Basilica di San Vitale

Top choice in Ravenna

ITALY - JULY 24: Mosaics in the apse vault, 538-545, Basilica of San Vitale (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1996), founded 526, Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

De Agostini/Getty Images

Sometimes, after weeks of strolling around dark Italian churches, you can lose your sense of wonder. Not here! The lucid mosaics that adorn the altar of this ancient church consecrated in 547 by Archbishop Massimiano invoke a sharp intake of breath in most visitors. Gaze in wonder at the rich greens, brilliant golds and deep blues bathed in shafts of soft yellow sunlight.

The mosaics on the side and end walls inside the church represent scenes from the Old Testament: to the left, Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac in the presence of three angels, while the one on the right portrays the death of Abel and the offering of Melchizedek. Inside the chancel, two magnificent mosaics depict the Byzantine emperor Justinian with San Massimiano and a particularly solemn and expressive Empress Theodora, who was his consort.