Things to Do at St. Peter’s Basilica

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This post covers how to visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, including tips on avoiding crowds, how to reach the dome, how to see the Pope as well as visit the Vatican’s necropolis. Be sure to also check out our guide on how to visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.

 

Guide to St. Peter's Basilica

 


PLAN YOUR VISIT

In this section, we cover how to get here, the best time to visit, as well as to avoid, dress code, security, and tours. But first, let us answer a few frequently asked questions.

Is There an Entrance Fee?

Admission is free to St. Peter’s Basilica and you do not need a ticket to enter. The only optional costs are for tickets to skip the security line and for guided tours, though we have a tip for a free audio tour.

What Are the Basilica’s Hours?

The Basilica is open daily from 7:00 am until 18:00 (6 pm). From April through September, it is open until 19:00 (7 pm).  


How to Get Here

St. Peter’s Basilica is located on the western side of the Tiber River and is adjacent to the Vatican Museums. Use this Google map for exact directions to the security point.

The access point is accessible by subway, bus, and a streetcar, but if you are not planning to visit the Vatican, then you will likely come by bus or walk. Read our post on how to get around Rome.

 

Where is St. Peter's Basilica

 


Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit St. Peter’s Basilica is between 07:00 and 09:00, while the line for security is still manageable. The worst time to arrive is between 10:00 – 14:00 when the security line is very long.

 

Best Time to Visit St. Peter's Basilica

 

The author of this post arrived at 8:30 am on a weekday in mid-February and waited approximately 20 min to enter St. Peter’s. When he left the basilica at 10:30 am, the security line was easily 4x as long as when he arrived. 

For those who can’t make it early, there are skip-the-line options for sale. 

 

St. Peter's Basilica skip-the-line

 

There are also tickets for guided tours, for access to the basilica’s dome, access to the papal crypt, there is even a hard-to-get ticket to visit St. Peter’s tomb and most will allow you to skip the security line.

If you decide to visit in the Spring or Summer, you might be able to take one of their late-night tours of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.

These open tours are provided from 19:00 (7 pm) – 21:00 (11 pm) on Friday nights, and visitors often indicate that the crowds are much more manageable after dark. 


Times to Avoid

Papal Appearances

If you don’t have your heart set on seeing the Pope, we recommend avoiding St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesdays and Sundays. For more details on these Papal appearances, check out our section on opportunities to see the Pope.

Mass

Mass is typically held at least a few days per month, and St. Peter’s Basilica can become a very popular destination on these dates. If you’re not interested in experiencing Mass, you may want to avoid visiting on days when Mass is being held.

Holy Days 

Mass and other special events are usually held on holy days, and these dates can be very popular for visitors. Needless to say, you probably shouldn’t attempt to see St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas day unless you are prepared to face large crowds. 


Dress Code

There is a strict dress code for both St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Grottoes (which also applies to the Vatican Museums). Make sure to dress appropriately for your visit.

  • No shorts, bare shoulders or miniskirts
  • This applies to both men and women
  • There are no exceptions based on weather
  • You will be turned away if you do not comply

Skip the Line Tickets

Again, come early and pay nothing. If you don’t arrive well before 10:00 am, then the video below will demonstrate what awaits you.

 

If you can’t make it early to St. Peter’s, then consider booking in advance for either an official self-guided audio tour or an official guided tour of the basilica. 

Holders of these tickets have access to a special security line, which can save you time, especially when the general admission line is snaking around St. Peter’s Square, as in the video above.

Below, we detail the ticket options.

NOTE: there are many tour operators that offer guided tours of the basilica at different times, usually combining this with a tour of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.  


Security

You will have to enter through an airport-style security check.  The security point is in the northwest section of the colonnaded area of St. Peter’s Square (see orange arrow in the image below).  

There is a list of prohibited items inside St. Peters (as well as inside the Vatican) that you can view here. There is a bag check.  

  • Umbrellas
  • Sticks
  • Stands
  • Tripods
  • Video Cameras
  • Luggage
  • Suitcases
  • Large Bags
  • Knives
  • Scissors
  • Metal Tools

In addition to these items, visitors who intend to enter the Vatican Museums should keep the following details in mind:

  • Food and drink are not allowed
  • Flash photography is not allowed
  • Laser pointers are not allowed
  • Microphones are also prohibited
  • Mobile phones must be kept silent
  • No photography of any kind is allowed in the Sistine Chapel

 


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GUIDED TOURS OF ST. PETER’S BASILICA

In this section, we cover the official audio and guided tours of the basilica.  There is an audio tour for the dome, which we cover in the next section. And as we stated in the previous section, advance purchase of any of these tours will give you a skip-the-line ticket

 

 

We also recommend reading about tours that cover the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel as well as St. Peter’s on our Vatican City page.

