Tickets to climb the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome are only sold onsite — only tours including the Vatican Museum offer skip-the-line access to the church and cupola.
Climbing the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City leads visitors to the best aerial views of Rome and interesting close-up studies of the cupola mosaics and the statues of saints on the roof terraces and colonnade. It is 550 steps to the top of the dome but the gallery at the base of the cupola and the roof terraces may also be reached by elevator. Guided dome-climb tours may skip the ticket line but only tours including the Vatican Museum offer skip-the-line access at the long security checkpoints for the basilica complex. Admission to the St Peter’s church complex is free but all visitors must go through the airport-style security checkpoints with slow-moving queues. Tickets to climb the dome are only sold onsite — no online sales or time-slot reservations.
Cupola of St Peter’s Basilica Church
The Basilica of St Peter’s in the Vatican City in the center of Rome is by many definitions the largest church in Christianity. St Peter’s magnificent cupola designed by Michaelangelo is similarly the highest and one of the largest in the world. Visitors to San Peitro need not only admire the dome from afar — it is reasonably easy to climb the dome (or take an elevator partway) to see the cupola mosaics close-up and enjoy one of the best aerial views of Rome.
The dome of St. Peter’s rises to a total height of 136.57 meters (448.1 ft) from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross making it the tallest dome in the world. Its internal diameter is 41.47 meters (136.1 ft) slightly smaller than the 44 meters (144 ft) of the dome of Florence Cathedral. When Michaelangelo designed the dome for St Peter’s in 1547, he famously said it would be taller but not more beautiful than Brunelleschi’s cupola in Florence.
The dome was completed in 1590 to the designs of Michelangelo — the cupola was built over a drum that rests on four pliers. The drum of the dome is 630 feet (190 m) in circumference and 65.6 feet (20.0 m) high, rising to 240 feet (73 m) from the ground. Visitors may admire the cupola mosaic and other decorations close up from a gallery that runs around the inside top of the drum.
The highest level open to visitors is the bottom of the lantern, which itself is 63 feet (19 m) high. The birdcage here offers the finest views of Rome. Since the 1950s, it is no longer possible to enter the ball and cross that measure 8 and 16 feet (2.4 and 4.9 m), respectively.
Climbing the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica
Climbing the dome of St Peter’s is not particularly challenging and certainly less strenuous or claustrophobic than at many other churches and towers including Florence. The main challenge is the number of steps but an elevator may be taken halfway up too. A one-way system is used throughout.
Climbing the stairs to the top of the dome goes basically as follows:
It is around 550 steps from the entrance to the top of the dome. Using the elevator to the first level reduces the number of steps to 320. However, it is the first set of steps that is the widest and easiest to climb making it a good choice if the queues for the elevator are long. (A fit person can easily do these in five minutes on a quiet day.)
The view from the gallery and roof terraces on the first level already makes ascending the drum of the dome worth the effort and ticket price but the views are even better from the top of the dome. From the gallery, visitors may either go up the dome or out to the terraces. The one-way system sometimes points visitors only to the terraces on the way down but it is easy enough to go the short distance in the wrong direction — it is a wide passage without stairs at this point.
On a quiet day, it takes only around 15 minutes to climb the 320 steps to the top but on busy days things are slower and often hot. The stairs remain level and reasonably wide but as they are located between the inner and outer dome structures, the walls tend to encroach noticeably — taller people may have to walk a bit skew at times. Spiral stairs are only used for very short stretches.
Circle the gallery at the base of the lantern at least one and a half times — the exit stairs are on the opposite side of the arrival door. Back at the ring gallery/terraces level, it may be necessary to go briefly up the wide one-way passage to visit the gallery again.
Finally, descend by stairs or elevator — the exit may be some distance from the original entrance but still inside the basilica complex area so it is easy to enter the church without having to pass through security again.
Expect to spend around an hour on the dome climb (including sightseeing) if there are no queues.
Dome Gallery and Cupola Mosaics
The main reason to climb the dome of St Peter’s is for the magnificent views: of Rome, the cupola mosaics, and a bird-eye view into parts of the church and the top of Bernini’s famous bronze main altar canopy. Walking on the roof terraces gives further interesting views of the church, cupola, sculptures, and Rome but here visitors also find a handy toilet, a small cafe, a souvenir shop, and a mailbox for Vatican mail stamps.
The giant early 17th-century mosaic inside of the cupola has as its main theme Christ the Redeemer and (mostly) his disciples. They are accompanied by numerous angels. On the medallions are the four evangelists while God the Father is depicted high up in the lantern.
The decorations are in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation: all are dressed modestly with none of the nudity of the Renaissance or the exuberant depictions of hell in the Florence cathedral dome. Even the otherwise nude cherubs have their modesty protected despite being basically invisible from the floor of the church.
Beneath the gallery inside the cupola are the famous words in 2.4 m tall letters: TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM ET TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM (“You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church. … and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”). Further messages around the nave and transepts of the church are the words from the Bible directly spoken by Christ to Peter.
On the same level as the gallery, but requiring a small set of external stairs, visitors have access to the roof terraces with views and interesting perspectives of the architecture of the dome and other structures of the church.
Depending on which sections are open on the given day, it is possible to look down into the piazza and to see the colonnade and facade statues close up. The 140 sculptures of saints and even Bernini’s apostles on the main facade were designed to be seen from a distance so are not that refined and the rear of the works is often flat and only roughly finished.
