A visit to Rome wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica. The largest Christian church in the world, St. Peter’s is filled with beautiful objects of art from some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Everywhere one looks there is art, including fabulous mosaics. Paintings would have been destroyed by all the smoke. The Vatican has its own mosaic workshop in operation, which you can buy a souvenir from for a princely sum.
St. Peter’s Basilica History in Brief
The oval shape of the piazza out front (Piazza San Pietro) gives insight into the area’s history before Christianity took root. In the 1st century CE, Nero’s circus dominated the area; the place near the front of the church was a race track. I can imagine chariots careening around its curves and the games (likely gory) that were played there. Sadly, according to legend, the location was also the site for Christian martyrdom.
The piazza and the church take their name from the first Christian pope—St. Peter. He had come to Rome because it was the greatest city in the known world and he wanted to preach to the Romans. For his efforts, Nero condemned him to death. The basilica stands near the spot where Peter was crucified upside down, so as not to be killed in the same manner as his lord. His tomb is beneath the church. Of course, there are disputes to both of these claims as is the case with much early church history. Bernini created a monumental bronze canopy (baldachino) to mark the burial place of St. Peter and a dome designed by Michelangelo soars above the gigantic baldachin.
Some St. Peter’s Basilica Facts
- A church had stood on the site for some time, but in 1506 Donato Bramante undertook construction of a new church. Due to his death, several architects (including Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael Sanzio) completed the task.
- The architects worked to see Bramante’s vision of the church in the shape of a Greek cross come to fruition.
- This massive church (over 600 feet long) covers six acres, can hold thousands of worshipers, and has plaques on the floor to show where the world’s other big churches would fit inside.
- Five humongous bronze doors lead into the church. To the far right is the Holy Door which is only opened during Holy and Jubilee years.
- The church took 120 years to build from 1506-1626.
Top Things to See at St. Peter’s
The Pieta—this evocative sculpture by Michelangelo was finished in 1499 and started the artist’s career on a trajectory to stardom. The Pieta depicts Mary holding her son, Jesus, after he has been crucified. Made from a single block of marble, it is a masterpiece. Mary is holding her dead son’s body after he’s been taken off the cross. She looks sorrowfully down at her son. They had killed this woman’s child and Michelangelo captured the moment of immense grief in stone. Jesus looks emaciated. His body hangs lifelessly across his mother’s lap. Mary’s robes pull from the weight of his body.
Please fight through the crowds and stand there to allow yourself a moment with this great work of art where Michelangelo captured in marble the moment when a mother had to witness her son’s execution and then prepare his body for the grave.
Michelangelo’s dome is 448 feet from the floor to the top. Another of the artist’s architectural treasures, the dome is beautifully decorated in blue and gold mosaics. Inscriptions encircle the base of the drum. Each letter is over 6 feet high, which makes them perfectly readable from ground level. One of the inscriptions reinforces the importance of the church’s namesake; the quote is from Matthew 16: 18—“…you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church…” The inscription is in Latin, of course, “Tu es Petrus…”
Statue of St. Peter—a bronze statue of St. Peter where he holds the keys to the kingdom in one hand and gestures a blessing with the other is a popular visitor’s site. People line up to pay their respects. One of his toes on his right foot is extra shiny from decades of people kissing it.
Bernini’s handiwork is apparent throughout the church and especially in the square out front, but there are a couple of pieces inside that shouldn’t be missed.
- Baldachino—this bronze canopy above the altar is over 90 foot tall! In any other church, the massive Baroque sculpture would overwhelm the place, but in St. Peter’s Basilica it seems that nothing less would do. It’s a perfect fit to honor Peter and commemorate his eternal resting place.
- Dove Window—this stained-glass, amber-colored window allows muted light to come in and shine through the 6-foot wide white dove into the church and onto Bernini’s “throne of Peter” (Cathedra Petri) below.
Climb the dome—To see the church…and Vatican City/Rome…in a whole new way, you will want to climb the dome of St. Peter’s. I recommend taking the elevator up as far as you can and saving yourself the walk up a couple hundred stairs. From the elevator-level, you can wander around the interior of the dome and get a close-up view of its mosaics or a birds-eye look into the interior of St. Peter’s. You can also walk out on the roof to get a decent view of the city, peruse the backs of the statues, and grab a snack at the cafe up there.
