San Pietro in Vaticano (Basilica of St Peter)

Opening hours Open 7am-7pm (April-September) and 7am-6pm (October-March). The dome is open 8am-5pm (April-September) and 8am-5pm (October-March).

Ticket prices Admission is free. It’s also possible to ascend the dome, for which a small fee is charged (€3.50-€4).

St Peter’s Basilica is built on the site thought to be that of the tomb of St Peter. This tradition dates back to the second century AD, and in 1950 Pope Pius XII announced that the tomb had finally been discovered. Human remains were recovered from the tomb, but it was not until eighteen years later, in 1968, that they were announced to be the relics of St Peter.

The current basilica dates from the sixteenth century, and it replaces an older church built there in the fourth century on the orders of the Emperor Constantine. The foundations were laid in 1506 and construction continued throughout that century; the dome was originally designed by Michelangelo, but after his death in 1564 it was redesigned and finally completed in 1590.

St Peter’s and Bernini

St Peter's Basilica / San Pietro in Vaticano The Basilica of St Peter

The architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini contributed much to the basilica during the seventeenth century. The bronze baldachin over the altar is his, and he contributed numerous statues and other works to the basilica. However, not all of his work for St Peter’s went so smoothly. Between 1638 and 1643 he planned and began construction on two high bell towers, intended to flank the dome. But even before they had been completed, cracks began to appear in the facade below the southern tower. The towers were too heavy for the structure to support, and eventually had to be demolished. Several years later, he was able to salvage his reputation through his design of the two impressive colonnades that encircle the piazza.

Things to see

As well as the above-mentioned contributions by Bernini, St Peter’s Basilica contains numerous other works. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the Pietà, sculpted by a young Michelangelo, which is on your right just after entering the basilica. In 1972, the statue was damaged by an Australian geologist, who attacked it with a hammer, shouting “I am Jesus Christ.” The statue was restored and placed behind protective glass, and the geologist was hospitalized for several years before being deported to Australia.

Below the altar is a small chapel housing the reliquary said to contain the remains of St Peter. Numerous popes also have their tombs around the basilica, and the tomb of John Paul II is on the lower level.

Visiting St Peter's Basilica

Either walk to the Vatican from the centre of Rome, crossing the Tiber at Ponte St Angelo or Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, or take the Metro (Linea A) to Ottaviano or Cipri.

Always remember that St Peter’s Basilica, in common with the other churches in Rome, enforces a strict dress code. Shoulders and knees (of both sexes) must be covered, so no shorts, short skirts or strap tops are allowed.