1. If you wish to visit the Basilica, you must dress appropriately. Visitors wearing clothing that bares their legs and arms will be asked to cover up. Hawkers sell cover-up scarfs outside specifically for this purpose (they’ll set you back around €5)
2. St. Peter’s Basilica is an incredible repository of art, treasures and awe-inspiring architecture, but it’s still a place of worship, so visitors should behave with respect: speak quietly and avoid treating it as a backdrop to selfies.
3. The best times to visit the church are first thing in the morning, lunchtime, or late in the day.
4. If you climb the dome, it’s around 500 steps from bottom to top, and the climb is not for the claustrophobic, as the approach is a narrow winding staircase with a rope along the wall for a handhold. However, it’s well worth the effort. If you take the lift it’s *only* 320 steps from the top of the lift to the view from the dome. There’s another stairway to descend, so at least you don’t have negotiate people coming in the other direction.
5. The Pope addresses his flock from a window of the Papal apartments in the Vatican palace every Sunday at 12 noon when he is in Rome. He also grants an audience every Wednesday at St Peter’s Piazza. There’s a seating area near the front for ticket holders, but you can come without a ticket and usually still be able to access the square.
6. One of the doors in the façade is the ‘Holy Door’, only opened during Jubilee years, which only occur once every 25 years. The last Jubilee Year was in 2000. The Holy Door is bricked up in the interior, and on the first day of the Jubilee the Pope strikes the brickwork with a hammer to begin the process of opening the door. Those who get to pass through it receive a plenary indulgence, which results in complete absolution for their sins.
7. Popes didn’t always live in the Vatican. The traditional Papal residence was the Lateran Palace until the 14th century. This adjoins the Basilica of San Giovanni, which is just south of central Rome, a short walk from the Colosseum.
8. St Peter’s Basilica is not, in fact, a cathedral, as it’s not the seat of a bishop. The Pope is Bishop of Rome, for whom the seat is the Basilica of San Giovanni.
9. However, St Peter’s is considered one of the four major basilicas of Rome, the others being San Giovanni, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paolo fuori le Mura. Its size and location result in it being used as the principal church by the Vatican.
10. The Swiss Guard was hired as a mercenary force from Switzerland from 1506, and they all still come from Switzerland. They were distinctive striped uniforms: you may read in guidebooks that these were designed by Michelangelo but this is apocryphal.
11. Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, measuring a mere 100 acres, and with a population of around 800. It has its own license plate, passports, stamps, national flag and national anthem.
12. St Peter’s Basilica is not the largest church in the world. The largest, according to the Guinness Book of Records, is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, located in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Africa.