The gorgeous Basilica Papale of San Paolo Fuori le Mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls in English) is still relatively unknown to tourists visiting Rome. Located outside the historic center of the Italian capital, well out of the main tourist trail, this is actually a truly impressive place to visit, with an abundance of history and art that will make the trip there (which is actually very easy, by the way) truly worth it.
I visited the Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura during my most recent trip to Rome, and spent a couple of hours wondering around the site – which is massive – and taking in everything there is to see. So I thought I’d share what I saw and learned with you and tickle your interest. Continue reading to discover this beautiful church.
The History Of The Basilica Of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura
Alongside the Lateran Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore and St Peter’s Basilica itself, San Paolo Fuori Le Mura is one of the four major papal basilicas in Rome.
Much like the others (excepting St Peter’s Basilica, which is in the Vatican City), San Paolo Fuori Le Mura is situated in Italian territory but it is owned by the Holy See, which exercises extraterritoriality over the property.
Translated to “Saint Paul Outside the Walls”, San Paolo Fuori Le Mura is situated in Ostiense, which, as the name suggests, once lay beyond the ancient city walls of Rome. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, it is near here that Saint Paul the Apostle was beheaded in 67 AD.
Following his execution, it is said that a Christian Roman named Lucina took his body and buried it in her property, two miles from where he was executed. This then became a place of veneration for him and a cella memoriae (a type of memorial) was set up by his followers. It became a site of pilgrimage for early Christians of Rome.
It is here that the basilica was built by Emperor Constantine I during his reign (306-337 AD) – he was the first emperor to convert to Christianity.
In the first century BC, this area was a port situated along the River Tiber, with various ancient roads connecting it. The remains of a Roman villa from this era were discovered during the building of a pediatric hospital in 1869. The villa is believed to have belonged to the plebeian Calpurnia family.
The site was also known for being the location of an open-air burial ground, a vast area used primarily from the first century BC to the third century AD. However, it continued to be used sporadically into late antiquity, with various family tombs, funerary chapels and mausoleums situated here.
This burial site remains largely unexcavated to this day and covers the area beneath the basilica and the surrounding area. You can still see a part of it along the Via Ostiense north of the basilica.
Once founded by Constantine I, the basilica was consecrated by Pope Sylvester I in 324 AD. It wouldn’t be long until the church was rebuilt by Emperor Theodosius I in 386. This much larger and much more ornate basilica is believed to have been consecrated by Pope Innocent I in 402.
The church included a nave and four aisles, with mosaics, frescoes and other decorations completed in the following years under Leo I, who was pope from 440 to 461.
It was one of the largest churches in Rome at the time – even larger than the old St Peter’s Basilica; the Christian poet Prudentius even described it as a splendorous monument. More repair work and renovations continued, with Leo I ordering changes to be made around Saint Paul’s tomb.
This is the first time that any altar had been placed over the tomb, which had previously remained untouched. The tomb was elevated, and a chancel with a semi-domed apse was built around it.
Further work was carried out over the following centuries. The main altar was extensively changed under Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). Sadly, the building received damage during the ninth-century Saracen raid of Rome, as its position meant that it was outside of the defensive Aurelian Walls.
This led to Pope John VIII fortifying the basilica and the surrounding buildings, which created a new town called Johannispolis; this town was completely destroyed by an earthquake 1348. For many centuries, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls was used as the seat of the Latin Patriarch of Alexandria – from 1215 to 1964, in fact.
In 1823, disaster struck. A fire broke out during repair work to the copper gutters on the roof of the basilica. This devastated the ancient church, which was one of the best preserved and most intact of all the churches in Rome – and had been for 1,435 years.
The reconstruction work proved to be extremely expensive, so in 1825 Pope Leo XII asked for donations. He had wanted the basilica to be rebuilt exactly as it had been in the fourth century, but also wanted to keep various key elements from different time periods, such as its medieval mosaics. This was quite an unrealistic dream, and eventually resulted in a basilica that is only slightly like the original.
The job was given to architect Pasquale Belli, and was then taken over by Luigi Poletti in 1833 following Belli’s death. Poletti oversaw much of the work on the project, reusing sections of the building that were able to be salvaged from the damage caused by the fire. The work was funded by contributions from various rulers around the world, including Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, and the Russian Empire.
