Buongiorno and welcome to Stefano’s RomeCabs, Rome’s leading company for Italy private tours since 2004. We’ve toured tens of thousands of international travelers on our private tours from Rome to Italy’s top destinations, and Day Tours from Rome to Assisi is always one of our most popular tours.
Assisi is one of the most beautiful Medieval towns in Italy and a top destination on tours to Umbria from Rome, but what attracts so many visitors are the magnificent churches and basilicas in Assisi that invite pilgrims and tourists alike. It’s quite possible to enjoy the highlights of Assisi and visit its major churches on just one day trip from Rome.
Because Assisi is situated on a slope, our tours by car make it so easy and convenient to visit Assisi with your private driver taking you to both the lower part of Assisi to visit the remarkable St Francis Basilica, to the upper part of Assisi for most of the other churches and basilicas, as well as further outside of town to visit the captivating monastery of San Damiano.
In this article, we feature the 7 best famous churches in Assisi, Italy. While most of the churches featured here are also included in our Assisi tour itinerary, it’s possible to visit all of them on day tours from Rome to Assisi (with the exception of 1 special church in the list which is not always open, but it merits a visit if you are fortunate enough to find it open).
The first of the best famous churches in Assisi is Saint Francis Basilica (Basilica di San Francesco), recognized as the large and distinctive structure that defines the skyline of Assisi as you approach this town on the slope of Mount Subasio.
This Papal minor basilica is one of the most significant sites of Christian pilgrimages in Italy. Its construction right into the side of a hill began in 1228 immediately after the canonization of the beloved saint, and it is comprised of two churches: the Upper Basilica and the Lower Basilica.
This hill upon which the basilica was built was not selected haphazardly. During Francis’ life, this hill was known as Colle d’Inferno (Hell Hill) as it was here where criminals were executed. This land was then donated by Simone di Pucciarello to the church to build the basilica, transforming it into the Hill of Paradise.
Both the upper and lower basilicas are beautifully and richly decorated with frescoes painted by some of the top late-medieval painters such as Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini. The basilicas are distinctive in their architecture and frescoes, therefore it merits visiting both to fully appreciate the beauty of this remarkable basilica.
Underground is the crypt where the remains of Saint Francis are interred. Saint Francis Basilica has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
Second among the best famous churches in Assisi is the Basilica of Saint Clare (Basilica di Santa Chiara). Saint Clare was the female counterpart to St Francis’ Franciscan movement. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition. Following her death, the order has been renamed the Order of Saint Clare (more commonly referred to as the Poor Clares).
This remarkable yet unassuming Romanesque basilica with a facade of alternating pink and white stone and massive lateral supporting arches began construction on October 3, 1260 under the direction of one of the most prominent architects of the era: Filippo Campello. Saint Clare’s remains were transferred from the chapel of San Giorgio and entombed undisclosed beneath the high altar of the new basilica dedicated to the saint, hidden from everyone for six centuries.
After a prolonged search for the saint’s missing remains, they were discovered in 1850 and transferred to a shrine in the crypt of the basilica that was created specifically to house and honor the revered remains of the saint for all to see. Behind a grate, visitors can also see relics of St Francis and St Claire.
Notable in the otherwise austere interior is the Cappella del Crocifisso (Chapel of the Crucifix) located on the right-hand side of the nave. Here hangs the famous wooden crucifix that allegedly spoke to Saint Francis in San Damian telling him: Francis, go and repair my church which, as you see, is all in ruins! (See more about the Miracle of Saint Francis at San Damiano below).
According to Franciscan references, in the year 1205, a miracle took place inside the once rundown church of San Damiano when Francis was inspired to enter and pray in front of a crucifix. While kneeling in prayer, Francis is said to have heard a voice speak to him from the crucifix and told him three times: Francis, go and repair my church which, as you see, is all in ruin!
Francis took the instructions literally and made it his mission to physically repair the church, even though the divine word was referring to restoring the state of the Church as a religion. This crucifix now hangs inside Cappella del Crocifisso of the Basilica of Saint Clare.
In 1212, San Damiano was later converted into a convent for Saint Clare and her followers to live in their own religious community. Francis was also lodged here during his long illness, and in 1225 he composed his Canticle of the Sun.
They remained here until Clare’s death in 1253, after which, the Poor Clares donated San Damiano in exchange for the Church of San Giorgio where Saint Clare was buried before being transferred to the Basilica of Saint Clare. San Damiano then became home to a community of friars and, in 1900, it was donated to the religious community.
San Damiano is open to the public for visits. The refectory on the lower level is still in its original state with a fresco depicting the visit of Pope Gregory IX when he asked Clare to bless the loaves which resulted in crosses miraculously appearing on the loaves. Upstairs was Saint Clare’s Oratory where the Blessed Sacrament was kept. Next to it was the dormitory with a cross marking the place where Clare passed away on August 11, 1253.
The Cathedral of San Rufino is a major church in Assisi dedicated to Rufinus of Assisi (Rufino in Italian), who was the first bishop of this city who converted Assisi to Christianity and was martyred in the 3rd century nearby in Costano.
This impressive Umbrian Romanesque cathedral we admire today was the 3rd church built on this site to contain the remains of Saint Rufino. The construction of this church began in 1140 with a facade that obscures its dome when viewed from the square on which it stands. The facade, which was built with local stones from Monte Subasio, is a fine example of the 12th-century churches of Umbria.
