni in Laterano

Explore San Giovanni in Laterano, a cornerstone of Christian history and architecture in Rome's San Giovanni district.

Attraction San Giovanni
San Giovanni in Laterano Basilica in Rome


The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is the oldest and highest-ranking of the four papal basilicas in Rome. It is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Pope. It was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine and dedicated to Christ the Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. In this article, you will learn about the history, architecture, art and treasures of this magnificent church, which has witnessed many important events in the history of Christianity.

Setting Expectations: Downsides and Time Considerations

The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is a must-see for anyone interested in the history and culture of Rome and the Catholic Church. However, there are some drawbacks and challenges that you should be aware of before visiting. Here are some of them:

  • The basilica is located outside the historical center of Rome, about 4 kilometers from the Vatican City. You will need to take public transportation or a taxi to get there.
  • The basilica is often crowded with tourists, pilgrims and worshippers, especially during religious festivals and ceremonies. You may have to wait in line to enter or to see some of the attractions inside.
  • The basilica is undergoing constant restoration and maintenance work, which may affect the visibility and accessibility of some parts of the church. You may also encounter scaffolding, dust and noise during your visit.
  • The basilica is very large and complex, with many chapels, cloisters, museums and other structures. You will need at least two hours to explore it thoroughly, or more if you want to see everything in detail.

Tips for your visit of San Giovanni in Laterano

To make the most of your visit to San Giovanni in Laterano, here are some tips and recommendations that you should follow:

  • The Holy Door: The basilica has a special door that is only opened during Jubilee years, which occur every 25 years. The last one was in 2016. If you pass through this door, you can receive a plenary indulgence, which is a remission of temporal punishment for sins. The door is located on the right side of the façade.
  • The Papal Throne: The basilica has a magnificent papal throne made of marble and bronze, which is located in the apse behind the main altar. It is decorated with statues of saints and angels, and has a canopy supported by four columns. The throne symbolizes the authority of the Pope as the Bishop of Rome and the successor of Saint Peter.
  • The Cosmatesque Floor: The basilica has a stunning floor made of marble, porphyry and other precious stones, arranged in geometric patterns. It was created by the Cosmati family, a group of Roman artisans who specialized in this technique in the 12th and 13th centuries. The floor covers almost the entire nave and transept of the church.
  • The Cloister: The basilica has a beautiful cloister that dates back to the 13th century. It is surrounded by arcades with twisted columns and decorated with mosaics, frescoes and sculptures. It is a peaceful oasis where you can admire the architecture and art of the medieval period.

Additional tips or recommendations for visitors are:

  • Check the official website for opening hours, admission fees and other information before visiting.
  • Dress modestly and respectfully when entering the church, covering your shoulders and knees.
  • Do not take photos or videos inside the church, unless you have permission from the staff.
  • Do not touch or damage any of the artworks or objects inside the church.
  • Be quiet and respectful when inside the church, especially during mass or prayer times.

Practical Information

Opening Hours: The basilica is open daily from 7 am to 6:30 pm. The sacristy is open from 8 am to 12 pm and from 4 pm to 6 pm. The baptistery is open from 7 am to 12:30 pm and from 4 pm to 7 pm. The museum is open from 10 am to 5:30 pm.

How to Get There: The basilica is located on Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. You can take the metro line A to San Giovanni station, or take bus number 16, 81, 85, 87, 116, 810 or C16.

Price: The entrance to the basilica is free, but you need to pay a fee to access some of the attractions inside, such as the cloister, the museum and the holy stairs. The fee is €10 for adults, €7.50 for students and seniors, and €5 for children under 18.

Crowds: The basilica is very popular among tourists, pilgrims and locals, especially during religious holidays and events. It can get very crowded and noisy inside, so you may want to avoid peak times and seasons.

Weather Considerations: The basilica is open all year round, but the weather in Rome can vary depending on the season. In summer, it can get very hot and humid, so you may want to bring water, sunscreen and a hat. In winter, it can get cold and rainy, so you may want to bring a jacket, an umbrella and warm clothes.

Photography: Photography is not allowed inside the basilica, unless you have permission from the staff. You can take photos outside the church, but be respectful of the people and the place.

Accessibility: The basilica is accessible for people with disabilities, as it has ramps, elevators and adapted restrooms. However, some parts of the church may not be accessible or may require assistance, such as the cloister, the museum and the holy stairs.