The altar was once again consecrated and the basilica was opened to the public in 1840; Pope Pius IX consecrated the entire building in 1854. Work, however, was still not complete, and extended into the twentieth century. The Italian government funded this latter part of the project and, upon its completion, declared it a national monument.
What To See When Visiting The Basilica Of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura
On arriving at San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, the first thing you will notice is the beautiful facade – a golden mosaic atop the colonnaded portico. This gleaming piece of artwork was completed between 1854 and 1874 based on drawings by Filippo Agricola and Nicola Honsoni, who had based their drawings in turn on the original tenth-century mosaics.
The design is split into three. The lower section depicts old testament prophets Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, depicted between the windows. Then there is a depiction of the Lamb of God, and flowing rivers that symbolize the gospels. Finally, at the cornice, there is a representation of Christ flanked by Saints Peter and Paul.
As you enter, you’ll see marble covering the walls of the portico. The central door, the largest, mimics the original bronze door – made in the tenth century by artists of Constantinople – but only dates back to 1931.
However, take a look at the right-hand door. This is the oldest in the church and dates back to the eleventh century; its decoration is divided into 54 panels and shows scenes from the life of Jesus and his apostles.
The campanile, or bell tower, has a central position just behind the apse of the basilica. Built in a Neoclassical style, it is the work of Luigi Poletti, but on its completion in 1860 received “harsh” criticism from outside the Papal States.
It is split into five tiers and is topped with a faux Tuscan loggia, decorated with Ionic columns and a small dome. Across the different levels of the tower there are various bronze bells. While most of them were cast in 1955, one can be traced back to 1653.
Given the ancient land upon which the basilica is situated, there is a wealth of subterranean discoveries that have been made over the years and even some ruins to be seen above ground.
Excavations carried out during the construction of a new building in 2008 unearthed a complex of Medieval structures in the abbey gardens. The area was properly excavated and opened up as a public museum in 2013.
Here visitors can see materials from a period that spans from the eighth to the fifteenth century. Some of this includes centuries-old building materials, such mortar ready to be mixed and marble, suggesting a Medieval construction site.
Also discovered in this area was the ancient gate to the tomb of Saint Paul, remains of a road that led pilgrims directly from Rome to the sacred site. Rooms that were once part of a monastery once located in the purpose-built town of Johannopolis can also be seen here.
Inside the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
Stepping inside San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, visitors are greeted by a large hall divided into five naves. These naves are separated by 20 monolithic granite columns. The walls are clad with marble and decorated with geometric motifs. Around this area you can see multiple frescoes of saints from throughout the ages.
One of the most prominent pieces you’ll see in the basilica are a series of tondi (circular paintings) – 265 in all. The practice of creating these tondi has roots in the decoration of the ancient basilica. According to superstition attached to the basilica, it is said that Christ will return when there is no room on the walls for any additional tondi.
At the center of the basilica above the altar is the apse. This half dome was, thankfully, one of the parts of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura that was least affected by the fire of 1823.
The artwork is made up entirely of mosaics that date back to the time of Pope Honorius III (1216-1227). Craftsmen who had worked on the mosaics of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice had been drafted in specifically for the task.
Surrounded by gleaming gold mosaic tiles, Christ the Redeemer sits at the center of the apse mosaic. He is flanked by Peter and Paul, with other saints also appearing in this hugely impressive piece of artwork.
The Tomb of Saint Paul the Apostle
Like the mosaics, the impressive sculpted baldacchino that sits over the tomb of Saint Paul was not affected by the fire of 1823. This ornate piece of the basilica was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1285.
The sculptor is also known for designing Florence Cathedral and for creating an additional sixth defensive wall around the city. The baldacchino is made in the Gothic style; constructed out of marble, it includes four Corinthian columns that hold it above the tomb.
In the early 2000s, restorations took place at San Paolo Fuori Le Mura. In 2002, an eight-foot marble sarcophagus was unearthed; on it were inscribed the words “Paolo Apostolo Mart”.
