Guide for visiting St. Peter’s Basilica: Key attractions & insider tips

Mysteries unlock inside the largest church in the world
Statues, tombs and treasures spill out as the history is unfurled.
Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica is more than just a divine tour
It’s architecture, beauty and myths will impress you – for sure!

Embark on this captivating journey through the famous Vatican church and discover its many stories and secrets. Navigate through the best things to see in St. Peter’s Basilica and get useful tips on when to visit, the dress code, tickets, official tours and more!

St. Peter’s Basilica, the heart of Vatican City, has always captivated me with its magnificent architecture and historical significance. As the largest and most important Roman Catholic church in the world, this awe-inspiring sanctuary has always been a must-visit destination on my travel bucket list -especially after reading Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

Though technically separate, I considered this an extension of my Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel tour. It wasn’t just the impressive size that drew me to this architectural wonder; it’s the rich history, stunning artwork, and sheer beauty that made it such a remarkable and inspiring place to visit.

St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City - one of the historical sites in Rome
St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City – one of the historical sites in Rome

In this blog post, I will share my personal experience exploring this incredible monument and its stunning treasures that I discovered within the walls of St. Peter’s Basilica. You will discover how to get breathtaking views from the dome and the beautiful artworks and sculptures inside St. Peter’s Basilica. The blog also, includes insights from my guided tour through the Vatican Cathedral along with tips on when to visit, how to avoid the crowd, the tickets and where to book them.

Join me as we delve into the wonders of this iconic landmark, and I hope my journey inspires you to embark on your own unforgettable adventure to St. Peter’s Basilica!

Quick links for your tour of the Vatican Cathedral

Some of these links are likely to make your visit to the Vatican City and Museum easier and more enjoyable. Check them out.

Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.

History of St. Peter’s Basilica

The majestic St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City was actually an enclave in Rome. The current structure actually replaced an aging St. Peter’s Basilica, which was constructed in the 4th century by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. The early church housed the body of Saint Peter the Apostle, one of Jesus Christ’s disciples and the first Pope. When the Old St. Peter’s Basilica fell into a state of disrepair, a decision to build a new one.

St Peter's Basilica and Square
St Peter’s Basilica and Square

The construction of the current St. Peter’s Basilica began on April 18, 1506, under the leadership of Pope Julius II. It was designed as a three-aisled Latin cross, featuring a grand dome at its crossing, directly above the high altar. This altar covers the revered shrine of St. Peter the Apostle, where his remains are believed to have been found.

The project was an ambitious and lengthy one, taking more than a century to complete, with the beautiful dome designed by Michelangelo in 1546 as one of its crowning achievements. Standing at a majestic 452 feet in height, this dome has become a defining feature of St. Peter’s Basilica.

On November 18, 1626, the magnificence of the new basilica was finally unveiled, showcasing the architectural prowess and artistic talents of individuals like Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini. Since then, St. Peter’s Basilica has stood as the jewel of the Vatican and an important pilgrimage site for believers worldwide.

With this rich history in mind, I am sure you will add visiting St Peters Basilica to your list of must-see destinations in Rome. From the soaring dome to the sacred altar and the breathtaking art, this remarkable basilica has something to leave everyone in awe!

Interesting Facts about St. Peter’s Basilica

If the history of this Vatican Cathedral is not enough for you to be fascinated, then here are some incredible facts that enhance its allure. To be honest, some of these I did not even know till I finally went visiting St. Peter’s Basilica. Check them out –

