For centuries now, Piazza San Pietro (St.Peter’s square) has been an unmissable attraction for anybody visiting the Eternal City.
As you probably know, San Pietro’s square is home to a church of the same name: the Basilica di San Pietro, possibly Rome’s most famous church, the pillar of world catholic community and a top destination for believers and art lovers from all over the world.
The Basilica of San Pietro hosts countless works of art of international fame including the wonderful Pietà di Michelangelo and its huge Dome it’s a symbol of the city it self and of Italy’s history and art.
The Basilica di San Pietro is located in the Vatican City, the smallest country in the world yet home to extraordinary treasures, immortal works of art that make it an unmissable stop on your Rome itinerary.
Here you’ll feel like there is literally too much to see so here I come to your rescue with a guide to help you make the most of your time in San Pietro.
I’ve packed this article with useful information like how to get to San Pietro, opening hours, ticket prices, skip-the- line tickets and much more. So read on!
St Peter’s Basilica History
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
This line from the Bible encapsulate the origins of the highest temple of Christianity.
The history of St. Peter’s Basilica is difficult to summarize in a few lines. After all this “architectural miracle” required sixteen centuries, various popes and hundreds of artists.
The St.Peter’s Basilica, as we see it today, is the final result of many alternation made to the same place: the tomb of the first ever leader of the christian church, Saint Peter (San Pietro in Italian).
Not everyone knows that the remains of this crucial figure of Christianity are kept in Vatican Grottoes: the crypt beneath St Peter’s Basilica.
Needless to say, it has always been important for the Church to keep the center of the Basilica at this exact ideological and geographical spot.
It is no wonder that in addition to Saint Peter, the Vatican Grottoes houses the tomb of many other popes who asked to be buried alongside their illustrious predecessor. Among them there is also the much beloved Pope John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyła).
But back to history: the original building was created in the 4th century at the behest of emperor Constantine on the spot where previously stood Nero’s Circus, also the place of Saint Peter’s martyrdom.
Originally the church had the typical Basilica structure: five naves separated by immense columns, large side windows, marble inlay decorations and mosaics.
In 1506 Constantine’s church was replaced with a Greek cross temple characterized by an huge dome in the center. Pope Julius II entrusted the design of the new Basilica to the great architect Donato Bramante.
Major changes have always been difficult to accept and Bramante was infamously nicknamed mastro ruinante (ruining master) because he “destroyed” the ancient building.
Both Pope Julius II and Bramante died relatively shortly after and the direction of the work passed into the hands of Raffaello Sanzio who proposed a return to a three-nave plan.
Raffaello also died within a few years and several architects succeeded in the direction of the works. Too many cooks spoil the broth so, as predictable, a series of endless discussions on the project hampered the construction of the Basilica for years.
Work resumed only in 1538 at the request of Paul III and was assigned to Michelangelo Buonarroti. The 70-year-old artist altered the project one more time and designed the Dome as we see it today. He died before seeing the end of the works but his successors did not to deviate from his plan.
St. Peter’s Basilica as we know it today was consecrated on November 18, 1626 by Pope Urban VIII.
Interesting St Peter’s Basilica Facts
Did you know that San Pietro originally occupied the heart of one of the oldest neighborhoods in Rome? A neighborhood called Spina di Borgo that is till remembered to this day as a place full of life, history and art.
During the fascist regime, between 1936 and 1950, it was destroyed and replaced with the large avenue that we can see to this day named Via della Conciliazione.
This huge transformation of the neighbourhood distorted the idea that Bernini had in mind when he first designed San Pietro. He imagined the square as a huge space that would surprise the viewer by suddenly opening up in the middle of this labyrinth of narrow streets.
2. San Pietro boosts 10.000 square meters of mosaic between the Dome and the rest fo the Basilica.
This is because in the eighteenth century all the altarpieces at risk of deterioration due to the humidity were transformed into mosaics and treated with opaque enamel in order to obtain colors as close as possible to the painter’s palette.
10 Things to See at St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest buildings in the world: it can host up to 60 thousand people and it measures 218 meters in length (externally) and 133.30 meters in height.
