The open-air heart of the Catholic world, Piazza San Pietro is at the pinnacle of religious architecture, especially as the sun sets.
There’s only one way you should approach the Piazza San Pietro: head directly up the Via della Conciliazione to come face-to-face with the majestic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Once you are standing in the piazza, better known as St. Peter’s Square, you will be in no doubt that you are at the very center of the smallest state in the world.
The piazza as it is today is the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Baroque architect was appointed in the mid-17th century to create a space that would allow the greatest number of people to see the pope as he made public addresses from the Vatican Palace. Every Easter Day, the Piazza San Pietro is still thronged by pilgrims who turn out to witness the pope deliver his annual message. In reality, there is rarely a quiet day at the piazza.
The key is to take your time to pick out the points of interest you wish to see. Positioned right at the core of the piazza is the Egyptian obelisk, more than 82-feet (25-meter) tall and crafted out of red granite. It’s claimed that the obelisk was moved by Caligula in the year 37 from Alexandria to the Circus of Nero, a brutal theater of death games and crucifixions, which stood on the current site of the piazza. This is also the spot where St. Peter’s life ended at the hands of the Romans. There’s a striking painting of his martyrdom by Caravaggio in the Cerasi Chapel.
Forming the elliptical shape of the piazza are the towering, four-deep colonnades, which are ingeniously positioned to create an optical illusion. Looking just above the colonnades, you will see a multitude of statues, a collection of saintly figures including St. John the Baptist and Christ the Redeemer. St. Peter himself occupies a position to the right-hand side of the steps leading to the basilica, and was sculpted by Giuseppe De Fabris. He is faced on the other side by St. Paul.
St. Peter's Square is in central Rome. You can walk there from the city center; the most direct route is to cross the Tiber and walk straight up Via della Conciliazione. The Metro train station Ottaviano is a short walk away along Via Ottaviano.