Going up inside St Peter's dome is a fantastic, extraordinary experience. You get to see St Peter's basilica in a whole new way.
Most people simply don't get to it, perhaps for lack of time, not knowing it's there, or fear it will be too strenuous.
I advise you to make time, and to at least visit the dome to the first level, which almost anyone can do:
climbing st peters dome to the first level
Once you are up and inside the dome you can see the beautiful mosaics that line the walls - up close!
Did you know nearly everything inside St Peters basilica that looks like a painting is actually a mosaic? Yep!
Don't let the word "climbing" throw you off!
There are two parts to climbing St Peters dome: You can take the (231) stairs or the lift/elevator to the first level, and wind up on the inside of Michelangelo's dome.
This is so special, because you will be looking down on the inside of St Peters basilica from above, and, if you are lucky, you may hear some singing floating up to reach you. When that happens, it's just magical!
From here, you can see right up close the mosaics that make up the dome's design.
You can look down on the inside of St Peters basilica from the dome. There is a little grate but you can still see the grandeur very well!
At this level, you can also walk out onto the roof of the basilica. Here, you can go to the front and check out Jesus and the apostles. These are the statues you see on the roof of the basilica when you look at it from the square.
There is also a bathroom, a very small refreshment stand, and a gift shop.
If you climb the dome to the first level, you can go out onto the roof of Saint Peter's basilica and see the apostles!
Visiting St Peters dome in a Wheelchair
There is an elevator to the roof so if you are in a wheelchair, you can reach the first level.
There is a restriction however.
The elevator opens out onto the roof. From here you can see the dome up close, but from the outside; move towards the front of the basilica and see this side view of the apostles (above); visit the restroom, snack bar and gift-shop.)
To reach the inside of the dome, even at this level first level, there is a small staircase. So depending on your level of immobility, you may not be able to access the inside of the dome.
climbing all the way to the very top of st peters dome
As I said, there are two parts of a visit to the cupola, or dome, of St Peters basilica. The first part, above, can be reached by elevator (and a small staircase.)
So if you take the elevator, you bypass 231 steps, and it's NOT strenuous, exhausting or claustrophobic.
The second part is optional. It means taking the next 320 stairs to the tippy top.
Not only is there not an elevator, but you will find a narrow single-file staircase that slowly spirals up, with the roof sort of slanting in towards you as you go.
And at the very end, as it gets narrower and narrower, you will have a corkscrew staircase, with a rope to hang onto! Yes! You read that right!
The narrow, slanted staircase leading to the top of the dome.
A rope to hang onto while you climb the last steps to the top of the dome.
These are the corkscrew stairs you will use to begin your descent.
Yep. It is definitely claustrophobic.
But, there are windows along the way so you will not feel totally closed in. And the stairs to go down are in another part so you will not run into people on your way up. And, hey, if I can do it, anyone can do it!
When is the best time to climb St Peters basilica dome
The best time of year to climb the dome
The dome is open daily, year-round.
If you have a choice, you might choose Christmas-time, late afternoon, so you can watch the sunset from there, and get this shot with the shimmering Christmas tree in Saint Peter's Square below:
It's pretty special to get to see this view at sunset, and with Christmas lights to boot!
Other than winter, you usually won't get a chance to see this view at sunset or by night.
The best time of day to climb st peters dome
As for time of day, the basilica was purposefully made to face east, which means the sun rises in front of it.
I like to climb St Peters dome first thing in the morning, especially in high season, because there is no line, and there are no crowds. But that does mean a washed out photo.
View from the top of Saint Peter's dome in early morning, with the sun directly in front of me.
So if you want a prettier photo, you will need to visit St Peters dome later in the day. But usually that means more people, and longer lines.
But don't worry it's beautiful any time!
St Peter's Square as seen from the dome, towards closing time, when the sun is behind you.
Best time during your visit to the Vatican to climb the dome
Climbing the dome takes and additional half hour to an hour (including time spent at the top.)
As for when to climb the dome during your visit, I suggest the following:
If you visit the Vatican Museums, and take the shortcut to St Peters Basilica, you should visit the dome right after you exit the Sistine Chapel and right before you enter St Peters Basilica. This is in part because the dome closes earlier than the basilica, in part because it's logistically right on the way, and in part because when you come down from the dome, you will be inside the basilica anyway. Then you can take your time enjoying the basilica itself.
If you do not plan to visit the Vatican Museums, and will only visit St Peters basilica, I suggest visiting the dome before the basilica. This is because it's the first thing you come to anyway, and because as I said, you come into the basilica when you exit the dome. But this is only a suggestion.
If you are visiting St Peter's basilica at 7am, my favorite time, the dome is not open yet anyway, so you will have to visit the basilica first.
If you are visiting the basilica during the morning or middle of the day, with plenty of time for visiting the dome, then I suggest visiting the dome after the basilica, so as not to have the sun directly overhead. It will be more comfortable heat-wise if you climb the dome in late afternoon, and also you will have nicer photos if the sun is behind you.
If you are visiting the basilica later afternoon, then definitely visit the dome first, or you risk not getting in before it closes.
