The Vatican City, one of the most sacred places in Christendom, is home to the pope and the Roman Curia. Though it is one of the smallest cities in the world, there is so much to do and see here. To help you plan better, here’s a complete Vatican City guide with the best of what the city has to offer. Get the most out of your trip with this in-depth guide.
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Introduction To The Holiest City In The World
Located in the heart of Rome, Vatican City has been central to the Catholic Church since the earliest days of Christianity. Though Vatican City is in Rome it is an independent city-state, ruled by the Pope which has its own government, laws, administration, and infrastructure. They became independent from the rest of Rome in 1929 after the signing of the Lateran Treaty. Although small in size (0.17 square miles), it is an extremely popular tourist attraction as it is home to some of the most impressive art pieces in the world. An estimate of over 5 million visitors come to this sacred place every year.
Some Interesting Facts About The Vatican City
- The Vatican City area is small in size, it is probably the only country in the world that can be covered in less than one hour by foot.
- As per the UN’s World Population Prospects, the population of Vatican City is 806 people.
- The crime rate is surprisingly high here, however, you will be shocked to know that this place has no prison.
- Italian is the official language of Vatican City but the Holy See uses Latin as its official language.
- Vatican Bank ATMs are the only ones in the world that offer instructions in Latin alongside English, French, and other languages.
- Well-dressed Pontifical Swiss Guards, in their colorful striped uniforms, are responsible for protecting the Pope of Vatican City. They are all Catholic single males between the age of 19 and 30.
- No one can be a permanent citizen of the Vatican by birth. Citizenship is granted on the grounds of appointment to work only and the citizenship is stripped away when the appointment ceases.
- In 1984 the entire Vatican City was designated as a World Heritage site.
- The Vatican Museums have 120,000 pieces of art of which only 70,000 pieces of the collection are on display.
- Saint Peter’s Basilica and Square was built on an enormous chariot-racing track that was built during the reigns of Caligula and Nero between the 30s – 50s AD.
- Vatican City was known to have produced some of the worst wines of antiquity. Drinking Vatican wine is as good as drinking venom.
- The Swiss Guards are among the oldest military units still in operation, they have served the Vatican’s armed forces and as Pope’s personal protection for over 500 years.
- Black smoke from the furnace in the Sistine Chapel symbolizes the conclave’s failure to elect a pope, while the white smoke represents the election of a new pope.
What Not To Miss At The Vatican
Discover this eternal city with our pick of the top attractions that you just cannot miss. Read on to explore what Vatican City has to offer with this in-depth guide.
A place that definitely takes the top spot on your list while visiting the Vatican City is the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel or the Cappella Magna was built between 1473 and 1481. This is the place where both religious and official ceremonies of the Pope are held. It is a site where the new pope is elected. The main reason why Sistine Chapel attracts millions of tourists from all over the world is to see the Renaissance frescoes on the ceiling of the Chapel by Michelangelo. His unique paintings on the Chapel ceiling and on the west wall behind the altar are splendid. Michelangelo was so passionate about painting that he worked day and night, all alone for eight years to complete this massive project. His paintings are mostly incidents and personages from the Old Testament. Please note that there is no photography allowed inside the Sistine Chapel.
St. Peter’s Square
Saint Peter’s Square is one of the grandest public squares in Europe from where one can get a great view of Saint Peter’s Basilica and a central part of Vatican City. It was redesigned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, under the guidance of Pope Alexander VII, in such a way that the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing while standing here. Besides its size the most impressive part of the beautiful oval square are its 284 columns and 88 pilasters. On top of these columns are 140 statues of various saints created by the disciples of Bernini. Walking around Saint Peter’s square while taking pictures of this columns are best things to do while you visit the Vatican.
The Vatican Museums is one of the top museums in the world that has the best art and artifact collections, all under one roof. From Renaissance wall paintings to Gallery of Maps and everything in between, the museums contain some of the greatest works of art in the world. More than 70,000 pieces from ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, until the modern times will give you a chance to experience one of a kind art collection. Ancient mosaics, ceiling decoration, statue filled courtyards, Egyptian mummies, optical illusions, Etruscan bronzes are worth checking out. It would take days to see all of the objects on display, hence check and visit museums that interest you. The Vatican Museums is a must-visit for any art lover, culture tourist, history buffs, and the religious alike.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Probably one of the holiest sites in the world, this impressive Renaissance church is said to be built on the burial site of Saint Peter, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. Everything about the Vatican City churches is breathtaking as every minute detail was well planned and executed. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, all credits to its master designers Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael and Bramante. Be prepared for a jaw-dropping experience as the interiors of the church are covered with famous art pieces, marble, gilt, exquisite carvings, colorful mosaics and precious relics. The enormous altar over the tomb of St. Peter and the tombs of dozens of Popes is what makes this place so special.
