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St Peters Basilica Rome - the essential guide

Planning to visit St Peters Basilica Rome? Find out the best way to visit this amazing church!

st peter's basilicaVisiting one of the largest and most important churches in Christiandom is easy when you are in Rome.

Visiting St Peters Basilica Rome - Everything You Need to Know

Visiting the Vatican is usually at the top of everyone's list when they visit Rome, especially for first-time visitors. 

One part of that visit should include going inside St Peters Basilica.

Here's everything you need to know so you can make the most out of your visit to this spectacular church:

This page is specifically about St Peters Basilica Rome.

If you want to know more about visiting the Vatican Museums where the Sistine Chapel is, go here.

What is St Peter's Basilica?

Saint Peter's Basilica is considered to be one of the most important, holiest Catholic churches in the world. One reason for this is that Saint Peter is said to be buried directly underneath the church (hence its name.)

The basilica is a Renaissance church, built in the 1500's. It replaced the first St. Peters Basilica originally built under the emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. 

St.Peters BasilicaSt. Peter's Basilica is one of the largest buildings in the world and is the largest of the papal Basilicas.

Quick fun facts about St Peters Basilica Rome:

  • St Peter's basilica is not a cathedral (a cathedral needs to have a bishop and St. Peter's does not have one.)
  • Although Saint Peter's is one of the most important Catholic churches in the world, it is NOT the Pope's church. The Pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, has as his church the Archbasilica of Saint John in Lateran (also in Rome.) THAT is the most important church in Catholicdom, and is a cathedral since it has a bishop (the Pope.)
  • The current version of St Peters Basilica Rome, in particular the dome, was (mostly) designed by Michelangelo, but other artists of the day (Bramante and Raphael among others) were first assigned to design it before him. Michelangelo never got to see his dome completed.
  • Michelangelo's Pietà sits in the first transept on the right when you walk in. He was 22 when he made it, and relatively unknown. He signed Mary's sash so people would know it was his work, but never signed (or needed to sign) another work after that.
  • There is a saying that Michelangelo built St. Peter's Basilica, and Bernini decorated it. Why? Keep reading!
  • Saint Peter's Basilica is, by many standards, the largest Christian church in the world. Its dome is the tallest dome in the world at 136.57 meters (448.1 ft).

As you might imagine, there are whole books dedicated to all the history and art of St Peters Basilica Rome.

One book I really recommend is this easy and fun-to-read 101 Surprising Facts About St. Peter's and the Vatican, written by Father Jeff Kirby.

What is there to see inside the Basilica?

There is SO MUCH to see in St Peters Basilica!

The first thing I would tell you is that you should just see the church itself, inside and out. It's magnificent. It's stunning. It's so so beautiful (can you tell I love this building?)

The central nave of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in RomeThe inside of St Peter's Basilica is simply stunning! And it's enormous. Look at the size of the people compared to the ceiling height.

To keep things simple, let's just go over a few important things you may want to look for if you go without a guide (more on that below):

St Peters BasilicaMichelangelo's Pietà
St Peters BasilicaMichelangelo's cupola
St Peters BasilicaBronze St. Peter
St Peters BasilicaBernini's Baldacchino
St Peters BasilicaAlexander VII's tomb (Bernini)
St Peters BasilicaThe Holy Door (This stays closed except when the Pope opens it, once every 25 years, for the Catholic Jubilee.)
St Peters BasilicaAnd all those paintings . . wait! They are not paintings! Look closer, they are all mosaics!
St Peters BasilicaThe spot where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 C.E.
St Peters BasilicaThe central nave where you can see how large other churches in the world are, compared to St Peter's Basilica Rome.

Want to take a virtual visit of St Peters Basilica? You can, on the Vatican website!

Is the Sistine Chapel in Saint Peters Basilica?

No. The Sistine Chapel is not inside St. Peter's basilica

To see Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, you need to visit the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel is at the very end of that visit.

St Peters BasilicaCeiling of the Sistine Chapel - Michelangelo Buonarotti 1508-1512

There are many beautiful chapels along the sides of St. Peter's basilica. For more about them, you may want to get the audio guide or take a guided tour.

Can you get to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel from St Peters Basilica?

No. They are completely separate buildings and their entrances are about 20 minutes' walk apart.

Take a look at this map of Vatican city. (It opens in a new window.)

You can see the entrance to the Vatican Museums (red arrow), in relation to the entrance to St Peters Basilica Rome (black.)

You CAN however, get inside St Peters Basilica Rome from the Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel.

