240,000 square feet, space for 60,000 worshipers, the world's tallest dome — St Peter's Basilica sits majestically in the Vatican (right next door to Rome) and is the most significant church for Catholics. Since ancient Rome a church has stood on the site. When the early church began to crumble, a new vision was created during the Renaissance.
In addition to being a religious centre, St Peter's is filled with world-famous statues, frescoes, and architectural details shaped by Bernini, Raphael, and of course, Michelangelo. Entrance is free but be warned, the lines will be long and it can be overwhelming. (Each year 7 millions people visit St Peter's.) Our recommendation is to book a small-group tour — you'll skip the line and your guide will introduce you to the secrets of this centuries-old landmark.
We like this skip-the-line tour because it gets you into the Sistine Chapel, the museums, and the St Peter's Basilica.
As we've said, with 12,000 rooms and 4,000 years of art history, a day at the Vatican can be overwhelming. But, worry not! Due to a special partnership, this tour gives you VIP access — even past the priority lines.
With an expert guide you visit the Vatican's museums (there are more than one!), the Sistine Chapel, and also see the treasures of of St Peter's Basilica. This is one of the most popular tours in the world, so be sure to book early!
Taking this tour was a fantastic decision. We had an excellent guide who was so enthusiastic and knowledgable. We enjoyed our time at the Vatican and learned a lot along the way. Skipping the lines was incredible and learning from someone who so enjoyed herself was such pleasure. Great way to tackle a big project!"
– 5-Star Review
We also like this skip-the-lines tour that has you see the majesty of St Peter's with a expert guide to fill in all the details and history.
Afterwards, you visit the tippy top of Michelangelo's dome. It's a short elevator ride, then 300 steps to the top, where you'll see the mosaic designs of Michelangelo and unparalleled views from the highest point in Rome!
This was a very special experience, and the view from the top of the dome was something very special indeed. Availing of a tour in the morning is a good idea. The tour guide was lovely and very informative, and the time went by very quickly, one could not help be impressed so much by the beauty and ambience, it is very highly recommended that this would be on any travel to Rome, and a guided tour is a great way to have some very interesting insights, you won't be disappointed."
– 5-Star Review
A very important symbolic act for Catholic pilgrims is to walk through the Holy Door, Porta Santa, found next to the the main entrance.
If you ever do, note the sixteen bronze panels depicting religious scenes. The Holy Door is only open during Jubilee Years. Pilgrims will now have to wait until 2025.
Unbelievably, Pope Urban VIII Barberini commanded that all the bronze be stripped from the Pantheon, melted down, and used for St Peter's. Thus the Roman saying, "What the barbarians didn't do the Barberini did". Two hundred tons of bronze were taken from the entrance portico of the Pantheon.
In the year 800 AD, on Christmas Day, Charlemagne, king of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor at the first St Peter's Basilica (the one built during the Roman Empire).
Today, you can kneel on the same spot that Charlemagne supposedly knelt during his coronation. The spot is called the "porphyretic circle" and it's found in front of the main door.
In the Bible, St Andrew, the younger brother of St Peter, was one of the first disciples of Jesus and played a vital role as his secretary. Don't miss his magnificent statue, 15 feet tall, by Flemish Baroque sculptor Francois Duquesnoy, completed in 1633 and presented to the pope in 1640.
Meaning pity or piety, pieta is the general term used for artwork that depicts Mary holding Jesus after the crucifixion.
Fascinating facts about the Pieta at St Peter's include — Michelangelo was only 24 when he created his masterpiece, it was originally commissioned by a French cardinal as his own funeral monument, and it's the only work Big M ever signed.
Centuries of kisses by pilgrims have worn down the feet of St Peter's statue. Note the right foot, which is practically rubbed off! The statue has stood here for centuries, going back to the first St Peter's church.
Bramante, the first architect of the Renaissance St Peter's basilica, favoured a design based on the shape of a Greek cross (more square than long) versus the Latin-cross found in most medieval churches.
A Greek cross, he thought, symbolizes the perfection of god. When Bramante died, Raphael was appointed chief architect. When he died, Michelangelo took the reins. Though the subsequent architects made many changes to Bramante's plan, the basic Greek cross design was kept.
In Italy they call in a piazza. We call it a "square" though it's actually oval, with four rows of colonnades surrounding the Piazza. Bernini planned it that way and imagined visitors being wrapped in the "maternal arms of the Church". Originally, ninety statues decorated the tops of the colonnades. In 1703, fifty more statues were added.
Directly over the Altar of the Confession and St Peter's Tomb is Bernini's dazzling seven-story bronze canopy — called a baldacchino — resembling the draping cloth and tassels of a moveable canopy.
Although it's made of bronze, Bernini's craftsmanship makes it looks like it's swaying in the breeze.
"I could build one bigger, but not more beautiful, than that of the Pantheon," Michelangelo wisely said. Today, his dome punctuates the skyline of Rome. Michelangelo studied the Roman-era Pantheon's dome to uncover clues to its unique design. Work began on St Peter's dome in 1547 and was completed in 1590, after Michelangelo's death (at 89 years old in 1564). There are 551 steps that lead you to the top of the dome, though today an elevator covers the first part of the climb.
There is a strict dress code at St Peter's. No sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts and no hats are allowed. If you are not dressed appropriately, you will be given a disposable scarf to cover yourself ,or you might be turned away. No photography is allowed, including the dreaded selfie sticks.
Expect airport-style security. You are no longer allowed to bring large bags, backpacks or suitcases into the basilica. There is a drop-off point where you can leave your bags — to the right of the steps leading to the church. The service is free. With heightened security measures in Europe, expect extra time in the line.