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St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica is the focal point of a trip to Vatican City, mainly because it’s the iconic image most of us have of this city-state. This beautiful Basilica is impressive on a scale that few monuments can compete with, and it can be a highlight of a visit to Italy.

The site on which St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro in Italian) stands has been considered holy by Christians since Saint Peter himself was martyred nearby in 64 A.D. – his remains are said to have been buried close to where he was executed, and his burial spot is the centerpiece of the Basilica. A few years after he was killed, a simple shrine was built over his grave, and then in the 4th century A.D. a church that is now called Old St. Peter’s Basilica was constructed.
In the 15th century, the old Basilica was in need of renovations – but rather than spruce up the existing building, the Pope at the time decided it should be demolished and a new church built. It took a series of Popes more than 120 years to implement a plan for the new church, each Pope altering the plan slightly from the previous pontiff, until Michelangelo was finally at the helm in the mid-1500s. The St. Peter’s Basilica that we see today isn’t entirely what Michelangelo wanted, however, as there were further alterations made to the nave and the façade in the early 1600s.
Today, St. Peter’s Basilica stands as not only the iconic image of Vatican City and of Catholicism, but also as one of the primary stops on any trip through Rome. It’s absolutely worth a visit, whatever your religious persuasion.

Most people who make the trek across the Tiber River to see St. Peter’s Basilica are spending the better part of a day visiting the sights of Vatican City, including the vast Vatican Museums, so this visitor’s guide is best taken in tandem with my guide to the Vatican Museums.
Quick links to St. Peter’s Basilica resources:

St. Peter’s Basilica Visitor Information

  • Open Hours: Daily from 07:00-19:00 (April-September), 07:00-18:30 (October-March); closed Wednesday mornings for Papal audiences; Mass is held several times each day starting at 08:30
  • Admission: Free (audioguides are €5)
  • Climbing the Cupola (Dome): Open daily from 08:00-18:00 (April-September), 08:00-17:00 (October-March); admission €7 for the elevator plus 320 steps, €5 for stairs only (551 steps)
  • How to Get There: There are a few Rome buses that stop near the Vatican’s walls, and from there it’s a brief walk to the museum entrance. Buses 40, 62, and 64 all run to the Vatican from central Rome. Metro line A also runs near St. Peter’s – the Ottaviano-San Pietro stop is about a 10-minute walk from the church.
  • Official Website: Official St. Peter’s Basilica website (in Italian only) – There’s another site, in English, with detailed information about the Basilica that appears to be part of the Vatican government’s site.

Taking a Guided Tour of St. Peter’s Basilica

The church at the center of Vatican City has had superlatives hurled at it for centuries, many of which are subjective. One factoid that stands out, and is abundantly clear once you’re inside, is that St. Peter’s Basilic has the largest interior of any Christian church. On the floor of the Basilica there are indications of where other churches around the world would end, so as you walk toward the altar you get an idea of how much larger St. Peter’s is. And to give you a sense of how high that gorgeous dome soars overhead, both the Statue of Liberty and the space shuttle are shorter and would be able to fit underneath the dome easily.
Among the many famous artworks contained in St. Peter’s Basilica, the most noted are brilliant pieces by Bernini, Giotto, Guercino, and of course Michelangelo’s stunning Pietà. There’s a 13th century bronze of St. Peter that has a polished and worn toe from the countless people who have rubbed it for good luck. There are more than 100 tombs in the Basilica, including 91 popes, some of which are in the crypt beneath the floor. The things you think are paintings hanging on the walls are actually mosaic copies of paintings, painstakingly recreated with minute pieces of glass.

