The most important and biggest church of Christianity
La Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano is a mouthful, but it suddenly perfectly covers the importance of this church. Not only is this the most famous work of renaissance architecture, it’s also the biggest Christian church in the world! This religious building is what Mecca is for Muslims and is often described as “the most important of all churches of Christianity”, although that should actually be the Archbishopric of St John Lateran.
It’s not surprising that tens of thousands of believers gather here every year to listen to one of the Pope’s liturgies. They do this either inside the basilica or on the breathtaking Saint-Peter’s square.
A brief history of St. Peter’s Basilica
In 1506 they started construction and it would last until 1626 until this whopper was finally finished. Originally there was a basilica on this location which Constantine I had built in the fourth century, but because of its bad conditions, it was demolished. No less than five different architects worked on the design, of which Michelangelo is the best known. Obviously the construction cost a lot of money, which was obtained by selling indulgences to the people (a paper with which sins were waived so that one could go to heaven instead of hell). On November 18, 1626, after 120 years of building, St. Peter’s Basilica was finally completed. The basilica was named after the apostle Peter, who was one of the founders of Christianity. You can even admire his remains in a tomb.
What can you see in the St. Peter’s Basilica?
When you arrive at the St. Peter’s square, you’ll certainly need some time to take in everything for a moment. Even if you’re not a fan of churches, this magnificent design will not leave you unmoved. You’ll immediately notice the gigantic dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica (with a diameter of 42 meters or 138 feet), which dominates the skyline of Rome. After that you’ll really start to notice how incredibly big this building is. To give you an idea: the height is 136.6 meters (448 ft), the width is 150 meters (492 ft) and the length is 220 meters (722 ft). Quite different from your local parish church, I immagine. Of course there is a lot to see, but to make it a little easier for you I’ve made a list of four things that you shouldn’t skip when you’re visiting St Peter’s Basilica.
The baldachin of Bernini
The name Bernini might ring a bell thanks to the book “The Bernini Mystery” by Dan Brown. Bernini helped design the St. Peter’s Basilica, but also the famous baldachin inside the church. This sort of canopy is used for the preparation of the Sacrament before the Eucharist is celebrated.
The beautiful statues
There are no less than 395 statues in the basilica. Of course I will not list them all here and I won’t try to bore you with a whole bunch of names, but if there’s one sculpture that you should see, then it is the Pietà by Michelangelo. A beautiful picture of the Madonna with child.
The body of Pope John XXIII
In addition to many monumental works of art, you’ll also find a somewhat stranger landmark! In a beautifully decorated glass coffin you can admire the body of Pope John XXIII. 38 years after his death, this pope was taken out of his tomb and exhibited in St. Peter’s Basilica. A phenomenon that only two popes did before him . Some think it’s a miracle that he’s been so well preserved, but nothing is less true. When Pope John died, he was injected with a special liquid that stores bodies incredibly well.
There are more than 100 tombs in the St. Peter’s Basilica, of which 91 belong to former popes. If you want to see the relics of Saint Peter, you must be in the crypt. Only since 1979 (thanks to Pope John Paul II) you can actually visit this location. It’s therefore a place where many pilgrims come together. It’s forbidden to take photos here, out of respect.
The dome of St Peter’s Basilica is one of the absolute eye-catchers of the building and you can even climb it! This gorgeous cupola lies right above the tomb of Peter and is carried by four gigantic columns. At the foot of this are statues of Saint Veronica, Saint Andrew, Saint Longinus and Saint Helena. Make sure to climb the roof of the basilica (551 steps!) And enjoy a well-deserved and spectacular panoramic view of Rome. From here you can also see the Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican Gardens.
What does visiting the St. Peter’s Basilica cost?
A visit to St. Peter’s Basilica doesn’t cost you anything… Well, it does cost a lot of time. You can enter for free, but for some things you have to pay, including access to the dome. Here are the two options:
- You climb all 551 steps (cost 5 euros)
- You take an elevator and skip the first 320 steps (cost 7 euro)
You probably don’t want to be in the queue for hours (and no, that’s not exaggerated…), so I give you the advice to book a priority ticket for €19.50. If you also want a guide to accompany you, you pay €27.
Another tip that I’d like to give you is to immediately combine a visit to the Vatican Museums with a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica. From the Vatican museums you can go on to St. Peter’s Basilica via a separate corridor, and in both places you also get a very interesting guide who accompanies you.
Opening hours St. Peter’s Basilica
Open every day:
- April to September: 7 am to 7 pm
- October to March: 7 am to 6 pm
The dome of St Peter’s Basilica has different opening hours:
- April to September: 8 am to 6 pm
- October to March: 8 am to 5 pm
Tips if you’re visiting St. Peter’s Basilica
- Make sure you wear appropriate clothing! No shorts, mini skirts or bare shoulders. If you wear this anyway, you’ll be denied access.
- To get in, you sometimes have to wait for three quarters of an hour to three hours. So come as early as possible or book a ticket with which you do not have to wait in line to visit the dome.
- The nearest metro stop is that of Ottaviano. From here it is still ten to fifteen minutes walking.
- There is a good chance that you’ll also visit the Vatican Museums (read here how to bypass these queues). Book a guided tour through the Vatican and the basilica. Through a door in the Sistine Chapel, your guide will then take you directly to St. Peter’s Basilica, so you don’t have to wait in line twice. If you have not booked a guided tour through the Vatican, you can still try and slip through the door with the a tour. But let no one see you doing it!
Six fun facts about St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome
- The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is world famous. Michelangelo, the maker of it, said the following: “I could’ve made it bigger than the one of the Pantheon, but not more beautiful.”
- The basilica, which has the shape of a cross, has a total area of 15.160 square meters or 163.180,72 square feet. 60,000 believers can attend a church service here.
- In the middle of the Saint Peter’s Square you can see an Egyptian obelisk of 25.5 meters (84 feet) high. Originally it was brought to Rome by the famous Emperor Caligula, but the Pope Sixtus V ordered to move it to the Vatican City. This required the strength of 800 men.
- Although it’s claimed that the remains of Saint Peter are located here, archaeologists still disagree about this. It’s thought that his remains may lie in a cave in Jerusalem!
- Just like the Doge’s Palace in Venice, you can climb the St. Peter’s Basilica virtually in the game Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood.
Contrary to popular belief, this church is not a cathedral because it’s not the seat of a bishop. The seat of the bishop is the Papal Archbishop’s Basilica of Saint John Lateran, which is also located in Rome.
Even if you’re not religious, you shouldn’t miss visiting St. Peter’s Basilica during your visit to Rome. Together with the Coliseum, this is perhaps the most impressive building of the Italian capital.
Priority access to St. Peter’s Basilica
When I saw the queues in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, I got completely discouraged. I heard that the queues could sometimes take up to three hours, and that is definitely not an exaggeration… Normally, access to St. Peter’s Basilica is free, but for a small fee you can also buy skip-the-line tickets. Luckily! Because standing in a queue for three hours isn’t really why I came to Rome for…
Another way to stop for a long time is to combine your visit to the Basilica with the Vatican museums. Book your tickets online and combine them with a guided tour in St. Peter’s Basilica. This way you can bypass the queues twice! Once for the museums and once for the basilica.
These are some options:
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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.