Saint Peter's Basilica, built on the tomb of the saint himself, is the centerpiece of the Vatican. It is usually the first thing that any visitor sees of the country, as its towering dome dominates the Vatican and Roman skylines. Its the largest church building in the world (some people dispute this) and is jaw-dropping in almost every way. We go in often - to access other parts of the Vatican, to get up high for views or just to walk around inside.
The basilica is the easiest building to access in the country, even though the line typically looks like this. Unlike the line into the museums, though, this queue moves quickly. If you joined the end, here, you'd likely be inside within fifteen minutes. Admission is free, of course, and one only has to wait to go through the bank of metal detectors at the entrance. If you go, ignore the "guides" who wander the square and tell you that they can get you inside faster. They're lying to you, and the wait won't be bad anyway.
With room for 60,000 people, it never feels that crowded inside. The space opens to the sides and back, revealing nooks and alcoves that pull people away from the center. It's quiet, too. Unlike the museum, or other spaces in the Vatican, most respect the request for silence. On one recent visit, a choir group was singing and the whole structure rang with their voices. The acoustics are phenomenal.
The ceiling is over 150 feet above the ground, and is more finely decorated even than the walls. Above the ceiling, various domes rise even further, with the central dome rising to almost 380 feet above the floor (the whole structure is 452 feet high!). Much is made of the sistine chapel, but it is less impressive in many ways than this. The lighting provided by the cupolas and porthole windows is dramatic, throwing moving spotlights against the curves and facets of the interior.
The structure was built on the site of an older church, erected in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine. The site is the tomb of Saint Peter - which we saw, with a huge bit of luck, when we were able to finagle a tour of the excavations underneath the building. The current altar is placed on top of several older altars, all arranged directly above the burial site. The older church - the first Saint Peter's - fell into disrepair during the period that the Papal residency was in Avignon. In 1506, construction began on the new basilica, lasting for over 120 years until Pope Urban VIII consecrated it in 1626.
The greatest influence on the interior was the imagination of Gianlorenzo Bernini, the sculptor and architect, who contributed a great deal of the marble works and carvings found inside. He worked on the building off and on for fifty years. The statuary tends to be dramatic, oversized and over-concerned with narrative.
Excuse the quality of this picture, there's a metal grate around the inner balcony of the dome. You can access this view on the way up to the cupola, and it's amazing. The dome rises another 200 feet above this point. Standing there, perspective and distance are warped and the curved space seems too vast to be true.
Going to Vatican City can be a daunting endeavor - the lines, the hordes of people, the overabundance of things to see. I'm not sure that I would recommend the museums, for instance, to anyone on a short stay in Rome. Without much time, they are unconquerable and frustrating. Hours are lost in the crush, and there are more images and surfaces than can be processed. The basilica, on the other hand, can be "swung-through." It doesn't take long to get in, it's free, and the scale can be taken in all at once - standing for a moment underneath the great dome is an experience. You'll be amazed, and you can leave after ten minutes or two hours feeling satisfied that you've seen something breathtaking.