So anybody that steps in for the first time will certainly feel pretty lost and often people end up missing out some some parts of it just because there is simply too much beauty and too much to see.
But fear not! Here is a list of the 10 absolutely most unmissable things in San Pietro and a little guide to help you get around the Basilica and use your time there wisely.
1. THE SQUARE
It has been called by many the largest and most beautiful square in the world. Piazza San Pietro (1656-1667) is a gigantic ellipse enclosed by a colonnade that creates the image of the Church as a mother embracing her children/worshippers as they walk toward her.
The challenging task of integrating the new Basilica into the city was entrusted to Gian Lorenzo Bernini by Pope Alexander VII Chigi. Bernini built the area in front of the church and turned it into one of the most scenic spaces of the Roman Baroque.
Not many people know that Bernini was not only a great sculptor, architect, and painter but also a scenographer. In San Pietro he created one of his masterpieces: a majestic colonnade made up of 284 thirteen meters high Doric-style columns, 88 travertine pillars and 140 statues of saints.
The design of the colonnade was far from ordinary and it still clearly reveals Bernini’s incredible genius.
Fun fact: roughly at the centre of the square, between the obelisk and the Bernini Fountain look down for a special tire that bears the words Centro del Colonnato (Center of the Colonnade). If you stand on this exact spot you will experience the optical illusion of the two rows of columns aligning and becoming one.
Right in the middle of the square there is a over 25 meter high obelisk. Emperor Caligola had it brought over to Rome from Egypt in 40 AD and placed it at the center of Nero’s circus.
In 1586 architect Domenico Fontana moved it to the centre of Saint Peter’s Square. It took four months and hundreds of workers to lift it.
On the ground around the obelisk you will notice marble inscriptions arranged along a circumference: they indicate the cardinal directions and were added there in 1852 by Pope Pius IX.
This is also the only obelisk in Rome to have a Latin engraving.
There are two identical fountains placed symmetrically on two sides of the obelisk. One of them was built in ancient time and later repositioned here while the second one was built in more recent times, probably by architect and engineer Carlo Fontana who followed Bernini’s design.
2. THE FACADE
Designed by Carlo Maderno between 1607 and 1614, the facade of Saint Peters’s church is 114.69 meters wide and 48 meters high, not considering the statues.
On the lower part of the facade you’ll see five entrances to the atrium, nine windows and three balcony. The central balcony is known as Loggia delle Benedizioni (Balcony of the Blessings) because from here the Pope gives his blessing Urbi et Orbi (to the city -of Rome- and to the world ) and this is also the place where a new Pope is publicly announced for the first time.
Below the central pediment there is a huge inscription in latin honoring the Pope that commissioned the work: “Paul V Borghese, Roman, Pontiff, in 1612, the seventh of his pontificate, in honour of the Prince of Apostles (Saint Peter).”
The 13 travertine statues above the attic are all roughly 6 meters tall and they represent Jesus- at the centre- , St John the Baptist and 11 apostles.
3. THE MOSAIC DELLA NAVICELLA
The atrium is the space leading to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. Here is Giotto’s famous Navicella: a mosaic created in 1313 representing Jesus and Saint Peter walking on water as described in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 14:24–33).
The scene is dominated by a fishing boat (Navicella) with the apostles on board. Moving to the right we see St. Peter on his knees, holding himself up to the majestic figure of Jesus.
The work alludes to the continuous presence of Christ in support of the Church and the Pope. It was placed here in 1610 with the specific intention of encouraging pilgrims not to doubt their faith.
4. CONSTANTINE ON HORSE AND THE SCALA REGIA
In the atrium we find also another contribution by Bernini: between 1662 and 1668 the artist created the equestrian statue of Roma Emperor Constantine representing the moment of his conversion to Christianity.
Legend has it that Emperor won the battle of Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio) in 312 A.D. after seeing a cross of light in the sky and having heard a voice saying : “under this sign you will win”. So he became a christian and in 131 granted freedom of worship throughout the Roman Empire putting an end to the persecution of Christians.
The statue is located at the bottom of Bernini’s Scala Regia (Royal staircase): a flight of stairs connecting the Basilica to the Apostolic Palace. Thanks to a scenographic play of light and proportions, you’ll have the impression of a great perspective depth in front of you. In reality this is a rather small room masterfully transformed by Bernini into a symbolic representation of man’s journey towards God.
