Use this guide to plan your visit to the burial place of Saint Paul just outside of the ancient walls of central Rome in the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, near where Paul was beheaded in the year AD 67. Learn about the life and death of Paul from the mosaics, artwork, and architecture of the basilica. Most importantly, grow in your own faith as you experience a unique closeness with the Apostle Paul in the most important church dedicated to him and to his preaching. Click on the audio bar at the end of this post to listen to an accompanying podcast for even more insights about visiting St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome, Italy.
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4: 6-8, English Standard Version, Bible)
Paul wrote the words above to Timothy during his second imprisonment in Rome between the years AD 64 and AD 67. This was after the great fire of Rome in 64 AD and before the Roman Emperor Nero’s death in AD 68. It is believed that Nero wanted to blame the Christians for the great fire in order to put a stop to rumors that Nero himself had set the fire to clear land for what became his huge new palace in the area of the ruins of the fire. Peter and Paul were the two most important Christians and they were both in Rome, so they were key targets of Nero. Shortly after Paul wrote the words above, he was murdered on the orders of Nero.
Importance of St. Paul
Even more so than visiting Paul’s tomb and learning about his death, as a Christian I cannot imagine visiting Rome and not visiting St. Paul’s Outside the Walls to learn more about the life of the famous apostle. Although St. Paul was not one of the original twelve Apostles who traveled with Jesus during his ministry, he became a follower of Christianity after a conversion experience when he was on the famous road to Damascus. Paul’s ministry became known during his life and later through the second half of the Book of Acts of the Bible, which documents his missionary works. There are also more than a dozen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, making him the most well documented disciple of Christ in the New Testament.
Paul’s writings are arguably the most studied Bible writings of modern times. Even non-Christians often quote Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he reminds us all of the importance of loving one another when he said:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 New International Version (NIV) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13%3A4-8&version=NIV
Vatican UNESCO World Heritage Site
Like St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mura) is operated by the Vatican and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the historic center of Rome and the properties of the Holy See in the city including the Vatican and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. Yet, while both St. Peter and St. Paul contributed greatly to how Christians understand our faith, many Christians only visit St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican when they are visiting Rome. This has not always been so. In years gone by, as many Christians would visit St. Paul’s Outside the Walls as visited St. Peter’s Basilica.
See the UNESCO World Heritage Site Listing for more information about that selection: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/91
St. Paul and St. Peter – Patron Saints of Rome
In fact, in almost every early Christian church, including St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, St. Peter and St. Paul are represented together, regardless of which of these two saints the church is named. When you visit the Vatican, note the huge statues of St. Paul and St. Peter jointly welcoming you at the bottom of the stairs outside of St. Peter’s. Likewise, St. Peter is depicted opposite St. Paul at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. The two patron saints of Rome are celebrated together throughout the city, especially on their joint feast day of celebration each year on Rome’s public holiday of 29th of June.
St. Paul’s Outside the Walls – Hours and Admission
So, be sure to make your way to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls when you visit Rome. It is easy and free to visit. The Basilica is usually open every day from 7.00 am to 6.30 pm. There may be a security check to enter.
Check the “Hours” tab at the official website of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls:
Directions to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls
To get to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls from central Rome using the metro, make your way to the Metro Line B. From there, proceed in the direction of Laurentina to the Basilica San Paolo stop. For example, from the Colosseo Metro Station, take the Metro Line B in the direction of Laurentina 4 stops to Basilica San Paolo (intermediate stops are Circo Massimo, Piramide, and Garbatella).
From the Basilica San Paolo metro station, exit toward Via Ostiense and turn right. Walk about 3 minutes along Via Ostiense, and you will soon come to the Abbey of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls where you will see the basilica’s clock tower, or campanile, at the end of the long sidewall. Turn left at the corner where you will see a park in front of the basilica.
History of the Location of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls
Before you go any further, stop here and think about the history of the location where you are standing just outside of the defensive walls that surrounded Rome in ancient times. In one of the most historically well-documented accounts of early Christians, we know St. Paul was beheaded about two miles from here. Then, a Christian woman named Lucina had Paul’s body buried here on a plot of burial land that she owned where the Basilica is now located. The historian Eusebius noted that the plot was marked, and Christians soon asked to be buried near Paul’s tomb.