The Statues of Basilica of St. Peter in Rome appear to be the same size but they are not
The Statues of Basilica of St. Peter in Rome appear to be the same size but they are not
  • St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world! With a length of 218 meters and a height of 136 meters, its size is truly awe-inspiring. The ceiling alone is 150 feet above the ground, adorned with a stunning gold coffered design. The entire structure dominates the skyline of Rome’s city center (not just the Vatican City, you can see it from Rome)
  • St. Peter’s Basilica is not actually a cathedral! Despite popular belief, St. Peter’s Basilica is not a cathedral because it is not the main church of the diocese. It is, however, the main church of the Vatican City and a significant place for Catholics worldwide.
  • The Stadium of Nero, where St. Peter was martyred, lies under the Basilica. After St. Peter’s crucifixion, his body was buried in a nearby necropolis. As a true testament to his legacy, this incredible basilica was built over his tomb, turning the once-pagan site into a symbol of Christian faith.
  • One of the most thrilling experiences for any visitor is to climb the St. Peter’s Basilica dome. Designed by Michelangelo, the dome offers magnificent views of the Vatican City and Rome. It’s one of the highest domes in the world and to reach the summit, you’ll need to climb 491 steps.
  • You would have seen pictures of the magnificent statues on the façade of the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome? Well, the colossal statues that adorn the façade are not the same size. At first glance, they may appear to be identical in scale, but as you look upwards, the statues increase in size to maintain a visually harmonious perspective.
  • St. Peter’s Basilica is home to Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. This breathtaking marble sculpture depicts the sorrowful Virgin Mary cradling the lifeless body of Jesus Christ. It’s the only piece of work Michelangelo ever signed, making it a must-see for art and history enthusiasts alike.
  • The construction took over a century: St. Peter’s Basilica’s construction began in 1506 under Pope Julius II and was completed in 1615 under Paul V. Several famous architects, including Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini, contributed to its design and development, making it one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture.

St. Peter’s Basilica is not just a monumental symbol of the Vatican and Christianity; it’s also a testament to the brilliant architects, artisans, and history that it embodies. From its commanding presence in Rome’s skyline to the exquisite artistry within, the Basilica never ceased to amaze me.

Architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica

St Peter's Basilica with its iconic dome
St Peter’s Basilica with its iconic dome Image Credits: Pixabay

I am sure you will be completely awestruck when you first enter and see the magnificent architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica. This iconic structure, located within Vatican City, is a captivating blend of Renaissance and Baroque architectural styles.

The main architects who contributed their brilliance to the design of the basilica include Donato Bramante, Maderno, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Each one of them added their unique touch to this iconic structure. The basilica measures an impressive 220 meters in length, 150 meters in width, and stands 136.6 meters tall!

One of the most striking features of the architecture is the massive dome, designed by none other than Michelangelo himself. He gave it a taller and more pointed profile than initially planned, setting the stage for the Baroque domes that followed.  

The Baroque and Renaissance designs inside St Peters Basilica, Vatican City
The Baroque and Renaissance designs inside St Peters Basilica, Vatican City

When you walk inside St. Peter’s Basilica, you will witness beautiful sculptures, frescoes, and numerous altars – each carefully crafted by the renowned artists of their time. Every corner exudes elegance and only when you see these masterpieces, you will realize why some of these artisans were renowned back then and even now!

The famous Vatican Square with the Roman Obelisk on the right
The famous Vatican Square with the Roman Obelisk on the right

Besides the main structure, there is a large square with its ancient Roman remnants (more on that coming up) and underground crypts with its secrets and treasures. It is possible to access all these attractions of St. Peter’s Basilica – all of which I will cover in the next section.

What to See Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City?

St. Peter’s Basilica is absolutely incredible – I am sure you will love everything there is to see in there! From the moment you walk through the massive doors, your jaw will drop to the floor. I mean, it isn’t every day that you see a church interior that is so huge and grand. The artwork and architecture are just mind-blowing.

From Michelangelo’s incredible Pietà sculpture to Bernini’s epic baldacchino over the main altar, tombs of Popes and even Saint Peter as well as climbing all the way up to the top of the dome for the 360 views of Rome, there is so much to see and do inside this Vatican church! So get ready to be amazed and let’s dive into the best things to see in St. Peter’s Basilica!

The Central Nave of St Peters Basilica, Rome

The central nave
The central nave Image Credits: Pixabay

The central nave of St. Peter’s Basilica is simply breathtaking. At 90 m of length and 26 m of width, it is one of the largest naves of any church in the world. Lined with massive marble pillars and gilded architectural details, the nave stretches all the way to the base of Bernini’s glorious Baldacchin. The nave is 44.5 m high.

The central nave of St. Peter’s Basilica is also home to a fascinating piece of history – a large red porphyry disk set into the floor. This circular slab of stone, measuring over 3 meters in diameter, was where many of the Roman emperors had knelt for their coronation.

I could not take a picture of this owing to the crowd that I encountered during my visit to St Peter’s Basilica but you will be able to identify this disk easily when you enter.

Baldachin – an unmissable attraction when visiting St. Peter’s Basilica

The Baldachin by Bernini - one of the key attractions of St. Peter's Basilica
The Baldachin by Bernini – one of the key attractions of St. Peter’s Basilica

One of the things that completely awed me was the Baldachin  – a large Baroque sculpted bronze canopy over the altar. Designed by Bernini, it’s a breathtaking piece and you can’t miss it when you enter the basilica.

