St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest churches in the world and attracts millions of visitors every year. It was built atop the site where Saint Peter was buried in 64 AD and is the most famous of the four major basilicas of the Catholic Church. The dome of St. Peter’s dominates the skyline and was designed by Michelangelo. Its magnificent proportions and richly decorated interior are a must-see for any traveler to Rome.
The site was originally the Circus of Nero as well as a cemetery to the many Christians that Nero had executed. The first pope and one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Saint Peter was killed under Nero’s reign circa 64 AD and a basilica was erected on the supposed site of his tomb in 306 by the emperor Constantine. The original basilica stood for over 1,000 years until, due to its deteriorating structure, Pope Julius II commissioned a new basilica to be constructed in the year 1506.
The new Saint Peter’s Basilica was completed 120 years later and many of Rome’s greatest architects were involved in its design. The original designs were those of Bramante but he died in 1514, just eight years into construction, thus leaving Raphael to take over as the main architect until he died just six years later. Michelangelo took the reins and, upon his death in 1564, his pupil, Giacomo della Porta, continued on. Pope Paul V asked Carlo Maderno to extend the basilica and it was finally completed in 1626.
In addition to its masterful architectural design, St. Peter’s Basilica houses incredible artwork from Renaissance masters. The only work Michelangelo ever signed, La Pieta, is now behind bulletproof glass after a tourist damaged it with a hammer in 1972. Bernini’s intricate bronze canopy, Baldacchino, towers above the altar and directs the visitor’s eye skyward to Michelangelo's breathtakingly-vast dome. Underneath St. Peter’s lie the tombs of 91 popes and deeper still, in the necropolis (scavi), the tomb of Saint Peter.
The colonnade of Saint Peter’s Basilica opens its arms to visitors from around the world and admission to the church is free of charge (the scavi and the dome are not free). Visitors interested in attending the weekly Papal Audience, held most Wednesdays except during the hotter summer months, can request tickets from their local parish or arrive early to enter the piazza before the Pope comes out to greet the crowds.