No matter how you decide to go, you will get a lot of exercise. Option one is to climb the entire 551 steps to the top. Option two ( my choice) you cut the trip down to 320 steps. Most people took the elevator to the 320 step route. Hours are from 08:00 – 17:00 from October to March 31st. From April to September 30th, it is open till 18:00. Keep in mind, it is a climb and make sure you are in reasonable physical condition.
It gets a little tight on the staircase.
On the way up there are several viewing locations.
This was an early morning visit in September..
As I zoom into the mosaics the details will become visible.
How detailed they are.
Now on to the top.
360 degree views of Vatican City and Rome
Many details of the basilica become visible when you are on top.
At the end of the trip catch the stairs to the elevator an complete your tour of the basilica at your leisure. The rope serves as a handrail.
Cost for your excursion is 5 Euros if you climb, and 7 if you wish to take the partial ride in the elevator. I arrived at about 08:15 with no lines. It was worth the climb. Look for the signs directing you to the cupola as you enter and there will be a ticket booth.