Did you know that St. Peter’s Basilica is the biggest Catholic Church in the world? That means there is a lot to see, but don’t let anxiety take over. This guide will help you hit the main points to ensure you miss nothing and saw all the main highlights. It was written by Brandon Shaw, a licensed Vatican tour guide which makes it a valuable resource.
Pro Travel Tip: Ever read something helpful only to lose track of the article? Bookmark this article in your browser so you can circle back to it when you’re ready to book. Also, check out our Vatican page for more info on this topic. For some related articles to St. Peter’s Basilica check out these:
- How to See St. Peter’s Tomb in Vatican City
- How to Get Easter Mass Tickets in the Vatican City
- 19 Astonishing Facts about St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome
- St Peter’s Basilica: Tickets, Hours, Tours & More!
17 Top Things To See At St. Peter’s Basilica Written By A Vatican Guide
I hope you’re ready! This is a comprehensive St. Peter’s Basilica guide that covers much of the most important artwork. Without further ado, let’s go discover the Basilica!
17. La Navicella Mosaic by Giotto
Giotto di Bordone | 1300 | Mosaic | Atrium before entering Church
This mosaic was created by the super famous Giotto di Bondone. Never heard of him? That’s ok- If you haven’t studied Renaissance art history then this name probably doesn’t mean much to you. Have you ever seen paintings before the Renaissance? They were extremely unremarkable as two-dimensional, almost stick figure-like people. There is no expression and no life in their faces. True sadness as was life in general before the Renaissance.
Giotto was the one to revolutionize this and made people look like actual people. However, this is actually a mosaic and not a painting but still renders that life-like imaging that he introduced and set the scene for centuries to come. There is a boat full of St. Peter’s companions looking on in fear as St. Peter is facing Jesus, who is walking on the water. The best way to view is right before entering the church itself, turn around, and look up.
16. The Fountains in St. Peter’s Square
Maderno & Bernini | 1612 & 1677 | White Marble | St. Peter’s Square
The most famous square in the world has two fountains on either side of St. Peter’s square. Carlo Maderno designed the first fountain on the right in 1612 and also designed the facade of the building. Exactly 65 years later in 1677, Bernini created a second fountain on the opposite side of the square that is almost identical to Moderno’s design.
Today, fountains get very little appreciation unless they can move to the beat of a famous tune. Try to bring yourself back to the 17th century and think about the tools available. I am not talking about hammers and such to carve the fountain. I am talking about the water.
If you saw a fountain in one of these fountains in St. Peter’s Square you’d probably say, “Where you get this water and how did you get it to go up that high? I don’t see a river of rushing water nearby.” The Tiber is in fact nearby, but at a far lower level which would not allow this fountain to propel water up in the air. Magic!
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15. The Pillars
Gian Lorenzo Bernini | 1628-1639 | Various Stones | Interior St. Peter’s Basilica by the dome
To hold up the massive dome of St. Peter’s Basilica ( Read below), the pillars needed to be gigantic- which they are. Donato Bramante started them and finished by Michelangelo. When you look up at them, you will notice there are decorations on all 4 of the pillars. The illustrious Gian Lorenzo Bernini did the decorations of course.
Bernini carved out the massive ( 33ft in height) niches and worked on them between the years 1628-1639. Pope Urban VIII commissioned the decorations with the idea of housing sacred relics. The relics are the following:
- A piece of the spear of the centurion St. Longinus who pierced the side of Jesus while on the cross
- Fragments of the real cross of Jesus
- Veronica’s veil which has the imprint of Jesus’ face on it
- The head of St. Andrew
14. The Ceiling
Various Artists | 16th century | Stone & Gold Leaf | Interior
I know that this might be a bit strange that I should name the ceiling as something to look at. However, once you are inside and look up, you will know what I mean. The ceiling itself is covered in gold leaf and shines as if you are already in heaven.
Another point is the misconception of how big it actually is. The Renaissance artists were great at illusions and proportions. As your eyes look higher up things should appear smaller to you. However, in St. Peter’s Basilica, as you look up, everything is completely proportional, because they made the artwork bigger as you got higher. In this way, things remained perfectly proportional. Genius!
