Feeling overwhelmed by all the options in beautiful Vatican City? We hear you. After you’ve checked out the Vatican Museums (using our handy Vatican Museums guide) it’s time to take on the big church that dominates the tiny Vatican City: St. Peter’s Basilica. The 2,000-year-old basilica is home to most of the Catholic Church’s crucial ceremonies and is a classic symbol of the Vatican City but visiting St. Peter’s Basilica isn’t always easy, especially in the high season. So we’ve put together this handy guide for how to explore inside, above and below the ancient church to experience all the secrets and history it houses!
St. Peter’s Basilica
Visitors can get into the Basilica for free, but the long line is often as impressive as the building itself. The Basilica is open every day from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. April to September and from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. October to March. The best way to beat the crowds while visiting St. Peter’s Basilica is to arrive as early as possible. This may seem obvious, but fewer travelers than you’d think are able to actually be there by 7 a.m. Be sure to dress appropriately (covered knees and shoulders for men and women, no matter the temperature) or else you will be turned away at the door, no matter how long you’ve been waiting.
The vast inside of the Basilica is awe-inspiring, especially for first time visitors. Check out our post 6 Surprising Facts about St. Peter’s Basilica to learn more about the structure. To get the most out of your trip, consider renting an audio guide from the kiosk inside or taking one of our expert guided tours.
As an added bonus, you can combine your visit with a Papal Audience to see the Pope and receive a Papal Blessing. Audiences are held every Wednesday while the Pope is in Rome. Read our post about the Papal Audiences to find out more!
For a different perspective while visiting St Peter’s Basilica, head skyward for a tour of the cupola. The beautiful dome was projected by Michelangelo in 1546 and is 452 feet tall. According to the Vatican City State website, visiting St Peter’s Basilica dome is possible every day from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. April to September and from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. October to March. The entrance is at the portico of the Basilica. For 7 euros you can take the elevator, saving you some, but not all of the stair climbing. If you’re feeling like some exercise, pay 5 euros to take the stairs. Be warned: the stairs are much more strenuous than the elevator and there aren’t many views to enjoy during your climb.
Once up top, you can admire the unique view of the nave and altar, as well as the incredible view over Piazza San Pietro.
Underneath the church are the mysterious Scavi, or excavations. Also known as the Vatican Necropolis, Tomb of the Dead, or St. Peter’s Tomb, the site is a burial ground dating back to the fourth century. Believed to be the location of St. Peter’s tomb, they also contain the temple of Emperor Constantine, underground fountains, buildings and even ancient graffiti that says ‘Peter is here.’ They aren’t a must when visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, but they are incredibly cool…if you can get a ticket.
To protect the ancient site, only 250 people are allowed in daily in small groups of 12. Admission is 13 euro. The application process can be complicated, so either prepare well in advance, or go with our private tour which sorts out times and tickets for you. For personal tours, you’ll have to contact the Excavations Office by email and give the names of the participants in your goup, language desired, and dates. Begin the process at least two months before your actual trip – demand is high. Eventually, the Office will contact you letting you and let you know if you made it as well as the time and date of your tour. You should aim to arrive at least 10 minutes before your tour and dress appropriately – it’s considered a holy site.
A part of the Scavi complex, the large crypt network beneath St. Peter’s Basilica is called the Vatican Grottoes. They are located between the floor of the Vatican Necropolis (Scavi) and the present-day ground floor of the Basilica. Here you’ll find the tombs of dozens of popes, as well as the tomb of John Paul II. The Grottoes are open every day from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. April to September and from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. October to March. The entrance is at the transept of St. Peter’s Basilica. To visit, you’ll need to get in touch with the Excavations Office (Ufficio Scavi: + 39.06 69 88 53 18 or firstname.lastname@example.org.).
Though many will come just to take a few photos of the nice architecture and massive square, you don’t want to miss out on all St. Peter’s Basilica has to offer! Explore the area high and low for a truly unique perspective of the world-famous Basilica.
If you have any questions or tips of your own for visiting St. Peter’s let us know in the comments!