A Roman Holiday – Touring St. Peter’s Basilica

Are you planning a trip to Rome, Italy? If so, St. Peter’s Basilica is a “must see” that should be included in everyone’s itinerary! The basilica, located in Vatican City in Rome, was our first stop on our tour of the city after we arrived and as you can imagine, we were anxious to get out and see the sites! I am going to share some of the highlights of that visit in this article. You will have to visit my blog to see amazing pictures, links to very useful sites and to read more about the exciting places I have traveled.  

Before leaving the US, we booked a private, guided tour of Vatican City that included St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museum, the gardens and of course, la Capella Sistina or the Sistine Chapel. A life-long dream about to come true, I have wanted to visit the Sistine since my days in art history courses in college and experience the majesty and breathtaking beauty of one of Michelangelo’s greatest achievements! And it really does take your breath away!

After walking a few blocks from our hotel, Atlante Garden on via Crescenzio, we arrived in the enormous Piazza San Pietro, a huge oval shaped piazza flanked by two colonnades of tall and majestic columns that cascade from the opening of the piazza and surround the entire area in sweeping arms that eventually lead to the entrance facade of the Basilica. These colonnades that embrace all visitors who come to the square, were designed by Bernini and completed in 1666.

As we toured around the square, our attention was drawn to high atop the front facade where 13 statues including Christ, St. John the Baptist and 11 Apostles stand looking down on all those in the piazza. The only apostle missing is St. Peter and that’s because he stands to the left of the front steps leading up to the doors of the church. Each statue is 6 meters high with exception to Christ who stands at 7.5m. This truly is an amazing site and is not the only vantage point in which to see them. As you climb the cupola, discussed later, you will have another chance to get up close and personal. 

At this point, I feel compelled to provide some history of this place so you can appreciate all that you see even more. However, I will keep it brief. The basilica, as you see it was started by Bramante in 1506. During construction, it was managed by da Sangallo brothers and Rafael; Michelangelo served as “Commissioner, Director of Works and Architect for Life”; and was finally consecrated in 1626, exactly 120 years after the work had begun. Even more astounding is the fact that it was exactly 1300 years since the consecration of the very first basilica in 326 by Constantine.

Enough history.  Back to our tour.  We made it through a short security line and began our tour inside but before we entered, our guide from Roman Strolls, a local tour company, pointed out the Holy Door which is opened only in the year of the Jubilee or every 25 years. Once through the main entrance and one of the main reasons why visitors come to the basilica, is Michelangelo’s Pieta, located to the right after you pass through the doors. A truly astounding accomplishment at the age of 24! Despite the fact that it is behind bullet proof glass, it’s a sight to behold with your own eyes.  Although carved from marble, Christ and Mary are so lifelike and their garments so realistic, that the vision suspends your disbelief for quite some time.

After that, we strolled down the nave while our guide pointed out some of the statuary along the way. Located at the central axis of the nave and transepts is the Baldacchino, a large sculpted bronze canopy designed by Bernini as well, that hangs over the Papal altar. Tall Solomonic columns rise to the heavens. To the right as you look into the apse, is the statue of St. Helena, Constantine’s mother who holds a cross representing the “True Cross” relic she discovered in Jerusalem. As you approach the papal altar, follow the columns that seem to stretch to Heaven especially when you’re looking up into Michelangelo’s cupola high atop it all. By the way, if you not faint at heart, I strongly recommend you climb to the very top. There is an elevator to first level which provides a view of the altar from above. Then you ascend 323 curving steps around the cupola and eventually arrive outside to a most breathtaking view of Rome!

After our journey back down to ground, we toured the remainder of the basilica and wrapped up our adventure with a tour of the Papal tombs. To get there, just head to the right of the altar and find the set of stairs that lead down to the Vatican Grottoes. Here, you can see the resting places of the Popes including John Paul II. There is no admission charge however save this underground excursion for last because it will lead you outside of the church. 

Well, that should be enough to whet your appetite just a little.  I could go on but then this article would never end so you will just have to experience it yourself. Be sure to add this awe inspiring, thought evoking and memorable place to your Roman holiday itinerary. Arrivederci!