But, before we detail the different tours for purchase, we want to recommend that you consider something. Get here early, before 9 am, and download this free audio tour by Rick Steves. The tour covers St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica and is excellent. 

Rick Steves target audience is American travelers, so you will often hear measurement given in British Imperial (feet and pounds instead of meters and kilograms), but that’s a small inconvenience for a quality service that is free. He also offers a free, self-guided audio tour of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. 

Below, we have a things to see/self-guided tour that generally follows the route of his tour.  


Official Audio Tour

Audio tours last for approximately 60 minutes.  The audio tour is downloaded via wifi to your own smartphone, though you can ask for a traditional audio guide player. You will get a voucher and you will need to bring some ID with you to exchange for the audio tour unit.  You can book either for morning hours or afternoon hours.

NOTE: The prices below are with skip-the-line privileges.  You can pick up an audio guide when you walk in for €7/person (cash only).


Official Guided Tours

Official guided tours are also available through Vox Mundi.  Like the audio tours, tickets for the guided tours enter through a shorter, dedicated security line.  You will be given headsets to hear your live guide.  The official tours are available at 10:30 am and/or 13:30 (1:30 pm).  Guided tours are offered in English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish. Guided tours last approximately 75 minutes.  

NOTE: Several well-reviewed tour operators offer their own guided tours at varying times of the day.


St. Peter’s Basilica From Top to Bottom

Although it can be pretty difficult to get tickets for the Necropolis, there is a tour which will allow you to see several other important sites at St. Peter’s Basilica. This guided tour will provide visitors with the opportunity to skip the line, climb the dome and explore the papal crypts. In addition to providing access to several historic locations, this tour will be kept to a 15 person minimum to ensure that you’ll have the chance to ask questions and hear your expert guide without any issues. 

NOTE: This tour will not take you to the official tomb of St. Peter, but you will visit the original tomb located in Clementine Chapel.

  • Ticket Prices: €45 for Adults | €39 for Children (4-12) | under 4 are free
  • Discount Student Ticket Price: €42
  • Availability: Tue, Thu, Sat at 8:15 am from Apr-Oct
  • Duration: 2 ½ hours
  • Kept to small groups of 15 guests
  • Includes St. Peter’s Basilica Dome tickets
  • Click here for more details

 


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HOW TO VISIT ST. PETER’S DOME

Visits to the dome of St. Peter’s are available daily from 8:00 am until 17:00 (5 pm). From April through September, the dome is available until 18:00 (6 pm).  If you take the stairs, be prepared for 551 total steps.  You can elect to take the elevator to the roof of the basilica for a couple of extra €s and eliminate 171 steps.  The steps to the top of the cupula are in a narrow winding staircase.  You could also elect to rent another audio guide for the cupula itself.

 

 

 


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THE VATICAN NECROPOLIS

Vatican Grottoes

Located just beneath St. Peter’s Basilica is the Vatican Grottoes. This site features chapels dedicated to saints along with the tombs of popes, kings, and queens. Some of the tombs in this area date back as far as the 10th century. The Vatican Grottoes include a variety of different artwork and architecture in honor of the religious figures who were buried here. Visitors could spend an entire day weaving in and out of the grottoes. 

Touch the screen to scroll around the Grottoes

 

The following sites can be found in the Vatican Grottoes:


St. Peter’s Tomb

Whether you’re a Catholic or a history buff, St. Peter’s Tomb is one of the most important locations in Vatican City. You’ll find the grave of the Apostle Peter at the Vatican Necropolis, a burial ground for several important figures and popes. There is only one option for visiting this historic site, and it’s important to note that only 250 people are allowed to enter the tomb every day. If you want to see the final resting place of Saint Peter, we recommend getting a ticket well ahead of time.

Excavations Office

In order to find St. Peter’s Tomb, they had to excavate some of the ruins underneath Vatican City. Today, the office that performed those excavations also provides guided tours of the archaeological site. During this excursion, visitors will be taken in groups of 12 to visit the grave and learn more about the historic location. Unfortunately, they cannot accommodate guests under the age of 15. Requests for reservations should be sent directly to the office of excavations.

