St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is one of the world’s greatest religious landmarks, a massive cathedral that’s the spiritual home of all Roman Catholics. Visitors come here by the millions to immerse themselves in both spirituality and art.
As my husband Bob and I walked across St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Thanks to movies and TV, the massive baroque facade of the basilica and the long colonnades extending on either side seemed familiar. On top of the pillars were 140 statues of saints looking down on us, while in front of the church I could see a large statue of St. Peter, who’s holding a gigantic key to the church.
In the center of the square I saw an even older landmark: an obelisk that had been brought from Egypt in 37 BCE. The column is said to have witnessed the martyrdom of the apostle Peter during the period when it overlooked the circus—the chariot run—of the emperor Caligula. It was another reminder of just how far back the history of St. Peter’s Basilica goes.
At last we came to the church itself, which sits at the center of Vatican City, a 100-acre enclave in the middle of Rome.
The building is actually the second basilica to stand on this spot, which is believed to be where St. Peter is buried (see the Vatican Necropolis Tour). The first basilica was completed around 350 CE by the Emperor Constantine. In 1506 a new and much larger church was begun, one that took more than a century to build.
Some of the greatest artists and architects of Europe worked on the Italian Renaissance design of St. Peter’s Basilica, including Michelangelo, who for a time served as its chief architect. In addition to designing the church’s magnificent dome, he also created its most famous work of art: the Pietà, a poignant depiction in marble of Mary holding the dead body of the crucified Jesus. Though protected by glass, it’s easily visible inside the front door of the cathedral. Carved from a single block of marble, it’s the only work of art that Michelangelo ever signed.
To be honest, I found nearly everything about St. Peter’s to be overwhelming—the size of the square, the crowds of people, the immensity of the building, the quality of the art. Here’s my advice on visiting: eat a hearty breakfast, put on a comfortable pair of shoes, and be prepared to wait in line. It’s worth it, but St. Peter’s is a test of stamina.
It’s worth coming to St. Peter’s Basilica for the artwork alone. In addition to the Pietà, highlights include the Baldacchino, a baroque bronze canopy sculpted by Benini that covers the high altar where only the pope can celebrate mass. Above it, Michelangelo’s dome soars 450 feet overhead. (It served as a model for domes that include the ones in St. Paul’s in London and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.) For an extra charge, you can take stairs or a lift for a view from its lofty height.
Wandering inside the massive church that can hold many thousands of people, I gazed upwards at one incredible work of art after another. Mosaics and statues portrayed a dizzying array of saints, popes, angels and flying cherubs. Following the example of countless other tourists, I rubbed the toe on a statue of St. Peter, amused by how it was brightly polished by all the attention it receives.
Hundreds of tourists milled about, talking and taking pictures, but in the side chapels I could see people who were taking their visit to the basilica much more seriously, kneeling in prayer with their eyes closed. I admired their ability to tune out the noise, and felt a bit sheepish that I couldn’t quite get into a contemplative mood myself.
I was struck, too, by the incredible diversity of people in the church, from Nigerians and Mexicans to groups of Chinese and Australians. The range of ethnicities reflected the broad reach of the Catholic Church as well as the fact that St. Peter’s is a must-see for any trip to tourist in Rome.
I exited the church, back once again in the vast expanse of the square, where they were setting up thousands of chairs for an event. Nothing is small about St. Peter’s, I realized.
I can’t say that St. Peter’s was my favorite landmark in Italy—but still, I’m glad to have seen it, because St. Peter’s Basilica is truly one of the world’s greatest churches, a monument to art as well as spirituality.
If You Go: Admission to the basilica is free, but you will have to pass through a check point, which can take quite awhile depending upon the size of the crowds. (The Swiss Guards in striped attire don’t seem very formidable, I must say, though they do provide good photo opportunities.) You can also purchase skip-the-line tickets or visit early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Be sure to check the Vatican City website before you go to make sure the basilica isn’t closed for a special event or mass.
The pope presides regularly at St. Peter’s. Papal audiences are typically held on Wednesday mornings, when the basilica is closed. Information on how to reserve a ticket for a Papal Audience.
Be prepared to dress modestly when you visit St. Peter’s Basilica. Both men and women must wear shoes and have their shoulders and knees covered. Be aware that entrance to the Sistine Chapel is through the Vatican Museums, which require a ticket.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.