San Giovanni in Laterano

Contrary to popular belief (which wants it to be St. Peter's), the Cattedrale di San Giovanni in Laterano (Cathedral of St. John Lateran) is the cathedral of Rome

The facade of San Giovanni in Laterano a Roma
The facade of San Giovanni in Laterano a Roma.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this massive, basilican church is as an answer to the Roman trivia trick question: What's the cathedral of Rome? (Hint: It's not St. Peter's, which is merely a holy basilica on Vatican property.)

Yes, this is where the Pope holds down his day job as bishop of Rome. (Being the pontifex maximus, or head pontiff, of the entire church and sovereign head of state for the theocracy known as the Vatican is merely a perk for the priest who holds the Rome bishopric.)

Why the cathedral is not very famous (at least to tourists)

The cathedral of Rome is, oddly, one of the least interesting of the city's grand churches. San Giovanni in Laterano has an illustrious history—founded by Constantine himself as the first Christian basilica in Rome in AD 313, and the model for all Christian basilicas.

However, after going through some seven cycles of destruction and rebuilding (due to fires, earthquakes, barbarians, or simple wholesale remodeling), today's basilica is primarily a Borromini construction of the 1640s—and even parts of that were destroyed and had to be restored following a 1993 bombing.

A quick tour of St. John in Lateran

Giotto's Boniface VIII Proclaiming Rome's first Giubileo in 1300 in San Giovanni in Laterano a Roma
Giotto's Boniface VIII Proclaiming Rome's first Jubilee in 1300.

The massive facade by Alessandro Galilei is made of stacked porticoes with a line of colossal saints, apostles, and Christ standing along the top.

The gargantuan interior (230 feet long) has a unified decorative scheme designed by the noted baroque architect Borromini and a fine medieval Cosmatesque floor of marble and stone chips inlaid in geometric patterns.

On the aisle side of the first pillar on the right is a fresco by the proto-Renaissance genius Giotto—all that survives of a series of frescoes the master painted here in the early 14th century.

The scene shows Pope Boniface VIII proclaiming the first Jubilee Holy Year on this very spot in 1300. This is significant not only because Giotto was a contemporary of the pope's, but also because that event pretty much kick-started modern tourism to Rome (pilgrims came first; sightseers followed), leading to a boom in taverns, inns, and souvenir stalls that really hasn't abated ever since.

Il chiostro di San Giovanni in Laterano a Roma
The cloisters at San Giovanni in Laterano.
The cloisters off the left transept (adm) are a peaceful oasis amid the bustle of Rome, a quadrangle of twisty columns inlaid with Cosmati stoneworks and the walls lined with fragments from earlier incarnations of this cathedral.

...Don't forget the holy steps

Across the street from the cathedral and to the left a bit is a small chapel-like structure housing the Scala Santa, the legendary staircase Jesus descended after being condemned by Pontius Pilate. » more

Tips & links


Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano
tel. +39-06-6988-6433


Church: daily 7am–6:30pm
Cloisters: daily 9am–6pm


Church: Free

Cloister: Free

How long does San Giovanni take?

Planning your day: You can wander the cathedral in a quick 20–30 minutes, but it is kind of out in the sticks—at the southern edge of the city center, by the San Giovanni Metro stop—so add another 15 minutes each way to get here and back. Add another 15–20 minutes to see the nearby Scala Santa. » Rome itineraries

San Giovanni tours
Mass at San Giovanni

You can attend services at St. John Lateran Monday to Saturday hourly from 7am to noon, plus 7:20am and 5pm (6pm July-Aug); Sundays hourly 7am–noon and at 6pm (plus at 5pm except in July and August, and Saturdays at 4:30pm except in August)

Rome tours

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Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano

Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano
tel. +39-06-6988-6433


Church: daily 7am–6:30pm
Cloisters: daily 9am–6pm


Church: Free

Cloister: Free


Bus: 16, 81, 85, 87, 571, 650, 665, 673, 56, 186, 218, 360, 590, 810, N1
Metro: S. Giovanni (B)
Hop-on/hop-off: Colosseo


Train tix

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