St Peter’s Basilica is one of the world’s holiest catholic shrines and is visited by thousands of pilgrims and tourists every month. Built upon the tomb of St Peter, this splendid church is a magnificent must-see for visitors to Rome.
The history behind the creation of the Basilica is almost as amazing as the Basilica itself. After the first Basilica was knocked down, it took over 100 years to rebuild, and some of the most famous architects of the time contributed to its design. If you are planning a visit to Rome, then you can’t miss St Peter’s Basilica. Situated in the Vatican City, you can visit the Basilica and also the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums.
There is so much to see, and many photo opportunities; be sure to do your research so that you don’t miss anything. You can see below all the information you need to make the most of your visit, including history of the Basilica, how to get there, what to wear, and plenty of interesting facts for you to impress your travel companions with.
What is St Peter’s Basilica
Situated on Vatican Hill in the UNESCO world heritage site of Vatican City, St Peter’s Basilica dominates the skyline of Rome and attracts millions of Catholic pilgrims from all over the world. It has a capacity of over 60,000 people, covers 22,300 square meters and is one of the world’s largest churches. It will take you at least an hour to walk from one end to the other, and if you still have the energy, you can climb the 491 stairs to the top of Michelangelo’s dome. A church only becomes a basilica when the pope designates it, usually because of historical significance or if it houses sacred relics. Globally, there are over 1,400 minor basilicas, however, St Peter’s Basilica is one of only four Major Basilicas in the world. The three other major basilicas are also situated in Rome; St. John Lateran, St. Paul’s outside the Walls and St. Mary Major. St Peter’s Basilica achieved its basilica status due to being built on the site where St Peter was crucified and buried in 64 AD.
History of St Peter’s Basilica
The site of St. Peter’s Basilica was originally the Circus of Nero and a cemetery. St Peter, believed to have been one of the 12 apostles, and the first ever pope was martyred under the reign of Emperor Nero in approximately 64 AD. In 306 AD, Emperor Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome. He decided to erect a basilica on Vatican Hill at the supposed location of St. Peter’s tomb.
Construction started in 319 AD and was completed around 349 AD. The construction involved moving a million tonnes of earth in order to create a platform to support the structure. It was an astounding feat of engineering. The basilica stood for over 1,000 years, however it had started to deteriorate and due to serious concerns that it may collapse, Pope Julius II (who also commissioned the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) concluded that it was beyond repair and that it would have to be demolished and rebuilt.
The new basilica took 120 years to complete and all the great architects of the Roman Renaissance and Baroque were part of its design. Many architects were consulted, however the main contributors to the creation of St Peters Basilica were Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Donato, Giacomo della Porta and Maderno. Bramante produced the original design for the Basilica in 1506. After Bramante’s death in 1514, Raphael took over as the main architect and when Raphael died in 1520, Michelangelo took his place. Michelangelo’s pupil, Giacomo della Porta, continued building it after Michelangelo’s death in 1564. Carlo Maderno was later asked by Pope Paul V to extend the church. St Paul’s Basilica was finally complete on the 18th November 1626, and was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII.
Facts About St Peter’s Basilica
- There are two levels below St Peter’s Basilica; the first level is known as the Vatican Grottoes, and is a large underground graveyard where the tombs of 91 Popes are buried. The level below this is the Vatican Necropolis and houses St Peter’s Tomb.
- There are only three women entombed in the Vatican Grottoes; Queen Christina of Sweden, Agnesina Colonna Caetani and Queen Charlotte of Cyprus.
- The holy door in St Peter’s Basilica is only opened for Jubilee Years, which is once every 25 years. They are usually cemented shut to prevent them accidentally being opened.
- Michelangelo’s famous carving of the Pieta is housed in St Peter’s Basilica and is protected by bulletproof glass. It was carved from a single slab of marble and was the only work he ever signed.
- In the courtyard outside St Peter’s Basilica there are 140 statues of saints, which stand upon the colonnades. Each statue is 3.10 metres tall and they have been standing since 1670.
- The Swiss Guard, the world’s smallest army, was formed in 1506 and still exists to protect the Pope, the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica.
How To Get To St Peter’s Basilica
St Peter’s Basilica is located within Vatican City, which is north of the city centre of Rome. If you use the Rome Metro system you can get off at Ottaviano (Line A), from there it is only a ten-minute walk to St Peter’s Basilica. Most buses will stop off at Vatican City, the main ones being 64, 62, 40 and 81. Children under 10 travel free on all public transport. There are various hop-on/hop-off buses, which can drop you off at Vatican City and you can catch the bus back again later on. It’s worth bearing in mind that on Sundays there are some road closures, which may affect your journey. Walking to St Peter’s Basilica is also an option; it will only take you 15-20 minutes to walk from the heart of Rome to Vatican City, and the walk is pleasant. You could also take part in a walking tour, which would be useful to help you get your bearings if you are new to Rome. If you are driving, the nearest parking facility to Vatican City is the underground 5-storey car park, Terminal Gianicolo. This is a ten-minute walk away from St Peter’s Basilica. Taxis aren’t very frequently used in Rome, and you may struggle to hail one down. It may be worth using Uber to check the fare and order a cab; this should prevent you from being charged too much.