5. THE PIETÀ DI MICHELANGELO
Once you enter the Basilica, you’ll see this incredible masterpiece on your right. This is the only work by Michelangelo bearing his signature (on the sash across Holy Mary’s chest) and what’s more impressive, it was created when Michelangelo was only 23 years old!
La Pietà(Italian for pity) fully reflects the genius and talent of this artist who was capable of turning marble into something alive and vibrant.
Osservate la caduta delle pieghe, il corpo senza vita del Cristo adagiato dolcemente sul ventre materno, scoprite la precisione anatomica di un ragazzo che a soli ventitré anni riesce a creare quello che viene considerato un capolavoro assoluto e forse l’opera più bella di tutta San Pietro.
La Madonna tiene in grembo il Cristo morto, come se fosse un bambino dormiente. La Vergine è giovane come quando Cristo era bambino. Forse l’opera vuole essere proprio questo: una visione che la Vergine ha della passione del Figlio. A questa visione si lega subito il rimpianto espresso da un semplice gesto della mano, con cui indica tristemente che la previsione si è avverata.
La composizione è chiusa in una piramide: il tutto rientra in un concetto divino che trascende il dolore e la pietà umana. Michelangelo, nel suo troppo-finito, vuole andare al di là del reale: c’è il dolore di una madre che perde il proprio figlio ma c’è anche la consapevolezza della Vergine che sa che questo sacrificio è necessario per salvare l’umanità ed è serena perché crede nel miracolo della resurrezione.
Perhaps not everyone knows that there are actually four statues known as Michelangelo’s Pietà. The first is the one in San Pietro, the second would be the Pietà of Palestrina -although recently, everybody seem to have agreed that it was actually a creation by a pupil of the master-.
The third one, known as The Deposition or Pietà Baldini is housed in the Museum Opera del Duomo in Florence. Michelangelo created it to decorate his own tomb but he later tried to destroy it because of some imperfection in the marble.
The fourth and last one of them is the Pietà Rondanini located in the Sforzesco Castle in Milan. Michelangelo sculpted this statue only a few years before his death, breaking with all the classical aesthetic schemes that characterize the Pietà of San Pietro.
6. THE ANCIENT BRONZE STATUE OF SAINT PETER
At the end of the central nave on the right, we find the bronze statue of Saint Peter, seated on the throne, in the act of blessing. For centuries, pilgrims in an act of devotion have kissed the right foot of the statue, which today is visibly more worn than the rest of the statue.
The work was recently attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, a great sculptor and architect of the thirteenth century. Arnolfo represented the saint with a severe look on his face and holding the keys against his chest -a symbol of his power – and at the same time giving his blessing.
Fun fact: on the 29th of June, the day of Saints Peter and Paul, the statue is dressed in papal clothes, to highlight the direct link between St. Peter and the Pope.
7. THE BALDACCHINO
The canopy or baldacchino ( the roof above the altar), located under Michelangelo’s dome and above Saint Peter’s tomb, is almost thirty meters high because it had to be clearly visible form the entrance of the Basilica. It was commissioned to Bernini in 1623 by Pope Urbano VIII Barberini and caused the artist quite a few technical problems.
Bernini created a gilded bronze decoration, similar to what is used on altars during religious holidays. For the 11 meter high, spiral-shaped columns he used bronze taken from the Pantheon. Amongst the other elements decorating the columns you can spot some bees: that’s Bernini’s “signature”.
At the top of the columns there is the real canopy surmounted by four angels. On top of the canopy we see a globe with a cross: the instrument of the martyrdom of Christ, the cross, with which he saved the world.
8. THE CATTEDRA OF SAN PIETRO BY BERNINI
This is an ancient oak chair enshrined for centuries in Vatican as Saint Peter’s sedan chair.
Pope Alexander VII decided that such a precious and sacred monument had to be worthily preserved so he turned to Bernini who, between 1657 and 1666, once again delivered an incredible masterpiece.
The cathedra Petri (Peter’s chair or throne) is supported by four bronze statues representing the Doctors of the Universal Church: Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Athanasius.
