St. Peter’s Basilica is an impressive building. Surprisingly though, it is neither a cathedral nor the “mother church” of the Catholic religion (that distinction is held by Rome’s St. John Lateran). St. Peter’s was built overtop the site of Peter’s tomb and the site of a church built by the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine. In the mid-1500s, the church was expanded and built to an even grander and more elaborate building closer to what we see today (this was during the time of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael painting Pious II’s rooms in the Vatican).
There is so much to see in St. Peter’s – plan on a minimum of an hour (not including waiting in security). If you plan to climb the dome, that would be additional time. We spent about half a day in the complex and still didn’t see everything.
First things first – dress appropriately! Not so much a problem in the winter, but in the hot summer, you will not be allowed inside without your legs and shoulders covered. This means no shorts and no tank tops. You don’t want to wait in long security lines only to find you are not allowed inside.
Security – everyone goes through this – bags are run through scanners and you walk through the screening arch. Not a problem but the lines can get long in the summer – although we were there at the end of February and were only in line for about 10 minutes. As you approach the security point, have your metal items out of your pockets and everything ready to be screened (don’t be one of those people that wait until you are at the screening area and then be surprised that you have to be screened - be prepared and it speeds things up for everyone).
Once you are through security, it is decision time: to enter the church or climb the dome?? If you plan to climb the dome – do it first! If you exit the church and decide to climb the dome, you may have to go through security again. So as you approach the church, and before the stairs, you will see signs directing you towards the dome climb – turn there for the climb or continue up the stairs for the church.
As you enter the church, take some time to simply take in the sight – it is massive! Stand at the back and look down the nave towards the altar – it seems so far away (because it is far away). Then turn to your right and look at what many people come to the church to see – Michelangelo’s Pieta. It is behind glass due to an attack on the statue in the 1970s (why would anyone want to ruin this great piece of art?!).
Head up the nave. In the center marked by a barrier, are the names of churches around the world. These markers indicate where the other churches would fit inside St. Peter’s. Look at the massive columns on either side of the nave – don’t you feel tiny?!? The statues that decorate these columns are very large (even the cherubs are adult human size) to be in proportion to the size of the building.
There is so much to see from the high altar and St. Peter’s statue, to the dome and the baldachino. I highly recommend you get an audio tour or use a book, such as The Blue Guide – Rome to help you understand everything you are seeing. A free audio tour that is pretty good historically and points out the highlights is the Rick Steves’ audio tour that you can download free from iTunes. There are several for sights around Rome – we used these on our trip and found them to be just right for most people with just enough history for most people without overwhelming you. For those who are looking for more details – get a book and read up before or after your visit.
The church is open from 7:00 am – 6:30 pm. It is free unless you do the extras (such as the dome climb). Tours of the necropolis are only done for groups.
If you are in the mood for some exercise coupled with magnificent views of Rome, then consider climbing the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica! Hubby and I seem to be climbing lots of things since we’ve been in Europe – cathedral bell towers, domes, castle towers - really anything that has steps finds us going up them (I’m not always the willing participant in these at the beginning, but at the end I’m always happy I did the climb!).
You have two options with the dome climb – you can take the steps all the way up from the ground level (537 steps) or you can take the elevator part of the way up and then climb the remaining 300+ steps. Using the elevator costs €7 (2012 prices) while taking the steps all the way saves you €2 for the bargain price of €5 (and your thighs get a better workout for less!).
Once you are through security for the church and walking towards the building, it is decision time: to enter the church or climb the dome?? If you plan to climb the dome – do it first! If you exit the church and decide to climb the dome, you may have to go through security again. So as you approach the church, and before the stairs, you will see signs directing you towards the dome climb – turn there for the climb or continue up the stairs for the church.
You will find a cashier at the end of the pathway and the guard will direct you to either the elevators or the steps. Really, taking the steps all the way up was not a problem since the first 200 steps are very easy – they are not steep and are rather wide. At the mid-way point, where the elevator people meet up with you is where the steps get more compact, a bit claustrophobic, narrow and steep – the reason is because the first part was simply going up the side of the church; at this point you actually begin to climb the dome itself.
From this point, you enter the base of the dome and are actually inside St. Peter’s looking down on the people below. Notice the mosaics on the walls and the size of the pictures that are a bit distorted so that those on the ground can view them properly. After walking part way around the base of the dome, you head through a doorway on your way up to the top. In places it gets very narrow and you actually walk a bit tilted because the ceiling is tilting inwards due to the curvature of the dome.