There’s so much to be fascinated and awed by in a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, it’s impossible to fit it all into one place – except, that is, on a guided tour. Trust me, you don’t always know what to be awed by until you have someone point it out to you. Most of the guided tours of Vatican City combine St. Peter’s with the Vatican Museums, which is a great way to get the most out of both attractions. I happen to like the walking tours Context Travel does (some in Vatican City, as well as elsewhere in Rome and Italy), and there are several options for guided tours of Vatican City that include St. Peter’s. Here are a few:

  • Vatican Museums & St. Peter’s Basilica 3-Hour Walking Tour – Take a small group walking tour of the Vatican Museums and St Peter’s Basilica, and jump the queue by booking ahead. Numbers are limited to a maximum of 20 people on this small group walking tour, ensuring you’ll receive personalized attention from your guide. And by booking ahead, you won’t waste any time waiting in line!
  • Vatican Museums & St. Peter’s Basilica Half-Day Walking Tour – Get much more out of your visit to St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican by taking a guided walking tour. St Peter’s and the Vatican Museums can be overwhelming, especially if this is your first visit, so allow your experienced guide to lead the way and share the history, architecture, and politics of the Vatican. As an added bonus, you’ll skip the long ticket lines when you visit the Vatican Museums (entrance fees payable direct on the day of travel).
  • Vatican in One Day (8 hours) – Vatican City’s most comprehensive introduction combining two walking tours to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Gallery of Maps, Raphael’s Rooms, St. Peter’s Basilica and the most important Basilicas of the Vatican including Santa Maria Maggiore, Saint John Lateran and St. Paul, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the only Vatican City tour that incorporates all of the Basilicas along with the Vatican Museums to ensure you see everything in one single day! Plus, you’ll skip the long lines – don’t waste time waiting in lines when you’re on vacation! Numbers are limited to a maximum of 25 people on this small group walking tour, ensuring you’ll receive personalized attention from your guide.

You can also do a self-guided tour of the Basilica (it’s easy to do, since it’s free to get in and there isn’t as much ground to cover as there is in the Vatican Museums) with a written walking tour in a book like the Rick Steves guides or an audio guide you download to your iPod before you arrive.

Visitor Tips for St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s may be free to enter, but there are a few things you need to know before you walk in.

  • Modest dress is required. – There’s a dress code to enter St. Peter’s, and it’s very strictly enforced. There are signs posted before you go in, but generally the idea is that there should be no exposed knees, shoulders, or midriffs. That means no shorts or tanktops, even in summer. You should dress appropriately for your day spent in Vatican City, or risk not being able to get in. There are vendors around who sell paper clothing you can put on over your shorts and tank tops, but that’s an indignity you can avoid.
  • You’ll go through a metal detector to get in. – Now that you need go go through a metal detector to get into St. Peter’s, there’s a bit more of a line than there used to be. Still, it moves relatively quickly (there are several detectors), unless you’re unprepared. If you’re carrying a day pack, make sure it’s got only the bare necessities, and don’t be surprised if you’re asked to check the bag before you go into the church. If you’re only carrying a small purse or camera bag you can usually keep it with you as you walk through the church.
  • Take all the photos you want to. – Unlike in many major attractions, photography is allowed in St. Peter’s Basilica – and partly because all those paintings aren’t really paintings but are, instead, mosaics, flash photography is also allowed. Just be considerate of people who are in St. Peter’s to worship, during services or on their own.
  • The church is free to enter, but the dome isn’t free to climb. – If you want the iconic picture overlooking St. Peter’s Square from overhead, you’ll get that by climbing the dome. You can ride the elevator and then climb stairs, or climb stairs all the way up – there are stairs either way. The cost and open hours of the dome are listed above under “Visitor Information.”
  • There are some guided tours each day run by the church itself (and they’re free, too). – Check with the tourist information desk when you arrive to find out when the free guided tours of the Basilica run; they’re typically only 1-2 times per day in the afternoon (14:00 or 15:00), so you can also call ahead to find out (06-6988-1662).

>> Here are some fun facts about St. Peters, too.

photos, top to bottom, by: Dave Hamster, jimmyharris, dearbarbie, stevekc, bensonkua, Michael Gwyther-Jones, stringbot