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On Top of the World: Visiting St. Peter’s Dome [Review]

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica and a blue sky

I can’t count the number of times that I have been to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. I’ve attended special masses, explored the necropolis, and have entered as a visitor just to look at the legendary sculptures and structures by Michelangelo and Bernini.

Yet one area of St. Peter’s has always eluded me — the dome. I have a fear of heights, so I have always been a bit scared to visit the dome.

But recently I was invited by the tour company The Tour Guy to face my fears and try their Ultimate St. Peter’s Dome Climb. I enjoyed the tour more than I thought I would.

Here are some thoughts about The Tour Guy’s Ultimate St. Peter’s Dome Climb:

Avoid the Long Line Into St. Peter’s Basilica

Typical queue to get into St. Peter’s Basilica / Photo © Melanie Renzulli

I have never visited St. Peter’s Square and not seen a long line to get into the basilica. Visiting St. Peter’s and Vatican City is one of the top things on most travelers’ agendas, so endure the line they must.

But since we were on a tour and going straight to the entrance to the dome — rather than through the church doors — there was no wait. We needed only to check our bags through security. Then off we went to the dome ticket window. Our super-friendly tour guide handled all of these details of getting us through security, escorting us to the dome ticket window, and explaining all of the little curiosities along the way.

My Fear of Heights Wasn’t Triggered

Visitors walking the perimeter of St. Peter’s dome. Only about a quarter of the dome is sectioned off in this manner. But that’s enough to see a lot. / Photo © Melanie Renzulli

At other times when I have visited St. Peter’s Basilica, I have looked up into the dome and spotted tiny, ant-sized people walking around half of its perimeter. They appear to have nothing preventing them from falling or jumping off. But just like a trompe l’œil painting, that is thankfully all an illusion.

Barrier along the walkway of St. Peter’s dome / Photo © Melanie Renzulli

When you reach the first ring of the dome — yes, the visit includes a climb to several levels — you’ll find that there is a very sturdy, protective, iron screen barrier that stretches a good distance from the floor up (I’d estimate about 15 feet / 5 meters). I felt safe, so I was able to enjoy an incredible, bird’s eye view of the basilica as well as get a closer look at the Latin script that is written around the upper registers of the basilica walls.

Not to mention, from this height, I was able to see details in the dome that I never even knew were there. Amazing.

View of the floor of the basilica / Photo © Melanie Renzulli
Zoomed view of the floor of the basilica. You can barely see the people. It’s pretty high up! / Photo © Melanie Renzulli

…But My Claustrophobia Was

Our guide informed us at the beginning of the tour that the passageways and stairwells would get narrower and narrower as we scaled each level. So my group knew that we have a challenging climb ahead. This is another way in which the guide was helpful. Had I been doing this on my own, I think I would have had a panic attack when I got to the part where the walls began to curve in!

The Outside Views Are Even More Incredible

View of St. Peter’s Square from atop St. Peter’s dome / Photo © Melanie Renzulli

I have long wondered how and where aerial shots of St. Peter’s Square are taken. Now I know.

After you have reached the top — or, as high up as visitors are authorized to go — there’s a terrace where you can take in views of St. Peter’s Square and the enormous statues that line the top of the basilica, as well as the distant rooftops of Rome.

And There’s a Cafe Up There!

Terrace on top of St. Peter’s Basilica. The cafe is just beyond this fencing and to the right. And, yes, this is Rome’s blue sky in all its unfiltered glory. / Photo © Melanie Renzulli

If you are tired after your trek up to the dome, fear not. There is a cafe there where you can buy water, soft drinks, juices, and, of course, coffee in all of its Italian varieties.

Conclusion and Final Tips

The Tour Guy’s Ultimate St. Peter’s Dome Climb was more and less than what I expected. More, because the dome was bigger and had more levels than I expected. I also was pleased to learn that the tour ended inside of St. Peter’s, therefore saving me time from standing in line later in the day.

It was less than expected because it’s called “the ultimate climb.” While it was strenuous, it wasn’t an ultimate climb in the scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro sense. There is an elevator that takes you halfway up then it’s 320 steps to the top. For comparison, the Torre del Mangia in Siena has 400 steep steps, while the Torre Asinelli in Bologna has 498 steps. Thank goodness the climb was less than I expected!

If you plan to tour St. Peter’s dome, here are a few final tips:

  • Dress appropriately. You will need to be dressed in attire that is appropriate for visiting a church (e.g., no bare arms, no short shorts) and you will want to wear comfortable footwear, such as sneakers. If you are visiting during colder months, bring a scarf as it can get windy on the terrace.
  • Travel light. The climb up the dome is challenging and exhausting, so you don’t want a heavy bag to weigh you down.
  • Build-in some time to visit the basilica. As mentioned before, at the end of the tour, the guide leads you down the stairs and onto the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica. Don’t ruin this grand finale by having to rush off on another appointment. Others in my group didn’t have time to look around the basilica because they had tickets to another museum or tour. The dome tour takes about two hours from the meeting point until the end. Give yourself at least another hour to take in the grandeur of the church you came to see.
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