Climbing to the top of St Peter’s Basilica is possible, and it’s actually one of the highlights of a trip to Rome! Here is how to make it.
Not that many visitors know that it is possible to climb up to the top of St Peter’s dome (“cupola”) : it is a fantastic experience, and a great opportunity to enjoy a fantastic and dizzying city panorama all around Rome and to admire a top down view of St Peter’s basilica nave.
At the entrance to the basilica, after the security check, there is a sign that directs you to the far right of the portico (past the Holy Door) and to the kiosk for the elevator. Note that the Basilica entrance is on the right side of the colonnade (follow the queue… or click here to learn how to skip it).
You can take the elevator to the roof level (saving 320 steps), but if you want to be on the top of the cupola you must take the stairs for the last portion (551 steps in total). The entrance cost is Cost 7 Euros for elevator, 5 Euros for stairs.
After the brief elevator ride (or the first 320 steps), before your climb to the dome, you can stop and enjoy the view from the gallery inside the dome looking down into the basilica . Take a few moments to absorb the astonishing beauty of the cupola from within – and look down – the main altar.
Michelangelo himself designed this dome, which measurs 135m (450 ft.) above the ground at its top and stretches 42m (139 ft.) in diameter. Legend has it that in deference to the Pantheon, Michelangelo made his dome 1.5m (5 ft.) shorter across, saying “I could build one bigger, but not more beautiful, than that of the Pantheon.” Carlo Maderno later added the dome-top lantern.
The climb to the top of the dome proceeds through progressively narrower and sloping stairs. The narrow passageway can be uncomfortable you are claustrophobic (it could also get crowded and hot in summertime). Luckily, there are “slits” here and there to let fresh air in, and since you’re going up during the daylight hours you’ll have the interior lights plus sunlight now and then.
Once at the top, you will be rewarded by the views so often seen in photographs: St Peter’s square…
… the Sistine chapel and the Vatican museums…
… the Vatican gardens
Back on the roof, you have access to restrooms, water fountains, a gift shop and a new coffeebar. Take a walk to the front of the basilica to look into the Square and observe the huge statues on the façade and the imposing Cupola just above you.
When you’re ready to leave, there is again the option of elevator or stairs. Consider taking the stairs down, as this area contains marble plaques of all the famous who have visited the dome over the years. Going down takes much less time than going up!
Astonishingly, the exit is directly in St Peter’s nave, that you can now visit.
Tips & Infos
Hours 8:00 – 18:00 (Apr – Sep) 8:00 – 16:45 (Oct – Mar)
Cost 7 Euros for elevator, 5 Euros for stairs
Web site (Italian): http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/it/cupola/orari.htm
Dress code: St. Peter’s has a strict dress code: no shorts, no skirts above the knee, and no bare shoulders. I am not kidding. They will not let you in if you do not come dressed appropriately. In a pinch, guys and gals alike can buy a big, cheap scarf from a nearby souvenir stand and wrap it around legs as a long skirt or throw over shoulders as a shawl.
Drop your bags: They no longer allow you to take large bags or purses into the basilica. Luckily, they’ve also arranged a drop-off point for all bags in a room just to the right of the steps leading up into the church. This service is free.
Free Tours: There are free guided visits to St. Peter’s run by volunteer professors and scholars from North American College in Rome. They’re offered Mon–Fri at 2:15pm and 3pm, Sat at 10:15am and 2:15pm, and Sun at 2:30pm. They meet in front of the Vatican tourist info office, which is to the building along Piazza S. Pietro just left (south) of the main steps into the basilica.
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