June 9, 2021
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If you’re visiting the Eternal City, chances are you will schedule a trip to the Vatican to see Saint Peter’s Basilica. Today we’ll discuss some practical tips that might help make your visit a little easier. Note that we’re talking only about St. Peter’s today, since our first travel tip is do not try to see the basilica and the museums in one day. If you want tips on visiting the Vatican Museums or the gardens, check back another time!
First, some practical information. The Basilica opens at 7 am every morning (excepts Sundays, when it is closed), and closes at 6:00 pm in the winter and 7:00 pm April through September. The dome and the grottoes (where the papal tombs are) close a bit earlier each day.
There is a dress code: no exposed shoulders, no shorts, no short skirts. You can and will be turned away if your dress is deemed inappropriate.
On Wednesdays the pope holds a public audience. It is an interesting experience to go to, regardless of your religious affiliation, but does require a free ticket, which can be picked up in advance on Monday mornings or all day Tuesdays at the Prefecture of the Papal Household (so if your stay in Rome is short, it might be impractical). If you do not mean to go to the papal audience, avoid going to St. Peter’s on a Wednesday, although keep in mind it is crowded every day of the year!
When you arrive, enjoy the walk up the Via della Conciliazione, which leads you straight toward the square. As you face the basilica, you will need to go toward your right to pass through security. The lines at time are quite long, so plan on having to wait up to an hour to get through during peak tourist season (although during a recent trip in February the wait was only 5 or 10 minutes). Besides Wednesdays, avoid Saturday if you can. And to beat the lines, arrive early, right around opening time, or late, when many are heading out after having finished their visits.
There are audio guides that you can rent for your visit, or you can stroll around on your own and enjoy such sites as Michelangelo’s “Pietà”, the Holy Door, Bernini’s baldacchino, and the statue of St. Peter. The visit of the Basilica is free, although it does cost extra (around 8 Euros) to climb the cupola, which we highly recommend. The entrance to the dome is to the right of the basilica as you are facing it, and there will likely be a line; still, the experience is well worth it. There are 551 steps to climb, so don’t attempt it if you are not ready for some serious climbing (you can shorten the trip to 320 steps if you take the elevator, which goes partway up). As you can see in the picture, my kids handled the climb just fine, although I was huffing and puffing by the time we got to the top!
You get to stop in the interior of the dome at the base, which affords an amazing view of the cathedral from above. The marble floors look like an elaborate quilt from that angle, the Baldacchino seems tiny.
As you continue up the climb is a bit vertiginous—the stairs shrink and tilt, and end in a small spiral with a rope hanging down the center of it. But the view of Rome is amazing. Be sure to pause again partway down to explore the roof. You can get pretty close to the facade to see the huge statues of Jesus and the apostles that stand looking out over the square. There are also bathrooms at this level as well as a gift shop, and both are less crowded than what you will find back down on the ground.
Our last tips? Eat before you go and wear comfortable shoes. Just walking up the Via della Conciliazione to the basilica is a long walk, as is a single turn around the immense basilica itself. You will log many, many steps even if you don’t climb the cupola. And the trip will take longer than you think, so make sure you’re not hungry when you arrive! We don’t in general recommend eating in the immediate vicinity of the Vatican, so if you’re hungry when you’ve finished, don’t stop in the first restaurant you see! If you can’t wait for lunch, maybe try some Roman street food, or stop for a coffee to tide you over!
After you’ve seen St. Peter’s, you might want to check out some of our off-the-beaten path favorites sites in Rome.
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