How to Visit St Peters Basilica in St Peters Square

Everything you need to know to visit St Peters Square

St Peters Square History: Why should you visit St Peters Basilica

It is the world’s largest basilica, with a surface area of 22000 square meters and a capacity of 20,000 worshipers, it is 624 ft long and 447 feet high (from the floor to the top of the dome). Located in St Peters Square, the basilica is a Church which has preserved the history of the catholic church in its mosaics, sculptures and architecture. St Peters Basilica’s architecture is the finest in the world having been designed by the most talented artisans of the time over the last several centuries. Every altarpiece is a mosaic, painstakingly detail depicting historical and biblical scenes. Interestingly, only one altar piece is a canvas, the rest are mosaics

St Peters Basilica History

Nero became Emperor at the age of 16 in 54 AD. He blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD when two thirds of Rome was destroyed. He blamed the Christians for the devastation caused by the fire and initiated the persecution of the Christians, sometimes on an adhoc basis, in the various regions and locales of the Roman Empire. It was rumored that though the fire started in the chariot stadium of the Circus Maximus, it was perpetrated by Nero himself to make space for a new palace

In Rome, Christians were persecuted in the Circus of Nero which was an entertainment venue generally used for performance, public presentations and chariot racing. The persecution of Christians continued intermittently for the next 250 years and stopped as a result of Emperor Constantine Edict of Milan (313 AD) after which Christians. were allowed to build places of worship

St Peter, the first Apostle was a poor Jewish fisherman with the birth name of Simon. Jesus referring to St Peter as a rock and said to him “…and on this rock I will build my church, and…I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…”  St Peter is traditionally counted as the first Bishop of Rome, which made him the first pope. He was crucified upside down in the Circus of Nero; his body was buried in a cemetery close by 

St Peters Square History: Historical account of St Peters Basilica

The Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and ordered the construction of the basilica in in 324 AD to honor of St Peter. The basilica was to be built on the site of St Peters crucifixion in the Circus of Nero. Construction started about 326AD and was completed 30 years later. This original St Peters Basilica is often referred to as Old St Peters Basilica today

By the 15th century and after 1200 years as a functioning Church, the Old St Peters Basilica was in a state of ruin. A decision to either demolish and rebuild or renovate the church had to be made. Elected in 1503 the pope of the time, Pope Julius II called on the most renowned architect Donato Bramante to design the new St Peters Basilica. The design called for the the original obelisk to be moved, a monumental task that was completed during construction. Both Pope Julius II and Bramante passed away before the task was completed and the newly elected Pope Paul III called upon the 72-year-old Michelangelo to restart the project. Michelangelo kept Bramante’s original design and built upon it. Upon Michelangelo’s death in 1564, his former pupil Giacomo della Porta finished the Basilica, specifically the Dome which was only partially completed at the time of Michelangelo’s death

Pieces of the Old St Peters Basilica, specifically the columns, are located inside the basilica in St Peters Basilica Grottoes. The obelisk that was transported from Egypt to Rome in time of Emperor Caligula is located in St Peters Square. The new St Peter’s Basilica was consecrated in 1626. St Peters Square in front of the basilica is in the shape of a key referring to the keys of the kingdom of heaven

St Peters Basilica History: St Peter Tomb

During excavations of the necropolis, a “funerary monument” with a casket had an engraving in Greek that translated to “Peter is here”.  Examination revealed that they belonged to an elderly man in his 60’s. Pope Paul VI in 1968 said that fragments found in the necropolis under St Peters Basilica were that of St Peters ie: “identified in a way we consider convincing”. In a 2013 Mass at St Peters Square, Pope Francis publicly unveiled the bone fragments. The actual tomb of St Peter is said to be beneath the floor at the foot of the large baroque sculpted bronze canopy. Under the canopy is the high altar; the entire piece, the canopy and the high altar, is directly under the Michelangelo’s Dome. The canopy was designed by Glan Lorenzo Bernini in 1623 and the entire piece including the high altar was completed in 1634 (the Bernini’s Baldachin or St Peters Baldachin)

St Peters Basilica: How long to spend

It will take you:

