First off, my apologies to REM for the title…
Scavi (Excavations) Tour
We actually went underneath St. Peter’s Basilica before we went inside it! The Vatican offers a tour of the necropolis underneath the basilica, where St. Peter’s tomb is located. Archaeological excavations during the last century uncovered a rather extensive group of graves dating back to ancient Roman times. Many years of work went into the excavations (which are still not 100% complete) and eventually a tomb was found that appeared to be that of the Apostle Peter. An analysis of various bits of evidence eventually led to the Vatican declaring the tomb and relics within to be deemed authentic. The tomb lies underneath part of one of the original altars.
The tour goes through very narrow and low passageways (this was a necropolis after all) that have not been modified for tourist purposes. So, space is limited and only small groups (about 12-15 people max) are taken through each time. No photographs are permitted both because of the sacred nature of the space and due to the small space. You will be booked with a guide who speaks the language you indicate in your reservation request.
To make a reservation, go to the following official Vatican website. Be sure to read the instructions carefully.
You’ll be booked with a group whose guide will speak the language you indicate. Their confirmation process was slightly
confusing – though keep in mind I can be easily confused! I received an email “confirming” my reservation but it instructed me to reply back to confirm I still wanted the reservation, I guess. After doing so, I received another email which contained almost the exact same information but appeared to be a sort of final confirmation – bring this printout with you! Payment is made upon arrival at the scavi tour office – they did accept credit cards when I visited but I’d be sure to have enough cash just in case the card won’t work. Ron In Rome has a great article with tips and good directions for where to go:
But trust me, complying with these minor details is well worth it for the rare glimpse at the necropolis and, best of all, the St. Peter’s tomb and relics. Our guide indeed spoke English, quite well in fact, so it wasn’t a problem understanding the information. The tour begins with a look at some scale models to give you a bit of an orientation. Then you will descend stairs to the excavations. We saw both simple tombs and mausoleums whose artistic embellishments were still relatively intact despite being nearly two thousand years old and formerly buried in the earth. Glass panels protect much of the delicate portions of the excavated structures, yet this didn’t prevent our ability to get a detailed look at the rooms and passageways.
We learned a lot from our guide and she allowed adequate time for each person in the group to see everything. Throughout the tour, our guide did a nice job of orienting us to where we were in relation to the current Basilica above – this made our later visit to the Basilica interior much more meaningful. She explained the ancient Roman burial customs and how Christian Romans would have gone about caring for their dead during the era of persecution. St Peter’s tomb was marked and made known in the Christian community but done so in a way that the Roman government did not discover it. This made the 20th century task of confirming the authenticity of the tomb difficult and time consuming.
Finally we were there, as close as permissible to St Peter’s tomb and a glimpse of the sacred bones within. I felt both God’s presence and a sense of history, thinking back to all that Peter had accomplished and suffered for the Gospel. The faithful had carefully concealed his remains and venerated them until they eventually disappeared into history….only to later be revealed once more centuries later. It was really incredible and a privilege to encounter this space.
Now it was time to venture back above ground and inside the Basilica. We visited on a Thursday and noticed the chairs and other temporary structures were being taken down from the prior day’s weekly papal general audience.
Basilica visitors must go through a metal detector first, and while the line can get long, it wasn’t too bad – I’d say we waited about 15 minutes. There is a free bag & coat check in the lower level of the Basilica, which is also handy if you need a place to store large bags before the Scavi tour.
St Peter’s Basilica is enormous! Yet it doesn’t always feel that big inside as many design elements serve to create a more intimate visual feeling. But if you stop and just slowly take it in, your mind starts to gradually realize the real scale of it all. The structure was begun in 1506 to replace the old 4th century basilica. Some 120 years later it was finally complete. Imagine what folks in the 16th and 17th centuries thought of this!
Inside the Basilica is a feast for the eyes – lovely angels, the beautiful apse, paintings and statures. There is Michelangelo’s famous Pieta – now behind bullet proof glass after a rather unfortunate attack by a mentally ill geologist in 1972 (he struck the statue with a hammer).
Just outside the Basilica proper there are a couple of gift shops and nearby is a branch of the Vatican post office (another branch is beside the gift shop at the end of the Vatican museums). As the Vatican postal system is more efficient and reliable than the Italian post, save your postcards to mail from the Vatican!