St. Peter’s Basilica is THE Catholic pilgrimage site. Located on the traditional site of the martyrdom and burial of the Apostle Peter, the Basilica—inside and out—is a glorious sight to behold. But before you rush into the Basilica itself, take some time in St. Peter’s Square. There’s plenty of points of interest in the piazza, too. Here are eleven things to do, see, and reflect on just in Piazza San Pietro alone.
1. Marvel at the Basilica
Built between 1506 and 1626, what you see from the piazza is actually new St. Peter’s. It is built over the “old” St. Peter’s which dates from the 4th century, which in turn was built over the traditional site of the burial of St. Peter and a number of other early popes. A handful of famous names played a part in its design, including some guys you’ve probably heard of…Michelangelo, Bramante, Bernini, Raphael. Across the facade you’ll see the inscription, “IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII,” which means, “In honor of the prince of apostles; Paul V Borghese, pope, in the year 1612 and the seventh year of his pontificate.” Paul V loved the fact that he was Roman. The centre balcony, called the “Loggia of the Blessings”, is where the Pope appears upon being elected to give his “urbi et orbi” blessing, “to the city and to the world”, a reminder that the successor to Peter is not only the Bishop of Rome, but of all souls entrusted to the care of the Church. Interestingly, St. Peter’s Basilica is not a cathedral and is not the cathedral Church of Rome. That title belongs to the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
2. Admire the Bernini Colonnade
Deigned by Bernini, whose fingerprints are all over St. Peter’s (perhaps literally), the colonnade was intended to represent the open arms of Holy Mother Church, embracing the whole world, or at least everyone in the piazza. Look for marble markers between the obelisk and each fountain to stand on to appreciate the full geometric visual effect of the colonnade. Atop the colonnade you’ll see 140 statues of various saints carved by a number of different artists over about 40 years. One effect of their placement is that the Church Militant, those fighting the battle of earthly life, can “look up” to those members of the Church Triumphant, the saints.
3. Say ‘Salve’ to Peter & Paul
Christ and the Apostles top the Basilica, but Peter and Paul each get their own statues just off the stairs leading into the Basilica, Peter on the left, Paul on the right, facing the Basilica. The statues were commissioned by Pope Pius IX in 1847. Peter holds the keys, given to him by Christ (Matt 16:18) as a sign of authority and responsibility. Paul holds the book of the Epistles and a sword, the instrument of his death. Each statue is exactly 5.55 meters tall and stands as a powerful reminder of the witness of these two apostles in the building of the Church.
4. About that Obelisk
The 385 ton Egyptian obelisk that stands in the centre of Piazza San Pietro It was brought to Rome by Caligula around 37 BC, who had it placed in the centre of what would become the Circus of Nero, the site of games, executions, and the martyrdom of many Christians, including St. Peter himself. Part of Nero’s Circus still remained when Old St. Peter’s Basilica was built in the 4th century.
The obelisk may in fact have been the last thing that simple fisherman and first Pope saw in this world as he hung upside down on a cross before going to his heavenly reward. It was moved to its current location (not a few hundred feet away) in 1586 under Pope Sixtus V. 100 years later, Bernini would make it the focal point of the piazza and colonnade he would design around it. Bernini also added one of the fountains now in the piazza, to match the other one that was already there, designed by Carlo Maderno. The obelisk, a symbol of worldly power, now stands in the center of this piazza named for the first Pope over whose death it presided, as a reminder that glory comes not through worldly power, but through the cross. The inscription around the base of the obelisk testifies to this. It reads, “Christus vincit. Christus regnat. Christus imperat.” Or, “Christ conquers. Christ reigns. Christ commands.” Relics of the true Cross are even contained in the cross that tops the obelisk. This great pagan symbol stands in the shadow of the great basilica, surrounded by the arms of the Bernini Colonnade, as a reminder that the Church reaches out to and embraces the culture to transform it, not to be overcome by it.
5. Check the Time
The obelisk, besides being a 4,500 year old Egyptian artifact and the focal point of the Piazza San Pietro, it’s also a giant clock in the form of a sundial. Now you have no excuse for missing your appointment at the Vatican Museum. A thin marble line stretching from the obelisk marks where the shadow points at noon and marble discs mark where the Obelisk’s shadow will fall during the winter and summer solstices and when the sun enters a new sign of the zodiac. The Basilica facade includes two timepieces, as well. The clock on the left when facing the Basilica is electric and has been since 1831 and its oldest bell dates from the 13th century.
6. Spot a Swiss Guard
The guards in the detailed costumes aren’t just for show. They’re the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s personal body guard and the standing army of the Vatican City-State. Contrary to popular myth, their outfits were not designed by Michelangelo. They were intended to represent renaissance garb in the colours of the Medici family coat of arms. Don’t let the outfits fool you: they’re well trained. Some even serve “undercover” and in plain clothes throughout Vatican City. Pope Julius II (nicknamed “the warrior Pope”…he’s an interesting one, seriously, look him up) requested a constant regiment of 200 guardsmen, who entered Rome on January 22, 1506, the date celebrated as the founding of the Swiss Guard.