  • about an hour to tour the basilica,
  • about 20 min for the Grottoes,
  • If you have booked a necropolis Scavi tour; it is usually 90 min
  • the dome climb will take about 1.5 hours (include time to have a snack at the rooftop café)
  • if you decided to pay the entry fee and tour the treasury, add about 30 min,
  • about 20 min in St Peters Square,
  • about 1-hour security line up, unless you come first thing in the morning (7am when it opens) or you have purchased a tour that allows you to skip the long security line. You will still need to go through security, however it should be a very short line
  • Depending on how long you want to spend at the sites, plan on a half day at the basilica then go for lunch and then walk over the Vatican museum
  • Check the Basilica opening days; it is closed the morning of papal audience, on the days of Mass, and there may be other days it may be closed
  • You do not need tickets to enter unless there is a general papal audience, in which case you will need tickets which are free and must be ordered in advance

Inside St Peters Basilica St Peters Basilica Self Guided Tour:

Highlights inside St Peter’s Basilica include: The Holy Door, The Pieta, The Central Nave, The main Papal Altar and Baldacchini, The Dome (Cupola), St Peters Bronze statue, Pope John II Tomb, The Vatican Treasury and The Clementine Chapel in the Vatican Grottoes below the Basilica (entrance from the Basilica)

Best time to Visit St Peter’s Basilica: Typical Route

I have found the best plan is to visit first thing. Arrive in the morning between 7am and 8am when the security lineups are the shortest. Head to the information desk inside St Peters Basilica and purchase the ticket to the Dome. Drop off excessive luggage, strollers, etc and head to the Dome entrance (there should hardly be a line up). After you are done the Dome, head inside the basilica and compete the SELF GUIDED TOUR St Peters Basilica. You can visit the Grottoes and then head outside to St Peters Square.

When you are outside of the basilica in St Peters Square, towards the left as you face the basilica (on the south wall) you will find the post office and the gift store (and the washrooms). This should take you until about noon at which time you can exit the area, go for lunch and perhaps visit the Vatican Museum in the afternoon.  The morning crowd from the Vatican museum will start arriving inside the Basilica starting around 11am and the flow will continue into the midafternoon. This is the busiest time inside the basilica and you will be jostling for a view point of the many items on display. For a self-guided tour of the Vatican Click HERE

Hours of Operation

  • The information is posted on the Website. Generally, it is open from 7am to 7pm during high tourist season and 7am to 6pm during the winter months. The Dome (Cupola) opens an hour later and closes an hour earlier than the Basilica.  It is closed when there is a Mass, the morning of a General Papal Audience and certain holidays 

St Peter’s Square Entrance (Piazza S. Pietro)

Entrance is from the main street or from the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican Museum (this entrance is reserved for tour groups). Generally, you will enter from the street:

  • The entrance from Castel Sant Angelo, walk down the pedestrian street Viale (Via) della Concillazione that takes you to the entrance
  • Entrance from the Metro Line A, disembark at station “Ottaviano”; the pedestrian street outside the station is called via Ottaviane and it will take you to St Peters Square. Just follow the mass of people as they all seem to heading in that direction
  • Several buses and Tram 19 stop at Piazza Risorgimento, which is a short walk to either St Peter’s Basilica or the Vatican Museum
  • Bus #64 from Termini runs every few minutes and stops at the Basilica (short walk). Because it stops at the popular tourist attractions, it does attract pickpocketers (careful when entering or exiting the bus). Do not carry valuables in your backpack or backpocket

St Peters Basilica: Skip the Line; how to beat the crowds

  • Get up early and visit before 8am. Climb the Dome before the tours from the Sistine chapel arrive mid-day. The line up well before 9am is very short
  • Arrive at the entrance early, preferable around 7am (by 9am the security lineup to enter the basilica is already getting long). By late morning, it will take you at least an hour to get through the security line even though it move quickly
  • Purchase a guided tour that get you into the basilica and skip the lines and enter through a reserved entrance. You will still go through security so leave behind sharp objects and liquids
  • Enter directly from the Sistine chapel if you purchase a guided tour of the Sistine chapel, The chapel self-guided tour HERE

St Peters Basilica Dress Code and Security Line

  • There is a strict dress code enforce and you will be turned away if you do not follow it.
  • For both males and females: no shorts, you must cover your shoulders, no sleeveless shirts
  • For women the dress code is dresses have to be at least knee length, no sleeveless dresses and no miniskirts
  • The security check is similar to airport security as you are entering another country. No alcoholic beverages, sharp objects (pocket knives, scissors, etc) or metals
  • It’s a non-smoking area

