How to Queue Less and Get More out of St Peter’s Basilica
How much is your time worth? This is a question you might ponder as you wait in line to enter St Peter’s Basilica. Meanwhile, touts hover like vultures in the square, telling you that it’s another hour before you get to the front. I haven’t heard of anything good coming out of their offers to skip St Peter’s Basilica queue. Instead, I found a couple of ways to avoid the train that winds around the colonnade. It takes a little dedication but they’re easy to follow. But first…
Why is there a queue to visit St Peter’s Basilica?
For Catholics, it holds massive significance. The basilica is built over the tomb of St Peter, the disciple whom Jesus Christ appointed as his successor to lead the Church. Since then, 265 popes have succeeded Peter and some of them are buried here. For everyone else, Michelangelo’s Pieta is the main draw.
Entry is free and there are no reservations or tickets except for Papal audiences. (It does not include the climb to the copula – there is a charge for that, so join the queue on the north side of the basilica.) To get in, one has to join the line for the bag checks. Anyone who takes money from visitors to “skip the line” earns an infinite profit margin from this trick.
How does one skip the wait to enter, then? How about joining a legitimate tour to learn about The Vatican’s other treasures?
Take a guided tour of the Vatican Museums
There are tours that one can register and pay for online with either the Vatican Museums or its official partners. Some of them are advertised as “skip the line” tours but they are legitimate. These companies have priority access, so their groups waltz straight through the screening area for handicapped visitors instead of waiting along the Leonine walls with everyone else. Yes, the entrance to the museums is separate from that to St Peter’s.
The express tours take two hours, while the more comprehensive tours typically take up to four hours. That’s longer than the wait to get into St Peter’s Basilica, and it’s not cheap (full prices start from 38 euros) but one gets to see the other treasures in the collections. I paid a premium for an extended tour with Dark Rome – was it worth it? I wasn’t incentivised to say it was worth it but that’s how I felt. When I needed a change of date, their assistance was also very prompt. If one has had an art history education or catechism, though, the guides’ information might seem (understandably) over-simplified.
After the visit to the Sistine Chapel, the groups with the basilica on their itinerary take a special passage that leads there. Officially, no-one else can use them; there are guards at the door to turn individuals away. One may try their luck, paying only for the admission and blending in discretely with a group all the way to the basilica – and pray that God does not smite them!
See another great European church too: the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral)
Reserve a spot on the Scavi tour
If one wants to see the former Vatican necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica, there’s no way other than booking a Scavi tour. Only 250 people a day get to see this part of the Vatican. It’s very popular, so do the following at least two months before getting to Rome:
- Send an e-mail to the Scavi office with the number of participants, their full names, their spoken language and possible dates (with months spelt in full) and time slots for the two-hour tour.
- If one gets a reply with a time slot, confirm it by paying online. It’s 13 euros per person. More information is at http://www.scavi.va/content/scavi/en/ufficio-scavi.html
For this tour, visitors go through a security checkpoint on the south side of Bernini’s colonnade that has no queue. After visiting the pre-Christian mausoleums of the necropolis and also the tomb of St Peter, the tour ends in the grottoes where Popes are buried. Climb the stairs and you’ll emerge inside the basilica.
A word of caution: The necropolis is full of stairs and narrow passages, and it’s stuffy even in winter. I wouldn’t recommend the tour to claustrophobes or anybody visiting in the height of summer.
Speaking of secret places: Our Lord in the Attic, a hidden church in Amsterdam
How to skip St Peter’s Basilica queue for “free”
If none of that historical stuff interests you, just go straight to the Basilica. Most of the time, you’ll find a line that winds clockwise around St Peter’s Square. These tips will minimise your waiting time, however:
- Pregnant and handicapped people may go straight to the front of the line.
- Go very early or very late, when the queues are shorter or non-existent. The Basilica opens at 7.00 a.m. (12 noon when there is a Wednesday Papal audience) and closes at 6 p.m.
- The best days to visit are Tuesday and Thursday, followed by Monday and Friday, while Saturdays are the worst. It’s how one avoids the Papal audience and weekend crowds. However, the basilica may close at short notice any time.
- In terms of seasons, the crowds are at their largest in summer. It’s especially so in August when Europeans are on vacation. Try visiting in other seasons but avoid Christmastide and Eastertide.