It is over 20 meters tall, making it one of the largest bronze sculptures in the world. The structure is supported by four colossal spiral columns that are intricately decorated with vines, leaves, and cherubs. The top of the baldachin is crowned with a golden dove, representing the Holy Spirit.

Chair of St. Peter

Seeing the Chair of St. Peter was intriguing. It’s an immense, gilded bronze throne designed by Bernini. Placed within a massive niche, this incredible work of art is meant to symbolize the authority of the Pope. You may not be able to get too close to it, especially if there is a lot of crowd. I unfortunately, had to satiate myself by getting a glimpse of it through the Baldachin.

The throne of St. Peter
The throne of St. Peter Image Credits: Wikimedia commons

One of the stories, rather secrets of St. Peter’s Basilica that I uncovered during my visit was that this bronze sculpture actually encases a a significant religious relic – the actual wooden chair that is believed to have been used by Saint Peter, the first Pope. The wooden throne with intricate carvings has been enclosed in a gilt bronze casing designed by Bernini in the 17th century. Many historians have studied it but there is no conclusive proof of the ownership or the origin of the wooden throne.

Captivating Statues of St. Peter’s Basilica

One of the statues inside Vatican Cathedral
One of the statues inside the Vatican Cathedral

There are several prominent statues inside St. Peter’s Basilica. I am told there are over 80 gorgeous ones inside the Vatican Basilica and even more outside in the square. While each one has its own story to tell, the three that you should definitely look out for include these

The Pieta – the iconic attraction of St. Peter’s Basilica

The Pieta translates to pity. This statue was created by Michelangelo and is one of the most famous ones around the world. Created in 1499, it depicts the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus Christ. This sculpture is considered one of Michelangelo’s greatest masterpieces for its stunning representation of the beauty and pain of human emotion etched in marble.

The Pieta - one of the famous works of Michelangelo that you can see when you are visiting St. Peter's Basilica
The Pieta – one of the famous works of Michelangelo that you can see when you are visiting St. Peter’s Basilica

Stay here for a few minutes and you will see Mary’s expression of sorrow and maternal love for her son who has just been crucified. You will also, be able to see Jesus’ body showing the physical toll of his sacrifice.

The statue is 5 feet 8 inches tall and is a testament to Michelangelo’s skill as a sculptor, with intricate details in the folds of clothing and the delicate features of the faces. It is no wonder that this piece of work is one of the most popular things to see when visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Bronze Statue of Saint Peter

Saint Peter's statue in the Vatican Cathedral
Saint Peter’s statue in the Vatican Cathedral

This is close to the Central nave and very often is missed out owing to the crowd around it. The over 19-foot tall bronze statue depicts Saint Peter holding the keys to heaven and was first believed to have been created in the 5th century. However, archaeological and historical evidence credits Arnolfo di Cambio for it and dates it to the 13th century.

What makes it significant is the belief that you can ask for a blessing after kissing the right toe of Saint Peter. The tradition has been alive for over 800 years and this explains the crowd. On June 29th, you will find this statue decorated with papal vests and a tiara to commemorate the fact that Saint Peter was the first Pope ever. This day also, marks his death anniversary.

The gigantic statue of St. Paul in the Vatican Square

Statue of St. Paul in Vatican Square
Statue of St. Paul in Vatican Square Image Credits: Pixabay

This statue is a part of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, just outside the Vatican cathedral. It is unmissable owing to its size and is symbolic of the importance of the Catholic church. The statue is made of white marble and stands over 13 feet tall.

 It was created by Adamo Tadolini in 1838 and showcases Saint Paul holding a sword and a book. The sword is a symbol of his martyrdom while the book represents his mission as the Messenger of the Word of God.

Holy Door – not accessible during the non-Jubilee years

The holy door of Vatican
The holy door of Vatican Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Close to the main entrance of the Basilica of Saint Peters in Vatican City, is an elegant and ornate door that will likely be closed when you visit. This is called the Holy Door or the Porta Sancta.

The Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica is only opened during Jubilee Years, which occurs every 25 years. This door symbolizes the passage to salvation and mercy, and walking through it is a meaningful experience for many pilgrims. The beautiful door is located in the central nave of the basilica and is made of bronze. There are intricate carvings and symbols, including the four evangelists and the Holy Spirit etched on this holy door.