Vatican archaeologists later announced that this was indeed the tomb of Paul the Apostle, and following investigations radiocarbon dated the sarcophagus to the first to the second century AD, suggesting that this was indeed Saint Paul. During these restorations, part of the altar was demolished to allow worshippers to see the sarcophagus.
Practical Info About Visiting San Paolo Fuori Le Mura
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura opening hours
The basilica is open every day from 7:00 am to 6:30 pm. The cloister and archaeological area is also open daily, 9:00 am to 5:30 pm.
Since it’s not going to be as busy as more centrally located churches in Rome, you don’t need to worry so much as to when exactly you plan your visit to San Paolo Fuori Le Mura.
It is likely to be much busier with locals and pilgrims around religious holidays, however, so if you want a quiet time to visit, avoid Christmas and Easter, and Sundays. For the best chance of having the place (almost) all to yourself, probably the best time to visit would be a midweek afternoon or late morning. That’s when I visited and the church was indeed very quiet.
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura tickets
Entrance to the San Paolo Fuori Le Mura is free. There is a small admission fee for visiting other areas of the building such as the Cloister and archeological area.
Should you get a guided tour?
I visited the Basilica Papale di San Paolo Fuori le Mura and I honestly regretted not having a bit of guidance, as there is so much to see.
While you don’t have to get a guided tour of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, booking one would be rewarding if you want a deeper understanding of the history and symbolism of the basilica.
Tours are available through the church itself. Guided tours for a maximum of 30 people cost €170 at the time of writing. To enquire about a guided tour you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tours are available every day between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm.
Alternatively, you can also book a guided tour that goes to this and other Basilicas of Rome.
One option would be this semi-private guided tour of Christian Rome that also goes to Santa Maria Maggiore and St. John in the Lateran and includes hotel pick up and drop off.
Another option would be this tour of the Basilicas of Rome that also goes to Santa Maria Maggiore, St. John in the Lateran, Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis and the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
Finally, there’s this very interesting tour of the footsteps of St. Paul – it looks expensive, but the price is actually per group!
There are no security checks, but there are rules you need to follow. For example, food and drink are not allowed inside the basilica. The use of mobile phones is allowed but they must be on silent mode. It is also completely forbidden to touch any of the works of art.
To enter the basilica, visitors must be dressed in what the basilica deems a suitable manner. This usually means shoulders and legs must be covered, with no low-cut tops or crop tops, and no shorts or mini-skirts.
The dress code in Catholic churches is always the same, so my post The Vatican Dress Code: What To Wear (And What Not) When Visiting The Vatican may actually help you decide what to wear for your visit.
Is photography allowed?
Photography is allowed, but only for personal use. Note that flash photography and tripods are forbidden.
There are toilets situated on the site but not inside the basilica itself – they are in the main access area, where you’ll also find a souvenir shop and a café.
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura is accessible for disabled visitors, but given that it is an old building, it is likely that not all areas will be suitable for those using wheelchairs.
How to get there and nearby attractions
The church is located in Piazzale San Paolo. Given its location in Ostiense, San Paolo Fuori Le Mura isn’t exactly central. The best way to fit a trip here into your itinerary would be to combine it with an exploration of this area. Thankfully, there are other things to see in the vicinity that make it worth your while.
When I visited, I also went to the nearby Centrale Montemartini Museum, which is north of the church. Part of the Capitoline Museums, this power plant turned cultural institution displays ancient sculpture on a backdrop of industrial, wonderfully contrasting the old and the new.
Wandering around Ostiense also provides you with a chance to see a more local and less touristy side to Rome, too.
You should also read my posts The Best Places To Visit In Ostiense, Rome and A Useful Guide To Centrale Montemartini Museum.
The nearest metro station to the church is Basilica di San Paolo, on metro line B. To get there from Rome Termini it’s simple: just a 12-minute journey on the metro, then a 5-minute walk from the station to the basilica.
If you are keen in visiting lesser known places in Rome, these other posts will be useful:
- Rome Off The Beaten Path: 32 Best Hidden Gems In Rome
- A Concise Guide To Garbatella, Rome
- The Must-See Churches In Rome