A View From the Top: Vatican City

The view from atop St. Peter’s Basilica isn’t an everyday sight. More precisely, it’s not every day you climb up 550 steps to reach the cupola of Basilica di San Pietro. You can shortcut 320 of those steps with an elevator, but where’s the fun in that?

Just past the entrance into the Basilica, a less-traveled path (i.e. what seems like an endless staircase followed by more sets of staircases) takes you up to a fenced level that gives you an up-close view of the cupola – from the inside. When you’ve had your fill of the elaborately mosaiced walls, you can look down at the altar…and another…and another. Even from this height, the dome’s apex still seems so far away. Enter an alcove, climb even farther up, and your efforts are rewarded with spectacular views of the city. Before you get to that view, however, the staircase gets really, really narrow…. On the bright side, it slows your upward pace, so you’re hopefully not breathless by the time you reach the open air and the view.

What’s so great about the view up* here? Well, you can walk all around the outer cupola to see the Vatican Gardens, Vatican Museums, and St. Peter’s Square. If you know someone who lives in the closest neighborhoods of Prati, you can even have some fun trying to spot a flashing mirror or a large bedsheet flapping with the wind. (Yup, I’ve been beside someone on the phone playing Where’s Waldo and got the urge to play too.)

From this level, there’s yet another, narrower staircase that climbs even higher. Unfortunately, it’s closed to the public. Since we can’t go up there, let’s stop here for a while and take a photo break.


When you’ve had enough fresh air, the stairway down towards the exit ends inside the church itself, so no worries about missing the grand contributions of Michelangelo and Bernini. And once inside the nave? That’s a whole other level of awe-inspiring artistry that you should experience for yourself.


*If you fear heights, I assure you that not only will you survive the climb, but you’ll also be glad you did it. I was with an acrophobe and he fared just fine. After all, the fences prevent an accidental fall, and there is nary a window along the seemingly endless stairway…meaning you have no real gauge of height for most of the climb up. Comforting, right?