While simple in its design and unassuming to the average traveler, this cathedral is quite important in the history of the Franciscan order.
In this church, both Saint Francis and Saint Clare were baptized (in 1182 and 1193), along with many of their original disciples. Also baptized here was Federick II. The baptismal font is located to the right of the entrance.
It was in this church that Francis preached in 1209 that inspired Clare to realize her calling.
The high altar was consecrated in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX when he visited Assisi for the canonization of Saint Francis. In 1253, the church was inaugurated by Pope Innocent IV. Decorations from the previous older church are still visible in the crypt that houses the remains of Saint Rufino.
Adjacent to the cathedral is the Museo Diocesano e Cripta di San Rufino (Museum of the Cathedral and Crypt of San Rufino) which contains works associated with the cathedral along with frescoes, triptychs, religious works, and archaeological elements.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is one of the more unique churches in Assisi. The church is actually inside the ancient 1st century BC Roman Temple of Minerva as the main square of Assisi used to be an ancient Roman forum.
The temple itself may have been originally dedicated to Hercules due to a dedication stone to this demi-god being discovered. The attribution to Minerva may have been due to a female statue that was also found on site.
After the Roman Empire ceased, the temple remained abandoned until the second half of the 5th century when Benedictine monks restored the building to use it. In the Middle Ages, the temple housed a tribunal with an annexed jail.
By 1539, Pope Paul III ordered the Temple of Minerva to be restored and dedicated to Saint Mary…. Taking the name “Santa Maria Sopra Minerva” (Saint Mary above Minerva). In the 17th century, the church was again renovated in the lavish Baroque style of powder blue walls, trompe-l’oeil paintings, sculpted angels, and an abundance of elaborate gilded decorative elements. In 1918 the church was entrusted to the Friars of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis.
The facade of the church is actually the ancient temple with six Corinthian columns that support the architrave and a small pediment. The temple was admired by the German poet Goethe who, during his travels through Italy, noted that this was the first ancient structure he’s ever seen in good condition.
When you visit Assisi and find yourself in Piazza del Comune, enter the temple and prepare yourself to be dazzled by this small jewel box church.
Santa Maria delle Rose is a unique church as unlike the other churches in Assisi, this 12th-century church is now deconsecrated. This simple structure is tucked away on a side street built on foundations provided by a Roman terrace that boasts inspiring views of the verdant Umbrian valley below. But the walls of this deconsecrated church conceal a secret that is only revealed when you step through the side door and enter.
Listen to Guido Dettoni explaining his inspiration for this impressive installation and the wondrous sculpture he was inspired to create - perhaps even divinely inspired.
The sparse interior houses a remarkable exhibition of a modern installation created by Guido Dettoni that will surely touch all your senses and uplift your spirit. The theme of this installation is the Virgin Mary and a small simple shape that represents the Virgin Mary in six stages of her life from Annunciation to the Dove of Peace. Guido Dettoni created this wondrous shape with his hands, while his eyes were closed and his spirit open When you hold this sculpture, it fits perfectly, taking the shape of your palm.
The marvelous sculptures reproduced from various exotic wood are displayed in 33 glass cylinders suspended in a semi-circle between the Alpha and Omega symbols above and below, together, embracing you as you step inside this semi-circular installation.
Although Santa Maria degli Angeli is NOT located in Assisi, it merits being recognized among the best famous churches in Assisi due to its strong ties to the Franciscan movement and the history of Saint Francis.
The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels) is a papal minor basilica located at the foot of Mount Subasio in the village of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Built between 1569 and 1679 in the Mannerist style, this majestic church ranks as the 7th largest Christian church, and for good reason. It was built to house the primitive Porziuncola and the Cappella del Transito and accommodate the flocks of pilgrims and the faithful who come to visit them.
In the middle ages, century this area was a wooded land where St Benedict built a chapel in 576. The chapel and the land around it eventually fell into disuses and in the 12th century, it was ceded to Francis. Along with his followers, Francis rebuilt the ruined chape adding adjacent stone lodgings and prayer rooms, transforming it into a retreat known as Il Porziuncola (translating into “small portion of land”). This shrine became the most sacred place for Franciscans.
It was here that Francis founded the order of the Friars Minor and where in 1211 Clare embraced the monastic life and started the Order of the Poor Ladies sharing in the Franciscan philosophy.
The Cappella del Transito is the small hut that served as a primitive infirmary for the sick, and here is where Saint Francis died on October 3, 1226.
Because of the vast numbers of pilgrims that came flocking, the Porziuncola became inadequate to accommodate all the visiting pilgrims. Surrounding buildings were torn down and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli was built to protect the Porziuncola and Chapel of the Transito while accommodating the large number of pilgrims. On April 11 1909, the basilica was elevated by Pope Pius X to the status of "patriarchal basilica and papal chapel".
Whether you wish to spend a few days in this glorious Umbrian town, or just have time for a day tour from Rome to Assisi, you most certainly don’t want to miss the best famous churches in Assisi. You may either enjoy touring Assisi from Rome, or you can tour Assisi and Orvieto from Rome for a taste of the best of Umbria.
Thank you very much for reading our Blog the Best Famous Churches in Assisi, Italy. We invite you to visit our Umbria Tours from Rome collection and explore this wondrous region in central Italy.
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