When the Emperor Constantine came to power and converted to Christianity in the early fourth century, he had a small basilica built over Paul’s tomb and ordered the apostle’s bones be enclosed in a bronze casket. The church was completed in the year 324 AD. The original basilica was greatly changed and expanded over the years, but in 1823 a fire destroyed almost all of it. It was quickly and faithfully reconstructed.
For more about the history of the location, see the website:http://archivio.traces-cl.com/archive/2000/luglio/paul.html
When you are ready, walk with the park to your right and the basilica to your left until you reach the corner. Then turn left to reach the entry portico of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
Entry to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls is through a four-sided outdoor atrium flanked by seventy Corinthian columns. Before you enter the church, take a minute to look at the white Carrara marble statue of St. Paul. Note that St. Paul is slightly stooped forward as he would have been toward the end of his life after he had suffered imprisonment and torture. He is depicted holding his sword. Because St. Paul was beheaded, most depictions of him include his sword.
Since St. Paul is usually shown with St. Peter, look for St. Peter to be holding keys when you try to distinguish them. The keys represent the fact that when Jesus was resurrected, he transferred the keys to the earthly church to Peter. Look at the front façade of the building above and behind the statue of St. Paul, and you will see a beautiful mosaic of St. Peter holding keys and St. Paul with his sword flanking Jesus in the middle. Four Old Testament leaders, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, are included in the mosaic in the lower section.
You will enter the basilica through a door that contains parts of an earlier door built in the 11th century. Another entrance, the golden bronze Holy Door, is opened only during Jubilee years as announced by the Pope.
The interior opens to a single cavernous nave lined with columned aisles. There are four rows of twenty granite columns. Look above the columns to see paintings of each of the popes, starting with Saint Peter through Pope Francis. At the end of the row of the portraits of the popes is an arch with Saint Paul on the left and Saint Peter on the right.
Walk under the arch toward the high altar. The Venetian mosaic above the altar in the apse was created in 1226. It replaced an original mosaic from the fifth century. Christ sits on the throne accompanied by Peter, Paul, Andrew and Luke.
Tomb of St. Paul and Chains of St. Paul
The tomb of St. Paul is located in a marble sarcophagus in a crypt beneath the altar. As you approach the altar, you will immediately notice the chains that attached St. Paul to the Roman soldier assigned to guard him while he was imprisoned in Rome before his death. Pope Leo the Great mentioned the chains in the fifth century.
Below the chains, the tomb of St. Paul is visible behind a window like opening. Over the years of the changes to the basilica, the tomb had become less accessible. Over time, it ended up about 4 feet (1.3 meters) below the surface of the current floor. Before recent excavations visitors could only stick their heads in a small opening and look down a vertical hole toward mortar that covered the tomb.
But, in the year 2000, the Catholic Church celebrated what it called the Jubilee 2000. Christians from all over the world visited Rome and Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. They were disappointed at how difficult it was to see Paul’s tomb, so excavations began to open up the window that is seen today. Excavations have revealed an inscription on the marble tombstone bearing the Latin words “Paulo Apostolo Mart,” which translates to “Apostle Paul, Martyr.” A tiny hole drilled in the coffin revealed traces of a purple linen cloth, laminated with pure gold, and a blue colored textile with filaments of linen. Fragments of bone were subjected to Carbon 14 tests by experts and were dated to someone who lived in the 1st or 2nd century.
Read more about the Tomb of St. Paul and the history of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls:
The Independent (article):
Bible Archaeology (article): http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/10/08/New-Discoveries-Relating-to-the-Apostle-Paul.aspx#Article
Altar of the Conversion
Walk over to the side of the basilica to the Altar of the Conversion with the large painting above it of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The blocks of malachite and lapis lazuli stone here were donated by Czar Nicholas 1st of Russia after the fire in the 19th century for the rebuilding of the basilica.
Easter (Paschal) Candle Stand
Be sure to see the Paschal Candle Stand that also survived the 19thcentury fire. The candle symbolizes Jesus Christ as the “light of the world” and is lit each year during the weeks that follow Easter. The large candle stand is over 15 feet (5.6 meters) tall and dates to the year 1170 AD. It is divided into sections showing both Biblical scenes and secular scenes.
