In this city of outstanding churches, none can hold a candle to St Peter's, Italy’s largest, richest and most spectacular basilica. Built atop a 4th-century church, it was consecrated in 1626 after 120 years' construction. Its lavish interior contains many spectacular works of art, including three of Italy's most celebrated masterpieces: Michelangelo’s Pietà, his soaring dome, and Bernini’s 29m-high baldachin over the papal altar.
Expect queues and note that strict dress codes are enforced (no shorts, miniskirts or bare shoulders).
The original church was commissioned by the emperor Constantine and built around 349 on the site where St Peter is said to have been buried between AD 64 and 67. But like many medieval churches, it eventually fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until the mid-15th century that efforts were made to restore it, first by Pope Nicholas V and then, rather more successfully, by Julius II.
In 1506 construction began on Bramante's design for a new basilica based on a Greek-cross plan, with four equal arms and a huge central dome. But on Bramante’s death in 1514, building ground to a halt as architects, including Raphael and Antonio da Sangallo, tried to modify his original plans. Little progress was made and it wasn’t until Michelangelo took over in 1547 at the age of 72 that the situation changed. Michelangelo simplified Bramante’s plans and drew up designs for what was to become his greatest architectural achievement, the dome. He never lived to see it built, though, and it was left to Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana to finish it in 1590.
With the dome in place, Carlo Maderno inherited the project in 1605. He designed the monumental facade and lengthened the nave towards the piazza.
Free two-hour, English-language tours of the basilica are run by seminarians from the Pontifical North American College. These generally start at 2.15pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday, leaving from the Centro Servizi Pellegrini e Turisti (no tickets necessary; check www.pnac.org for details).
Built between 1608 and 1612, Carlo Maderno’s immense facade is 48m high and 115m wide. Eight 27m-high columns support the upper attic on which 13 statues stand representing Christ the Redeemer, St John the Baptist and the 11 apostles. The central balcony is known as the Loggia della Benedizione, and it’s from here that the pope delivers his Urbi et Orbi blessing at Christmas and Easter.
The cavernous 187m-long interior covers more than 15,000 sq m and contains many artistic masterpieces, including Michelangelo's hauntingly beautiful Pietà at the head of the right nave. Sculpted when he was only 25, it is the only work the artist ever signed – his signature is etched into the sash across the Madonna's breast.
Nearby, a red floor disk marks the spot where Charlemagne and later Holy Roman Emperors were crowned by the pope.
Dominating the centre of the basilica is Bernini's famous baldachin. Supported by four spiral columns and made with bronze taken from the Pantheon, it stands over the high altar, which itself sits on the site of St Peter's grave. The pope is the only priest permitted to serve at the altar.
Above, Michelangelo's dome soars to a height of 119m. Based on Brunelleschi's design for the Duomo in Florence, the towering cupola is supported by four stone piers named after the saints whose statues adorn the Bernini-designed niches – Longinus, Helena, Veronica and Andrew.
At the base of the Pier of St Longinus is Arnolfo di Cambio's much-loved 13th-century bronze statue of St Peter, whose right foot has been worn down by centuries of caresses.
From the dome entrance on the right of the basilica's main portico, you can walk the 551 steps to the top or take a small lift halfway and then follow on foot for the last 320 steps. Either way, it's a long, steep climb. But make it to the top, and you're rewarded with stunning rooftop views.
Museo Storico Artistico
Accessed from the left nave, the Museo Storico Artistico sparkles with sacred relics, including a tabernacle by Donatello and the 6th-century Crux Vaticana, a jewel-studded cross that was a gift of the emperor Justinian II.
Extending beneath the basilica, the Vatican Grottoes contain the tombs and sarcophagi of numerous popes, as well as several huge columns from the original 4th-century basilica. The entrance is in the Pier of St Andrew.
Tomb of St Peter
Excavations beneath the basilica have uncovered part of the original church and what archaeologists believe is the Tomb of St Peter. In 1942 the bones of an elderly, strongly built man were found in a box hidden behind a wall covered by pilgrims' graffiti. And while the Vatican has never definitively claimed that the bones belong to St Peter, in 1968 Pope Paul VI said that they had been identified in a way that the Vatican considered 'convincing'.
The excavations can only be visited by guided tour. For further details, and to book a tour (this must be done well in advance), check out the website of the Ufficio Scavi (www.scavi.va).