Above these gigantic figures there is the blazing “glory”, represented as an immense dazzling sunburst, teeming with angels. This gorgeous reliquary stands out in the church as a mystical appearance and the whole work exudes a strong emotional tension
9. BERNINI’S AND CANOVA’S FUNERAL MONUMENTS
Gian Lorenzo Bernini also created the funerary monument for two Popes buried in the Basilica: the tomb of Alexander VII and Urbano VIII. For the funeral monument of Urbano VIII (1642), Bernini seemed to break with the Renaissance tradition. Here the late Pontiff sits proud and solemn like an emperor and his robes shine in the light like precious fabrics. Beneath the Pope’s throne two allegorical marble figures, Charity and Justice really appear alive and dynamic. Between the two statues there is a skeleton representing Death in the act of writing down the name of the late Pope. The tomb is located near Saint Peter’s Throne, on the right.
For Alexander VII’s tomb (1676-1678) Bernini represents the Pope in the act of praying. In addition to Charity and Justice, here there are also two statues representing the meditative Virtues: Prudence and Truth. Death, represented as a winged bronze skeleton, overlooks the entrance to eternity bearing an hourglass, a symbol of time passing by.
The great sculptor Antonio Canova created the monument to Pope Clement XIII, in the right aisle, between 1784 and 1792. This tomb was conceived according to the ideas of Neoclassicism: the Pope, on his knees, in the humble act of praying, is flanked by two firm looking figures representing Religion and the Genius of death. Beneath them two lions are guarding the entrance to the tomb.
10. THE DOME OF SAN PIETRO
Commissioned by Pope Giulio II to 71 year old Michelangelo, the Dome soon became the symbol of Saint Peter, of Christianity, and of the whole city of Rome.
With it’s 130 meter height and diameter of 42 meters diameter this is one of the largest masonry roofs ever built. Four huge pillars inside the Church support the entire weight of the dome: fourteen thousand tons. The pillars are 45 meters high and have a perimeter of 71 meters, each of them with a niche. Each niche used to harbour a relic: The Holy Lance of Roman centurion Longinus; the True Cross of Saint Helena mother of Constantine, The Veil of Veronica and The Head of Saint Andrew. The latter is currently the only one missing as it was moved to Greece in 1964.
Each ot the four niche is decorated with a 5 meter high Carrara marble statue representing the Saint to whom the relics belong: Saint Andrew with an X shaped cross; San Longinus, the centurion who pierced the side of Christ on the cross; Saint Helena represented with the cross in her hand; Veronica, the woman who used her vail to dry Jesus’s face during the ascent to Calvary.
Michelangelo drew inspiration from the the Dome of Florence Cathedral by Filippo Brunelleschi. So he created an internal structure with a double dome. The lower structure is the load-bearing one and the external part serves as a shield against bad weather.
Michelangelo died in 1564 this architectural masterpiece had to be completed by architects Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana following a wooden model, 5 meters high and 4 meters wide, left by Michelangelo himself.
Giacomo della Porta completed the works in just two years but he made significative changes to Michelangelo’s project (for example, he made the dome higher). Fontana completed his work s in 1593 by adding a golden bronze sphere with the cross on top of the dome.
The access to the Dome is from a courtyard outside the Basilica.
The 10 euro ticket includes the lift, which will take you to the terrace level but from here you’ll still have to climb 320 more steps to get the top. The 8 euro ticket does not include the lift so you’ll have to climb up the whole 551 steps. (more info on tickets in the paragraphs below)
Whatever ticket option you choose, once you reach the top your climbing effort will be rewarded with a breathtaking 360 ° panorama, possibly the best you’ll experience in Rome.
THE TIMES OF ST. PETER’S BASILICA
|From October 1st to March 31st||07.00 am||06.30 pm|
|From April 1st to September 30st||07.00 a,||07.00pm|
/!\ Important: on Wednesdays, Sundays and public holidays, St. Peter’s Basilica could be closed to the public, until 1.00 pm, for the Pope’s general audience and for the Pope’s mass. Check here the calandar of the events and liturgical celebrations presided over by the Pope.