To hit home this point, if you look up you will see a gold band with letters that go around the entire church. According to St. Peter’s official website, the gold band is 10ft (3m) high and the letters are 4.5ft (1.4m). There are letters inside. Each of those letters is about 8ft in height. Looking with the naked eye from below, you would swear they are no bigger than few feet. However, sometimes you can see the cleaners up there and you realize it’s true!
13. St. Peter’s Square
Gian Lorenzo Bernini | 1655-1667 | Travertine | St. Peter’s Square
Arguably, the most famous square in the world! The idea of the square was first started by pope Sixtus V ( Pontiff 1585-1590) when he ordered the massive Egyptian obelisk moved to the center of the future square ( at the time it would have been moved to be directly in front of the newly finished Basilica). The actual works on the square were initiated by Alexander VII ( Pontiff 1655-1667) and finished in 1667 with the architect being the famous Bernini.
The square is an elliptical shape and composed of 284 Doric Columns 4 rows deep. The elliptical design was envisioned as a way to embrace all Christians who were entering into St. Peter’s Basilica. Interestingly if you look at an aerial view of the square, the square appears to look like a keyhole, which goes perfectly with St.Peter since his symbol during the Renaissance times and even this day are the 2 keys ( one for heaven and one on earth). There are also 2 gigantic fountains on both sides of the square, one created by Carlo Maderno and the other by Bernini himself.
Historically the square would have been a meeting point for the feast of Corpus Christi which was extremely popular at the time of construction of the square. Today the square is mainly used for two events that happen on a weekly basis
- Papal Audience-This takes place every Wednesday morning where the Pope will bless the crowd and travel around the crowds in the popemobile, blessing everyone as he passes.
- Angelus– This takes place every Sunday at noon where the Pope from the historical residence of Popes ( the current pope doesn’t live there) gives a blessing to the crowd below.
12. The Dome
Michelangelo | throughout 16th century | Various Stone | Interior
Michelangelo began working on the dome at the ripe old age of 72! To say the dome is massive is an understatement. More on that below. Michelangelo, who was already rich by this time, refused payment. He worked only to render, ” honor to St. Peter, glory to God, and for the salvation of his soul”.
St. Peter’s Basilica’s dome was inspired by that of the Pantheon. Its structure was also inspired by Brunelleschi’s Duomo di Firenze. It bears the distinction of being the tallest dome in the world. Its presence stands out amidst Rome’s skyline.
The dome is so tall, that you could fit the statue of liberty inside. Remember that this was built over 400 years ago. The exact dimensions of St. Peter’s Dome are 448.1 feet tall (136.5m).
If you want to get probably the best view in all of Rome, you should definitely climb it, just make sure that you are not claustrophobic, since the passageway to climb up gets very narrow the higher you go.
Useful Info about Dome
- From April to September: 7:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
- From October to March: 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
- Closed Wednesday Morning for Papal Audience
Tickets: You can buy them directly at the entrance to the dome. Climbing the dome costs 7€ (stairs) or 10€ (elevator). I recommend the elevator. This article explains everything.
11. Statue of St. Peter
Arnolfo di Cambio? | 1245-1250 | Bronze | Interior
As you near the Baldacchino by Bernini, you might notice a line forming on your right-hand side. That is a line of people who are waiting to touch the foot of the statue of St. Peter as a blessing.
According to the Official website of St. Peters, the date of this statue is not clear, and also we are not sure who built it. Many attribute it to Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century, but we are not sure. Tradition over the centuries has been to rub his right foot as a blessing. When you get close you will see that due to the constant rubbing, his toes have completely worn away! Now people have started rubbing his left foot as well!
On June 29th, the feast of St. Peter, this statue is dressed in pontifical clothes including the fisherman’s ring and the papal tiara. Personally, it seems a bit odd to dress up a statue, but who am I to challenge centuries of tradition?
10. Tomb of Innocent XI
Innocent XI stands out as one of the most important popes of the 17th century. He possessed superior morals and shunned nepotism and corruption in a time when both of these attributes plagued the papacy. His involvement in the victory of Austria against the Ottoman Empire was key in stopping the spread of Islam into Western Europe.
