Italy has a dizzying number of majestic cathedrals, many with spectacular works of art inside. A cathedral is a city's main church and is usually called the duomo. But it can also can be called a basilica, cattedrale or chiesa madre (mainly in the south). While most cathedrals do not charge admission there are a few that do and almost every cathedral and lesser church in Italy has a place for donations.
While you might not get to all of these Italian cities on your tour of the peninsula, lovers of history, art and architecture will find cathedrals are reason enough to go. Here are our picks for the top cathedrals to see in Italy.
We'll start with a disclaimer: St. Peter's Basilica is not located in Italy. People tend to think of St. Peter's as a cathedral of Rome, but it's actually within Vatican City, a tiny country contained entirely within Rome city limits. It is the seat of the Pope and Catholicism. Of course, you wouldn't think of visiting Rome and not visiting St. Peter's, particularly if you've never seen it before, so we've included it on this list.
See our complete guide to visiting St. Peter's Basilica.
Florence's Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Fiore, usually referred to as il duomo, is probably Italy's most famous cathedral. Brunelleschi's Dome was a masterpiece of construction and its interior is covered in frescoes. You can climb to the top of the Dome for good views. The cathedral's exterior is made of pink, white, and green marble with 44 magnificent stained glass windows. Duomo admission is free but there are charges for visiting the crypt, dome, and other affiliated sites.
Milan Cathedral - Duomo di Milano
It took almost 600 years to complete, and today Milan's cathedral remains Italy's largest Gothic cathedral and one of Europe's largest churches. It's one of my favorites for the amazing rooftop visit where you'll see not only great views of the city but get a close look at some of the 135 spires and 3200 statues that adorn the cathedral. The cathedral also has beautiful stained glass windows, several impressive sarcophagi, and two large organs. Admission is free but there is a charge to visit the rooftop and archaeological area.
See our complete Milan Travel Guide.
Basilica San Marco, Venice's cathedral, is a mixture of Byzantine and western styles. Named after Venice's patron saint, Saint Mark, the cathedral's stunning mosaic-covered domes are a focal point of Saint Mark's Square. Byzantine mosaics, mostly from the 11th - 13th centuries, and paintings by top Venetian artists adorn the interior. Admission is free, but there are charges to access various parts of the basilica complex.
Siena Cathedral - Duomo di Siena
The 13th-century duomo of Siena is one of Italy's top Gothic cathedrals. Its black and white facade is decorated with intricate carvings and statues, while inside are many artworks including beautiful frescoes and floor mosaics. Artists whose works you'll see include Michelangelo, Pisano, Donatello, and Pinturicchio. Most spectacular are the stunning marble floor mosaics dating from the 14th-16th centuries. Admission to the duomo starts at around €8, and then goes up depending on how many of the complex's sites you wish to visit. The crypt and baptistery are very interesting, and the Gate of Heaven Tour, to the upper levels of the duomo, is spectacular.
See our complete Siena Travel Guide.
Orvieto's medieval cathedral is known for its gleaming mosaic-covered facade and is one of Italy's top Romanesque - Gothic masterpieces. Also of note are the large bronze doors, statues adorning the exterior, and two interior chapels with beautiful frescoes. The cathedral is also stunning because of its setting, sitting atop a tufa ridge.
See our Orvieto Travel Guide.
The 12th-century duomo of Modena is one of Italy's top Romanesque cathedrals and most recently became the final resting place of popular tenor Luciano Pavarotti. The exterior is adorned with Romanesque figures depicting scenes from the Bible and inside treasures include mosaics, a 13th-century marble parapet portraying the Passion of the Christ, and two terra cotta nativity scenes from the 15th and 16th centuries. The cathedral, along with the bell tower and Piazza Grande, has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
S ee our Modena Travel Guide.
While people associate Pisa with the leaning tower, all the Romanesque monuments on the Campo dei Miracoli, Field of Miracles, are spectacular and make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The white duomo dates from 1063 with a facade built in the 12th century. Inside are a great marble pulpit and several important artworks.
Assisi - Saint Francis Basilica
The Umbria town of Assisi and the Basilica di San Francesco are famous as the home of Saint Francis, Italy's patron saint. The tomb of Saint Francis is housed in the basilica, a popular pilgrimage site. Built into a hillside, the basilica is made of two churches, the lower and upper, and outside is a large portico. Both churches are richly decorated with frescoes by medieval artists. Although badly damaged by an earthquake in 1997, most of the church has been restored although some frescoes were lost. Saint Francis Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
See our Assisi Travel Guide.
Parma Cathedral - Duomo di Parma
Parma's 12th century cathedral is another great example of a Romanesque church. The ceiling frescoes have been recently restored and are an amazing site. Lion statues flank the entrance and the bell tower is topped with a gilded copper angel. Its octagonal dome is unusual for a church from that era.
See our Parma Travel Guide.