Facilities: The basilica has a gift shop where you can buy souvenirs, books and religious items. It also has a cafeteria where you can buy snacks and drinks. There are restrooms available inside the church.

Tours: The basilica offers guided tours in different languages for groups and individuals. You can book a tour online or at the ticket office. The tour lasts about an hour and covers the main highlights of the church.

Bringing Children: The basilica is suitable for children of all ages, as it has many interesting and educational features.

Bringing Pets: Pets are not allowed inside the basilica, unless they are service animals. You may want to leave them at home or find a pet-friendly accommodation nearby.

These details are subject to change; please check the official website for the latest information

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who was St. John Lateran?

    St. John Lateran is not a person, but a title given to the church that was built over the tomb of St. John the Baptist, who was martyred in Rome under Emperor Domitian.

  • Why is San Giovanni in Laterano important?

    San Giovanni in Laterano is important because it is the oldest and largest church in Rome, and it has been the seat of the Roman Catholic Church since 1587, when Pope Sixtus V moved his residence there from the Vatican. It also contains many relics, artworks, and treasures that are part of the papal collection.

  • How to visit San Giovanni in Laterano?

    Visiting San Giovanni in Laterano is free, but you need to buy a ticket for each area you want to enter. The ticket for the basilica includes access to all its museums and chapels, such as the treasury, where you can see ancient coins and jewels; the cloister, where you can admire frescoes and sculptures; and the baptistery, where you can see a magnificent mosaic floor. The ticket for each museum or chapel costs between 3 and 5 euros. You can also buy an audio guide for an extra fee.

  • When is the best time to visit Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano?

    The best time to visit San Giovanni in Laterano depends on your preferences and interests. If you want to avoid crowds and enjoy a more peaceful atmosphere, you can visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon. If you want to see more light and colors, you can visit during daylight hours or during special events such as festivals or concerts. If you want to see more historical and artistic highlights, you can visit during special exhibitions or guided tours.

  • Who is buried at Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano?

    San Giovanni in Laterano has buried many popes since its foundation in 324 AD. Some of them are: Pope Leo I (440-461), who built part of the basilica; Pope Gregory I (590-604), who added many mosaics; Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), who initiated a reform movement; Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644), who commissioned many paintings; Pope Clement XI (1700-1723), who expanded the treasury; Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), who saved Jews during World War II; Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), who canonized St. Faustina Kowalska; and Pope Francis (2013-present), who visited several times.

  • What is the Basilica of St. John Lateran dress code?

    The dress code for visiting San Giovanni in Laterano is simple: no shorts, skirts above knee length, sleeveless tops, hats or sunglasses are allowed inside1. You should also remove your shoes before entering any area except for your own room if you have booked one.

  • Is there a baptistery in Laterano?

    Yes, there is a baptistery inside San Giovanni in Laterano. It was built by Emperor Constantine I after he converted to Christianity during his victory over Maxentius at Milvian Bridge. It has a circular plan with four niches containing statues of saints: St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John Evangelist, and St. John Baptist.

  • Is there a papal chapel Sancta Sanctorum at San Giovanni in Laterano?

    Yes, there is a papal chapel called Sancta Sanctorum inside San Giovanni in Laterano. It was built by Pope Sixtus V as his private chapel where he could pray without being disturbed by visitors or servants2. It has a simple design with two rows of wooden benches facing an altar with frescoes depicting scenes from Christ’s life.

Historical Background

The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is the oldest and highest-ranking of the four papal basilicas in Rome. It is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Pope. It was founded by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD and dedicated to Christ the Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. The basilica has witnessed many important events in the history of Christianity, such as papal coronations, councils, and synods. It has also suffered from fires, earthquakes, invasions, and plundering, and has been rebuilt and renovated several times over the centuries.

The current appearance of the basilica is mostly due to the Baroque and Neoclassical interventions in the 17th and 18th centuries. The façade was designed by Alessandro Galilei in 1735 and features 15 colossal statues of Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and 12 doctors of the Church. The interior has five naves with rich decorations, including frescoes, mosaics, sculptures, and paintings. The main altar contains the relics of the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, while the apse houses the cathedra or chair of the Pope. The basilica also boasts a magnificent cloister from the 13th century, a baptistery from the 5th century, and a museum that displays precious liturgical objects and artworks.

