As the mother church of the Catholic faith and the largest church in Christendom, Saint Peter's Basilica is one of the top sights to see in the Vatican City. With its impressive dome, the focal point of Rome's cityscape, and gilded treasures, Saint Peter's is, without doubt, pleasing to the eye. But the church also draws millions of visitors each year because it is the resting place of many former popes including John Paul II and Saint Peter, Christendom's first pope and the founder of the Catholic Church.
Pilgrims also flock to Saint Peter's during religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, as the pope performs special masses at the basilica during these times. He gives blessings at Christmas and Easter, as well as his first blessing when he is elected, from the balcony of the central window above the entrances to the atrium.
The 2016 Jubilee of Divine Mercy was a very big crowd draw. But even when there aren't any special events in session, the Basilica can get very crowded. The best time to visit without crowds is usually in the early morning, from 7 to 9 am.
Saint Peter's Basilica Visiting Information
Information: Check the Saint Peter's Basilica website for current hours and other information.
Location: Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter's Square). To arrive by public transportation, take the Metropolitana Line A to the Ottaviano “San Pietro” stop.
Admission: Free, no ticket required
Cupola: Visiting hours are 8 am to 5 pm, open until 6 pm April 1 to September 30.
A ticket costs 6 euro (2016) if you climb the steps (551) only or taking the elevator plus 320 steps costs 8 euro (2016).
Important Tip: Visitors who are not dressed in the appropriate attire will not be allowed entry into the basilica. Refrain from wearing shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless shirts when you're visiting Saint Peter's and/or bring a shawl or other cover-up.
Saint Peter's Basilica History
Saint Peter's was built at the site of a 4th century Church dedicated to Saint Peter, at the spot where he was believed to be buried. Pope Julius II had the original church destroyed and the much larger, new one built in the early 16th century. Construction lasted from 1506 - 1626 and an inscription on the facade says it was completed under Pope Paul V.
Bramante made the first plans for the main dome of Saint Peter's, inspired by the dome of the Pantheon, but it was Michelangelo who created the design after Bramante died.
When you enter the Basilica, look at the floor where you'll see marks comparing its length with some of the other churches that are among the world's largest. The bronze Holy Door at the entrance is only opened at the start of a Jubilee year and closed at the year's end.
Is Saint Peter's Basilica a Cathedral?
A cathedral is the seat of a bishop but Saint Peter's does not have a bishop. People often mistakenly think that Saint Peter's is the cathedral of Rome, however, Rome's cathedral is Saint John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), one of the Papal Churches. The other 2 Papal Churches in Rome are the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and Saint Paul Outside the Walls.
This article has been edited and updated by Martha Bakerjian.