Tickets and Entry For St Peter’s Basilica
Millions of people visit St Peter’s Basilica every year, so it is crucial that you plan your visit to Vatican City well in advance to make sure you avoid queuing for hours.
Visiting the Basilica is free, however there is a charge for going up to the dome, and for seeing the Vatican Necropolis.
Access to the Vatican Necropolis, where the tomb of St Peter is situated, is only possible occasionally when the Excavations Office grants special permission. You can email them at email@example.com to see if you can get a reservation for your chosen date. There is a cost of 13 euros per person.
April – September
St Peter’s Basilica: 7:00am-7:00pm — Free
The Cupola (Dome): 8:00am-6:00pm — €8 for the elevators, €6 for the stairs
The Vatican Grottoes 7:00am-6:00pm — Free
The Vatican Necropolis — email firstname.lastname@example.org — €13
October – March
St Peter’s Basilica: 7:00am-6:00pm — Free
The Cupola (Dome): 8:00am-5:00pm — €8 for the elevators, €6 for the stairs
The Vatican Grottoes 7:00am-5:00pm — Free
The Vatican Necropolis — email email@example.com — €13
Tickets for visiting the Basilica cannot be bought online, as they are free. So you just have to join the queue, which can be quite long as this is such a popular tourist destination. The way to avoid this would be to reserve tickets online with a tour group, which you can do with Roma Experience on this tour of the Basilica.
One of the most important things to know is that you will be refused admittance if you are not dressed appropriately, hundreds of people are refused daily! You must wear shoes, and your shoulders and knees have to be covered. This applies to both men and women. You don’t have to be dressed particularly smartly, but if you are wearing shorts, a short skirt or a sleeveless shirt then you won’t get in. You must also remove your hat before entering the Basilica.
What To See In St Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Square – Known locally as Piazza San Pietro, St. Peter’s Square is in front of the Basilica. There are two stunning fountains either side of the square. There is also a 40-meter high Egyptian obelisk (including the base and the cross on top), which was bought to Rome in 37 B.C. From here you will also be able to see the 140 aforementioned statues of saints on top of the pillars. At the front of the square you will be able to see the large statues of St Peter and St Paul.
St. Peter’s Baldachin – Situated directly under the dome in the Basilica stands this 29-meter high bronze canopy. Gian Lorenzo Bernini started work on the Baldachin in 1623 and it was completed 11 years later in 1634. The Baldachin stands over the papal alter which is directly above St Peter’s tomb. Only the Pope may serve at the altar.
Bronze Statue of St Peter – Created in 1300 by Arnolfo di Cambio, the statue of St Peter seated on a throne has been situated in the Basilica since 1605. The tradition of pilgrims either touching or kissing the statue’s feet has caused the right foot to wear down.
The View from the Top of the Dome – After taking the lift or climbing up the stairs you will find yourself looking out at breath-taking views of Vatican City from the top of St Peter’s Basilica.
- On Wednesdays, with the exception of late July and August, the Pope holds an audience at St Peters Basilica. You can get tickets to see the Pope give a Papal Audience or Papal Mass for free. It takes place in St Peter’s Square. If you just want to see the Basilica, then avoid Wednesdays, as you won’t be allowed in until the papal audience has finished.
- The Vatican museum is a ten-minute walk away from St Peter’s Basilica, and is worthwhile visiting. There is a charge for entry, however it is free on the last Sunday of every month from 9:00 to 13:45.
- Be very careful with your belongings. There are lots of pickpockets around Vatican City, preying on distracted tourists. The number 64 bus has got a reputation for being particularly bad, as it is mainly used by tourists.
- As mentioned earlier, make sure you are wearing appropriate clothing. You don’t want to reach the front of the queue only to not be allowed in. If it is too hot you could always take a scarf with you to drape over your shoulders.
- If you have a fear of heights, are claustrophobic or have a heart condition then you may wish to avoid climbing the 554 stairs to the top of the Basilica.
- Some tourists think that the queue for St Peter’s Basilica will also grant them access to the Sistine Chapel. This is not the case; the Sistine Chapel is accessible through the Vatican Museums. Free entry is granted to the museum on the last Sunday of each month and on world tourism day (September 27th).