Excavation Office Hours

  • Monday – Friday: 9:00 am – 6:00 pm
  • Saturday: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Closed on Sundays & Vatican Holy Days
  • Last Visit: 3:30pm in Winter | 4:15pm in Summer

 


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FREE OPPORTUNITIES TO SEE THE POPE

Anyone who wants to see the Pope should consider either a Wednesday or a Sunday visit to St. Peter’s Basilica. On both days, visitors can attend an event which will allow them to see or at least listen to the Pope. While you will need a ticket for one of these opportunities, you can actually obtain those tickets for free. Guests should expect large crowds on popular days.

 

 

Wednesday Papal Audience

A Papal Audience is held almost every Wednesday, giving travelers from around the globe a chance to listen to an address given by the Pope. Although tickets are required, they are also given away for free by the Prefecture of the Papal Household. All you need to do for a ticket is fill out a form and make a request. This form will need to be faxed back in order to receive tickets. Papal Audiences start at 10-10:30 am and last for between 60-90 minutes on average. Arrive at least 2 hours early in order to get a good seat.

TIP: For €34, you could have instant tickets, which include a live tour guide on the morning of the event to explain to you the event, provide headphones (to hear the pope clearly) and to show you where to get a good spot. 

Sunday Angelus

Unlike the Wednesday Papal Audience, you do not need a ticket for this event. On Sundays at noon, the Pope will appear from the window of an apartment at St. Peter’s Square. During this short 20-minute experience, he will provide a short speech followed by the Angelus and an Apostolic Blessing.  If you want a good view, make sure to arrive early and get a good spot. This is one of the easiest options to see the Pope in Vatican City.

Papal Masses

If your heart is set on attending an actual Papal Mass, you’ll be happy to hear that tickets for these events are also free. However, the schedule for Papal Masses tends to vary from month to month. Due to the often unpredictable schedule, we recommend requesting tickets well ahead of time and potentially planning your entire trip around this one event.

Although most Papal Masses are held on regular days, there are also Holiday Masses which can be much more difficult to attend. Ask for tickets at least 6 months in advance of these events for the best results.

For more information, make sure to check the calendar of events presided over by the Holy Father.

 


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THINGS TO SEE AT ST. PETER’S BASILICA

Guests who visit this historic and holy site can often become overwhelmed with everything there is to see and do in the area. With that in mind, we’ve decided to provide a list of landmarks and popular locations at St. Peter’s Basilica. Keep an eye out for the following attractions while exploring the grounds.

St. Peter’s Square

This large plaza can be found directly in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. This is the site where Papal Audiences are typically held. An ancient Egyptian Obelisk has been located at the center of this square since 1586 when it was placed there under the direction of Pope Sixtus V. This stone pillar was once situated at the center of a chariot race track which was originally found to the left of the Basilica. The Obelisk was one of the last things seen by St. Peter before he was executed by Nero in 67 A.D.

When Bernini took on the challenge of building St. Peter’s Square, he decided to build Tuscan Colonnades in the shape of a chariot race track in honor of St. Peter. These colonnades are four columns deep with 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters. Each column is 20 meters high and 1.6 meters wide. The overall design of the square is intended to look like a key which ends at the church, symbolizing the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Via della Conciliazione which leads up to St. Peter’s Square once featured the spina – a median with buildings which separated two roads leading to the landmark. This feature was demolished by Mussolini in 1936 so that St. Peter’s Basilica could be seen from Castel Sant’Angelo.

The Pope’s Residence

The Pope lives in the Apostolic Palace which is located to the right of St. Peter’s Square. The windows to his study and bedroom can be found on the top floor on the right side of this building. This is where visitors can expect to see the Pope delivering the Angelus on Sunday afternoons.

 

See the Pope in Rome

 

The Sistine Chapel

If you want to get a good look at this historic architecture, head to St. Peter’s Square and look to the northeast. When a new Pope is announced, this is the location where white smoke will signal his arrival. If you want to go inside, head around the Vatican walls and visit the Vatican Museum.

 

 

Swiss Guards

Don’t be alarmed if you see some strange looking fellows standing outside the entrance to the Apostolic Palace. These are the Swiss Guards, and they are responsible for the safety of the Pope. During periods in which there is no Pope, these guards will protect the College of Cardinals so that they can select a new Pope safely.

 

Swiss Guards Vatican

 

St. Paul & St. Peter Statues

You will find these historic statues on either side of the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. The Statue of St. Peter can be found on the left side while the Statue of St. Paul is on the right.

St. Peter’s statue was sculpted by Giuseppe De Fabris, a sculptor who was noted for his work on several other religious monuments. Likewise, the artist behind the Statue of St. Paul was Adamo Tadolini, a sculptor who produced statues of King David and St. Frances de Sales.