Vatican City Post Office

There are three post offices in St Peter’s Square:
  • There is one post office along the south wall, just before the entrance to St Peter’s Basilica,
  • There is one beyond the colonnades on the right side as you enter St Peter’s Square
  • There is a standalone post office in the Square
  • In order for letters to be mailed from this tiny country, it must have a Vatican stamp. Stop by the post office and pick up stamps as a souvenir or mail a post card

Swiss Guard

Established in 1506, they are the oldest and smallest military unit in the world protecting the smallest country and its Head of State; the Pope. You can see them in the Vatican and in St Peters Square dressed in their colorful uniform standing at attention along the various entry and exit points. In order to work as a Swiss Guard, you must be an unmarried catholic male at least 5’8’’ in height with Swiss citizenship, between 19 and 30 years old and completed Swiss military training including unarmed combat and arms training

They are officially known as the Pontifical Swiss Guard; their uniform colors of red, yellow and dark blue are those of the Medici Family, a prominent family that ruled Florence.  They are sometimes referred to as the Vatican City Police but there is a separate police force in charge of the overall security of Vatican City

St Peters Square (Piazza San Pietro)

Originally St Peters Square was part of the Circus of Nero. A rectangular walled area with an Obelisk brought from Egypt. It was built around 40 AD by Caligula and finished by Nero. Nero’s circus was the location of performances, public presentations and chariot races; they were the place of entertainment before the coliseums were built. The center of the circus had a long dividing wall called the Spina which separated the two running tracks. The Spina included the wall, statues, columns and an Obelisk that defined the center of Nero’s Circus. The Spina was the location of the persecution of Christians who were then buried in a nearby cemetery.  Today, the obelisk stands in the center of St Peters Square flanked by two fountains

The colonnades surrounding Peters Square are based on Bernini’s original plan and are 20 meters high and 1.6 meters wide. They have semi-circular design meant to embrace those that enter

If you see the aerial view of the area, it appears to be in the shape of a key that ends at St Peter’s Basilica; This is meant to symbolize the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven

St Peter’s Square Statues

As you approach St Peter’s Basilica, you will notice two 5.55m statues on a 4.91m pedestal on either side of the entrance. They are the statues of St Peter and St Paul. The statue of St Paul is on the left and in his left hand he is holding a book with the phrase “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”.  St Paul is holding a set of keys with a scroll that loosely translates as “I will give the keys of heaven”

Information Desk at St Peters Basilica

  • As you enter St Peters Basilica, the information desk is on your right hand side. At this location you are able to rent an audio guide or a guide book
  • Tickets to St Peter’s Basilica Dome and St Peters Treasury can be purchased at the information desk. St Peter’s Basilica Dome tickets are date and time stamped and will take at least an hour. Check with the ticket office to find out how long the ticket is valid
  • The toilets, left luggage (free) and children’s stroller drop off is also located here (strollers are not allowed inside the basilica)
  • There are two more information desks located outside in St Peter’s Square. There is one as you enter St Peters, and another on the south wall
  • The information desk located in St Peters Square on the south wall can be found as follows: it is on the left side (south) just before you enter the Basilica. You will find the gift shop, post office, book store, washrooms and information desk along that left/south wall

Climb St Peter’s Basilica Dome

  • You can climb the Dome (Cupola); there are two ways to do this:
    • Take the elevator for part of the way and climb 320 stairs
    • Climb all 515 steps; this is the slightly cheaper but a more challenging option
  • Near the very top, the steps are narrow and the railing is made of rope
  • Views at the top are really spectacular; walk towards the front to view St Peter’s Square below and the huge statues in front of you
  • Note the spectacular view of St Peters Square and how it is in the shape of a key
  • If you decide to climb the dome, it will take you an hour to 1.5 hour to complete the process
  • Decide whether you want to climb the Dome before or after the Basilica tour. Peak times and longest lineups for St Peter’s Basilica Dome tend to be mid-day when the tourists from the morning tour of the Sistine Chapel enter the basilica.  Best times for smallest crowds to climb the dome are first thing in the morning or around 4pm
  • When you get the top, you will find restrooms, water fountains, a gift shop, and a café. Visit the small rooftop café; it has a great view while you rest up with a well-deserved snack

