The Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, in Italian Basilica di San Pietro (or Basilica Papale San Pietro) or simply known in English as St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, is THE largest Catholic Cathedral in the world. This Italian Renaissance gem is a must-visit.
Seeing the Basilica of St. Peter’s is free of charge, but getting up to the Cupola requires a ticket. We highly recommend making time to climb Michelangelo’s dome. The costs is 10 Euro for the elevator ride (or 5 Euro reduced), if you are just walking up the 551 steps, you’ll save 2 Euro and get a great workout alongside.
Going up inside St. Peter’s dome is a fantastic, extraordinary experience.
You get to see St. Peter’s Basilica in a whole new way. Not to mention the stunning view you get off the square below. Most people simply don’t get to it, often for lack of time, sometimes not knowing it’s there, or fear it will be too strenuous.
If you can, make the time, and visit at least the dome’ first level, which almost anyone can do. Once you are up and inside the dome you can see the beautiful mosaics that line the walls — up close!
Fun fact about St. Peter’s Basilica
Did you know nearly everything inside St. Peter’s Basilica that looks like a painting is actually a mosaic?
Getting to the first floor is easy:
Take the elevator or climb 231 stairs
Don’t let the word “climbing” throw you off! There are two parts to getting inside and to the first level of St. Peter’s dome: You can take the 231 stairs or the elevator (and a small staircase) to reach the first level that grants you already some great views. Either way, you wind up on the inside of Michelangelo’s dome.
What makes this so special is that you’ll be looking down on the inside of this incredible, huge basilica from above. And, if you are lucky, you may hear some organ or vocal music ‘coming’ up to reach you. When that happens, it’s just magical!
From here, you get a close-up look at the beautiful mosaics that make up the dome’s design.
At this first level, you can also walk out onto the roof of the basilica. Here, you can go to the front and check out Jesus and the apostles. These are the statues you see on the roof of the basilica when you look at it from the square.
There is also a bathroom, a very small refreshment stand, and a gift shop.
Not scared of heights nor claustrophobic?
Then keep going up the Dome of St. Peter’s!
Because, surprise, there’s more: You can climb and now it’s really climbing, all the way to the very top of St. Peter’s. Now let’s talk about the second part — which is optional and may not be for everyone.
It means taking a second set of now 320 stairs to the tippy top.
Not only is there no elevator, but you’ll have to take a narrow single-file staircase that slowly spirals up, with the roof sort of slanting in towards you as you go.
And at the very end, as it gets narrower and narrower. You’ll climb a corkscrew staircase — with a rope to hang onto! It feels indeed rather claustrophobic. But, there are windows along the way, so you won’t feel totally closed in. On the bright side, the stairs to go down afterwards are separate. At least you there’s no two way people traffic.
Insider Tip: Grab a coffee or gelato, then enjoy THE View
One more Inside Europe tip: Now that you (likely, maybe, possibly) climbed a few hundred steps, THE way to enjoy THE magnificent views that span all of Rome from the top of the Cupola is with a café or gelato in your hand. The rooftop coffee shop’s offering to sweeten the experience makes those 551 steps worthwhile. While the coffee shop is indoors, order a local Italian ice cream/popsicle or an espresso/cappuccino to go, then enjoy it on the rooftop terrace overlooking the Eternal City.
Best times to visit the Dome of St. Peter’s?
Other than winter, you usually won’t get a chance to see the unique view of Rome at sunset or by ‘night’ — as the sun doesn’t set until after closing.
As for time of day, the basilica was purposefully made to face east, which means the sun rises in front of it. Early risers, climb St. Peter’s dome first thing in the morning, especially in high season. There should be no line, and no crowds. However, depending on your camera and photo skills, taking pictures early may result in rather washed out photos. The vistas are still glorious and it shouldn’t just be about the pictures anyway, but also about living/enjoying the moment and the experience.
For almost guaranteed pretty photos, you might want to visit Cupola San Pietro later in the day. That usually means more people, and longer lines. However, you’ll find that most visitors rush through this experience and if you don’t, you’ll easily get a good spot.
Pro photographers favor the afternoon for a visit to the dome as then the sun is behind you.
For more information, here’s the direct link to the official Vatican website.