For those ready to exercise, climb several hundred stairs to the top of the dome for a great view of the city. You can play a game with others to see who can spot the most Roman landmarks. Once you are atop of the dome, you can see the key-design of St. Peter’s quite clearly. The key–shape of the piazza below speaks to the Biblical passage where Peter was given the keys to the kingdom. I enjoy also being able to see down into Vatican City. From ground level, I find the small city-state quite confusing, but atop St. Peter’s the city becomes more transparent.
Raphael’s “Transfiguration”—this is a mosaic replica (the original is on display in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums) of Raphael’s famous painting of the Biblical story of Jesus transfiguring into radiant light. It is in mosaic, as most of the “paintings” in St. Peter’s are, to avoid damage done by years of smoke.
Swiss Guard—as you leave St. Peter’s Basilica, you may want to try to spot the Swiss Guard. When you walk out the church doors, turn right. There is a guard booth down the stairs on the right if you are facing the piazza. I love their colorful uniforms reminiscent of the Renaissance.
Along with throngs of people, you will exit St. Peter’s Basilica onto Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square). An Egyptian obelisk punctuates the middle of it. Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the plaza, which boasts colonnades around the perimeter stemming out from St. Peter’s Basilica. The ring of 284 Doric columns (56 feet high) symbolize the arms of the church embracing everyone. One hundred forty statues top the church and the colonnades. I enjoy walking away from the church and taking in the piazza and St. Peter’s in its entirety. The art, architecture, and general splendor of the area makes it one of the best things to see in Rome.
How to Visit St. Peter’s (Prices):
You don’t need tickets to visit St. Peter’s since entry to the church itself is free, but you do have to stand in a security line. The security line to St. Peter’s can be a nightmare of a long wait. If you are going for a papal audience, show up at least an hour and half before. If you are going for the Angelus at noon on Sundays, I would recommend going at 10 am and looking around the church first and then staying for the blessing. On a regular day, you will probably want to go very early. I’ve tried to go right before closing, midday, during lunchtime, etc., but the mornings are when I’ve found the fewest people waiting.
- Basilica entry: free
- Treasury museum: 7€
- Dome climb without elevator 8€; with elevator 10€ (saves a couple hundred steps so definitely worth the additional 2€ in my book)
- You can also add an expansive crypt tour (the regular crypt is free but won’t take you to St. Peter’s original grave), Vatican museum tickets, tour of the gardens, etc. through the Vatican Museums website.
- Another option would be to take a small-group tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s. We enjoyed our tour with The Tour Guy. If you use our link, you can save 5% on most of their tours.
How to See the Pope: The pope generally gives an address on Wednesday mornings and a blessing (Angelus) on Sundays. This website gives an overview of the papal services and is invaluable for giving directions about how early to show up for an address, how to get tickets for the Wednesday service, and where to collect those tickets. According to the prefecture: “tickets can be collected at the Bronze Door (under the right-hand colonnade in St Peter’s Square) between 15:00 and 19:00 on the preceding afternoon, or on the morning of the audience from 7:00.” Please note that tickets for the Wednesday papal audience are free.
St. Peter’s Basilica Opening Times:
- April-September: 7 am-7pm
- October-March: 7am-6:30pm
- Closed Wednesday mornings during papal audience
Getting There: Take the #40 or #64 bus to get close to St. Peter’s or you can take the metro to the Ottaviano site. Alternatively, you can have a taxi driver get you fairly close.
Dress Code: This is the Vatican so you need to avoid sleeveless clothing, low-cut clothing, miniskirts, shorts, or hats. Basically, keep your knees and shoulders covered (and everything in between). If it is hot outside and I want to wear a sleeveless shirt, I just bring a scarf to cover myself while I’m in there.
Helpful Tip: I highly recommend downloading Rick Steves free Audio Europe app. His app has many useful tours, include one of St. Peter’s Basilica. In the app, Rick provides a hand-drawn map to accompany his tour.
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