I’ve been to Rome many times and I’ve probably visited St. Peter’s every time. I’ve been underneath the church to see the Necropolis and inside the Vatican museum to see the Sistine Chapel. But oddly enough, I’ve never climbed up to the top of the dome until our last visit.
For the sake of clarity, let’s address some common misconceptions first-time visitors often have.
People often say, “I want to go to the Vatican” when what they mean is that they want to see St. Peter’s Basilica or they want to visit the Vatican museum to see the Sistine Chapel.
The “Vatican” is the Vatican City, a city-state in the center of Rome which is the seat of the Catholic Church and ruled by the Bishop of Rome, a.k.a, the Pope.
The Sistine Chapel, home of the famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo, is a chapel within the official residence of the Pope, and can only be accessed by going through the Vatican Museum. It is not inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican Museums have one of the largest collections in the world (over 70,000 items with less than 1/3 on display). The museums are within the Vatican City walls but entered to the north of St. Peter’s. They are well worth the visit and if you want to do a tour, I recommend booking directly through the Vatican Museum.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the big church with the giant piazza in front. The church itself is not “the Vatican”. St. Peter’s is not a cathedral because it’s not a seat of a bishop (the Pope’s cathedral is St John Lateran in Rome). It is the largest Christian church in the world and the dome is the second tallest building in Rome as well as the tallest in the world.
Whew! Now that we’ve cleared that up, our visit to St. Peter’s took place on a midweek morning in the summer high season.
Because we were in the middle of a heat wave, we got up early so we could get there as close to possible to the opening time. We didn’t want to wait in line or climb in the heat. This turned out to be a very smart move as there was virtually no line when we arrived shortly after 8 am.
The entrance line and security are the same ones everyone must wait in to enter St. Peter’s. If you want to climb the dome, however, you veer right to where the tickets are sold for the dome entrance (look for the sign to the “cupola”). You can pay a little more to take the elevator up part way, saving yourself 320 steps in the process. But if you want to reach the very top of the cupola, you’re going to have to use foot power. We opted for the elevator because it was already hot, and only 2 euro more than taking the stairs the whole way.
Once out of the elevator you find yourself on a balcony which goes around the inside of the base of the dome. From here you really get an interesting perspective on the sheer size of everything. The letters in mosaic tile going around the base look small from the floor below but in reality are 6 feet high! Check out the people walking above them in the photo below.
Ok, now it’s time to start climbing or you can go out onto the rooftop terrace which I will cover below.
As you go up, the walkway and stairs get narrower and the outside wall leans inward, because duh, it’s a dome.
Eventually, you get to a very narrow spiral staircase.
Once you reach the top you have access to completely walk around the outside for 360-degree views of Rome. You’ll be one of those people at the top in the photo below!
From up high, you can expect views like this of the piazza below.
You can also see into the grounds of the Vatican Museums.
Now it’s time to walk back down to the roof terrace.
On the roof level, there are restrooms, a gift shop, water fountains and a coffee bar where we had a drink and an ice cream.
Check out the Apostles on the top of the facade. See the worker in the bottom left corner for size comparison.
Once you are finished you can take the elevator back down or walk down the stairs. The exit lets you out right inside the basilica so make sure you take your time walking around inside.
Look up at that dome from below, we were just there!
Remember when we saw this from the balcony above? St Peter’s altar in the photo below.
It wouldn’t be a visit to St. Peter’s without the token photo of the gorgeous Swiss Guards who protect the Pope and Vatican City.
Other tips for visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and for climbing the dome:
Hours, days, and prices for the Cupola access can be found here on the Vatican website.
Take your time. The stairs are narrow and winding and not for the faint of heart if claustrophobic. I am a little claustrophobic myself and I think getting there early to beat the majority of the crowds helped a lot. There are slit windows which offer fresh air too. Fortunately, the stairs going down are not the same as the ones going up so you won’t be fighting to get past people going in the opposite direction.
Visting inside the Basilica– If you are planning to visit the inside of St Peter’s, please respect the dress code. They are strict about no bare shoulders, no shorts and no skirts above the knee. Admission into the church is always free. Practical information for the Vatican City, including St. Peter’s, Papal audiences, the cupola, and the museums, can be found here.
Security- no large bags are allowed inside but there is an area where you can check your bags for free to the right of the entrance of the Basilica.
Toilets- there are free public toilets in the same area as the baggage check as well as outside in the piazza to the left of the basilica as you are facing it.
Here’s a link to a nifty interactive floor plan of the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica.
I’m really happy we got there early! Check out the line to get through security which wound around the entire piazza by the time we left.
Have you visited Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica? Did you climb to the top of the dome? What did you think?