I came across this lovely and unique story of St. Peter’s Basilica when I first did my research and so had it on my wish list. However, I did not get lucky this time. For one, I was not visiting during the Jubilee year and when not in use, it is covered with bricks. Hence, you will miss it – unless you arrive in 2025 when it is scheduled to open next. However, to walk through them, you need to pre-register as a pilgrim. For now, listen to an audio guide or your live guide to spot the bricked wall from the inside of the Basilica. Likely it is marked with a golden cross on it.

Vatican Grottoes underneath the St. Peter’s Basilica

I had combined my tour of the St. Peter’s Basilica with the Vatican Museum and consequently fell short of time to see the famous Vatican Grottoes. Also, called Papal tombs, these are underground chambers that house tombs, chapels, and monuments dedicated to Popes, monarchs and other important figures. It is a vast area to cover but among them, the three things that you must definitely see in these underground chambers include Funerary Monument of Calixtus III, Clementine Chapel and the Tomb of Queen Charlotte of Cyprus.  

Besides these three interesting attractions of the Grottoes in the Vatican Cathedral, there are archaeological rooms and over 90 tombs to be explored. So do keep aside time for this tour.

St. Peter’s Tomb and the Vatican Necropolis

Initially, I thought that the Vatican Necropolis and the Vatican Grottoes were the same. However, as I discovered when visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, they are different – two separate places to visit. Where the Vatican Grottoes are located right below the current basilica, the necropolis is even further down. It was a part of the old Basilica which was built on top of the ancient burial site that included the Tomb of Saint Peter himself.

The Vatican Necropolis or the Vatican Scavi was lost for several years and was finally revealed in the 1940s. There are several mausoleums found here that date back to Emperor Constantine. One of the most significant tombs here is that of Saint Peter himself. Located directly under the dome, this simple tomb is where St. Peter is believed to be buried.

There are only 250 people per day that are allowed to visit this ancient site. To avail of the same, you have to book a guided tour of the Necropolis. Make sure you do so in advance. You might have to book many months prior. Also, remember only kids over 15 years old are allowed. No photography is permitted here but you can get a virtual tour of the place through this link – that I what I did!

Treasury of St. Peter’s

In the Treasury of St. Peter’s, you can see an impressive collection of sacred artifacts, liturgical ornaments, and various relics. It’s a must-visit spot for those interested in religious history. There are several old chalices, ancient garbs and even the tiara that is worn by the Pope on display.

The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica - one of the key highlights of visiting the Vatican Cathedral
Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica – one of the key highlights of visiting the Vatican Cathedral

One of the highlights of my visit was the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Designed by Michelangelo, it is the tallest dome in the world. Visitors can climb to the top (there’s even an elevator to reach the highest possible point) to enjoy stunning views of Vatican City and Rome.

Though Michelangelo started it, he could not see the end of it. The dome was finally completed after his death by his disciple – Giacomo della Porta in 1590. The Vatican dome is over 130 feet tall and is made of brick and concrete covered with a layer of lead. As my guide said – “You can fit in a complete Statue of Liberty including its base, inside the St. Peter’s Basilica – thanks to this high dome.”

Also referred to as the cupola, you will actually get a crick in your neck trying to see its elements that are spread across six concentric circles. There are 16 large windows, busts, frescos, and figurines of over 96 figures. Gosh!

The climb up this Vatican cupola is a ticketed tour that can be booked in combination to the entry, museum tickets or even the necropolis or grottoes tour. I have listed a few of these in the Quick links section at the start of this blog article.

St. Peter’s Square

The gigantic Vatican Square
The gigantic Vatican Square

Stepping into St. Peter’s Square, I was struck by its size and beauty. The massive, open space boasts an Egyptian Obelisk at its center, surrounded by graceful, curving colonnades designed by Bernini. The iconic square has colonnades with 140 statues of saints. This is where the Pope delivers his weekly address and where many important religious ceremonies take place.

If you have availed the Vatican museum tour then, it is likely you will exit through this square. However, if you have chosen to visit St. Peter’s Basilica first, then you will enter here.

Pope’s Residence or the Lateran Palace 

Glimpse of the Papal residences in Vatican City
Glimpse of the Papal residences in Vatican City

Although not directly within St. Peter’s Basilica, you can also catch a glimpse of the Pope’s Residence or the Lateran Palace within Vatican City. Formerly the place was called Apostolic Palace. You can see his balcony and windows. It’s a treat to see where the leader of the Catholic Church resides! I believe you can even book a tour of the public areas of the Papal apartments.