Not just anyone can join. Recruits must be single, Catholic males, who have completed training in the Swiss military. They must be between the ages of 19 and 30, and stand at least five feet, eight inches. And yes, they must be Swiss citizens. New guardsmen are sworn in on May 6, the anniversary of the sack of Rome in 1527, one of their only serious military engagements. They swear an oath to protect the Pope, his successors, and the College of Cardinals during the Sede Vacante with their lives. They also win the prize for most epic motto: “Acriter et Fideliter”—“Fiercely and Faithfully”. From Piazza San Pietro, you’ll easily be able to see one of the guards at the sentry shack just outside the Basilica to the left behind the statue of St. Peter. You can also see the daily work outfit of the guard at the Porta Sant’Anna, the “business entrance” of the Vatican, on your way to the Old Bridge Gelateria (see below).
7. Attend a General Audience
Want to see the successor to Peter with your own eyes? General audiences are held in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesdays when the Pope is in Rome. They begin at 10:30 A.M. Seating is first come, first served, though you can reserve free tickets for the area close to the front. In other words, get there early for a good seat. Security opens the piazza around 8AM.
8. Send a Postcard
As a sovereign city-state, Vatican City even has its own post office and mint. There’s usually a mobile post-office truck set up in the piazza where you can send a postcard with an official Vatican stamp and postmark (as opposed to an Italian stamp and postmark). Vatican stamps make great gifts for the stamp collector in your life (we all have one). Especially rare stamps are the “sede vacante” stamps, which are only released while the See of Peter is vacant, that is, during the time between the death (or resignation) of one Pontiff and the election of another.
9. Stroll Down the Via della Conciliazione
One of the best photos to take of St. Peter’s Basilica, especially at night, is the view of the basilica looking down the Via della Conciliazione, with the street lamps lighting the way to the Basilica. The Via is lined with souvenir stands, restaurants, international embassies (see which countries you can spot!), and religious shops (see #11 below). The original plan for Piazza San Pietro was to have the piazza open up from the maze of narrow streets that made up the medieval quarter between the piazza and the river Tevere. Pilgrims would have had a difficult time finding the piazza as they got lost on the side streets of the quarter. This was to symbolize the winding, confusing path of conversion and life in general before being welcomed by the open arms of Holy Mother Church, ie. the Bernini Colonnade. Mussolini destroyed that approach. Literally. He had the medieval quarter demolished to make way for the Via della Conciliazione. Which is more fitting, a narrow, winding path leading to the open arms of the Church symbolising the way of conversion…or a glorious approach to the great Piazza and Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles? I could go either way on this one.
10. Stand in Two Countries at Once
Vatican City is the world’s smallest sovereign city-state…and it has perhaps the world’s most porous border control, namely none. Some of the official border between Vatican City and Italy is walled, but in Piazza San Pietro the only thing distinguishing the two nations is a thick white line that arcs from the end of one colonnade to the other. So go ahead, straddle the line and bilocate.
11. Shop…and Have Some Gelato
Besides the myriad street vendors selling everything from Pope Francis keychains to a calendar of good-looking Roman priests (it’s called “Roman Calendar”…seriously), there are a number of shops that sell religious images, books, rosaries, vestments, and other articles. Some shops just off or near the piazza include:
Ancora (Via della Conciliazione 63)-Large bookstore with a great English section in the basement (also where the toilet is, FYI). This shop is not just for tourists. Their book collection is scholarly and impressive. They also sell non-book items such as rosaries, prints, and images. Very helpful staff.
Savelli (Via Paolo VI, 27)-A large store with…everything, but specialising in art. It has a few entrances including one right next to EurocleroIt’s a popular shop and can get crowded, especially given that it’s right off of the piazza, near a popular tour bus drop off, and along the foot traffic from a major bus stop. If the line at the register is long, there’s another upstairs.
Libreria Benedict XVI (Piazza Pio XII)-Located in Piazza Pio XII (the rectangular piazza between via della conciliazione and Piazza San Pietro) on the north side, this is a unique bookstore. It seems dedicated to Papal writings, audiences, speeches, etc., which it publishes in text form. So, for example, want to buy a volume of all of Pope Francis’ Wednesday audiences? Here’s your bookstore. Has an English section.
Euroclero (Via Paolo VI, 31)-Right next to Savelli through the middle of the left Bernini colonnade when facing the Basilica. This is where all the priests shop for the latest and hottest styles in clerical garb. Euroclero is clergy focused, selling beautiful vestments, an assortment of clerics, monstrances, mass kits, pyxes and even crosiers. They do have very nice items, but if you’re not a priest or are not buying for one, you’ll probably just be looking. But it’s worth looking, too.
Street Vendors (everywhere)-They all sell the same stuff, and it’s all guaranteed to make a great little “look what I got you in Piazza San Pietro” gift for someone back home. You’ll also find a significant number of items related to St. John Paul II. He’s still much beloved by the Romans. And seriously, where else are you going to find a cigarette lighter with a picture of Pope Francis giving a thumbs up or a Papa Francesco bobblehead? Exactly.
Old Bridge Gelateria (Viale Bastioni di Michelangelo, 5)-Lots of places sell gelato. Let’s rephrase that…there are a few places that don’t sell gelato. But don’t just run to the first place you see that advertises the word “gelateria”. Not all gelato is created equal. One of the better gelaterias near Piazza San Pietro is called Old Bridge Gelateria. It’s actually a short walk from the piazza, around the corner from the Vatican Museum entrance. It’s a handy stop on your way from the Piazza to the Museum, or vice versa. From the obelisk, walk toward the Basilica through the colonnade at about the 4:00 position, and pass through the Porta Angelica, continuing along the Via di Porta Angelica. Turn left at Piazza di Risorgimento. The gelateria is diagonally across the street from the large bronze doors in the wall erected by Pope Benedict XVI (you’ll see them).