Curiously he is buried in full view for all to see inside the church. He is fully clothed and has a mask over his face and hands so that you cannot see his bones. To view him, he is right below the painting ( mosaic, see below) of the Transfiguration by Raphael.
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9. Holy Mass
Many people ask me if they can attend mass at St. Peters Church. Of course you can! It is a real, living and breathing and functioning church! I actually highly recommend that you do it if possible. Here are the times:
- 8:30 am– At the chapel of the Sacrament
- 9:00 am– At the altar of St. Joseph
- 10: 00 am– At the altar of St. Joseph
- 11:00 am– At the altar of St. Joseph
- 12:00 pm-At the altar of St. Joseph
- 5:00 pm– At the chapel under the Cathedra of St. Peter
8. St. Peter’s Throne
Gian Lorenzo Bernini | 1658-1666 | Bronze | Interior
The ultimate Baroque altar! Look at the power, the movement, and the color- that is what baroque art stands for. It is called the “Cathedra” or throne from where St. Peter supposedly sat and gave instructions to the Christians of Rome. The bronze monument you are looking at is actually covering up a wooden and ivory ” cathedra” which many believed was the real throne.
It has now been proven by the church however, that the wooden throne is actually from 875. At that time, Charles the Bald gave the throne to Pope John VIII. The Cathedra is covered in gilded bronze which is 21ft ( 7m) high. The bronze sculpture is surrounded by ” Doctors” of the Latin and Greek church- St. Augustine, St. Ambrosius, St. Athanasius, and St. John Chrysostom.
Above this, Bernini added a window in brown glass with a white dove in the middle. As the sun is setting it lets in a beautiful light which I never fail to look at when I visit the church. This altar is at the complete opposite end of the entrance to the church. It is also here where you can attend mass every day at 5 pm.
7. La Porta Santa ( Holy Door)
Vico Consorti | 1950 | Bronze | Atrium before entering church
The holy door is opened during the holy year or Jubileum. According to a description in 1450 by a certain Giovanni Rucellai of Viterbo, Pope Martin V opened the first holy door in 1423 at the church San Giovanni in Laterano. The first notes we have of the opening of a holy door at St. Peter’s Basilica are in 1499 during Christmas by Pope Alexander VI.
For the next 450 years, the rituals involved with the opening and closing of the holy door remained unchanged. The minute details of what has changed will be reserved for another article. Suffice to say that this is one of the more interesting rituals of the Catholic Church over the centuries.
If you happen to be in Rome during a Jubiluem ( every 25 years, with the next one scheduled for 2025) year you will find the holy doors open. Take advantage of it and walkthrough!
Pope Boniface VIII, named by Dante in the Divine Comedy, proclaimed the first Holy Year or Jubilee in 1300, to invite pilgrims to Rome for special indulgences.Enrico Bruschini- Art Historian and Official Vatican Tour Guide
6. The Paintings ( Or Mosaics?)
Various Mosaic Artists | 19th century | Mosaic | Interior
I will let you in on a little secret about the paintings in St. Peter’s Basilica. There are no paintings! They are actually all glass or ceramic mosaics. In the 19th century, the many paintings that were in the church were beginning to deteriorate due to the humid conditions inside the Basilica.
This is why when you are in the Basilica you can take photos with a flash because you are taking a picture of glass and not of a painting so no damage will be done. You have to get up very close to the picture in order to see the glare of light on it and the little squares of glass and ceramic. A great surprise to show your friends when you are there.
5. The Obelisk
Unknown Artist | 1985 BC- 1929 BC | Red Granite | St. Peter’s Square
In the middle of St. Peter’s square, you will see a giant piece of red granite. This is called an obelisk and if you pay attention, you will see quite a few of them around Rome. This particular obelisk was originally erected in the middle of the spina or central area of Nero’s Circus. It is one solid, piece of stone 82ft (25m) high and weighs 330 tons!
It is the second-highest in Rome, after the one at St John of Lateran church, and surprisingly is the only one without hieroglyphs. The writing you find on it is actually in Latin. It was erected by the Pharaoh Amenemhet II (1985-1929 B.C.) as a votive offering for recovering his eyesight.