Lesser known stories and Interesting Facts

  • The Holy Stairs

    Adjacent to the basilica is a building that contains a staircase of 28 marble steps, known as the Scala Sancta or Holy Stairs. According to tradition, these are the stairs that Jesus climbed on his way to Pontius Pilate's trial in Jerusalem. They were brought to Rome by Saint Helena, Constantine's mother, in the 4th century. Pilgrims who wish to ascend the stairs must do so on their knees, while praying and meditating on Christ's passion. The stairs are covered by wooden planks to protect them from wear and tear, but some openings allow glimpses of the original marble and stains of blood.

  • The Sancta Sanctorum

    At the top of the Holy Stairs is a small chapel called the Sancta Sanctorum or Holy of Holies. It was once the private oratory of the popes and contained many relics and sacred images. The most venerated one is a painting of Christ attributed to Saint Luke, known as the Acheiropoieton or not made by human hands. The painting is hidden behind a silver cover that is only opened on special occasions. The walls and ceiling of the chapel are covered by Byzantine-style mosaics from the 13th century that depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

  • The Lateran Obelisk

    In front of the basilica stands an ancient Egyptian obelisk, the largest in Rome and the tallest in the world. It was originally erected by Pharaoh Thutmose III in Karnak around 1500 BC. It was brought to Rome by Emperor Constantius II in 357 AD and placed in the Circus Maximus. It fell and broke into pieces during a barbarian invasion in the 6th century. It was rediscovered and restored by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 and relocated to its present location. The obelisk is 32 meters high (45 with the base) and weighs about 455 tons. It is decorated with hieroglyphs that glorify Thutmose III and his grandson Rameses II.

  • The Lateran Palace

    Next to the basilica is a complex of buildings that once formed the Lateran Palace, the residence of the popes from the 4th to the 14th century. The palace was named after the Laterani family, who owned it before it was confiscated by Emperor Nero. The palace hosted many historical events, such as councils, conclaves, treaties, and artistic patronage. It also housed a library, an archive, a treasury, a prison, and a mint. The palace was damaged by fires and earthquakes several times and was eventually abandoned by the popes when they moved to Avignon in 1309. Today, it hosts several offices of the Holy See and some museums.

  • The Lateran Baptistery

    Behind the basilica is a circular building that is the oldest and most important baptistery in Rome. It was built by Constantine in the 4th century and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of baptism. The baptistery has an octagonal shape, symbolizing the eighth day of the resurrection, and is surrounded by eight porphyry columns that support a dome. The interior has a large baptismal font, where converts were immersed in water three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The baptistery also has several chapels that display mosaics, frescoes, and sculptures from different periods.

Nearby Restaurants

  • Trattoria Luzzi A cozy and family-run restaurant that serves traditional Roman cuisine, such as pasta carbonara, cacio e pepe, and saltimbocca. The portions are generous and the prices are reasonable.
  • Pizzeria da Remo A popular and lively pizzeria that offers thin and crispy Roman-style pizza with various toppings. The menu also includes appetizers, salads, and desserts. The service is fast and friendly.
  • Hostaria Isidoro A refined and elegant restaurant that specializes in seafood dishes, such as grilled octopus, spaghetti with clams, and fried calamari. The quality is high and the atmosphere is romantic.

Nearby Attractions

  • The Colosseum The iconic and impressive amphitheater that was the scene of gladiator fights, animal hunts, and public spectacles in ancient Rome. It is one of the most visited monuments in the world and a symbol of the Eternal City.
  • The Roman Forum The ancient heart of Rome, where political, religious, and social activities took place. It is a vast area of ruins that include temples, basilicas, arches, and monuments that testify to the glory and history of Rome.
  • The Palatine Hill The legendary birthplace of Rome, where Romulus founded the city after killing his brother Remus. It is also the site of the imperial palaces, where emperors and aristocrats lived in luxury and splendor.


The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is a must-see attraction for anyone who wants to discover the rich and fascinating history of Rome and Christianity. It is not only a magnificent architectural masterpiece, but also a treasure trove of art, culture, and spirituality. Visiting the basilica and its surroundings will give you a deeper insight into the past and present of Rome, as well as a memorable experience that you will cherish for a lifetime.