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Beneath St Peter's Basilica: The Vatican Scavi

You'll never believe what's under there

You'll never believe what's under there


Visiting the Vatican Scavi is difficult for mere mortals – requiring a grapple with Vatican bureaucracy and the timing of a trained ninja. But for those that do gain access, it’s worth the trouble.


Also known as the Vatican Necropolis, The Tomb of the Dead or St. Peter’s Tomb, the area was discovered beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1940s (around the time of World War II) when the Vatican commissioned excavations to be carried out there before Pope Pius IX was set to be buried in the space. Long presumed to be the final resting place of St. Peter, it was presumed that there wasn’t much down there.


What archaeologists found however, was a burial ground (aka a necropolis) dating all the way back to the 4th century. They found the temple of Emperor Constantine who had ruled at that time and a spot of ancient graffiti that translated as Peter is here. You should never take a graffiti artist's word for it but archaeologists today are quite sure that bone fragments retrieved here belonged to Saint Peter himself, one of Jesus’s twelve apostles.


You'll have to get past these guys

You'll have to get past these guys


A visit to the Vatican Scavi then, is a pretty unique treat for Catholic visitors or anyone with archaeological curiosity. Access however, is limited and extremely tricky to come by. The only way to get in is to contact the Vatican directly through the Vatican Scavi office by emailing scavi@fsp.va to request access. When you email you need to tell them all of the dates you will be in Rome and available to visit; how many of you there are; the names of everyone in your group; and in the case that you are travelling as part of an organisation or larger party, what your relation is (e.g. if it is a parish visit or a college trip). Tours are booked according to language so you need to specify this in your email too to ensure that you can understand your guide.


You may get an email back saying that there is in fact availability for one of your dates, in which case you should respond and the Scavi office will send you out a confirmation. You need to print this confirmation and bring it with you the day of your tour, showing up at least 10 minutes before departure with no big bags or backpacks. There is a free bag check office at St. Peter’s Basilica that will mind your possessions, although small handbags and bum bags are allowed. Approach the Swiss guards stationed at the left of St. Peter’s Basilica who will let you through the barriers and point you towards your guide.


Below and above ground are worlds apart

Below and above ground are worlds apart


Because only 200 people are allowed into the Vatican Necropolis per day in groups with a maximum size of 12 due to space and preservation concerns, demand is high. It is recommended therefore that you email as soon as you have dates for your trip – we’re talking months before you get on the plane – and that you don’t try to re-arrange a visit once it is booked. In some cases you may actually be on the list but not have gotten an email from the Vatican so if you applied in good time and never heard back, it’s worth heading down to the Scavi office once you arrive in Rome to double check.


Admission to the Scavi is €12 and as I said before, it’s worth every penny and pain. Get in a couple of months ahead, get your date sorted and book one of our morning or afternoon Vatican Tours to see the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica too. The gritty maze underneath the temple couldn’t be any more different from the gold-gilded, frescoed wonder inside.


The Capuchin Crypt

The Roman Catacombs, recommended for archaeologists


For those interested in ancient Christian ruins, we would also highly recommend a visit to the Roman Catacombs. Dating back to a time when Nero reportedly burned Christians as nightlights, it’s home to a number of precious early Christian artworks and artifacts as well as miles and miles of individual and family tombs. Our Crypts & Catacombs Tour visits one of these incredible networks as well as Basilica San Clemente where we explore ruins from the 4th, 2nd and 1st century piled one on top of the other underneath the church (hence the name “The Lasagne Church”). We also visit the eerie Bone Chapel (pictured above) where the Capuchin monks have created artworks from the bones of 4,000 of their late brothers.


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