See St Peter’s Basilica Info — a lovely non-commercial site — for a wealth of information and description of the artworks in the church.
Also on the roof terraces are a toilet, a souvenir shop, a mailbox, and a small cafe (not always open but generally a good place to wait if only some of a party climbs all the way to the top).
It may be necessary to go a short distance in the “wrong way” to reach the roof terraces (and gallery) in both directions. It is along a wide passage without stairs and usually not a problem. The usual order is gallery on the way up and roof terraces on the way down but the order sometimes changes.
St Peter’s Basilica Cupola Visitors’ Information
Note that the dress code at St Peter’s Basilica is strictly enforced at the security checkpoints. No shorts, no bare shoulders, no above-the-knee skirts even if wearing tights, and no clothes or visible tattoos that the church may find offensive. The rules are enforced in all weathers, for all visitors including children, and apply whether visiting the church or just planning to climb the dome.
Opening Hours of St Peter’s Basilica Dome in the Vatican
St Peter’s Basilica is open daily from 7:00 to 19:00 (18:30 October to March) but is often closed on Wednesday mornings for papal audiences. (Wednesday mornings are a great time to visit the church if there is no audience scheduled — mostly in the winter season.)
Climbing the cupola is possible from 7:30 with the final tickets sold at 17:00 for the stairs and 18:00 for the elevator (16:00 and 16:45 in winter).
A good time-saving strategy is to clear security as early as possible in the morning, see part of the church, and start the climb of the cupola rights at opening time. It is possible to return to the church afterward.
Tickets and Tours to Climb the Dome of St Peter’s in Rome
Cupola Ticket Prices
Tickets to climb the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome are €8 (€5 for children) if going all the way by stairs and €10 (no discounts) if using the elevator to the roof of the church (outside terraces) and the ring balcony inside the drum of the cupola with marvelous views of the dome mosaics, message to Peter, and inside part of the church. From the gallery to the top of the dome, stairs are the only option.
Where to Buy St Peter’s Dome Climb Tickets in Rome?
After security checks and just before entering the actual church, follow the clear “Cupola” signposting toward the immediate right of the church. (If the queue to buy tickets is already extending to the front of the church, it may not really be worth the time but check again after visiting the basilica if the queue has moved on significantly — more likely in the late afternoon.)
Tickets are sold from a window and then proceed to the entrance — either to climb the stairs or ascend by elevator. Note that the exit when coming down may be in a different area of the complex. There are no checks between the cupola and the church so visits may be in any order.
Tickets to visit the cupola are only sold onsite and only cash payments are accepted.
No dome climb tickets are sold online and the traditional queue-up-and-wait system is used — no time-slot reservations or skip-the-line VIP tickets are available other than skipping the general security check if arriving directly from Vatican Museum tours.
St Peter’s Dome Climb and Vatican Museum Tours in Rome
A few St Peter’s Basilica dome-only guided tours are available while many combine the cupola with the church or with the Vatican Museum. Even if a Vatican Museum and St Peter’s tour does not include the cupola, it offers skip-the-line access to the church complex and a self-guided cupola tour is easy to add after seeing the basilica — just don’t exit the complex (or queue up for another security round).
A bewildering number of guided tours of the Vatican Museum and St Peter’s are available — Viator lists around 850 activities, Get Your Guide nearly 500, and Tiqets an easier-to-handle 40! Read the fine print — tours are good at listing what is included, assume anything else is not. Beware “from” prices — some require a booking for 30 people before the lowest price is reached and another does have the advertised 50% discounted price available but only if booking 363 days ahead!
A few booking strategies and money-saving tips:
Start early in the morning: Guided tours of the dome of St Peter’s sensibly take advantage of the shorter security lines in the morning and typically meet up outside the security checkpoints shortly before the official opening times. Some early morning tours cover only the dome but adding a guided tour of the basilica and grotto is hardly more expensive. (Avoid tours that start after security, as it is impossible to know how long the checks will take on any given day.)
Visit the Vatican Museum first: A good skip-the-line option is to combine tours that start with the Vatican Museum — here groups have fast-access security lines and usually are able to enter the St Peter’s Basilica complex directly after visiting the Sistine Chapel without having to pass through security again. (This door is sometimes closed at short notice and is usually not an option for tours starting in the afternoon.) Some tours only offer fast access to the basilica after the museum but adding a full tour of the church interior and dome hardly costs more.
Small Groups and Semi-Private Tours: Small groups and semi-private tours are more pleasant and often hardly more expensive than larger groups. Do read the fine print — some companies define small as 25 tour members! Private tours are more flexible and sometimes good value for families or small groups.
Combination Offers: Small discounts are often available when booking more than one tour or sight at the same time, e.g. touring St Peter’s with admission tickets to for example the Castel Sant’Angelo, Villa Borghese Gallery, or the Colosseum and Forum. These are often good options to secure timeslots at popular sights but note that transportation is usually not included between the sites but as a bonus, it is often possible to see sights on different days.
An increasing number of sights in Rome require time-slot reservations but these are always sensible when offered even when not obligatory. The high season in Rome is increasingly long and tickets for top sights such as the Borghese Gallery and Colosseum are best secured well before travel. Guided tours are great skip-the-line options at the Colosseum, Forum, St Peter’s Basilica, climbing St Peter’s church cupola, and the Vatican Museum.