Note: If you are slow or taking your time, step aside when you have opportunities (at windows, etc.) to allow those behind you to pass. Because there is only room for one person at a time, if you are stuck behind really slow people, it is not as enjoyable; so please be considerate.
Once you reach the top, you come out on the lantern at the top. From there you can walk completely around the top view all of Rome, looking down on St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican Museum. After having your fill of the views, find the staircase down and begin your descent (which goes much faster than going up!). You reach that same halfway stop and can go out almost to the edge of St. Peter’s façade, looking at the backs of the statues. From here there are bathrooms and a nice photo opportunity of the dome. I saw some people having lunch while taking a break here.
Continue down the steps and back into St. Peter’s, next to the Baptistry. If you are planning to tour the church now, I highly suggest you proceed to the back and enjoy the church from that area as a starting point.
We were so fortunate to have a beautiful day when we climbed the dome – it was absolutely wonderful! And the exercise made that pizza at lunch taste so much better!
We stopped for a really good pizza and cappuccino outside the Vatican museum before walking to San Pietro’s Basilica (St. Peter’s Basilica). As you enter the Piazza San Pietro it’s easy to imagine how it must be when thousands and thousands of worshipper’s gather to hear one of the Pope’s sermons, which he delivers from a balcony above. After a(nother) security check, we entered the church. It is really amazing - the altars, the ceiling, the stained glass windows – and it is enormous!
We walked around for quite a while before getting on a very, very long line to make the climb to the top of the Basilica. It turned out that there was one very slow ticket man for hundreds and hundreds of people on line – in addition to one elevator that took about 10 people at a time up to the first level. After taking the elevator up the equivalent of 230 steps, we now had to climb 320 steps. The stairs were very narrow (claustrophobic!) and many portions wound around and around like in a lighthouse. Before the last part of the climb we reached a walkway around the top of the dome that was inside the church. It was pretty cool to look down on the people in the church who looked like ants! Fortunately we had a nice clear day and our reward for the long, hard climb was a spectacular view of Rome. The climb is a must do!
Seeing the Pope: The easiest way to get tickets just days before the Wednesday General Audience with the Holy Father is to go to St. Peter's Square, find the Bronze Doors to the Apostolic Palace, and request them from the Swiss Guards.
On Sundays at noon, the pope usually (if he's in town) appears at the second window from the right of the Apostolic Palace, to pray the Angelus and bless the crowd in the Square. Benedict XVI has continued this tradition, no ticket required.
St. Peter's Basilica is open daily, Apr-Sep 7:00-19:00; Oct-Mar 7:00-18:00
Treasury Museum: 9:00 - 18:15 (Apr - Sep) 9:00 - 17:15 p.m. (Oct - Mar)
Grottoes: 7:00-18:00 (Apr - Sep) 7:00-17:00 (Oct - Mar)
Cupola: 8:00 - 18:00 (Apr - Sep) 8:00 - 16:45 (Oct - Mar)
Basilica (including grottoes) is free.
Stairs to the dome €7; elevator to the dome €6.
Dress code: The Dress Code is strictly enforced at St. Peter's Basilica. No shorts, bare shoulders or miniskirts. This applies to both men and women. Even if you get through security, you will be turned away by the attendants at the door.
Photography: Permitted throughout (except in special necropolis tour).
All visitor information is correct as of this writing.
The high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica rests over the tomb of St. Peter and under the ornate canopy commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1624; designed by Bernini, this canopy, or baldacchino, creates a focal point in the massive building towards the altar.
Because of the size of the building, without the baldacchino, the altar would disappear, seemingly swallowed up under the church’s dome – it is out of proportion to the sheer scale of the building. By adding the canopied baldacchino, the emphasis is again on the altar since you can see the canopy from the back of the nave.
The baldacchino was created from bronze taken from the Pantheon. It has four gilded columns whose bases are decorated with the coat of arms of the Barberini family (Pope Urban’s family) – recognizable by the three bees in the central part of the shield. You can find these bees on the festoons and tassels at the top of the canopy. The columns demonstrate amazing workmanship with the upward spirals.
Only the pope can celebrate mass at this high altar and it rests over top the niche where St. Peter’s tomb resides. The altar itself was created from a block of Greek marble that was found in the Forum of Nerva.