If you look at the left hand of St. Paul, you will see that he is holding a book. Inscribed on this book is the phrase “I can do all things in him who strengthens me,” a line from Philippians 4:13.

During the Papal Audience on Wednesdays, the Pope will often stand between these two statues.

The Holy Door

Also known as Porta Sancta, this door is only open during a Holy Year, an event which occurs once every 25 years. On the first day of this Holy Year, the Pope will strike the brick wall with a hammer and open the door for pilgrims.

On December 18th, 2015, the Pope officially opened the Holy Door of Mercy. After this door was opened, diocese throughout the world was set to the task of opening their own Holy Door. 

The Central Nave

The Central Nave is where you will find the main body of this church. Charlemagne and other emperors were crowned on the red disc located at the entrance of this Nave. You will also find the measurements of the largest churches in the world printed in brass letters on the floor.

The Nave is about 46 meters (150 ft.) high and 187 meters (615 ft.) long. To give you a sense of just how much space there is in this area, it’s worth noting that the Statue of Liberty could technically fit inside of St. Peter’s Basilica.

If you look up, you’ll notice a phrase written on the south and north walls of the Central Nave. The south wall states “I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may never fail; and you, in turn, must strengthen your brothers.”

On the north wall, the text reads “I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The Pieta

Sculpted by none other than Michelangelo, this may be one of the most famous works of art based on a religious figure. While other depictions of this scene often feature the virgin with a sad and distressed face, Michelangelo chose to give her a look of acceptance and faith. When designing the virgin, he was said to have thought of his own mother’s face for inspiration. Other than St. Peter’s tomb, this is often among the quietest places you will find in St. Peter’s Basilica.

 

Where is the Pieta

 

The Papal Altar & Baldacchino

Visitors will find the Papal Altar located at the center of St. Peter’s Basilica. This is the location where the Pope will celebrate Mass. The ground on which this altar stands was consecrated by Clement VIII in 1594. The Baldacchino is a canopy which stands just above the Papal Altar. This incredible architectural feature was crafted by Bernini (the man who designed St. Peter’s Square), and it was the first work to be featured in St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s tomb lies directly beneath the altar.

The Dome of St. Peter’s

Although you can enjoy this dome from afar, it would be a shame if you chose not to see it up close. Tickets to the roof will cost extra, but this is the only way to really appreciate the work of Michelangelo. Although he wasn’t able to finish his design before he passed away, his unique style can still be seen in the intricate details. The more you look at this incredible dome, the more you will see.  

Clementine Chapel

There are many chapels and tombs located in the Vatican Grottoes, but this one is particularly special. At the center of this chapel, you will find the sepulcher of St. Peter. This is the only part of the original basilica to keep its original identity and function. The faithful have come to this chapel for centuries to worship and celebrate the good works of the Apostle Peter.

In 1592, this chapel was further decorated and enhanced by Clement VIII, at which point it was given the name of Clementina. Today, it is simply known as the Clementine Chapel, but it still serves the same purpose of providing a place of worship for believers.

Behind the altar lies the remains of the Memoria Petri (Memory of Peter). This was a monument built by Constantine to protect the remains of St. Peter. Although we know today that this is not St. Peter’s tomb, it is still an important location for the faithful to visit.

St. Peter’s Bronze Statue

This may be the most popular and famous statue of St. Peter. Pilgrims who visit the basilica have traditionally touched and kissed the foot of Peter, an act which has caused the foot to wear down over time. During the feast of St. Peter on June 29th, this statue is adorned with an alb, tiara, amice, stole, ring and red cope.

St. Peter’s statue rests on a pedestal made of marble, Sicilian jasper, and green porphyry. Peter holds the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven in his left hand while raising his right to perform a blessing. The creator of this statue is still unknown, but it is thought to have been crafted at some point between the 5th and 14th century.

Pope John XXIII’s Tomb

If you’re looking for the final resting place of Pope John XXIII, head to the Altar of St. Jerome. In 2001, the body of Pope John XXIII was moved to this location. Over the altar, you will find the altarpiece with the Last Communion of St. Jerome. John XXIII has since been named a saint and canonized by the church.

Vatican Treasury

You will find the entrance to the Vatican Treasury in the left aisle of the basilica. This is where the Vatican stores several historic church ornaments, statues, and even gifts from kings and queens around the world. Much of this area has been transformed into a museum that visitors can explore at their leisure.