St. Peter's Basilica ★★★

St. Peter's Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) in Rome: Motherchurch of Christendom

Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano (St. Peter's Basilica) ★★★
Piazza S. Pietro
tel. +39-06-6988-3731 or 06-6988-1662
www.vatican.va

Church: Open daily 7am–7pm (to 6:30pm Oct–Mar)
CLOSED WEDNESDAY MORNINGS if there is a papal audience in the piazza; it reopens when the audience is over, around 1pm.

Cupola/roof: Open daily 8am-6pm (to 5pm Oct–Mar); Adm


Necropolis: By reserved ticket only; see below.

St. Peter's tours
Skip the Line: Vatican in One Day
• Context: St. Peter's Symposium
• Context: Arte Vaticana: Our Vatican Tour including Sistine Chapel and St. Peters (with reservations)
Private Tour: Vatican Museums and St Peter's Art History Walking Tour
Classical Rome Morning Tour
Rome Photography Walking Tour: Learn How to Take Professional Photos (doesn't include site admission)
Rome Angels and Demons Half-Day Tour (just the piazza)
Rome by Night Coach Tour (no site entry)
Illuminated Rome Night Tour with Dinner (no site entry; just cruise by)
Rome Hop-on Hop-off Double Decker Bus Tour (no site entry)

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The Piazza San Pietro at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy.
The Piazza San Pietro at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy.

St. Peter's is one of the holiest basilicas in the Catholic faith, the pulpit for a parish priest we call the pope, one of the grandest creations of Rome's Renaissance and baroque eras, and the largest church in Europe.

(It was biggest church in the world until an ugly barn of a place was recently completed in Africa.)

The Piazza San Pietro

Fun fact
St. Peter's is not the cathedral of Rome. The pope's true title is Bishop of Rome, and as such his official home church—and Rome's cathedral—is actually San Giovanni in Laterano.
You approach the church through the embracing arms of Bernini's oval colonnade, which encompasses Piazza San Pietro (stand at one of this oval piazza's foci to see the four-deep columns of the nearest colonnade suddenly line up to appear only one deep).

Inside St. Peter's

Bernini's Baldacchino inside St. Peter's Bascilica, Rome
Bernini's Baldacchino inside St. Peter's Basilica. (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)
The church itself takes at least an hour to see—not because they are too many specific sights; it just takes that long to walk down to one end of it and back.

St. Peter's sheer dimensions are staggering—614 feet long, 145 feet high in the aisle soaring to 435 feet inside Michelangelo's dome (which is itself 139 feet across)—but everything is done to scale. That means those six-foot cherubs frolicking around the bathtub-sized holy water stoups do appear to be baby-sized until you look more closely.

The most magnificent basilica on Earth is a late Renaissance/early baroque masterpiece of architecture and decoration. St. Peter's was worked on by every great architect of Italy's 16th and 17th centuries: Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi, Antonio Sangallo the Younger, Michelangelo, Maderno, and Bernini.

Michelangelo's first Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.
Michelangelo's first Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.

Admire Michelangelo's youthful masterpiece Pietà in the first chapel on the right, sculpted at the age of 25. The beauty and unearthly grace of sweet-faced Mary and her dead son, Jesus, led some critics of the day to claim the 25-year-old Florentine sculptor could never have carved such a work himself.

An indignant Michelangelo returned to the statue and did something he never did before or after: He signed it, chiseling his name unmistakably right across the Virgin's sash.

Arnolfo di Cambio's 13th century St. Peter
Arnolfo di Cambio's St. Peter.
The Pietà has been behind bulletproof since 1972 when a crazed geologist attacked it with a hammer, hacking off Mary's nose and fingers (since repaired) while screaming, "I am Jesus Christ!"

Follow the faithful to kiss (or at least rub) the heavily worn bronze nub of a foot on Arnolfo di Cambio's 13th century St. Peter halfway up the left aisle.

Stand under the 96-foot-high baroque confectioner's-piece baldacchino (altar canopy) with its twisting columns cast by Bernini using bronze revetments removed from the Pantheon.

The Treasury of St. Peter's

The tomb of Sixtus IV by Antonio Pollaiuolo in St. Peter's Treasury Museum
The tomb of Sixtus IV by Pollaiuolo.
The small Treasury museum (entrance just before the left transept) contains the usual embroidered vestments, gilded chalices, and other bejeweled accoutrements of the faith.

Top billing in its collections goes to a marble ciborium carved by Donatello, and the enormous bronze slab tomb of Pope Sixtus IV, cast by early Renaissance master Antonio del Pollaiuolo in 1493.

it's a true Humanist-era work, marrying sacred and secular aspirations. Around its edges are relief panels personifying the seven virtues—Faith, Prudence, etc.—and others depicting scholarly disciplines—Astrology, Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Music, Geometry, Arithmetic, Philosophy, Theology, and Perspective.

