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The Vatican Scavi Tour: Visiting the Necropolis of St. Peter’s Basilica

Traveling has always been one of my passions. I love the excitement of seeing new places and the thrill of experiencing different cultures.

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter's Square

If you are visiting the Vatican as part of a trip to Italy, there is a little-known tour given by the Vatican that is worth taking. Called the Scavi Tour, this 90-minute guided tour takes visitors down into the lowest levels of St. Peter's Basilica. This is not the “grotto” area that lies just beneath St. Peter's where the monuments, chapels, and tombs of past Popes and Italian dignitaries lie. The Scavi Tour goes down below the grotto to an area known as the “necropolis.”

What significance does this newly excavated area hold, and why would one want to visit? In addition to being the site of an ancient pagan and Christian cemetery and burial ground from the 1st century, this is the presumed location of Saint Peter’s burial tomb. That’s right, Saint Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ and the first recognized leader and Pope of the Catholic Church. This is perhaps the most sacred site within Vatican City, and amazingly you can now visit it.

Vatican City

Layout of the Necropolis

Layout of the Necropolis under the Grotto and St. Peter's Basilica

Layout of the Necropolis under the Grotto and St. Peter's Basilica

How to Visit the Necropolis

So how does one get to visit this sacred and revered area? You will need to plan ahead, as the Vatican only allows about 250 people per day to visit the necropolis. The only way to get down there is with a Vatican led tour, and each group is limited to approximately twelve visitors.

As you have probably already surmised, this is becoming a very popular and sought-after ticket, so you will need to request a reservation well in advance of your visit. Requests should be made in writing via e-mail or you can visit the Excavations Office at the Vatican in person, which may be difficult if you are traveling from outside of Rome.

For our visit we made the request via e-mail approximately three months prior to our visit. This tour is becoming very popular as more and more people find out about it, and I suggest that you make your request to the Vatican as soon as you have travel plans in place. The Vatican is very strict about limiting the number of visitors to the necropolis, and you don’t want to miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Excavations (Scavi) Office entrance

Excavations (Scavi) Office entrance

The Hottest Ticket in Vatican City

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This Excavations Office website will guide you through the ticket-buying process. Once you make your request, be patient as it can take a few weeks to hear back.

When making your request you MUST include the following information:

  1. Exact number of visitors.
  2. Full name of each member of your group.
  3. What language you would like the tour to be in.
  4. The possible dates that you are available to take the tour, listing more than one date will help to increase your chances. Date must be submitted in the following format: 23 December 2014.
  5. Your e-mail address, fax number or a postal address.

Send your request to: scavi@fsp.va, or if you prefer by fax to: +39 06 69873017

Final Resting Place of St. Peter?

The necropolis was excavated in the 1930s and 1940s and it was at this time that the remains of a tall, slender man were uncovered here.

After intense study and debate, the Vatican has determined these remains to be those of St. Peter, upon which the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica sits.

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The official declaration was made in 1968 by Pope Paul VI who declared the remains and burial site to be those of St. Peter.

Interior of a Roman Tomb in the Necropolis

Interior of a Roman Tomb in the Necropolis

Reconstruction of the area around St. Peter's Tomb

Reconstruction of the area around St. Peter's Tomb

Tour Information

The cost to take the Scavi Tour is 13 euro per person, and you will be asked to submit a credit card once your reservation has been approved. Be aware that you must be 15 years old or older so no children are allowed on this tour.

Before you go through all the trouble of arranging this tour, please be advised that the conditions in the necropolis are very different from the rest of St. Peter’s Basilica. There is no air conditioning down there and the air can be very warm and humid. Also, most of the floor is dirt and stone and some of the spaces can be somewhat confining. Because you are entering a very sacred site you must be dressed respectfully, which means shoulders must be covered, long pants for men, and nothing above the knee for women. You are not allowed to bring large bags or backpacks with you, and cameras and photos are absolutely prohibited, which is why I have no photos to share with you from our tour.

Roman Tomb close to St. Peter's Tomb

Roman Tomb close to St. Peter's Tomb

Arrive Early

On the day of your tour you will need to arrive at least ten minutes prior to your assigned tour time. If you are like me you will arrive even earlier, just in case you get lost. There is a free bag check office at St. Peter’s to store your belongings but plan on travelling lightly on the day of your tour. The entrance to the Excavations office is through the colonnade to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica. You will have to go through a Swiss Guard station and they can help to point you to the Excavations Office. Don’t be intimidated, they’re only human and very helpful.

Despite the restrictions and the somewhat uncomfortable conditions our tour of the necropolis was absolutely one of the highlights of our visit to Italy. Hearing the history of the ancient burial place and the clues and evidence that led the Vatican to determine that this was indeed the final resting place of Saint Peter is a truly remarkable story. In addition to St. Peters tomb there are a number of other Christian tombs, burial vaults, frescoes, mosaics and mausoleums from the second century BC and this makes for a fascinating historical tour. Plan ahead, arrive early, and enjoy your tour of one of the most sacred sites of Christianity.

Ciao for now.

Questions & Answers

Question: This is my first time in Italy. We have confirmed SCAVI tour tickets. Do we need to buy tix to St Peter’s to get to where the entrance to the tour is? Or is a ticket to Scavi is enough? I am just confused on where we enter.

Answer: Your Scavi tour ticket is all you will need. The entrance for the tour is to the left of the cathedral if you are facing it. The Swiss Guards will check your ticket and then allow you to enter the area where the Scavi Office is located. If you have trouble locating it just ask one of the guards. Enjoy the tour, it is fascinating.

Question: I already have a tour of the Vatican. Should I still keep that tour along with the Scavi tour?

Answer: Yes, they are two entirely different tours. The Scavi Tour will take you down to the necropolis, which very few people get to see. A normal tour of the Vatican will likely include the Basilica, the grottoes, maybe the museum, etc. Tickets to the Scavi Tour are limited to only 250 people per day.

Question: Last time I went on the Vatican Scavi Tour in 2014 we were taken up into the Basilica at the end to avoid the long queues. Is this still the case?

Answer: Yes, after the tour they take you to the Grottos area and from there you have access into the Basilica.

Question: Are there handicapped facilities such as elevator or sloped walkways on the Scavi tour?

Answer: Unfortunately, the Scavi tour that goes down to the Necropolis is not handicapped accessible. The floors are dirt and/or brick as are the walls and ceiling. It's very basic and still in an excavation mode. The papal tombs are handicapped accessible and I would highly recommend visiting. There is an elevator to get there and the floors are smooth marble and very clean.

Question: My husband is very large. Is the Necropolis of St. Peter's Basilica too confining?

Answer: It is somewhat confining down there. Very low ceiling, narrow walkways, and the floor is dirt and stone. You can try contacting the Scavi Office there to see if the accessibility has been improved in the last year or so. But, I will say that it is fascinating and was definitely worth the effort.

Question: How long does the Scavi Tour last?

Answer: The Scavi Tour lasts approximately 90 minutes. Probably the most interesting 90 minutes that can be spent in the Vatican. Truly fascinating.

Question: Is a separate ticket needed to tour the Basilica after the Scavi Tour?

Answer: No, touring the Basilica is free. The Scavi Tour actually ends in the Basilica so no need to wait in another line. Prior to going on the Scavi Tour, they will do a security check so there is no need to have another check done to enter the Basilica.

© 2014 Bill De Giulio

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