Receive Blessings From The Pope
The Papal Audience in Piazza San Pietro every Wednesday morning (if The Pope is in Rome) is a chance for the Vatican visitors to see The Pope and receive his blessings. On this day the Pope greets pilgrims and gives a series of small teachings in Italian, English and many other languages. The Pope ends the event with a joint prayer in Latin and thereafter gives the Papal Blessing. Tickets for the Papal Audience can be pre-booked online or can be picked up from the Swiss Guards a day before the event. If you missed Wednesday don’t be disappointed, The Holy Father appears from the Papal Palace window to bless the visitors and pilgrims on Sunday noon. The Vatican offices are normally closed during August, so Papal Audiences are not held during this time. For more information on the Popes schedule, please check the Papal Audience website.
How To Get Around The Vatican City
As Vatican City is located in the heart of Rome it is easily accessible either by foot, metro or by bus.
By Foot – Walking to Vatican City is a delight as you’ll find something interesting along the way, everything is within the walkable range. To reach the top 2 attractions: 35-minute walk to St. Peter’s Square and 15 minutes’ walk to the entrance of the Vatican Museums, isn’t that cool!
By Metro – There are two metro stations located just outside of the Vatican walls: Ottaviano and Cipro, which are each just a few minutes’ walk to the Vatican.
By Bus – Bus 40, 49 and 64 stop near the Vatican City. Most frequent of them is the bus 40 and 64 that depart from Roma Termini. Bus No 40 stops at Piazza Pia, which is right next to the Vatican and a few minutes walking distance from St. Peter’s Square. Bus 49 stops in the square right in front of the Vatican Museums.
What Not To Do When Visiting The Vatican
Whether you are here for a day, two days or longer, it’s always good to research about the place and understand what to do and what not to do so that you can make the most of your trip. Here is a quick list of mistakes to avoid while visiting the Vatican:
Don’t Waste Time Standing In Long Queues – Thousands of visitors flock to The Vatican to see one of the most significant religious sites in the world. The lines to enter the Vatican Museums in different areas are endless at any given time of the day. With so many museums to cover in a short time it is always better to book your tickets in advance rather than wasting time standing in long queues. Book your tickets online for a specific date and time to make your visit smooth and experience happy.
Do Not Arrive In Vatican At Mid-Day – From Monday to Saturday, The Vatican Museums open from 9am to 6pm. Generally it is during the mid-day the crowd reaches a high, so it is highly recommended to get there a few minutes earlier before the doors open. If you are not an early bird, you could also plan a visit later in the day when the crowds have thinned out. Keep in mind that though the Museums officially shut down at 6pm, entry to the museums are closed by 4pm.
Do Not Dress Inappropriately – Don’t take the risk of being turned away because you weren’t dressed appropriately. The Vatican follows a strictly enforced dress code, even their official website says that only “appropriately dressed visitors” will be allowed to enter. All visitors are screened by guards at the entrance. Avoid low cut, sleeveless clothing, shorts, miniskirts and inappropriate slogans or graphics on clothing. Always carry a scarf or wrap to cover up and keep shoulders and knees covered.
Avoid Visits During High Season And Weekends – Firstly, some Vatican Museums are closed on Sundays and some on Mondays. So use the weekend to see an off-the-beaten-path attraction in Rome and keep your visit to the Vatican Museums between Tuesday and Friday. Secondly, the Vatican peak season officially runs from June to August. So if you are on a budget trip, avoid these months. Another advantage of avoiding the peak season is you can enjoy the Vatican completely crowd-free.
Don’t See Vatican City Without A Guided Tour – You can always visit the Vatican on your own, however there are many advantages of taking a guide along. Firstly, a guided tour makes your visit more focused to important places and you won’t wander around aimlessly. Seeing all of these magnificent pieces with detailed real context can add more value to your experience. There are some cool facts about the Vatican and the art pieces exhibited, that only a guide can give.
Not Spending Enough Time At The Vatican – Don’t make the mistake of seeing the Vatican in just a couple of hours. You don’t want to miss out on some beautiful sights by rushing through your visit, right! There are a number of iconic parts of the Vatican that you should take your time and enjoy, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Half a day or even a full day is good enough to appreciate the real beauty that lies within the Vatican.
Suggested Reads: Don’t Miss These Amazing Historical Sites in Rome
Not just Catholics, everyone can explore and discover this wonderful place. The Vatican City is a must visit destination if you’re visiting Italy. Hope this handy guide will help you plan and make the most of your trip. If we have missed your favorite, do mention them in the comments below.
No, you don’t need a ticket to enter Vatican City, however, you will need to book tickets online for St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums.
April to October when the weather is usually comfortable with few crowds are the best times to visit. Wintertime in December is also a great time to visit if you can handle the cold. Due to cold months and the Christmas season, the place is generally quiet and not very crowded.
With so many museums and miles of historical masterpieces to see, hiring a tour guide is a good idea as he will ensure you visit all the most important places and learn its fascinating histories.
As The Vatican is a religious state there is a basic dressing code for both men and women. People not dressed appropriately may be denied entry. Visitors carrying personal objects or personal signs, such as jewelry, tattoos that may offend the Catholic religion will also be denied entry.
You can see most of the main sights at the Vatican in a day, however two days will be a good time to explore and wander through the many Vatican museum’s corridors.
There are a few different ways to see the Pope close and personal and each opportunity is officially free.