A visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City is the dream of many who visit Rome, but many do not know they can climb to the cupola at the dome of the world-famous Basilica. Entry for visits to the dome of Saint Peter’s take place from 8:00 am until 6:00 pm, April through September, while during the remainder of the year, the tour closes an hour earlier.
The cupola was designed by Michelangelo, who worked on the Basilica’s construction beginning in 1547. Upon his death in 1564, his pupil, Giacomo Della Porta, took over the direction of the work, which took until 1590 to complete.
touring the dome
There are two levels to the climb. The first part takes one to the interior of the dome, which has an interior diameter of 138 feet. This part of the tour offers magnificent views of the Basilica below as well as a chance to see the mosaics up close. Visitors can either walk the 231 steps or take the elevator. This part of the visit also includes a trip out onto the roof, behind the statues of Jesus and the Apostles.
The second part of the tour is optional and is for the slightly more adventurous. It involves 320 steps which become progressively more narrow and winding, ending in a tight, corkscrew staircase leading to the top of the cupola. The spiral staircase is a marvel of Renaissance design and construction. Simple and elegant, rather than a handrail, there is a thick rope to grasp on the way up; yes, you read that correctly. There are windows along the way so you will not feel totally closed in and the stairs descend in a different path so you will not run into people on their way up. There is no elevator available for this part of the journey, but from this vantage point, visitors have a bird’s eye view and a breathtaking panorama of Rome, spread out nearly 450 feet below.
The Basilica faces east, so the sun rises in front of it. This means that pictures taken in the morning will be more washed out than those taken later in the day. If you have the opportunity, the late afternoon is a better time for photo opportunities, especially if you are in Rome during late autumn. Although the last visitors are permitted at 5:00 pm from October until March, the cupola does not close until 6:00 pm. This means you can time it correctly to get a sunset view over Rome from a perch that must be experienced to be believed. Entry to Saint Peter’s Basilica is free but the cupola climb in cash only, costs €8 for the stairs and €10 if you take the elevator.