The perfect 3-day itinerary in Rome

Trying to figure out how to organize your visit to Rome? I've got the perfect 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors (or those who have not been here in a while.) It works for a 2.5 day visit as well.

In my 3-day itinerary, you'll see all the major must-see Rome attractions like the Vatican, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Castel Sant'Angelo, and much more.

And if you have more time, or want suggestions for extra/other things to do, you'll find that there too.

Visit my page with the best 3-day itinerary in Rome for first-timers.

How to avoid the crowds at St Peters Basilica Rome

Saint Peter's basilica is one of the most popular sites to see in Rome (even if it's not technically in Rome).

This means it's nearly always crowded. So how can you avoid these crowds?

st peters basilica early morningThis is what St Peter's basilica looks like at 7:30am. No crowds and a special light you can only get early morning.

Most of the tourist attractions in Rome (and probably in any tourist city), have crowds in a kind of bell-curve throughout any given day.

This means that at the very beginning of a site being open, and also at the very end, near closing time you will usually find fewer people. Crowds tend to swell in the middle of the day.

St Peters BasilicaThis is my very rudimentary attempt at a quick bell curve graph to show what tourist visits on most days would look like.

I LOVE going to St Peters Basilica at 7am because it means no crowds, no lines, no waiting.

And that is pretty much the only time when you are (most likely) going to find the basilica completely un-crowded.

This will NOT work on a Wednesday when there is a Papal Audience.

On those mornings, St Peters basilica is closed until around 12:30-1pm, when the audience has finished and the crowds from the audience have mostly cleared.

And it should go without saying, you cannot visit St Peters Basilica in the morning on important Catholic holidays like Christmas and Easter, and/or when the Pope will hold mass.

In these cases, you will have to wait for mass to end, and for the basilica to reopen to the public.

St Peters BasilicaSt Peter's Square at 7:15am. There is nothing like it!

Going at 7am means waking up pretty early, but it also means:

  • Not having to queue at all (you just walk right up and breeze through security)
  • Beautiful light, both in the square and inside the church
  • You can climb the dome relatively alone, which for me is important since I am claustrophobic, and if I go first thing in the morning, there is nobody in front of or behind me. (The only catch is that the sun will be coming up right in front of you so it does not make for a great photo at that time!)
St Peter's square from the top of the dome, early morningThis is the view from the top of the dome of St Peter's basilica at about 8am. The basilica faces east, so an early visit will get you a washed out pic, but it's still wonderful!

If you go to St Peters Basilica Rome close to closing time, you will also likely avoid the crowds.

There is a catch with this method, however: Even right up to closing, there are always lines to go through security and they are long.

Even at the end of the day.

So you will likely have to wait in line, and this means you have to be careful not to cut it too close to closing time or you will simply not be allowed in.

Closing times at a site or monument in Rome indicate the time the doors will be locked.

This usually means last entry is at least half hour (or more) before that.

Also, they start shooing you out at least 20 minutes before the closing time.

So bottom line, you want to be inside by at least 45 minutes to an hour before "closing time."

St Peters Basilica Rome closes at 7 pm from April - October, and 6:30 pm from November - March. You should plan to start waiting in line no more than 1.5 hours before these times or you risk not getting in.

st peters basilica empty near closing timeThis is what St Peters Basilica Rome looks like about half hour before closing. Empty!

One final caveat to going at the end of the day to avoid the crowds - this will likely mean you will not be able to climb the dome, as it closes an hour before the basilica, but last entry is a bit before that.

Avoiding the crowds usually means avoiding the lines/queues.

But if you can't help coming when it's crowded, at least you can avoid the queues:

How to avoid the queues/lines at St Peters Basilica

It is free to visit St Peters Basilica Rome.

However, you have to go through security (like at the airport), and even with many lanes open, this still takes time, resulting in long lines, most of the day and throughout the year. 

St.Peters SquareThe lines for security at St Peters Basilica can be very long due to security. This photo was taken in January!

There are, however, 3 ways to avoid these queues/lines.

Come at 7am

As I mentioned when speaking about avoiding the crowds, if you come at 7am (except on Wednesdays or any other important day that the Pope will be giving mass, like Easter Sunday or Christmas Day), you will find no lines at all to get in.

St.Peters SquareA blissfully empty St Peters square at 7am. No lines, no crowds, no waiting!

Come into the basilica from another part of the vatican

If you book a tour of the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Gardens, or St. Peter's Tomb, you will be able to access Saint Peter's Basilica from a different area, with no queuing.