A favorite topic among locals is "Where is the best view of Rome?" We have been directed to a few very special sites. This is the Vatican from the top terrace of Castel Sant 'Angelo - be sure to go on a clear night. Another extraordinary panaroma of Rome can be seen from Gianicolo Hill (Off the Beaten Path tips).
The crown jewel of the Roman Catholic faith, the Basilica of St. Peter is the second-largest church in the world and certainly among the most beautiful. The interior is positively vast - so big that the monuments, statuary and other embellishments that grace the aisles and chapels don't appear to be as enormous as they are until you stand next to them.
This is another of Rome's treasures much too important to cover in a paragraph or two. The shrine of the martyred St. Peter and his tomb in the necropolis, as well as tombs of many of the popes, draw Catholic pilgrims from around the world. For the rest of us, San Pietro's collection of art and architecture captivate and move you with their powerful, elaborate or deeply emotional beauty: Bernini's glorious baldacchino and Throne of St. Peter, Michelangelo's Pieta and dome, and many other priceless mosaics, marbles and bronzes.
The basilica is also one of Rome's best bargains as it's free except for limited, pre-booked tours to the necropolis, elevator service partway to the dome, and entrance to the treasury. Here are a few good tidbits to know before you go:
• You will need to pass through an airport-like security check with the same restrictions on knives, scissors, etc. The line starts to the right side of the basilica as you are facing it. The line can be VERY long but it moves fairly quickly. I recommend getting here just before the opening hour or late in the day for shortest waits.
• No shorts, miniskirts or bare shoulders allowed, women OR men. Although some tourists claim to have gotten in with uncovered knees, most others have not so don't risk it. Also avoid wearing t-shirts with verbiage or images that might be considered risque or offensive.
• Baby strollers are not allowed
• There's no entrance to the Vatican Museums from here - although many tours of the museums end up in the basilica
• Photography is allowed but no flash or tripods
• Although it's a major tourist destination, San Pietro is, first, a church. Enough said. You will probably experience a few annoying visitors abusing the no-flash rules, talking loudly, leaning on stuff they shouldn't and generally being disrespectful. Sad.
• Make a potty stop before you go. There are some restrooms about - mostly outside the church - but they're generally pretty hard to find. There are some available on the dome level if you make the climb up.
You may hire a guide but you don't really need one; this website has very good, very complete information which may be downloaded before you go (we did):
Audioguides are also available. The Vatican has a website in 6 languages but I can never get the English tab to work so the second one here is a better resource for current, basic visiting info:
Rick Steves also offers a downloadable tour for MP3 players:
St Peter was allegedly buried here in A.D. 64 near the site of his execution (at Circus of Nero, where he was, in theory, crucified). In 324 Constantine, after his battle field epiphany, commissioned a basilica to be built over St Peter's tomb. This was the starting point of what you visit today. The present basilica was mostly completed in the 1500s and 1600s and is predominantly High Renaissance and baroque. The inside of the church is massive with work by the great artists: Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Maderno. A piece of the original cross of Christ and the rag that Mary wiped the blood off Christ's brow are also apparently located here behind doors above you in the middle of the church.
If you go down to the Vatican grottoes you can see the tombs of the popes plus, behind a wall of glass, is what's assumed to be the tomb of St. Peter himself. To go even farther down, to the necropolis vaticana, the area around St. Peter's tomb, you must apply in advance at the Ufficio Scavi (tel. 06-69885318). For 10euros , you'll get a guided tour of the tombs that were excavated in the 1940s, about 7 metres beneath the church floor.
St Peter's is prided (one of the 7 deadly sins?) as being the biggest church in the world. The floor is marked with how big some of the other more notable churches around the world compare to St Peter's incl St Paul's (London) & Notre Dame (Paris) which both fall well short of the massiveness of St Peter's.
Be warned - you cannot enter here wearing shorts or a short skirt. The guards also usually require upper arms to be covered. No matter how hot it is outside this strict dress code is always enforced.
As you first enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you will most likely notice the throng of people to your right. They are admiring Michelangelo’s statue of the Pieta (Mary holding the dead Christ). The sculptor created the magnificent piece of Carrara marble in 1499 when he was only 24 years old! It was commissioned by the French ambassador Cardinal Jean de Bilheres de Lagraulas and it is exquisite in its craftsmanship and design.
Unfortunately, you cannot get too close to the sculpture because it is behind bullet proof glass. In 1972, a crazed man entered the church and attacked the statue with a hammer, chopping off Mary’s nose (since repaired from marble taken from Mary’s back).
