The Basilica is the largest church in America, and one of the few American churches that really rivals the great European cathedrals in its size and splendor.
The Byzantine/Romanesque style with its massive pillars, round arches and mosaics is an interesting contrast to the National Cathedral's Gothic design with stained-glass windows.
The upper level is the main church, and is noteworthy for its soaring, painted domes and large mosaics. Both the upper level and lower level have many small chapels and oratories, each celebrating and sponsored by a different ethnic group or country (including chapels from Croatia, Slovenia, India, Ireland, Vietnam, Eastern Rite Catholics and African-American Catholics). Each chapel has unique statues and paintings celebrating the Saints and Catholic heritage of the people who sponsored it. Pope John Paul II prayed in the Polish chapel when he visited the Basilica shortly after becoming Pope.
It's a very lavish and ornate church, with marble and glittering stones everywhere. It feels so much like an old European Cathedral that it's almost surprising to see writing in English rather than Latin, Italian or French; only then do you remember that this church was only completed 60 years ago rather than centuries ago.
There's a one-hour guided tour, which gives a lot of detailed information about the Basilica and its artwork and meaning. Unfortunately, the guide kept emphasizing the need to rush and hurry and not delay in moving through the Basilica, which was needlessly stressful. I think this was mostly due to an unusually large crowd, though.
It's easy to spend more time than you anticipated here because there is so much to see, though an hour or two including the guided tour is certainly enough. There is even a small cafeteria and two large religious bookstores in the lower level, and parking is ample and free, which is a nice change from the usual situation around DC attractions.
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