This year, I have visited two of the most important and iconic monuments in Christianity – St Peter’s Basilica and St Paul’s Cathedral.
St Peter’s Basilica
The dome of St Peter’s is one of those sites that you can see from virtually everywhere in Rome. Right until you are getting near to it when it kind of disappears from the skyline and you have no idea whether you are headed the right way or not. Jim & I wandered through the streets of the Vatican, peering up at signs and glancing down at our crumpled map, until we turned the corner and there it was. It is a majestic site, standing at the end of a wide boulevard.
As you get closer the wide expanse of St Peter’s square comes into view, as do the towering marble columns which bound it in on either side.
That first view is breathtaking. But to get to the Basilica, you have to run the gauntlet. The streets leading to St Peter’s are almost as full of touts as they are tourists. It ruins the experience of walking towards this beautiful church when every second person is trying to sell you a tour. I frog marched Jim along the boulevard past all of the touts as quickly as possible.
Then in St Peter’s Square, there are the queues to get in. We did not plan the trip too well as we hadn’t realised that we would need to pass through security.
The idea was to visit St Peter’s to escape the midday sun. Instead, we found ourself queueing in the hottest part of the day with thousands of other people and no shade. Luckily the queue did move fairly quickly, but I’m not great in the heat and so I was already feeling a bit tetchy when I promptly slid off the worn marble steps on the other side of security and landed on my knees. On marble. It was off to a great start.
Once inside, St Peter’s is even more breathtaking.
It is absolutely cavernous and everything is so ornate.
It was busy, but it didn’t feel busy because there was just so much space.
I can’t do it justice with my words so I’m going to let my pictures do the talking for me.
A word to the wise: the dress code in St Peter’s is strict. When they say no knees and shoulders, they really mean it. I was wearing trousers, but I had chosen a capped sleeved t-shirt. I thought it would be okay because it did cover my shoulders but I was still asked by one of the guards to put on a cardigan.
St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral is just as grand as St Peter’s, but in a less ostentatious and showy way, and on the whole, I preferred it.
Unlike St Peter’s, you have to pay for entry to St Paul’s. This costs £16.00 for an adult on the door, or £14.50 if you book online in advance. If you choose to gift aid your ticket, you are given a pass that is valid for a year, so you can then visit as many times as you like that year without having to pay again. The cost of the ticket also includes an excellent and very informative audio tour. You can listen to it in order or choose to skip around the tracks depending on the order in which you want to wander around.
The dome of St Paul’s is as iconic a site to the London skyline as St Peter’s is to Rome.
The dome is a real feat of architecture as it is entirely self-supporting. It is possible to climb the dome, though Jim & I went only as far as the whispering gallery. It is said that if you whisper in this gallery, it can be heard all of the way around the room. I was a bit sceptical until I went up there and one of the guides in the gallery from the opposite side of the room started telling a visitor stood next to me for taking photos. He didn’t even raise his voice but it sounded like it was coming from right next to me, so it really worked!
Coming down from the Whispering Gallery, look out for the graffiti on the walls – the earliest I found was from 1776.
Entrance to St Paul’s also includes entrance to the crypt, where some of the nation’s most famous figures are buried, most notably Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, famous for their victories in the Battle of Trafalgar and Waterloo respectively. Sir Christopher Wren, the architect behind St Paul’s, is also buried here.
Tips for visiting
For St Peter’s, go early to avoid queueing in the midday sun. We visited the Vatican Museums first, but if I went again, I would do these on separate days.
It is possible to visit St Paul’s for free by attending a church service, although this would not include entry to the whispering gallery, the Dome or the crypt.
Look out for and observe the rules, e.g. dress code and photography.
Be respectful of other people – these are primarily religious sites before they are tourist attractions and some people are genuinely going there to pray. Try to give anyone praying some privacy and peace.
Other religious sites I would like to visit
I’m not a religious person and so visiting religious sites is not really top of my agenda. There are a few exceptions to this:-
1. Westminster Abbey
At £18.00, the entrance fee was too high to combine it with a visit to St Paul’s on one day in London. However, this building has so much history and so much to see that I will definitely make it a priority to visit the next time I am in London.
2. Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
Istanbul is one of the places I most want to visit, and these two mosques are top of the list of what I want to see. They are simply beautiful from the outside, and I am sure that they will be breathtaking within.
This city is sacred to three major faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is so full of history and significance for these faiths that I would love to visit to learn more. At the moment, this isn’t even on the radar for me, but I hope one day Israel will be a peaceful enough country for people to visit without fear.