The entrance to St Peter's dome is to the right of the entrance to St Peter's basilica. It's also one of the first things you will see once you get through security in the square
It's also just outside the Vatican museums if you exit the Sistine Chapel to the right, and take the shortcut to the basilica.
There is no way to JUST visit St Peters dome. You must get to the entrance either via the security lines in front of St Peters Basilica, or by visiting the Vatican Museums (and taking the correct exit.) See the graphic above for where the ticket office is.
So you will want to skip the line either to the Vatican Museums, or to St Peters Basilica. However, in either case, there is not actually a skip-the-line ticket just for the dome.
My number one tip for skipping the lines and the crowds!
Come to St Peters Basilica at 7am when it opens. No lines, no waiting, no crowds.
Entry to the dome opens at 7:30 or 8am (this depends on who I ask), and you can go then, with nobody in front of you or behind you. Quiet time!
Michelangelo and St Peters Dome
Fun facts about the dome of St Peters Basilica:
The dome of St Peter's basilica is the tallest dome in the world at 136.57 meters (448.1 ft).
Michelangelo took over as chief architect of St Peter's basilica in 1547. He was 71.
The original Saint Peter's Basilica was built in the 4th century under the emperor Constantine, and by the 1400's it was leaning to one side and in danger of collapsing. So Pope Julius II began to think about rebuilding it. Some of the best architects of the day were called to present designs, including Bramante, Raphael, and others. But in the end, it was Michelangelo who came up with the final design, combining elements of his colleagues' designs, and improving them as only he could.
One model for the dome was the Roman Pantheon. When Michelangelo first saw the pantheon, he said it seemed more like the work of angels, not humans.
Michelangelo made his dome 1.5m (5 feet), narrower in diameter than the Pantheon. He said “I could build one bigger, but not more beautiful, than that of the Pantheon.”
The ancient Roman pantheon was one of the inspirations for Michelangelo when he designed Saint Peter's dome
Michelangelo died in 1564, and at that point the dome was only completed up to the drum. So he never got to see his design realized.
In 1585, Pope Sixtus V ordered Giacomo della Porta (one of Michelangelo's pupils, and himself a prominent architect) and Domenico Fontana to complete the dome to Michelangelo's exact specifications. They finished it in 1590. Later, Domenico Fontana added the lantern on the tippy top.
In the early 1600's, Carlo Maderno (the nephew of Domenico Fontanta), was ordered by Pope Paul V to add a nave and facade. This is what you see when you stand in St Peter's Square looking at the basilica. As a result, Michelangelo's dome is barely visible from St. Peter's Square, and is best seen from a distance.
From St Peter's Square, you can barely see Michelangelo's dome because of the imposing facade.
Even just standing farther back from the basilica, almost outside the square, you start to get a better sense of the beauty of the dome.
Some of the best views of the dome of Saint Peter's basilica are from Rome's bridges. Then you can really see just how beautiful, and enormous, Michelangelo's dome is!
One of my favorite books of all time is Irving Stone's classic, The Agony and the Ectasy.
It's a biographical novel all about Michelangelo Buonarotti's life. I was so in love with this book that while I was reading it, I stopped half-way and went back to the beginning to start it again.
I just wanted to stay in Michelangelo's world a bit longer and absorb all I could of his passion and his genius.
Practical info about climbing St Peters dome
Costs to climb St Peters Dome
Entry to Saint Peter's basilica is free.
But if you want to climb the dome, you must pay (cash only).
It costs 8 Euros to climb via the stairs, and 10 Euros to take the lift/elevator.
There are NO discounts or passes for anyone.
You cannot use the Roma Pass, Omnia Pass, Student ID, or any other pass to get a discount.
And again, it's cash only.
Hours of St Peters Dome
From April 1 - October 31, the dome is open from 8am - 6pm.
From November 1 - March 31, the dome is open from 8am - 5pm.
Those times are a bit arbitrary. This is because it's up to the guards to decide when to start shooing people away and when to get serious about "everyone out!" (And even the opening time sort of depends on when the guards are ready.)
Last entry could be the stated closing time, or it could be around half hour before the stated closing time, depending on how long the lines are. And to climb via the stairs, it's even earlier than that. So give yourself a little leeway if you don't want to miss visiting St Peters dome.
Bottom line - try to make sure you get to the ticket counter at least an hour before the stated closing time so you are not rushed.
What you need/what you should not bring to climb st peters dome
To climb St Peters dome make sure you are dressed properly. And by dressed properly I mean two things:
Dress appropriately! - When entering a holy site, this means covered knees and covered shoulders. You will not be allowed into either Saint Peters Basilica or the Vatican Museums if you are not properly covered. (And this means you must be properly dressed to enter the dome too.) Both the basilica and the Sistine Chapelare holy places and they take the modesty dress code seriously. If you are not sure if your shorts or dress are long enough, wear something else. Sometimes they are a little lax but I'd err on the side of caution. Did you come all the way to Rome, and make your way over to the Vatican, only to be turned away?
Be comfortable! - I cannot stress enough how important it is to be comfortable when you sight-see in Rome. And by this I mean really comfortable shoes (and socks if applicable).
A few more things to bring/not bring:
Don't bring large bags or backpacks. You will need to check them and anyway, it would be difficult to climb St Peters dome with something heavy.