St Peters Treasury (Sacristy and Treasury Museum)

There is a fee to enter the treasury which houses another impressive art collection plus gifts from kings and queens and other ornamental objects

Sacrament of Penance (confession)

At the Right Transept (to the far right of the main papal altar) is an area that you can enter for confession. You will find an attendant there; indicate your intention for confession and the language you speak. General times during tourist season are 7am-12:30 and 4pm to 6pm except Sundays and holidays

Vatican Grottoes

A narrow entrance will take you down one level to the Vatican Grottos; the stairs are below St Andrews Monument located diagonal to Bernini’s Baldachin. The grottoes contain tombs of the various popes, kings and queens, chapels, archeological sites, columns of the old St Peters basilica as well as other monuments and statues. There is a map of the location of each of the tombsExit from the Grottoes takes you outside St Peter’s Basilica. Below the grottoes is the necropolis, an ancient burial site said to contain the tomb of St Peter. You will need to arrange a separate visit to the necropolis (also called scavi which means excavation)

The Clementine Chapel in the Vatican Grottoes

In the center of the Clementine Chapel is a chest protecting the sepulcher of St Peter.  A popular place of worship for the faithful, although it is not the location of St Peters Tomb. The altar is in memory of St Peter and the chapel celebrates his good works

Necropolis (Scavi)

Beneath the Grottoes is the Necropolis, which is said to the the location of St Peters Tomb. It is referred to as Excavation or Scavi. In order to visit this site you will need to contact the Excavations office and arrange for a tour. You will need to book well in advance as only 120 visitors in small groups are allowed per day. There is a charge for this and the tour takes about 90 minutes; you must be at least 11 years old to participate in this archeological tour of the excavation site

Weddings at St Peters Basilica

To arrange for a wedding at St Peter’s Basilica, contact the parish office

Seeing the Pope 

You can see the pope as part of the Papal Audience or at the Sunday Angelus

  • General Audience
    • The pope holds an audience on Wednesdays except when he is on holidays or away from the Vatican. It is held at St Peters Basilica. In the warmer months it is held in St Peter’s Square and it is held inside during the cold winter months. It is best to check the Vatican website for the schedule of Papal audience and to order the free tickets. On the days of General Audience, St Peters Bsilica does not open util about 1pm
  • Liturgical Ceremony
    • Tickets are required for this celebration, they are free and should be ordered will ahead of your arrival
  • Sunday Angelus
    • With the exception of July or when the Pope is not in the Vatican, he gives a short speech, a prayer and an Angelus from the window of his study that overlooks St Peter’s Square. The event starts at noon and is finished by 12:30. Tickets are not required for this event. Check with the Prefecture of the Household (link below) for a schedule of the Angelus

St Peters Basilica Tickets

You will need tickets to attend the General Audience or the Liturgical Ceremony (described above). The tickets are free and can be ordered from the Prefecture of the Papal Household. You will be required to fill in information in regards to times, the type of ceremony (General or Liturgical), number of tickets requested and send it by fax or mail.  etc. Ticket reservation information will arrive by mail with instructions on where and when to pick up your reserved tickets. Usually it lets you know that your reserved tickets can be pickup up the preceding afternoon between 15:00 and 19:00 at the bronze door which is located under the right hand side colonnade in St Peters Square. When you get there you will be in line with thousands of others also picking up their reserved tickets. The lines usually move fast

Other attractions and Guides for Italy

  • Visit the Roman Colosseum. Click on the Roman Colosseum attractions map HERE and accompanying Colosseum attractions guide HERE
  • Take the Rome attractions map and self guided tour: It includes the Vatican City attractions map HERE and the Vatican attractions guide HERE
  • Self Guided Walking tour to explore the neighborhood of Trastevere with map of attractions HERE and guide of attractions HERE
  • Visit St Peters Basilica. Explore all the attractions in St Peter’s Basilica with the attractions guide HERE
  • One of my favorite places is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The map of attractions is HERE and the self guided walking tour is HERE
  • Self Guided Walking Tours – Day Trips from Rome
    • Visit Pompeii with a complete self guided tour map HERE and the attractions guide to the 49 points of interest HERE
    • Spend the day in Florence, this was by far one of my best day trips. The self guided walking tour map is HERE and the attractions guide is HERE