This is the only piece by Michelangelo that he actually signed. The story is told by early biographer Vasari that the artist overheard people talking and gave another sculptor credit for the work. Enraged by what he heard, he hid in the building until it was closed and then carved the words “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this” on Mary’s sash.
There is some controversy over the age and size of Mary – she is not only much younger looking than her Son but she is also larger than him as well. A number of theological reasons have been given but it is all speculation since we don’t know what Michelangelo was thinking. The artist was well versed in his Catholic theology and he is quoted as saying that a chaste woman would not age like other women, so Mary, being a virgin, would remain young looking most of her life. She is also larger, representative of the Catholic Church’s teachings that the Virgin was the Church.
The sculpture is highly polished, giving it a beautiful shine – unlike many of his other sculptures that remain either unfinished or with a rough finish.
It is worth the time to patiently wait to get close to the window to see this piece of art. You can take a photo of it – don’t use your flash since it will only reflect off the glass.
Quite a nice painting, wouldn’t you say? And huge! Like many of the others you see in St. Peter’s?
Surprise! It’s not a painting at all. It’s a MOSAIC!
You’ll swear it can’t be. You’ve gotten up close. You think you would have noticed. You’ll go back and look at it after you’ve read this, and you’ll still swear it’s a painting.
But it’s true. If you catch the light at just the right angle, you’ll see the tiny tesserae.
In fact, every “painting” you see in St. Peter's, save one, is a mosaic.
(The only oil, by Pietro da Cortona, is in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, reserved for “only those who wish to pray may enter.” But perhaps you should pray, as you will see also the incredible gilded bronze tabernacle of Bernini, built after the famous Tempietto of Bramante. You can find the original life-sized Bramante Tempietto in Trastevere.)
This particular mosaic is on the left aisle, closest to the transcept. It is called the “Altar of the Lie” for the scene it depicts from Acts 5:1-11, a copy of a painting by Cristoforo Roncalli, known as Pomarancio (the original painting now hangs in Santa Maria degli Angeli, the Michelangelo-designed church made from part of the Diocletian Baths – found near the train station.)
The story involves Ananias and his wife Sapphira who sold a piece of property. It was traditional and expected among early Christians not to own any property but to give it to the church community. But Ananias lied to St. Peter about how much he received for the property, in order to keep some for himself, and was struck dead. You can see some men burying him in a vignette on the top right of the painting. Later, his wife (who was in on the scam) came and told the same story to St. Peter (not knowing what had happened to her husband) and she was struck dead, too.
A visit to San Pietro is always a great moment of cultural, spiritual and artistical life (you may line up my words in a different way depending on what comes first to your mind).
So much has been written about the head basilica of Christianity that I don't see what to add to the many comments. Therefore I just made a travelogue with some photos from before the scaffolds.
Oh yes, I liked the modern floor cleaning machine.
Ok, first thing is first....make a plan to see St. Peter's Basilica !!!!! We didn't and we had to rush thru it !!! and we spent 4 hrs in it, and felt rushed !!!! Another tip would be to buy a book specifically on the Vatican or St. Peter's !!!! The Basilica opens at 7:00 am every day. remeber you are in an active place of worship so dress accordingly. Admission is free but you must go thru secruity to enter the Basilica. Once inside you will be astound to see the size of it. If you get here early as we did make a right turn as soon as you get in to see one of the most beautiful masterpiece ever created by human hands, Michaelangelo's ..... Pieta.... After that start along and make your way all around and then to the crypt of the pope's, and as you'll see there are huge lines everywhere, but the one to go to the top of the dome was none existing when we first got there, but the time we were done with Basilica it was more than 5 blocks long to get to the top, that's why I say make a game plan..... One of the world's truely great sites !!!!
As for St. Peter's square it's a great place to sit and people see !!!!!
Everybody want to see the St. Peters while in Rome. And you really MUST see this! But it is a big difference in seeing the St.Perets and "feeling" the St. Peters. Go there before 8 AM (it opens at 7 AM), enter the bassilica while the morning sun is lightening up the altar, and you will feel it. If you don`t get the feeling then, wait there until a morning mass starts (between 8AM and 9AM), and you will. At this time you are almost alone in the bassilica. You can move around as you want and there are no guards telling you to move on, or to go in a spesific direction. One hour later the whole Church seems transformed into a big over crowded museum. The mystic feeling of the place is blown away by huge crowds og ppl., guides with sticks in the air trying to get their groups attention, trucks moving about on the floor moving materials around for some preperations. If you feel you havent seen enough in the 1-2 hours you have in the bassilica almost alone, its better to come back early the next day for the rest.