The papal tombs: The Crypt and the Vatican Necropolis below St. Peter's

Note that there are two burial areas underneath San Pietro, and many people get them confused.

Crypt - The Vatican Grottoes

The tomb of Pope Pius XI in the Vatican Crypt below St. Peter's in Rome
The retro-Byzantine tomb of Pope Pius XI (who only died in 1939) in the Vatican Crypt.
Anyone who shows up at the pier to the right of and behind the main altar can walk down a short staircase into the first burial level, usually called the crypt or "Vatican Grottoes." (Note: sometimes they use the entrance by the rear left pier.)

Here some 90 popes—plus Queen Christina of Sweden—rest in peace under a low ceiling, including John Paul II.

Visiting the crypt is free, but it's also a one-way experience—you end up exiting into a narrow space between the basilica and Vatican walls where your only choices are to get in line to get up the dome (see below) or head back out into the piazza, so save the crypt for when you're done with the interior of St Peter's.

Not that the Tombs of the Popes close one hour before the St. Peter's itself.

Scavi - The Vatican Necropolis

The Crypt-Keepers
In order to get into the sub-crypt Vatican Necropolis—only 250 visitors allowed per day, in groups of 12, over age 15 only—you have to book ahead at the Vatican Excavations Office (Ufficio Scavi— Fabbrica di San Pietro). A visit costs €12.

You can either email them (scavi@fsp.va), fax them (tel. +39-06-6987-3017) or apply directly at the Ufficio Scavi, located through the Holy Office Gate off the colonnade to the left on Via Paolo VI (cool bit: you get to ask the pompously costumed Swiss Guards for directions).

You need to provide:
• The number of visitors
• Your names
• Name/nature of group (if any)
• Language for the tour
• Dates available (they determine when exactly you will tour)
• Your contact info (email, fax, or postal address)

Don't call them; they'll contact you (though for info: +39-06-6988-5318, www.vatican.va).

Before arriving for your tour, make sure you drop off any bags, bakckpacks, daypacks, or large purses at the "deposito bagagli" office toward the right end of St. Peter's facade.

If a virtual tour will do just as well, the Vatican web site has posted one of those.

The Vatican Necropolis below St. Peter's in Rome
The Vatican Necropolis.
Below the crypt is the the famous sub-crypt, or "Vatican Necropolis" (sometimes just called the scavi, or "excavations") which contains tombs dating from the origins of Christianity.

This one is a pain to get into, and only available via a guided tour (which have gotten infinitely harder to secure, ever since Dan Brown set part of Angels & Demons here; see the box on the right), but can be worth it.

St. Peter was probably martyred in the Circus of Nero, which lies under part of the current St. Peter's, but the actual site of his grave was argued over for centuries. Most thought the stories of him being buried here were apocryphal. It was just too neat and perfect.

After all, in giving his chief disciple Simon Cephas the new name of Petrus ("Rock"), Jesus supposedly said: "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." (Matthew 16:18) That's meant to be a metaphor, right? Christ certainly didn't mean that Peter's bones would literally be in the foundations of the motherchurch for all Christendom.

Then, in 1941, excavations in the Vatican Necropolis uncovered what many had thought was merely a medieval myth: the Red Wall, behind which St. Peter was fabled to be buried and upon which early Christian pilgrims scratched prayers, invocations, thanks, or simply their names in Latin.

An ancient mosaic in the Vatican Necropolis
An ancient mosaic of "The Good Shepherd" in the Vatican Necropolis.
Sure enough, behind this wall in 1950 they found a small pocket of a tomb and a box filled with bones that church doctrine now holds once belonged to Jesus' right-hand man and the first bishop of Rome—and, by extension, the world's first pope and vicar of Christ on Earth.

The remains were moved and are now reverently housed under the main altar of the church up above.

Of course, nothing exists independently in the historical or archaeological record to confirm any of this—just belief and a few Bible passages. Then again, the church is not actually built upon a rock or a man or a legend at all, but rather upon faith, so proving such things is really beside the point.

Getting up on the roof of St. Peter's

The cupola of St. Peter's Basilica, designed by Michelangelo
The cupola of St. Peter's Basilica, designed by Michelangelo
You must pay to take the elevator then climb (320 steps) to the top of St. Peter's dome—but it's worth it. (You can save a couple of euros by opting to climb the entire way: 551 stairs.)

Michelangelo himself designed this dome to loft 135m (450 ft.) above the ground at its top and stretch 42m (139 ft.) in diameter. In deference to the Pantheon, Michelangelo made his dome 1.5m (5 ft.) shorter across, saying "I could build one bigger, but not more beautiful, than that of the Pantheon."

Carlo Maderno later added the dome-top lantern, which today affords visitors a fantastic and dizzying city panorama.

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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in April 2013. All information was accurate at the time.

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