This page is specifically about St Peters Basilica Rome.
If you want to know more about visiting the Vatican Museums, go here.
What is St Peters Basilica?
St Peters 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.
Quick fun facts about St Peters Basilica Rome:
St Peters is not a cathedral (a cathedral needs to have a bishop and St Peters does not have one.)
Although St Peters 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 Peters Basilica, and Bernini decorated it. Why? Keep reading!
St Peters 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.
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 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!)
This 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 7pm from April - October, and 6:30pm 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.
This 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.
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 promote both Viator and GetYourGuide.
Both are online tour agencies and offer many of the exact same tours.
The links to Viator allow you to book and pay in US Dollars, while GetYourGuide allows you to pay in Euros and other currencies. Both are 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.)
Sundays 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.
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.
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 thought/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 Peter's Basilica Rome
Climbing the dome of St Peters Basilica is really special.
You get right up close and personal with Michelangelo's dome.
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 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. 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 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.
Michelangelo'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!
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.
Spaghetti 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.
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!
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