St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican offers the chance to see iconic Renaissance artwork, sculptures and architecture as well as the most important site of the Roman Catholic Church. The basilica's proper title is the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican and is held by Catholic tradition to be the burial place of Saint Peter. It is also the seat of the Church and the interment site of many popes since the early Christian period. It's famed for its design and frescoes by Michelangelo.

This church is an important place of pilgrimage for Christians and is where the pope famously performs liturgies throughout the year. It is, interestingly, not a cathedral, as it does not host a bishop. Technically, the pope's cathedral in Rome is a different church altogether. Still, it's a vital site with gorgeous art and architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome - one of the highlights of 10 Iconic Buildings and Places in Rome and 12 Best Things to Do in Rome (Read all about Rome here)

History of St. Peter's Basilica

Tradition holds that Saint Peter was the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church and ministered for 34 years before being martyred in 64 CE by the Emperor Nero. An obelisk marks the place where he was crucified upside down, and according to tradition his remains were buried 150 meters away along the Via Cornella. By the 4th Century, Constantine commissioned the original basilica over the traditional spot of Peter's burial. By the close of the 15th century, the basilica was in disrepair and plans to rebuild began.

A succession of plans was submitted over the intervening years, but it wasn't until the mid-16th century when Michelangelo came into the picture that anything was finalized. It was completed in 1590. Today, Michelangelo's original building still stands but has been expanded with an additional Baroque Nave added in the early 17th century by Carlo Maderno. It has been refurbished and shored up several times throughout the centuries and still stands as a stunning example of Renaissance architecture.

Highlights of St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica is a treasure trove of art, architecture, design, tombs and relics. A visit here allows visitors to see a number of the more than 100 tombs within the place, though not all are visible to the public. You can book a special tour to visit the tomb of St. Peter and many other important figures.

In terms of artwork, the 2 towers contain large clocks that date to the 13th century. A mosaic above the central outer door is a copy of Giotto's Navicella representing a ship symbolic of the church. The Door of the Dead designed by Giacomo Manzú includes a portrait of Pope John XXIII. The basilica includes 6 bells under the Roman clock, 3 of which can be seen from the ground level. The largest of these weighs around 9 tons. Finally, the attached St. Peter's Piazza outside the church is a must-visit site with the obelisk known as the Witness marking the area where St. Peter was reputedly martyred.

Good to know about St. Peter's Basilica

The most important thing to keep in mind is that St. Peter's Basilica is an active church and an important site for Roman Catholics. For that reason, they ask that you stay quiet while exploring and avoid touring the church during Mass and other services. Guided tours are available that can help you see everything there is to see here without disturbing worshippers and are a recommended way to learn all about the history of the church and those interred here.

You will need to book a guided tour to see the necropolis beneath the basilica, which is where St. Peter and a number of other famous historical figures are buried. For the most part, the church is disability accessible, but the underground necropolis tour may present difficulties for wheelchair users. The church is free to enter, though guided tours may carry a nominal fee.

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome

Location: Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Città del Vaticano, Vatican City

Open: Daily from 7 am to 6 pm October–March, daily from 7 am to 7 pm April–September

Phone: +39 (0)06 6988 3731