As you make your way up the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica towards the altar, there is a seated bronze statue of St. Peter under a canopy on the last column on the right hand side. You will probably notice the crowd lined up in front of it before you actually see the sculpture.
This statue of St. Peter was created by Arnolfo di Cambrio in the late 1200s, although it was previously thought to have existed since the 5th century. It is a bronze figure of Peter seated on a marble throne. On festivals days, the statue wears a robe.
Many people have rubbed and/or kissed the feet of this statue, with Peter’s right extended foot getting the most attention (thus the line of people and the guard keeping the crowd orderly and the line moving quickly). Because of all this touching over the centuries, the bronze foot has actually worn down to where his toes have lost their shape.
I didn’t stand in line to see it, but was able to get a good view of the statue from behind the guard (most people were lined up on the other side). To get a photo, I just had to be quick since there are only a few seconds between people posing in front of the foot to touch it, kiss it, or have their photo taken.
San Pietro in Vaticano is amazing. I have never seen a place (church or otherwise) like this before. The architecture is astounding! I don't think my jaw has ever dropped so fast as when I stepped into San Pietro. The enormous hall, the columns, mosaics, the gilded bronze canopy (Baldacchino), the magnificent cupola (dome), the marble design and Michelangelo's The Pieta! It's incredible! With such beautiful architectural designs, sculptures and other art pieces I felt like I was walking in the most oppulent place on earth (and I probably was!).
And now for a bit of history...
Since the 2nd Century there has been a shrine of some kind on this site (for Saint Peter - who is believed to be buried beneath this structure). By 349 AD, after an order from the Roman emperor Constantine, the first basilica stood on this site. However by the 15th Century the basilica was in need of restoration. For almost the whole of the 16th Century (and into the 17th Century) the basilica was being rebuilt and restored by the most famous artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The cupola of San Pietro was designed by Michelangelo (although he did not live to see it finished as he died in 1564). The Baldacchino was created by Bernini. Other artists work in the basilica are by: Giotto, Alessandro Algardi, Filippo Barigioni and Arfnolfo di Cambio.
April - Septemper: 7am - 7pm
October - March: 7am - 6pm
Free. But there are charges for if you want to go up the Cupola or into the Treasury
For more pictures of San Pietro take a look at my travelogue: Inside San Pietro
Although the highlight of our visit to Vatican was the museum we spend some time at St Peter’s basilica too.
It is located at piazza San Pietro which was decorated with a big Christmas tree a huge manger. There were hundreds of people waiting in line to get into the cathedral (there’s a delay because of the security check in, hopefully we went in from the museum) but the square has a capacity of thousands of people.
The square is circled by 2 long row of colossal colonnades and if you go to a specific spot near the fountains the 2 rows of the columns will look like one!
At the center of the square you can see another Egyptian obelisk (41meters high).
St Peter’s basilica is impressive for one simple reason, it is huge(187meters long with 11 chapels, 50 altars and hundrerds of statues!). Although we knew about it we were surprised of the interior (pic 2), amazing place with a capacity of 60000 people! Believe or not you can spend hours there, I don’t want to offend anyone but I had a feeling that I was inside a huge museum and not a religious place, it’s hard to feel that anyway on a regular day when it’s full of happy, noisy tourists that take pictures but of course some other people go there to pray (pic 3).
The cathedral was built upon the relics of another (big) cathedral that was on the same spot until the 16th century. It’s better to have a guide book with you so to know what you are looking because there are many things that worth to be seen in the cathedral, especially some top class items made by people like Raphael, Bernini and Michelangelo. Hard to mention everything here but of course make sure you wont miss the Pieta (pic 4) the amazing renaissance sculpture (made by Michelangelo in 1499) which is behind a bullet proof glass!
You can also go up the Cuppola and have a nice view over the city. You can take the lift or climb the 500 steps!
The basilica opens daily at 7.00am and there’s no entrance fee (you have to pay only for the Cupolla).
Go early on Sunday morning for the mass. For Wednesday Papal audience you have to book your (free) ticket online.
The last thing we did at Vatican was a visit under the Basilica where the crypt is located to check St.Peter’s tomb but also numerous burial rooms including Popes (pic 5).