St. Peter's Basilica in Rome Jeremy Vandel

St. Peter's Basilica

The Basilica di San Pietro is an impressive building with a legendary history. The "Center of Christianity" and what lies hidden inside the imposing church is visited annually by as many as 20,000 tourists and pilgrims from around the world.

St. Peter’s Basilica is probably one of the most impressive and beautiful churches in the world. It’s not only a place of worship for the faithful but also a shrine full of art treasures and a paragon for Vatican Baroque architecture.

The building was completed in 1626 and covers an area of more than 15,000 m2. The basilica can seat 2,000 people and is one of the most important and visited shrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

The basilica and St. Peter’s Square are also famous for the pope who gives his famous Urbi et Orbi blessing from the basilica’s balcony on Christmas and Easter Day. For this, each time a large crowd gathers at the square.

A brief history of St. Peter’s Basilica

The basilica is 186m long, 123m wide and 136m high. Besides its impressive dimensions, its history and architectural style are also very interesting. Keep reading!

Name and origin

The history of St. Peter’s Basilica begins as early as the time of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 313, the first church was built as a symbol of Christianity, which happened as a result of the Edict of Milan.

This was a proclamation that permanently established religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire. It was the outcome of a political agreement between the Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius. Additionally, in 334, Emperor Constantine I decided to build a basilica on the Vatican Hill, near the place where Peter (the apostle considered to be the first pope) had been crucified and buried.

Until 1506, the basilica of Constantine I (who reigned from 306 to 337) was located on the site where St. Peter’s Basilica was built from 1506 onward. Construction of the present building began under the supervision of Pope Julius II and was completed in 1626 by Pope Paul V. Donato Bramante. St. Peter’s tomb is currently located under the main altar as are those of many other popes buried in the basilica.

New plans for Constantine’s Basilica

By the mid-15th century, the basilica built by Constantine was no longer in good condition, so Pope Nicholas V had the church restored and expanded in 1452. When he died in 1455, this work was suspended for over 50 years. The newly crowned Pope Julius II resumed restoration in 1503 when the Basilica of Constantine was on the verge of collapse.

Northern Italian architect Donato Bramante was commissioned to build a new St. Peter’s Basilica. It was Julius II’s vision to create a magnificent building. An important part of this was a monumental tomb for himself above the one from St. Peter.

Donato Bramante “Maestro Ruinante”

Bramante had the old church torn down to the façade to make way for something new. For the people of Rome, this was a complete scandal. The nave of the basilica looked like a ruin and yet holy mass was held there every day.

The master-builder was heavily criticized and even called “Maestro Ruinante” (Master Wrecker). After he died in 1514, construction progressed very slowly. Pope Leo X chose the painter Raphael to succeed Bramante. However, after six years of planning, he was hardly able to carry out any of his plans.

The diversity in architectural style

In its 120-year building history, the St. Peter’s Basilica hasn’t only had many master builders but has also undergone the formative influences of three style periods: Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque.

Although there was never a homogeneous building plan and none of the master builders ever followed the plans of his predecessor, St. Peter’s Basilica still exudes a certain unity of style. This may be because Michelangelo’s architecture functions as a unifying factor for the overall picture.

The builders

Several architects, artists, and master builders worked on the basilica. Besides Raphael, among Bramante’s successors were the architects Baldassarre Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo. Sangallo spent seven years building a walk-in wooden model that can be seen today in the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the construction workshop of St. Peter’s Basilica.

In 1547, the 72-year-old sculptor and master builder Michelangelo Buonarotti took charge of the construction. It was he who built the famous dome that characterizes the church building to this day. Almost 30 years after Michelangelo’s death in 1564, Giacomo della Porta completed the dome in 1593.

Completion and inauguration

As early as 1624, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was involved in the interior design of the church. One of the most important works of the representative of Roman Baroque is the bronze canopy placed above the high altar. His greatest work, however, is the St. Peter’s Square with the colonnades.

From 1603 to 1629, architect Carlo Maderno worked on St. Peter’s Basilica, completing the church and facade so it could be inaugurated by Pope Urban VIII Barberini in November 1626.

Martin Luther and St. Peter’s Basilica

Martin Luther was a German theologian who played a crucial role in the reformation of Christianity. After being ordained as a priest and spending time in the monastery, he decided to make a trip to Rome.

There he discovered that his interpretation of the Bible clashed with certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, he was hugely opposed to indulgences: documents that believers could purchase to remit sins.

An indulgence trade arose in the city that generated a lot of money, which was mainly used for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther was strongly opposed to this and wanted to do something about it. As a result, he wrote the 95 Theses, to share his critical reflections on the indulgence trade.

What’s hidden inside

The Basilica is known worldwide for many reasons. Below you can find out more about its many art treasures, the famous dome, the statue of St. Peter, and the many tombs of famous popes.

Art treasures

St. Peter’s Basilica is not only an impressive masterpiece on the outside, but true art treasures are hidden inside as well. There are over 45 altars and 11 chapels, in addition to numerous valuable works of art, including Bernini’s canopy over the high altar, works by Arnolfo di Cambio and Michelangelo’s Pietà.

The vaults are decorated with magnificent mosaics and countless sculptures. Impressive statues of St. Peter, St. Paul, Jesus, and John the Baptist rise on the facade.

In addition, St. Peter’s Basilica has five major gates: the Gate of the Dead (used for funeral rites), the Gate of Good and Evil, the Central Gate (also called the Gate of Filarete), the Gate of the Sacraments, and finally the Holy Gate (only opened in a Holy Year).

The Dome

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is another popular Vatican attraction and is always crowded. If you decide to climb it, keep in mind that there are waiting times of up to an hour (especially in high season and on weekends).

