As one of the world’s most sacred sites and colossal architectural monuments, visiting St. Peter’s Basilica is an awesome experience. It can also be an overwhelming one. What are the most unmissable sights? How do you find your way around? How do you navigate through the crowds of other visitors who flock here every day? Hopefully, this quick guide to visiting St. Peter’s will at least give you a start to what will no doubt be an amazing journey.
St. Peter’s – The Grand Exterior and Piazza
If you want to avoid the crowds, get to St. Peter’s as early in the morning as possible, preferably just before 7am, when the Basilica opens. You want to view the colossal Dome of St. Peter’s with as few distractions as possible, because it is an overwhelming construction. Designed by Michelangelo and completed by Giacomo della Porta, the Dome is over 40 meters (130 feet) in diameter and rises to 120 meters (nearly 400 feet) off the floor.
You arrive first at St. Peter’s Square, the grand piazza in front of the basilica. In the center of the piazza stands the 25.5 meter (80 feet) tall obelisk. This is the oldest artifact on the grounds and dates from 13th Century BC. Egypt. It was originally brought to Rome in the 1st Century and stood in Nero’s Circus until it was moved to St. Peter’s Square in 1585.
After exploring the piazza, and taking pictures of the facade of St. Peters, you’ll be ready to head inside. Be prepared to go through a security line before you get to the front doors, though – it’s almost like being at the airport. Once you’ve cleared security, you can proceed past the enormous statues of St. Peter and St. Paul that stand in front of the stairs, and enter the Basilica. The church looks big from the outside, but once you get inside, it’s almost overwhelming!
St. Peter’s – The Art-Filled Interior
Proceeding into the interior, you will be treated to some of the most magnificent sculptures in history. As you walk towards the right aisle, look for the statue of St. Peter. Until recently, its sculptor was disputed, but it is now generally accepted that Arnolfo di Cambio created this magnificent sculpture in the 13th century. Some still believe that it has much earlier origins, though – as early as the 5th Century.
You will then continue down the right aisle, where you will see one of the most celebrated sculptures ever created – Michelangelo’s Pieta. You will certainly have seen photographs of it in the past, but the real thing is breathtaking.
Amongst all the statues of the saints and apostles, there is one relic that is not a work of art, but the actual remains of Pope John XXIII. The Pope died in 1963, but when his body was exhumed in 2001, it was discovered that his remains had not decayed. They were placed in a glass case and can be viewed in the right transept, beneath the altar of St. Jerome.
You will then come to Bernini’s Baldacchino. This magnificent structure made of 927 tons of bronze is the canopy covering the Papal altar and St. Peter’s relics. There are so many stunning examples of art and architecture in here that it is hard to single out just one, but the Cathedra of St. Peter, designed by Bernini in 1666 is particularly impressive. You will then progress down the left transept and the left aisle before exiting the Basilica.
St. Peter’s – The View from the Dome
Before you leave St. Peters, though, you’ll definitely want to head up to the roof. Some visitors do this first, but it is a wonderful way to finish off your tour. You can either climb the stairs or take an elevator to the first level roof, where you can stand with the statues of saints, and look out over Piazza San Pietro. Then the adventurous can climb the stairs around and around inside the curving dome, to the cupola right at the top. From here, all of Rome is spread out in front of you, and you can also look down into the manicured grounds of the Vatican.
You can also walk around part of the inside of the dome, looking down at the tiny visitors in the church below – this gives you a new appreciation for the size of this enormous basilica. Take a moment to try to absorb all the treasures you have just seen.
St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the most visited tourist sites in the world. With over 5 acres of floor space, it doesn’t lose its sense of spaciousness even when there are thousands of visitors inside. However, making that extra effort to visit it early in the morning pays off. You won’t be the only one there, but the lines will be shorter and you will be able to appreciate its wonders more fully.