How to Tour the Crypt at St. Peter's

St. Peters is as fascinating below ground as above.
St. Peters is as fascinating below ground as above. (Image: Jennifer Barrow/iStock/Getty Images)

One of Rome’s biggest attractions is the tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, and entry to its underground necropolis arguably is the Italian capital’s hottest ticket. Visitors may tour the papal crypt beneath St. Peter’s as part of their tour of the vast Renaissance church, but viewing the sacred bones of St. Peter in the necropolis requires advanced planning.

Getting There

To tour the crypt, visitors must head to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the world’s smallest country. Take the metro. bus or tram to Ottaviano-San Pietro. Bus number 49 stops in front of the Vatican museum’s center, while tram 19 stops at the Piazza del Risorgimento, a five-minute walk away. The crypts are below the basilica. Although the Vatican frequently refers to the crypt as a single entity, an important distinction should be made between the relatively spacious, illuminated papal crypt directly beneath the basilica,and the dark, narrow necropolis where St. Peter is buried, which dates from much earlier and requires special permission to enter.

Explore the Papal Crypt

Entry to the Papal Crypt, also called the Vatican grottos, is free -- although paid, guided tours are available. The grottos are open daily. Entry is down a short staircase behind the main altar of the basilica and often forms part of a tour of the basilica itself. Millions of visitors tour the grottos and basilica each year, accessing a series of underground chapels dedicated to saints and the tombs of kings, queens and popes from the 10th century onward. Highlights include monuments to Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, the tomb of Catholic convert Queen Christina of Sweden, and the burial sites of 91 popes in total. Entry to the crypt is one-way only. Once you enter, you must continue to the exit between the basilica and Vatican walls.

Exclusive Tours of the Necropolis

Entry to the necropolis is a far more exclusive and complicated affair. Visitors must apply at least a month in advance to the Excavations Office (Ufficio Scavi), specifying their proposed date, number in party and language. A response can take up to a month. On the day, with letter of confirmation in hand, report to the Excavations Office through the gates on Via Paulo VI, just to the left of the Colonnade, at least 10 minutes before the appointed time. Daily visitor numbers of the necropolis are restricted to approximately 250 people, with each guided tour having a maximum of 12 people. Children under age 15 are not allowed.

Tour Considerations

The tour of the necropolis lasts approximately 90 minutes and passes through a series of dark, narrow passageways. For this reason, no large bags or backpacks are allowed and visitors prone to claustrophobia are advised against taking a tour. Since the basilica is a religious site, visitors must dress appropriately, meaning no shorts, skirts above the knee or bare shoulders. The highlight of the tour is the tomb of St. Peter, which was discovered by workmen in 1939 but not officially announced by the Vatican until the 1950s. Reaching a wall marked by ancient graffiti, visitors can peer through a small hole in the wall and see the apostle’s bones. Photography is not allowed.

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