St.Peters BasilicaIf you are on a guided tour (and only if you are on a tour), you can take the shortcut from the Sistine Chapel to the entrance of St Peters Basilica, which only takes about 5 minutes.

book a skip-the line ticket or tour

As I said above, it's free to visit St Peters Basilica.

But you CAN pay to skip the line, if you don't want to visit other parts of the Vatican (described above).

You can :

Should you take a tour of St Peters basilica Rome?

When you take a tour of the Vatican Museums, a tour of St. Peter's Basilica is often included at the end (but not always).

If you want to make sure that you get a tour of the basilica when you book your Vatican Museums tour, make sure it's included.

If you just want to visit St Peters Basilica Rome and not the museums, and you'd like a tour, you can get an audio-guide, or book a tour. When you book a tour, you will get skip-the-line access, which is a huge plus!

Which tour to take and which company?

You may notice on this website I have links to various companies such as Get Your Guide, Walks of Italy, and  Viator.

All are online tour agencies and sometimes they offer many of the exact same tours.

Some companies offer unique tours which is why I sometimes suggest one or the other. Or perhaps you are more comfortable booking on a particular company website with which you are more familiar. 

All my links for tours are to reliable tour operators, or I would not partner with them!

How to attend mass with the Pope at St Peters Basilica Rome

The Pope holds mass in St. Peter's basilica on special occasions, such as during Christmas and Easter.

He also holds a regular Wednesday audience (free), and a Sunday Angelus (a short greeting to the crowd in the square, from a window above.) 

St.Peters BasilicaSundays at noon, the Pope gives the Angelus (greeting) to the crowd below. He appears in a window above. There are jumbotrons as well.

Most of the time, however, when you visit St. Peter's basilica Rome, you will not find the Pope there. In fact, if the pope is holding a mass, the basilica will be closed for visits.

To find out the Pope's schedule, visit the Vatican website, and click on the calendar.

There are many ways you CAN see the Pope in Rome, not always at St. Peter's Basilica.

These include the Papal Audience, as well as liturgical masses and other events.

Visit my page about how to see the Pope in Rome for more details.

How to visit Saint Peters tomb


They do not allow you to take photos while visiting St Peters Tomb.

I don't have any photos, despite having been a few times, and it's difficult to even find photos on the internet. Trust me when I tell you it's a wonderful tour!

Since St. Peter is believed to be buried underneath this basilica, visiting his tomb can be the experience of a lifetime.

It turns out it's even more than that - it's a fantastic, archeological visit down to the levels of the church when Constantine was emperor. You will see ancient tombs, paintings, sarcofagi and much more on this extraordinary visit below ground.

It used to be that the only way to book this visit was by contacting the Vatican office of excavations (scavi.) You can still do that. Here is the official scavi website. You will need to send a fax or email, detailing the number of people, names, language preferred for the tour and the date range you will be in Rome. Then you will need to just wait for them to get back to you. Once they do, you will need to prepay (13€.)

Now, you can book immediately online via a tour operator (which books through the official Vatican channels itself). This way, you can see availability, pay immediately, and get a skip-the-line access and tour also of St. Peters Basilica included. Yes, this way it costs a lot more (59€ per person.) So it's a matter of price vs. convenience/ease of use.

How to climb the dome of St Peters Basilica Rome

Climbing the dome of St Peters Basilica is really special.

You get right up close and personal with Michelangelo's dome.

St.Peters BasilicaJust over twenty years after Michelangelo's death, Giacomo Della Porta, assisted by Domenico Fontana, was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V to complete the dome, succeeding in the undertaking in less than two years.

And if you go all the way to the tippy top, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of St Peters Square below, and the cityscape of Rome beyond.

Visit my page all about St Peter's dome for lots more details, including how, when, why and how much!

The BEST way to visit St Peters Basilica Rome

The best way to visit St Peters Basilica Rome is to go early early early.

Sorry but that's the best advice I can give you. I know it's no fun waking at the crack of dawn on vacation, but trust me, once you get here at 7am, and see that you have the whole square to yourself, and then breeze in with no lines . . . and then see this amazing church, with the early morning sunlight beams streaming in, you will thank me!

St. Peters BasilicaSt. Peter's Square at 7:30am. (Almost) nobody there. And look at that light!

Don't forget to dress appropriately (no bare knees, midriffs or shoulders).

This is true for everyone, all ages. If you are not sure if your dress/shorts are long enough, they might not be.

Play it safe.

They are very serious about being modestly covered to enter St Peters Basilica Rome!

