Nestled within the city of Rome is a unique piece of land that lays claim to several important titles, not the least of which (ha!) is smallest country in the world. At 100 acres in size, Vatican City is less than a third of the size of London’s Hyde Park and has a lower total population than that of a Central Line train on a Monday morning, but what it may lack in size, it certainly makes up for in content. Not only is Vatican City the home of the pope, it’s also where you’ll find some of history’s most revered works of art as well as the largest church in the world – St Peter’s Basilica.
Besides its massive size, St Peter’s Basilica is famous for being the final resting place of St Peter (one of Jesus’ 12 apostles) and a significant number of past popes. At the time it was built in the 1600’s, it was also considered to be the greatest work of Renaissance architecture ever made. I’m no architecture expert, but I think it’s still quite a knock-out these days, too! If you’re visiting Rome, you’ll likely end up stepping over into Vatican City at some point (gotta collect that extra country!) to check out the Vatican Museums and take a look inside the church, but don’t just stop there – there’s actually a lot more to do and see at St Peter’s Basilica than just wandering around the ground floor of the church. Keep on scrolling to discover 5 cool things you can do here, including how to see the pope!
Related Post: Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums
TAKE A TOUR INSIDE ST PETER’S BASILICA
If you’re really lucky, when you first walk inside St Peter’s Basilica you’ll enter through the Holy Door. Only open on a year the pope has deemed a Holy Year (usually every 25 years), visitors who enter through this door are granted full remission of their sins. If it’s not a Holy Year, the door is bricked up from the inside, but don’t worry, you’ll still be able to enter through one of the church’s other entrances. (Best of luck to you in the afterlife, though!)
Entrance into St Peter’s Basilica is free, but if you want the very best experience, you’ll need to fork over a few euros. Just after entering the church, you’ll see a desk renting audio guides. Grab one. It’ll make everything you see inside St Peter’s make so much more sense. After you’ve armed yourself with an audio guide and your camera, you’re ready to explore.
The audio tour will take about an hour to complete, but there’s no time limit, so you can go at your own pace. Besides the Treasury (additional fee) and the Vatican Grottoes (free, but has a separate queue), photography is allowed everywhere inside St Peter’s Basilica, which is a really good thing because otherwise we’d all be trying to covertly take photos without getting caught and totally miss how awe-inspiring it is to walk through this brilliant architectural marvel!
After you’ve finished your audio tour and returned your guide, it’s time to move onwards and upwards. Literally.
CLIMB THE STAIRS TO THE DOME
Rising up 450 feet from the floor of the basilica to the top of the cross, the dome of St Peter’s Basilica is the tallest in the world. That’s not its only claim to fame, though. It was also designed by none other than Michelangelo, although completely finished after his death.
For just €6, you can climb up a narrow flight of stairs to get an up-close look at the dome of St Peter’s, or if you prefer a look sans exercise, there is a lift that will get you there for €8. At the top, you’ll be able to walk around the inside of the dome via the circular gallery that surrounds it. From here, you’ll have a much better view of the intricate mosaics decorating the ceiling and walls of the dome (they look like frescoes from below, but they’re actually mosaics!) as well as a unique bird’s eye view of the nave below.
After you’ve seen all you want to see inside the dome, it’s time to head outside!
CHECK OUT THE VIEW OF ROME
Included in whichever ticket you bought for the dome is the opportunity to continue on a little higher and stand on the outside of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Besides how cool it is to be standing at the top of such a famous landmark, you’ll also get one amazing view of the city of Rome! However, this time you’ll have to take the stairs no matter which ticket you bought because there is no lift to this portion of the dome.
Once you’ve reached the top (551 steps in total if you took the stairs the whole way and 320 if you took the lift to the first gallery), you’ll be treated to quite an expansive view in every direction since the dome of St Peter’s is one of the highest points in not just Vatican City, but all of Rome. If you’ve been blessed with a fear of heights (I feel you), you’ve got nothing to be afraid of up here. The exterior portion of the dome is completely enclosed by metal bars, and the ground feels nice and sturdy.