HOW TO DRESS TO VISIT ST. PETER’S BASILICA?
This is a sacred place and a rather strict dress code has to be observed: you won’t be allowed in you if are wearing shorts. Sleeveless shirts and skirts above the knee, even if you already have tickets.
TICKET COSTS TO VISIT ST. PETER
The entrance to S.Peter’s Basilica is complitely free of charge.
However, you can buy tickets for a guided tour or a tour with audio guide. This will also allow you to skip the line, which will be really happy about, especially in high season.
Tickets can only be purchased online as there is no ticket office there.
Here’s your ticket options and prices:
|TIPO DI BIGLIETTO||Adults||Youth (7-17)||Kids (0-6)|
|Skip-the- line + audio guide||€ 19,50||€ 14,50||Free of charge|
|Skip- the-line + guided tour||€ 27,00||€ 22.00||Free of charge|
/!\ Important: the skip-the-line ticket with audio guide does not include the visit to the Dome./!\
WHERE TO BUY SKIP-THE-LINE TICKETS (WITH AUDIOGUIDE OR GUIDED TOUR)
If you are interested in the audio-guided visit you can purchase it from this blue button, at the best market price and without booking costs. The service in this case is offered by TicketBar.
SKIP THE LINE + AUDIOGUIDE Find the link to purchase the skip-the-line ticket with guided tour below, after the timetables and practical information on the tour.
/!\ Attention, the guided tour does not include the visit and the ticket for the Dome. /!\
DURATION: The total duration of the tour is 1h15 minutes. At the end of the guided tour you can remain inside the Basilica and choose whether or not to climb the Dome (purchasing the ticket we talk about below).
MEETING POINT: you will have to show up at the meeting point about fifteen minutes in advance, you will find the information on the meeting point in the email, in any case here is the address, PIAZZA SAN PIETRO, Piazza Pio XII, 9, office ORP.
IMPORTANT TICKET INFORMATION
- When you book your audioguide ticket, you ‘ll be asked to select a day and time for your visit. But don’t worry too much at the time because you’ll be able to access the Basilica pretty much at any time within the day you’ve indicated.
- You will have to download the audio guide on your mobile phone, with a code that you’ll be given at the entrance to the Basilica. More detailed instructions will be e-mailed to you after you’ve purchased your ticket.
- If you don’t have your own earphones with you, you can buy them there for € 1.
- You can show your ticket on your phone so you don’t have to print it out.
- Ski- the-line access is free of charge fo people with disabilities.
WHERE TO ACCESS THE BASILICA WITH SKIP-THE-LINE TICKETS
If you a skip-the-line ticket you will have to access the Basilica from a special entrance located under the colonnade on the right, behind the Vatican post office. From there you can go through security checks without waiting in line, just show your ticket to a member of the staff (recognizable from their blue vest).
The Vatican Grottoes are located under the central nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, three meters below the ground.
It’s a sort of underground church somewhere between the ground level of today’s Basilica and that of the 4st century Constantinian Basilica.
The Vatican Grottoes house several chapels and the tombs of 22 popes including Saint Peter. You can access this crypt from a staircase in the transept area of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Entrance to the Vatican Grottoes, included in the visit to the Basilica, ends one hour before the closing time of the Basilica, so if you are visiting San Pietro quite late, you may want to head there first. Visiting to the Grottoes will take you no more than 30 minutes.
Vatican Grottoes can also host liturgical celebrations in which case they are closed to regular visitors.
VISIT TO THE DOME
|From October 1st to March 31st||07.30 am||05.00 pm|
|From April 1st to September 30st||07.30 am||06.00pm|
TICKET OPTIONS AND PRICES
|with lift||€ 10,00|
|without lift||€ 8,00|
|reduced for school trips||€ 5,00|
- The lift will only take you up to the terrace level and from there you still have to climb up 320 steps.
- If you choose the option without lift you’ll have to climb 551 steps.
- The reduction on the ticket price applies only to school groups with a certification from their educational institution and an official list of all participant to be presented at the ticket office.
- Tickets cannot be purchased online but only at the ticket office and can be paid only with cash.