In 40 A.D. the Emperor Caligula wanted it in Rome and so that’s how it ended up in the Eternal City. When the new St. Peter’s church was built, the obelisk was still in its original position. At that point, Pope Sixtus V had it moved to the center in front of the new church. He also put a cross on top for good measure!
4. Loggia delle Benedizioni ( Loggia of the Blessings or Central Balcony)
Carlo Maderno | 1607-1614 | Travertine | Facade of Church
If you look at the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica you will notice a huge balcony right smack in the middle of it. There are two important events that take place here:
- The Solemn Benediction Urbi et Orbi: These are yearly occasions during Christmas and Easter. The Latin words mean ” to the city” and ” to the world” so basically it means to everyone
- The Announcement of a New Pope: When a pope passes away, all the cardinals group together in the Sistine Chapel for the Conclave. This is when a secretive voting happens to elect a new pope. Once the pope is elected, white smoke will appear from the Sistine Chapel letting everyone, in St. Peter’s square, that a new pope has been elected. A little while later the Cardinal Protodeacon will appear and announce the new Pope with the famous phrase” Habemus Papam”!
Michelangelo | 1497 | White Marble | Interior
By now you understand that Michelangelo could truly do anything. He painted the most famous painting in the world ( Sistine Chapel), he built the biggest dome ( St.Peter’s) and he made great sculptures! In 1497, the French ambassador to the Holy See, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt a full-size statue of the Pietà. Michelangelo at this time wasn’t well known yet and therefore set about, with a single piece of Carrara marble, to create one of the most famous statues of all time.
The statue captures the moment when the Virgin Mary is holding a recently crucified Jesus in her arms. The powerful scene is compounded even more by her look of extreme sadness together with his completely collapsed body on her lap. It is hard to believe your own eyes that this object you are looking at is made from hard, marble stone since the Master was able to soften each feature and make the marble look ” soft” Even more incredible is the fact that he did all of this only with a hammer and chisel!
Due to the fact that he was so unknown as an artist when he unveiled the masterpiece people were attributing the statue to an artist from Milan. That night, he went to the statue and actually carved his name where you see the sash of Mary, writing ” Michelangelo from Florence made this”. This is even more remarkable since he wasn’t known to leave his signature on any of his art pieces.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini | 1624-1633 | Bronze | Interior above high altar
Bernini started working on this at 26 years old. It is humbling as it makes you think what you were doing at 26 that can compare to this. The high altar of St.Peter’s Basilica is the main altar of the church where only the Pope is allowed to stand and give mass. The Baldacchino is a canopy that hovers over the high altar, which has been used since Medieval times. With the advent of the Baroque age, things were taken to new heights ( literally) as we will see.
Once the Basilica was finished, it would have appeared that something was still missing in the church. There was no connection between the long nave by Carlo Maderno and the massive dome by Michelangelo. Therefore pope Urban VIII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create a Baldacchino to cover the high altar. It was to be made of bronze and like everything else in the Baroque period, should be monumental.
Bernini created a canopy of Bronze with spiraling columns going up to the top. Bernini’s inspiration for the columns was taken from a similar style of columns that were situated in the Basilica of Constantine. The actual height is an astonishing 95ft(28m) high. The material used to make this was taken from the porch roof of the Pantheon. As you approach the center of the church, your eyes naturally gaze up at the Baldacchino and continue their trajectory up to the top of the dome.
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1. High Altar ( Tomb of St. Peter)
Carlo Maderno | 1615 | Colored Marble | Interior
Below the Baldacchino, you have what is called the High Altar ( called so because only the Pope is allowed to give mass there or someone he has personally appointed). Its location is such since below that is the Confession or the area dedicated to the tomb of St. Peter.
To descend, there is a double ramp with 16 stairs that descends into the “Confession”. You will find many different colors of marble decorating the walls. According St. Peter’s website, this was the most important work, architecturally speaking of hard stone done in Rome in the 1600’s and the last work of such magnitude and richness done in this technique.
The word Confessio in Latin expresses the affirmation of truth until death since when a martyr spills his blood for Christ, he confesses and proclaims his faith in a supreme actOfficial website of St. Peter’s Basilica