The enormity and grandeur that is St. Peter’s Basilica still eludes all superlatives. It took 120 years to build the most important and most beautiful church in Catholic Christendom. 20 popes and 6-10 architects were involved, depending on who counts.
It occupies 5.7 acres and can accommodate approximately 60,000 people. It could be built on top or not of the tomb of St. Peter, but it is an extraordinary act of faith-based human achievement.
On top of this, it contains masterworks like Bernini’s baldachin and Michelangelo’s moving-to-the-point-of-tears sculpture, the Pieta. St. Peter’s is the only building that captures Catholocism’s spirit like it.
Like our comprehensive attraction guides? Our expert-guided tours of Italy will be a hit. We’d love to help you plan a trip to Italy.
What to See When You Visit St. Peter’s Basilica
Two men designed the massive St. Peter’s Basilica edifice. They were Pope Julius II, and Donato Bramante, his chosen architect. Michelangelo was only a grudging assistant. Their goal was to build the greatest building in Christendom by razing an older basilica that had been built on the same site by Constantine in 4th century.
It looked simple on paper. A Greek cross with a dome at the top, inspired by the Pantheon. The project was truly exceptional because of the sheer size of the cross. While there are many churches that cover more territory than St. Peter’s Basilica technically, none of them have ever matched its immense interior capacity over the nearly 400-year period since its completion.
It is one of few places in Rome that you can visit during peak tourist season without feeling crowded by other people – at most, up to the point where the crowd exceeds 50,000.
Michelangelo is generally credited with the creation of the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral. He took over the role of head architect from Antonio Sangallo The Younger, who had succeeded Baldassare Peruzzi who, in turn, had taken over from Bramante.
Michelangelo had some of the works of other architects torn down to preserve Bramante’s original vision. This was to preserve Bramante’s original vision which emphasized the quality of natural light’s illumination. He based his dome design on Bernini’s double-shelled masterpiece from Florence. It was not completed by Bernini, and he didn’t see it finished. There is much debate about whether the final product, which Giacomo della Porta has finished, is more ovular that he intended.
The amazing light that filters through the windows of the cupola and the incredible effect it has on the surrounding landscape is something that is undisputed. Visitors be aware that it is a long climb to reach the top. Although the elevator is a better choice, it doesn’t allow for you to skip any of the steps. You will need to hike up the 551 steps that lead to the top.
The Vatican Necropolis (Scavi).
The Vatican Necropolis or Scavi are not part of the Vatican. They are part of an Imperial Roman cemetery. It was located above ground near the Circus of Nero when it was constructed. This is exactly what ties it to St. Peter.
According to Catholic tradition, Peter was killed in the Circus of Nero either in 64 or 67. He was specifically executed by an inverted cross crucifixion. Then he may have been buried in the nearest cemetery. The first Christian Emperor of Rome, Emperor Constantine believed that the cemetery was Peter’s final resting place. He built a basilica on top. It was this basilica that Bramante tore down in order to build the Basilica of St. Peter we now know.
The first excavation of the necropolis took place between 1940 and 1949, at Pope Pius XI’s request. He wanted it to be buried as close to St Peter’s remains as possible. Since then, it has been a subject of heated debate whether these excavations actually found the tomb of the saint.
Despite Pope Francis revealing the bones fragments of St. Peter in public for the first-time in 2013, many skeptics still remain. They have not hurt the popularity and appeal of the Scavi. This is a favorite among religious pilgrims to Rome as well as lovers of Rome’s rich architectural history. Although they are not easily accessible, they are a wonderful attraction that isn’t crowded. The Excavations Office arranges visits and allows 250 visitors per day.
The young sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was another proponent of the belief St. Peter was buried beneath his cathedral. Bernini, a young sculptor who was only 25 years old was hired by Pope Urban VIII in order to mark the exact spot in the cathedral where the grave was supposed be.
Bernini created the largest bronze sculpture in bronze, the Baldacchino. The massive altar canopy is part sculpture and part architecture and a powerful statement about the power and political might of the Catholic Church.
Bernini literally had to remove the bronze claddings from Pantheon’s portico in order to gather enough bronze. The giant bees that crawl up the columns of the sculpture are a striking feature. They are from where? They are the family symbol of Maffeo Barerini, also known as Pope Urban VIII.
The Pieta by Michelangelo is widely considered one of the most emotional and moving sculptures in Western art. It shows the Virgin Mary holding Jesus’ dead body after his crucifixion. The statue, which is well-known for drawing tears from its viewers, is considered a masterpiece for its precision of execution and its portrayal of Mary as a young, beautiful woman. It was sculpted by a highly creative artist in 1499.
img alt=”Michelangelo’s Pieta at St. Peter’s Basilica” class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-8786″ height=”672″ loading=”lazy” sizes=”(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px” src=”https://www.italso.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Pieta-copy.jpg” srcset=”https://www.italso.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Pieta-copy.jpg 1000w, https://www.italso.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Pieta-copy-768×516.jpg 768w” width=”1000″/>
It has had a turbulent past since it was put on display. The first to deface it was Michelangelo, who, according to legend, when he learned that visitors thought it was the work of another sculptor he chiselled his name into its sash. He would never sign it.
The fingers of Mary were then broken in a move, and needed to be restored. A deranged, hammer-wielding Australian believed himself to be Christ reborn and he hammered a few pieces out of the statue. Many of these pieces were taken by passersby and left behind. The Pieta, thanks to the efforts of many talented restorers has managed to retain its emotional essence and continue to strike a deep chord with visitors to this very day.
Tips for Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica can be accessed from April through September at 7:00am until 7:00pm, and October through March at 7:00am until 6:30pm. Please visit the website prior to your visit.
The dome can be accessed between 7.30am and 5.00pm.
All who want to enter St. Peter’s Basilica must wear appropriate attire. Both women and men should wear clothing that covers the shoulders and knees. You can bring small bags and umbrellas inside, but larger bags must be checked at the entry near the audio-guides desk.
The Basilica’s entrance is free. To climb the dome, you will need to pay EUR8.00 for the stairs and EUR10.00 for the elevator. We recommend spending an extra 2 euros. Visit to the Necropolis costs EUR13.00. If you are not part of a group, it will take a lot more planning and luck.
The Best Time to Visit:
Because there is no way around it, the line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the most famous in Rome. It can take up to 2 hours in high season (May-September) and may even last an hour in low season. It is best to arrive early to avoid long lines. You can avoid the worst lines even in summer by getting up early.
How to get there:
You can reach St. Peter’s best by taking a taxi or the metro.
When you travel by taxi, be sure to tell the driver that your destination is the Basilica of St. Peter (Basilica Papale di San Pietro, Vaticano). This is NOT the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani), which are a 15-minute walk away.
Metro A: Take the Metro A line from the Ottaviano-S.Pietro–Musei Vaticani station or to the Cipro station if you are traveling by metro. It’s only 10 minutes walk from either stop to St. Peters Basilica.