Photo: Thomas La Mela/Shutterstock

Everything You Need to Know About the Largest Church in the World

Religion Culture Art + Architecture
by Morgane Croissant Apr 18, 2023

The largest religious building in the world, and the most famous church on the planet, St. Peter’s Basilica is the center piece of Vatican City, an enclave within Rome and the smallest country in the world, whose sovereign is none other than the Pope. With all these record-breaking attributes, it’s hard to pass on a visit to Vatican City (a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984) and its immensely impressive basilica.

What is St. Peter’s Basilica?

St. Peter's Basilica exterior

Photo: Resul Muslu/Shutterstock

St. Peter’s Basilica is the world’s largest religious building, one the holiest Catholic structures in the world, and the center of the independent city-state that is Vatican City.

A basilica is simply a church that has been granted special privileges by the Pope due to its historical, cultural, and/or architectural significance. St. Peter’s Basilica was built over the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle, hence its name.

Where is St. Peter’s Basilica?

St. Peter’s Basilica is located in Vatican City, the smallest country in the world (0.17 square mile), and a city-state enclave that is surrounded by Rome, the capital of Italy.

You can walk the 2.1 miles from Rome’s Colosseum to Vatican City in just 40 minutes. It takes 30 minutes (1.5 miles) to walk from the Trevi Fountain to the basilica.

When was St. Peter’s Basilica built, by whom, and why?

The original basilica (known as Old St. Peter’s Basilica) was built by Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century. It was gradually replaced by the structure we know today, AKA New St. Peter’s, starting in the 1500s. The new basilica was commissioned by Pope Julius III in 1506 and took around 120 years to be completed.

St. Peter’s Basilica (New St. Peter’s Basilica) was designed and decorated by the most prominent architects and artists of the time: Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini, Maderno, and Della Porta.

The basilica was built over the remains of the first church, as well as over a necropolis where St. Peter the Apostle was buried.

St. Peter’s Basilica floor plan

Inside St. Peter's Basilica

Photo: Thomas La Mela/Shutterstock

St. Peter’s Basilica’s floor plan takes the shape of a Latin cross, with a long nave leading to the altar, a transept that intersects the nave, and a dome over the crossing. The nave is flanked by aisles on either side, which are themselves flanked by chapels. The length of the main nave is about 722 feet, while the height of the dome from the floor is around 436 feet.

St. Peter’s Basilica tickets

You do not need a ticket to visit the basilica. All you need to do is line up at the entrance gate in the appropriate dress code (knees, shoulders, and midriff must be covered; hats must be removed) before going through a security check. Your bag will be scanned and possibly searched for alcohol, sharp objects, and other potentially dangerous items.

You do need a ticket if you want to visit the Vatican Museums which include the Sistine Chapel. It is recommended to book your tickets online in advance.

Is St. Peter’s Basilica free?

It is free to visit St. Peter’s Basilica. However, you must purchase a ticket to access the Vatican Museums which include the Sistine Chaper. To make the most of your visit to the city-state, book a tour with City Experiences to get a VIP guided visit of some of the most popular sites in Vatican City.

St. Peter’s Basilica opening and closing times

The basilica is open from 7 AM to 7 PM from April to September, and from 7 AM to 6 PM from October to March. The basilica is closed on Wednesday mornings. Get there at opening time to avoid long lines. By 9 AM, the place is packed.

When is mass at St. Peter’s Basilica?

Mass is held daily at the basilica at 7 AM, 7:30 AM, 8 AM, 8:30 AM, 9 AM, 10 AM, 11 AM, 12 AM, and 5 PM.

On Sundays and Catholic holidays, mass is held at 7 AM, 8 AM, 9 AM, 10:30 AM, 12:30 AM, 1 PM, 4 PM, 5 PM, and 6 PM.

General audiences lead by the Pope take place every Wednesday at 9:15 AM and require advanced booking. They are free, however.

What’s special about the dome in St. Peter’s Basilica?

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica

Photo: silverfox999/Shutterstock

The dome of the basilica (said to be the biggest in the world) was designed by Michelangelo and completed in 1590 by his student, Giacomo Della Porta. (Michelangelo supervised the project until his death in 1564.)

The dome is massive: It has a diameter of 139 feet and a height of 448 feet (at the top of the cross).

You can climb to the top of the dome by taking the stairs (551 steps) or the elevator. You need to purchase a ticket to access the dome and taking the elevator will cost you a little extra. There’s a little coffee shop at the top so you can sip on an espresso while looking at the view.

St. Peter’s Basilica and Michelangelo

La Pieta by Michelangelo inside St. Peter's Basilica


Michelangelo’s genius is everywhere in St. Peter’s Basilica:

  • In 1596, Michelangelo was appointed chief architect of the basilica and designed and supervised the construction of its vast dome.
  • Michelangelo’s Pietà, one of his most famous sculptures, is displayed in the basilica.

While not part of the basilica, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the fresco of The Last Judgement (also in the Sistine Chapel) were both painted by Michelangelo.

Is the Sistine Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica?

The Sistine Chapel is not in St. Peter’s Basilica, it is on the right of the Basilica and has a separate entrance. You need to purchase a ticket to visit the Sistine Chapel.

The best hotels to be as close as possible to St. Peter’s Basilica

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay.

Palazzo Cardinal Cesi

Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia

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A two-minute walk to St. Peter’s Basilica, Palazzo Cardinal Cesi is a luxury property that is ideal for those who want to get up early to visit Vatican City without fighting the crowds. The 15th-century palace is home to only 29 rooms, creating a quiet and intimate atmosphere for its guests. There is a lovely courtyard where travelers can relax after a long day of exploring Rome and Vatican City.

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Residenza Paolo VI

Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia

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Residenza Paolo VI is a four-star hotel located only three minutes away from St. Peter’s Basilica on foot. This luxury property has amazing views on the world’s largest church from its terrace and from some of its guest rooms and suites. There is an on-site restaurant-café-bar and a free breakfast buffet is offered daily.

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Lunaria Suites Rome

Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia
Photo: Expedia

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Lunaria Suites Rome is a luxury bed & breakfast located just seven minutes away from the basilica on foot. The property is luminous and beautifully decorated in a simple, yet elegant style that will make you feel right at home.

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