Schedule for a Perfect Day in Rome including a Visit to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls
Perhaps because of its connection to Nero who ordered the beheading of Paul, it seems fitting to begin the day at the Coliseum. So, on my recent visit to Rome with my daughter, Melanie, who I call “Millennial Mel” on my podcasts, we did just that. We began our day out of Rome to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls with a morning skip-the-line tour of the floor of the Coliseum. Then, we had lunch looking out at the Coliseum before departing from the Colosseo Metro Station for our afternoon visit to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
Begin with a Tour of the Coliseum
We began our perfect day with a morning tour of the coliseum. We were able to stop at the Christian cross on the floor of the Coliseum as we reflected on the suffering of Paul and other Christians who were persecuted in Rome.
Nero and the Coliseum
As I mentioned, many people blamed Nero for starting the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, because soon after the fire he began building a large palace on the land cleared by the fire. So, Nero decided to blame the fire on the Christians. When Nero’s palace was completed it had a man-made lake in front of it where the Coliseum of Rome now stands. In front of the lake and palace was a huge statue of Nero himself. The statue was so large that the Romans called the statue a “colossus”.
After Nero’s death, the Emperor Flavius built the amphitheatre over the lake to provide entertainment for the people and to help the people see that he was different from the self-centered Emperor Nero who had ordered the deaths of so many, including Saint Paul. The Romans would tell people to go to the games by the “Colosseo,” meaning the statue of Nero. The name remains today as visitors from all over the world come to visit the Coliseum built by Emperor Flavius.
While you are at the Coliseum look for the base of the colossal statue of Nero there. Here is more information about it:
Read more about the Emperor Nero here:
Lunch at the Royal Art Café
After we visited the Coliseum and after our guide walked us to our skip-the-line tour of the Forum, we had lunch overlooking the Coliseum at the Royal Art Café before taking the metro to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. The Royal Art Café is also open for dinner, so another option is to visit St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and then end your perfect day at the café when you return on the metro.
Eternal City Tours
I have visited St. Paul’s Outside the Walls on my own and, most recently, with the not-for-profit Eternal City Tours, a company dedicated to giving factual information about Christian sites. We met our guide at the balcony above the Colloseo Metro Station looking right out at the coliseum. I particularly liked visiting St. Paul’s Outside the Walls with Eternal City Tours, because our guide was able to provide factual information about the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and about the life of St. Paul as we visited the site. Our guide also helped us navigate the metro, and he guided us to other Christian sites in Rome in a short time on our “Saints Peter and Paul” tour. I don’t receive any commission from the company, but I can recommend them based on my personal experience. You can check them out here:
Eternal City Tours of the Coliseum can be found here:
A full list of Eternal City Tours can be found here – https://eternalcitytours.com/en/2/Christian-Pilgrim-Tours-Of-Rome-Italy.
You may want to consider their Passion of Christ Tour to see the relics of Christ’s Passion. See more about that tour here: https://booking.eternalcitytours.com/Tours/Passion-of-Christ-Pilgrimage-Tour/en/39. Note that although the body of St Paul is in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, his head (and the head of St Peter) are contained in Rome’s cathedral – the Arch Basilica of St John Lateran, one of the places visited on the Passion of Christ Tour.
I began this post by quoting Paul in his letter to Timothy where he states in 2 Timothy 4: 6, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering…” as he contemplates his life. I reflected on that verse as I wrote this post and put together the podcast below with my daughter, Melanie. Visiting St. Paul’s Outside the Walls has inspired me to learn more about Paul and how his life continues to be poured out in the message of faith and peace in a life well-lived that he left for me to learn from and follow.
I wanted to learn more about Paul’s life and how he came to Rome, so I bought an Audible.com audiobook, “Paul’s Long Road to Rome,” a collection of sermons by Skip Heitzig. It is over 14 hours, and I only had to use one Audible credit. (I don’t get any commission from Audible.) I have really enjoyed listening while I walk each day.
I would love to hear your thoughts about St. Paul’s Outside the Walls or your thoughts about the life of Paul. I am always trying to learn more about my faith as I travel and as I meet others through my travels and my writing.
Remember to listen to the accompanying podcast by clicking on the audio bar below to hear more about the perfect day my daughter Melanie and I had in Rome when we visited the Coliseum and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. Until next time, I hope all your travel days are just perfect!
Podcast: One Perfect Day in Travel