Nestled at the foot of St Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square represents the spiritual centre of Catholicism.
Follow Captain Ulysses on a tour of this architectural gem in the heart of the Vatican!.
💡 The Captain’s tip💡
Want to know more about the history of Rome? Captain Ulysses highly recommends this free guided tour of the city (in English). It’s up to you how much you want to tip the guide!
Brief history of St Peter’s Square in the Vatican
Let’s go back in time to the 16th century.
In 1506, Pope Julius II ordered the destruction of the early Christian basilica built in honour of St. Peter by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD. Why? To make way for a new, lavish and opulent basilica.
As the spiritual centre of Catholicism, Pope Jules II intended St. Peter’s Basilica to inspire awe and wonder to all pilgrims and travelers visiting the ‘Eternal City’.
The Pope entrusted the construction of the new basilica to the greatest architects of the time, including Bramante, Raphael, Baldassarre Peruzzi, Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno and Bernini.
The new St. Peter’s Basilica was consecrated by Pope Urban VII in 1626. At the time, however, St. Peter’s Square remained a relatively ordinary rectangular esplanade.
Thirty years later, in 1656, that Pope Alexander VII entrusted Bernini with the difficult task of completely restructuring St. Peter’s Square in order to highlight the new basilica as well as to be able to accommodate large gatherings. Work began in 1658 and was completed in 1667.
Between 2009 and 2014, St. Peter’s Square was subject to a vast restoration plan initiated by the Vatican Museum and financed by private patrons.
⚓ Attention, sailors! ⚓
Want to find out more about Rome’s top landmarks, activities & museums? Why don’t you check out the Captain’s detailed article on the best things to do in Rome?
Visiting St. Peter’s Square
Structure & architecture
With its monumental dimensions, St. Peter’s Square can only inspire awe and amazement:
- 340 metres / 0.2 mile in length
- 240 metres / 0.15 mile wide
Structure of St. Peter’s Square
When Bernini took over the restructuration of St. Peter’s Square in the 17th century, he quickly discarded the old rectangular plan and opted for a much more complex structure instead.
Bernini’s version of St. Peter’s Square includes two spaces of trapezoidal (at the foot of the basilica) and an elliptical shapes.
The monumental ellipse is bordered by a quadruple colonnade made up of 284 columns and 88 pilasters, and surmounted by 140 statues of saints which were designed by Bernini’s disciples.
On the trapezoidal square, don’t miss the two monumental statues sculpted between 1838 and 1840 and flanking the staircase: a statue of St Peter by Giuseppe de Fabris and a statue of St Paul by Adamo Tadolini.
👀 Keep your eyes peeled! 👀
Keep your eyes peeled for two white circles drawn on the ground on either side of the obelisk, with the mention ” Centro del Colonnato “.
If you stand in the middle of one of these two circles, you’ll be able to witness an incredible optical illusion: the four rows of columns “merge” to form a single one… impressive!
The Vatican obelisk
Located in the centre of the ellipse of St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican Obelisk is a 25-metre high Egyptian obelisk brought from Alexandria on the orders of Caligula. Caligula had it installed in the Circus of Caligula and Nero, which at the time was located a few metres from the present-day St Peter’s Basilica.
According to Christian legend, the obelisk marked the site of the martyrdom of St. Peter, who was crucified upside down in the Circus of Caligula and Nero between 64 and 68 AD.
In 1586, on the orders of Pope Sixtus V, the architect Domenico Fontana moved the obelisk to the centre of St Peter’s Square where it still stands today, surrounded by four bronze lions.
The fountains of St Peter’s Square
About sixty metres on either side of the obelisk, you will find two fountains which are also definitely worth a look:
- A fountain designed by Carlo Maderno in 1615 to the north
- A fountain designed by Carlo Fontana in 1675 to the south
The Passeto di Borgo
When visiting St. Peter’s Square, be sure to take a look at the Passeto di Borgo. This 800-metre-long elevated passageway connects the north of St. Peter’s Square to Castel Sant’Angelo.
In case of danger, the Passeto di Borgo allowed the Pope to safely take refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo, which was then a military fortress.
St Peter’s Basilica
Once you’ve explored St. Peter’s Square, it’s high time to turn your attention to the jewel of the Vatican… St. Peter’s Basilica, obviously!
The basilica’s construction work was overseen by several of the most emblematic artists and architects of the 16th and 17th centuries, among whom Raphael, Michelangelo and Bernini.
Unsurprisingly, the result is quite simply stunning: St. Peter’s Basilica is an architectural gem showcasing spectacular works of art (statues, tombs, etc.).
In short, don’t be put off by the long queues at the entrance to the Basilica: the visit is well worth the wait! And if you are not the patient type, you can always opt for a skip-the-line ticket. Free access to the Basilica is also included in the Rome Tourist Card and the Omnia Card.
Getting to St. Peter’s Square
Located in the heart of Rome, St. Peter’s Square is easily accessible on foot or by public transport.
The nearest metro station is Ottaviano, on line A. City buses and sightseeing buses also stop within walking distance of St Peter’s Square.
If walk to the Vatican, the Captain strongly recommends that you take the Via della Conciliazione between Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Square: the view is quite simply stunning!
The Captain’s recommendations
If you want to avoid vast crowds of tourists, Captain Ulysses strongly recommends that you set your alarm clock (very) early in the morning to arrive in St. Peter’s Square before other visitors.
Please note that proper attire is required to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and that you should cover your shoulders and legs. If the weather is hot, you can simply bring a scarf or shawl to cover up for the duration of the visit.
Guided tours of the Vatican
To skip the endless queues and discover the St. Peter’s Basilica nooks and crannies as well as visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel with an experienced tour guide, Captain Ulysses warmly recommends this guided tour of the Vatican.
👉 Looking for tips and recommendations? Here are all of Captain Ulysses’ suggestions!
🛏️ Accommodation: to book your accommodation in Rome, Captain Ulysses highly recommends Booking.com:
– the best youth hostels
– the best hotels for tight budgets
– the best hotels for midscale budgets
– the best high-end hotels
🎟️ Activities: As for booking visits and tourist activities, Captain Ulysses recommends three websites: GetYourGuide, Tiqets and Civitatis. Guided tours, cruises, skip-the-line tickets, tourist activities… there’s plenty to choose from!
🎫 Citypass: if you are staying in Rome for several days, it may be worth investing inthe Roma Pass or the Omnia Card. As well as entries to some of the capital’s most iconic sites, these passes include access to public transport.
🚐 Transfers: if you want to arrive in Rome serenely, you can book your transfer from the airport to the city centre in advance. A car will be waiting to take you to your accommodation in the city. For more information: transfers in Rome.
🚌Local transport: Rome has a comprehensive public transport system: metro, bus and tram. Access to public transport is included in the Roma Pass and Omnia Card. If you wish, you can also opt for a hop-on hop-off bus tour which stops at all the top tourist attractions in Rome (audio guide included).
✈️ Flights and trains: to book your flights to Rome, Captain Ulysses warmly recommends Skyscanner. You’ll be able to compare countless offers to find the best deal. If your dates are flexible, you can also compare prices over several months to find the cheapest flights possible.
As for trains, the Captain highly recommends Trainline to book your tickets.