Seeing St Peter’s Square and the Vatican Museums from this vantage point is pretty incredible, but so is being able to see all the way to Altare della Patria (the gigantic white monument near the Colosseum) and beyond. You can also walk out onto the roof of St Peter’s Basilica after you exit the outdoor viewing gallery. (This is the perfect time to photograph the dome itself!)
SEE ST PETER’S BASILICA LIGHT UP AT NIGHT
Chances are, your visit to St Peter’s Basilica will be during the day, but there are at least a couple reasons to return at night. For one, there are a lot less people. After dark, St Peter’s Square and pretty much everywhere in Vatican City clears out as people head into Rome for dinner and nightlife. If you haven’t already seen the inside of the church, this is a good time to do it, assuming it hasn’t already closed. (The church stays open until 6pm in the winter and 7pm in the summer.)
Secondly, St Peter’s is beautiful all lit up at night. When you combine the illuminated basilica facade with the glow of the antique-style lamp posts, especially just after sunset during blue hour, you get a pretty spectacular scene that’s hard to beat. If you’re into photography, you’ll definitely want to make sure you hit St Peter’s after dark. Besides the church and the square, the colonnades that surround the square on either side are a great spot for photos.
SAY HELLO TO THE POPE
After we settled on Rome for our February half-term holiday, one of the first things I did was google how to see the pope. Turns out, he’s not that hard to find.
Assuming he’s not away, the easiest way to see the pope in Rome is to attend the short speech and blessing he gives every Sunday to the crowd that gathers in St Peter’s Square. It starts at noon, but you’ll probably want to get there a little earlier to secure a good spot with a view of the Apostolic Palace. Attendance is free and you won’t need a ticket to enter. His speech, with the Angelus and blessing, will last around 20 minutes.
If you aren’t in Rome over a Sunday, another great way to see the pope is to attend the Papal Audience on Wednesdays. Usually held in St Peter’s Square at 10am, the Papal Audience is not a true mass, but it is a service with a message, prayers, a homily, and singing. Lasting between 1-2 hours, you will need a ticket to attend this one which makes this route for seeing the pope a little more difficult, but at least tickets are free. Information for how to obtain tickets to the Papal Audience can be found here. Otherwise, attending a regularly scheduled mass is another option for catching the pope in action, although these are ticketed as well.
Even if you don’t speak Italian, and even if you’re not Catholic, seeing the pope in person is sure to be a highlight of your trip. To find out whether the pope will be in Rome on a certain date, you can check his schedule here or use the Pope Tracker app. (That the pope has his own app sort of makes me fall in love with the internet all over again.)
TIPS FOR VISITING ST PETER’S BASILICA
Dress appropriately. For men, this means wearing long trousers and a shirt that covers your shoulders. For women, shoulders and knees need to be covered and low-cut tops are a no go. This was no big deal for us in February since we were covered up for the weather anyway. For those visiting in summer, it’s probably a little less convenient. A scarf can be used to cover up any exposed skin, so if wearing sleeves in the summer sounds like torture, that’s an option. Just don’t forget to bring it with you!
Bring cash. Entrance is free, but if you’d like an audio guide or a ticket to the dome, you’ll need cash since credit cards are not accepted at either ticket booth.
Don’t get stuck in the queues. Just like for the Vatican Museums, the queues to enter St Peter’s Basilica can be lengthy. To avoid the worst of it, try to arrange your visit early in the morning or at late afternoon/evening. If you’re an early riser, one of the best ways to arrange your itinerary would be to arrive at St Peter’s when it opens at 7. That way you can tour the church without any crowds, head up to the dome when it opens at 8, and still be in the queue for the Vatican Museums before they open at 9. If that’s way too early, another option is to tour the church relatively early, head to the museums shortly after they open, and then return to St Peter’s to go up to the dome sometime later. (Sunset is a popular choice, but be prepared for crowds!)
Take a look at the website before you go. Closing times for areas within the church vary throughout the year, and sometimes a scheduled mass might conflict with your visit, but you can find all that information on the website below. The official website is also where you can arrange private tours to the Scavi where the tomb of St Peter can be found!
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