With that, I conclude the highlights of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica. As you can see it is quite an unforgettable experience – with its ornate structures, stunning masterpieces and hidden secrets. I would highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Rome.

Tips for Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica and its front entrance
St. Peter’s Basilica and its front entrance

Based on my visit, I have put together some dos and don’ts that you will need when planning your own trip. Here are my top tips for visiting St. Peter’s Basilica!

  • Dress code: When visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, you should dress modestly. This means no shorts, skirts above the knee, or sleeveless tops. You will be turned away at the entrance if you are dressed inappropriately. If in doubt, carry a light scarf or shawl like I did.
  • Opening hours: St. Peter’s Basilica is open from 7 am to 6:30 pm between October and March, and from 7 am to 7 pm between April and September.
  • Avoiding crowds: To enjoy your trip to St. Peter’s without the crowds, visit early in the morning, from 7 to 9 am. The Basilica is less crowded during these hours, which makes exploring it a lot more enjoyable.
  • Check the website: Before you go, visit the St. Peter’s Basilica website for up-to-date information on current hours and any special events that might be happening on the day of your visit.
  • Days to avoid: Be aware of significant religious holidays, as the Basilica may be closed to the public during certain times. It’s a good idea to plan your visit around these events to ensure you can enter the church.
  • Visit the dome: Don’t miss the opportunity to climb to St. Peter’s dome for incredible views of Rome. Entrance to the dome is available daily from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm between April and September, and from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm between October and March.
  • Save time with a guided tour: Consider taking a guided tour of St. Peter’s Basilica to learn more about its history and significance. A guided tour can also help you skip the lines and maximize your time at this incredible landmark.
  • Be prepared for security checks: Just like any other major attraction, there is a security check at the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. Be prepared to go through a scanner and have your bags examined to ensure a smooth entry. Avoid large bags.
  • Take your time: St. Peter’s Basilica is filled with stunning artwork, intricate details, and beautiful architecture. Be sure to take your time and explore every corner of this magnificent church.
  • Bring a water bottle: Rome can be hot, especially in the summer months. It’s essential to stay hydrated during your visit to St. Peter’s, so bring a refillable water bottle with you.

Frequently Asked Questions about St. Peter’s Basilica

What is the entrance fee for St. Peter’s Basilica?

Good news for all of us – there is no entrance fee to visit St. Peter’s Basilica! This means you can enter and explore on your own. Be ready, though to stand in those huge queues.

The free entrance does not include a guide, dome climb, Vatican grottoes, or the Vatican necropolis. For these, you will have to shell out a few Euros.

There are several guided tours that combine these experiences and even include a visit to the Vatican Museum and these can be booked online. In my opinion, it is better to avail of these as they help you with a skip-the-line entrance as well as with a guide who can explain the masterpieces better.

What is the best way of getting to St. Peter’s Basilica from Rome?

You can use a bus, metro or a taxi to get to Vatican City from Rome. Many guided tours offer a pick up or transport when you buy the tours.

If you are opting to go by bus, you will find many from Rome to Vatican City. Hop on to any and head straight to the St. Peter’s Basilica stop. The Basilica stop is right at the entrance. However, if you are planning to visit the Vatican museum along with the Basilica, this stop is 15 minutes from the museum. You cannot access the museum directly from the Basilica. On the other hand, if you are headed to the Museum first, get off at the Museo Vaticani stop. From the museum, it is possible to directly access the Basilica.

By Metro, you can get off at the Ottaviano stop on the Metro A line.

Can you enter St. Peter’s Basilica directly from the Sistine Chapel?

Yes, you absolutely can! Exiting the Sistine Chapel, there’s a special passage connecting it to St. Peter’s Basilica. That means we can smoothly continue our journey without having to go outside and stand in long queues again!

When do the Holy doors of the Vatican Cathedral open next?

The Holy doors of Vatican will be opened on December 8, 2024 and will remain open for 365 days of the Jubilee year of 2025.

How much time should one spend visiting St. Peter’s Basilica?

There’s so much beauty to take in at St. Peter’s Basilica! I recommend setting aside at least one to two hours to fully appreciate its grandeur and history. However, you can easily spend more time here, especially if you attend Mass or explore the surrounding Vatican City attractions!

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