The climb is worth it. Not only to admire the massive construction of the dome (supported by four large pilasters on which four circular arches protrude and have a total weight of over 14,000 tons), but also the breathtaking view.

Part of the adventurous climb can be done by elevator, but the last 320 steps leading to the very top of the dome must be walked. The view of Rome, especially at sunset, is a true delight.

Entrance fees to the dome

If you want to use the elevator, the entrance fee is €10. If you choose to use only the stairs, the entrance fee is €8. There are no discounts available on both prices. However, it’s possible to buy a ticket without having to wait in line.

Important: The entrance fee must be paid in cash. Many visitors wait in line for a long time only to find out that paying by card isn’t possible. So, be prepared.

St. Peter’s Statue

The bronze statue of St. Peter is one of the most famous and visited works of art within the basilica. The sculpture was created around the year 1300 by Arnolfo di Cambio.

Since 1605 it has stood in its present location on the right side of the nave of the enormous cathedral. On a closer look, you’ll notice that the right foot of the figure is damaged. This has to do with the fact that its touch is said to bring good luck and blessing.

Around 1450 this tradition was initiated and today the foot of the statue is touched by about 5 million pilgrims and tourists every year. For some believers, this is reason enough to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

Tombs of significant popes

Numerous popes were buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. Many of the tombs have vanished but some resting places can still be visited today.

A total of 148 mausoleums of deceased popes can be found in the basilica. These are located under the nave near the crypt.

St. Peter’s tomb, for example, is believed to be located under the papal main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. And under the altar of St. Sebastian Chapel, the second chapel on the right is the tomb of Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005.

Opening hours and entrance fees

Below you can find the opening hours and entrance fees of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Opening hours

  • Opening hours in winter (October to March): every day from 7 am to 6 pm.
  • Opening hours in summer (April to September): every day from 7 am to 7 pm

On days when papal audiences are held (usually on Wednesdays), St. Peter’s Basilica can’t be visited in the morning.

Entrance fees for the basilica

Admission to St. Peter’s Basilica is free for all visitors. You only have to pay if you want to skip the line, climb the dome or join a guided tour.

Useful tips for your visit

There are often long lines at the entrances to the Vatican’s sights, especially at St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum.

If you don’t want to queue, you can buy a special ticket to skip the line or go at certain times and days to avoid crowds.

Recommended times

As most travel organizations start their tours early, St. Peter’s Basilica is usually crowded in the morning.

Therefore, we recommend visiting the Vatican in the afternoon. After 3 p.m., it’s often quieter. St. Peter’s Basilica and the dome are open until approximately 5-6 p.m., giving you plenty of time to see them.

Recommended days

To avoid weekend tourists, it’s recommended to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and other Vatican attractions during the week. Except for Wednesday mornings (when papal audiences take place), the Vatican is open all week.

Recommended time of the year

Although opening hours are slightly shorter in winter, it’s recommended to visit the Vatican outside the high season. In summer, the crowds of tourists are the largest, while in late fall, winter, and early spring, far fewer visitors come to the Italian capital.

As temperatures in Rome are quite pleasant throughout the year, you can discover the treasures of this city at any time of the year.

Nearby places of interest

Here you’ll find an overview of all the sights that are in the immediate surroundings of St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter’s Square

Piazza San Pietro, designed by Bernini, is the center of the Vatican City and is particularly famous thanks to the Pope who holds mass here during Easter and Christmas for tens of thousands of people.

The enormous square, 240 meters wide and 340 meters long is home to St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the papal palaces, among others. There are also two large fountains from the seventeenth century and an Egyptian obelisk (which was originally part of the Circus Maximus) situated.

Vatican Museums

The Musei Vaticani count a total of 26 different museums, all connected and located in the Apostolic Palaces in Vatican City. Thanks to its huge collection of art treasures from Roman and Egyptian antiquity, religious objects, beautifully painted rooms, and even modern art, the museum is one of the largest in the world.

During your visit, you can admire, among other things, the famous Sistine Chapel and the many art treasures that the popes have collected here (spread over 54 rooms) since the 16th century.

The entrance to the museums is just 1 km away from St. Peter’s Basilica and is easily reached by foot (a 12-minute walk).

Sistine Chapel

The chapel in the Apostolic Palace is especially famous for its frescoes that decorate the interior, particularly The Creation of Adam (on the ceiling) and The Last Judgement (on the west wall), both by Michelangelo. The two gigantic frescoes are among the greatest achievements of Western painting. Furthermore, the chapel is known as the location of Papal conclaves.

The Sistine Chapel is located right next to St. Peter’s Basilica. When you buy a ticket to the Vatican Museums, you also have access to the Sistine Chapel. It’s not possible to buy separate tickets for it.

Vatican Gardens

Amid the hustle and bustle of churches, chapels, and museums there’s a green oasis of beautiful gardens. The 23 hectares of natural, architectural, and artistic space occupy most of Vatican Hill.

In the gardens, you can recognize a mix of Italian, French, and English styles. The Italian characteristics are formal and geometrical, with features of the Renaissance. The French garden expresses the classic baroque art with statues and fountains. And the English garden has elements such as caves, streams, temples, and ruins.

From St. Peter’s Basilica, it’s a 20-minute walk to the entrance of the gardens. A guided tour must be booked in advance but is included in the admission ticket for the Vatican Museums.

Castel Sant’Angelo

Located on the banks of the Tiber River, Castel Sant’Angelo is another sight you can’t miss in Rome as it looks back on an eventful history.

Originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, it was converted into a castle by popes over time. Over the years, it has served (among others) as a tomb, refuge, residence, treasury, prison, execution site, and barracks.

Today, Castel Sant’Angelo is a museum located just 700 meters from St. Peter’s Basilica (a 10-minute walk).