- Visit to the Dome is not recommended to people with heart or mobility problems, pregnant women or in general to those who feel particularly uncomfortable in closed, narrow spaces.
COME TO PARTICIPATE IN THE PAPAL MASSES AND AUDIENCES
First of all you should find out whether a Mass or Audience is scheduled to take place anytime during your stay in Rome. So check the event calendar here.
Tickets to liturgical ceremonies and masses are issues free of charge but you still need to reserve them in advance.
To reserve your tickets, you must fill an application form and send it via fax (+39 06 6988 5863) or letter to the Prefecture of the Papal Household 00120, Vatican City. You can find more detailed information on the Prefecture official website.
HOW TO GET TO SAN PIETRO
The fastest and easiest way to get to St. Peter’s Square is definitely by metro.
Two metro stations along Line A (red line) are located at equally short walking distance from the Basilica:
Ottaviano: 1 km from the Basilica and 550 meters from the entrance to the Vatican Museums;
Cyprus: 600 meters from the entrance of the Vatican Museums and a ten minutes walk to the Basilica.
If you’re coming from outside the city you may want to consider getting here by train. San Pietro railway station is just a 10 minute walk away from St. Peter’s square.
There’s also quite a few buses you can get.
I bus n. 40 and 64 connect Termini station to the Vatican via the city center so passing by Piazza Venezia, Roman Forum and the Colosseum.
If you get bus n. 62 e 40 you’ll need to get off somewhere between Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Square.
Bus n. 64 stops south of the square, just a few steps away from the Basilica and the Vatican Museums.
Tram n.8 would also be an option, but only if you don’t mind taking a little stroll. It will leave you in the nearby Trastevere district and from there you can continue walking north along the Tiber river to the Vatican…quite a scenic walk to say the least 🙂
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK IN THE SAN PIETRO AREA
Address: Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo 3 | Metro: Ottaviano, line A | Average bill: €10 |
Just 660 meters away from St. Peter’s square you’ll find this little creperie offering a great selection of fresh sweet or savory crepes and sandwiches. The perfect place to recharge before or after visiting the Vatican,
The place is rather small and often packed but high quality food and good prices may it totally worth it.
They work from 11 am to 2 am.
PIZZA & SANDWICH DA PASQUALE
Address: Via del Macherino, 74 | Metro: Ottaviano, linea A | Average bill : €10
Another excellent option for lunch or a snack, less than 400 meters from San Pietro. The place is small and unpretentious but the owner is famous for his friendliness and for the high quality products he offers. Here’s a great place to try pizza or sandwich with porchetta, the traditional roman pork roast.
Pasquale works every day from 9.30 am to 6 pm.
BORGHICIANA PASTIFICIO ARTIGIANALE
Address: Via Borgo Pio, 186 | Metro: Ottaviano line A, or bus 62 | Average bill: € 1o – 15
This is primarily an artisan, family run pasta factory with just a few tables to to dine in. So you may have to wait in line but I ensure you it’s totally worth it. Every dish is made with fresh, homemade pasta and staff is very friendly and happy to advise you. Everything here is delicious but if you are looking to try a real, Roman carbonara, this has to be the place.
WHAT TO SEE NEARBY
A few steps from St. Peter’s Basilica are the Vatican Museums. Beside the Sistine Chapel this complex of museums hosts thousands of works of art collected by the Church for more than five centuries. Something that you simply cannot miss and definitely worth spending at least half a day for.
Leaving St. Peter’s Basilica behind and walking along Via della Conciliazione, you will get to Ponte Sant’Angelo (Saint Angel’s bridge). This is a beautiful bridge, famous for the statues that decorate it: 10 angels each of them bearing a tool used during Jesus’s Passion. The statues were carved by a team of sculptures coordinated by none other than Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The bridge leads to yet another symbol of Roman Church: Castel San’t Angelo.
Commissioned by the emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself, in 1365 it became property of the popes. It was Pope Nicholas II who built the famous Passetto di Borgo: an 800-meter-long elevated corridor that connects Castel Sant’Angelo to the Basilica of San Pietro.
It was created as a secret passage or escape route for popes, but today you can easily access it a guided tour.
If you are a fun of this book you may recognize this corridor as a key place in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.