St. Peter's basilica early morningSt. Peter's basilica at 7:30am. The light is simply wonderful at this hour. And no crowds.

Yes you can take photos. No flash, no selfie sticks and no tripods.

And make sure to wear comfortable shoes!!! You'll do more walking than you think, even just to go through the square and wander around the church.

OK let's say you do not or just cannot manage a 7am visit. The best way to visit St Peters Basilica Rome is to either arrive prepared to wait in line, or, prepare to skip the line (as I explained above.)

Once you are in, I suggest you simply start in the front and take it in. Stand right near the entrance, and look down. There you will see the porphyry marble disc where Charlemagne was crowned holy Roman Emperor in 800. 

Soak up the atmosphere, and try to realize just how enormous this beautiful building is.

Now walk to the right and visit Michelangelo's Pietà. There will be a lot of people (unless you go at 7am). But trust me, they all move eventually so just be patient. Take your time. The sculpture is behind glass but it's still easy to observe it fairly close up. Think about what Michelangelo said - that every piece of marble has a sculpture inside, and it is up to the artist to chip away at the outside and reveal it. Only he could have said that, and only he could have done such a thing.

St. Peters BasilicaMichelangelo's pieta is my absolute favorite thing to see inside St Peter's basilica. It knocks me out every single time.

Take your time making your way counter-clockwise around the church, and make sure not to miss any side-chapels and their domes. 

Spend some time admiring Bernini's baldachin (bronze canopy.) It may not seem that enormous because the dome is so high above it, but in fact it is about 6-7 stories high!

If you have time, you may also want to head down to the grottoes just below, to see where some popes are buried. Note that this is NOT a visit to St. Peters tomb, which must be booked separately. If you do this, just know that you will have to leave from here. So make it the last thing you visit.

Be very sure you have seen all you want to see before you leave. As I said above, the lines to get in are long, and once you exit, you will have to stand in line all over again if you decide to go back!

Where to eat near St Peters Basilica

There is no place to eat INSIDE of St Peters Basilica Rome. There are cafeterias inside the Vatican Museums, but that is a completely separate building and visit. There is also a cafe up on the roof if you climb the dome, but it's got limited choices of course.

St. Peters BasilicaSpaghetti with bread crumbs and anchovies at Il Sorpasso, one of my favorite places to eat near St Peter's Basilica

There are a lot of very touristy places right around the basilica. For someplace more authentic, walk just a bit farther away.

Click here Where to Eat Near the Vatican for suggestions and a map!

Details - Hours, costs, location, and how to get to the basilica

Where is St Peter's Basilica?

Saint Peter's Basilica is inside Vatican City, which is a sovereign nation-state enclaved inside Rome, Italy. You can easily get to it on foot from many of the top tourist attractions in Rome.

See the map below for more details about St Peters Basilica Rome.

Opening days and Times

St Peters Basilica is open 365 days a year (with occasional exceptions. Visit the official Vatican website for any schedule updates.)

From October 1 - March 31 the hours are from 7am - 6:30pm.

From April 1 - September 30, the hours are from 7am - 7pm.

Keep in mind, these closing hours means they lock the doors then. This means you will have to be out by at least 20 minutes before that.

Vatican City Church Services

If you wish to attend Holy Mass in St Peters Basilica Rome, here are the hours (note these will not be given by the Pope):

Weekdays: 8:30 – 9:00 – 10:00 – 11:00 – 12:00 – 17:00 (in Latin)

Holidays: 9:00 – 10:30 (in Latin) – 11:30 – 12:15 – 13:00 – 16:00 – 17:45

Costs + Skip the line

It's free to visit St Peters Basilica Rome.

However, you can also purchase skip-the-line tickets or tours if you don't want to get up very early to beat the crowds.

How to get to st peters basilica Rome

Depending on where you are coming from, the bus or metro are the easiest ways to get to St Peters Basilica.

If you take the metro (red line, from Spanish Steps or Termini, among other stations), get off at Ottaviano. It's about a 10-15 minute walk to the basilica from there.

There are lots of buses that go near St Peters Basilica Rome. If you have a smart phone, I'd suggest using Google maps with public transportation, to plan your route.

You can also get to the basilica on foot, which makes for a dramatic visual effect the closer you get to Vatican Square. To get here on foot, the prettiest way is to cross the Angel Bridge to Castel Sant'Angelo, and make a left!

Map of St Peters Basilica Rome

I posted the map above on this page, but here it is again. You can choose which layer you want to see, including how to get here via the metro.

pin st peters basilica

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