Papal Basilica & Catacombs are part of the Seven Churches Pilgrimage. For this little-known tour, you need about half a day. Here’s how to visit three of Rome’s four Papal basilicas in one afternoon and take a trip to the catacombs on Via Appia Antica.
St. Paul, St. John and Santa Maria Maggiore close at 6:30 pm, the catacombs close at 5 pm. These opening times define the time frame for the tour.
In terms of time, it might look something like this: you start at 1 pm with a visit to the Basilica of St. Paul. At 1:30 pm, you’ll walk to the catacombs, arriving at around 2:30. After an hour’s visit, head to the bus stop of line 218 on Via Ardeatina and arrive at the Basilica of St. John at around 4:30.
For the visit of the Basilica, the Holy Stairs and the Baptistery you have one hour and then at 5:30 take the bus 714 direction Termini to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. If you want to make it more comfortable, postpone the visit of the catacombs or the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to another day.
The path is the same as the seven churches pilgrimage. For the section between the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls and the catacombs, the pilgrimage path is very nice – it’s around 3 miles – while one should take public transportation for the rest of the way.
The four Basilicas of the Pope in Rome are St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John and Santa Maria Maggiore. The St. Peter’s Basilica is not part of this tour proposal. Please refer to Vatican in a half day.
How to get to St. Paul
Unfortunately, there are no hop-on-hop buses going to the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls, but it’s well served by public transport. There are bus services and the metro B station San Paolo.
From the Vatican, you can easily take bus 23 either from the bus stop Piazza Risorgimento – between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Ottaviano metro station – or on the Tiber bank, right from Via della Conciliazione, at the Santo Spirito hospital.
Coming from the Coliseum or the Testaccio neighbourhood take the metro line B.
As in many places outside the city walls, an ancient cemetery is located here and the Apostle Paul is said to be buried here. The tomb was immediately the target of worship and in the 3rd century, the first basilica was built.
The current basilica is relatively young. It dates back to 1825, when a fire in 1823 destroyed almost everything. Architecturally, it joins the design of the first basilicas. Here you can imagine what the first St Peter’s Basilica built by Emperor Constantine looked like.
Today, St. Paul outside the walls is the second largest Basilica after St. Peter’s. Because it is not so crowded, a visit is very pleasant. There is a security checkpoint such as at St. Peter’s, but there’s hardly any waiting time.
All Popes are pictured in the Basilica. At the end of the basilica on the right, there is a small cloister, for which entrance fees have to be paid. Next to the basilica there is a branch of the Children’s Hospital Bambin Gesù. During the construction period excavations were secured, which could be dated to the Middle Ages. For the visit of the excavations admission is to be paid.
At the exit of the basilica is a cafeteria and a souvenir shop. You can buy there postage stamps of the Vatican Post and there is a mail box to send letters and postcards with the Vatican Post.
At the basilica begins the “Via delle sette chiese”, a piece of the traditional Seven Churches Pilgrimage. It is about 3 miles on foot to the catacombs on Via Appia Antica. If you like it more comfortable, take the metro to Circo Massimo and from there bus 118 to the catacombs. On Sunday, the line 118 goes very rarely.
If you want to go directly to St. John, take bus 792, which has the stop at the back of the basilica. Another possibility to get to St. John is to take the metro to Termini and change there to line A to San Giovanni. Very nice is to take the metro to the Piramide stop and then tram number 3. Tram 3 will take you on a nice stretch past the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum.
See the map on Google maps>
Green = pilgrimage route, yellow bus = 118 light blue = bus 218 dark blue = bus 714
I have marked the course of the seven churches pilgrimage on the map. If you come out of the Basilica of St. Paul, you have to go to the right and through the park and see on the other side of the road the acute-angled fatigue of a rising road. It’s called Via delle Sette Chiese. The majority of this road is traffic-calmed. The road leads directly to the catacombs.
There are two good ice cream parlors along the way, Gelato Baciato at the first roundabout on the right, the second, La Botega, after the church San Filippo Neri with a park in front of it.
After crossing the ten-lane Via Cristoforo Colombo, it is not far to the catacombs of Domitilla. They are closed on Tuesday. Then come the catacombs of Calixtus. They are closed on Wednesday. Last come the catacombs of St. Sebastian, they are closed on Sunday.
From the catacombs take bus 218. Its terminus is directly in front of the Basilica of St. John. The nearest bus stop near the catacombs is on Via Ardeatina. If you are at the catacombs of St. Sebastian or Calixtus, you can walk through the area of the Calixtus catacombs to the Quo Vadis stop, but the way is considerably longer.
The basilica is called San Giovanni in Laterano or Lateran Basilica. It is the oldest seat of the popes in Rome. The first basilica was built in the 4th century and is, unlike St. Peter and St. Paul, within the city walls.
As for all papal basilicas in Rome, admission to St. John is free. You have to go through a security check at the entrance, as at St. Peter’s, but there are rarely any waiting times. For the basilica, an audio guide is included, which is included in the Omnia card. As in all sacred places in Rome is to observe the dress code, shoulders and knees must be covered.
St. John has undergone a lot of changes over the centuries. This is also recognizable on the façades. Thus, the façade of the present main entrance dates from the 18th century, while the northern façade at the square with the obelisk opposite the Via Merulana dates back to the Middle Ages. To the right is the octagonal baptistery from the 3rd century, possibly the oldest baptistery in Christendom.
Opposite the basilica, by the way, is the sacred staircase, the Scala Santa, on which Jesus was said to have been led to Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. The staircase was transferred to Rome in the 4th century. The Scala Santa is something for early birds. It opens at 6 am and is open until 6:30 pm with an hour for lunch. You slip the 28 steps kneeling and praying upwards. To the right of the sacred staircase is a second staircase, where you can walk up and down normally.
In front of the baptistery of St. Johann is the stop of the bus line 714. In the direction of Termini, the bus stops at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
There, too, there is the usual security check and waiting times can be longer here.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore dates back to the 4th century and it is said that the Madonna herself appeared to Pope Liberius and recommended the place for the construction of the church. The basilica has undergone many changes over the centuries.
Particularly impressive is the view of the Basilica from Via Panisperna, which begins in the Quartier Monti above the Museum of the Trajan’s Markets. By the way, in this street are some restaurants where you can eat quite well.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore has a very good transport links. Here are the hop on hop off buses. The Via Cavour, which runs in front of the Basilica, rises in one direction to the nearby Termini station. In the other direction Via Cavour cuts through the picturesque Monti district and leads to Via dei Fori Imperiali.