If you are in Rome then you should not miss a visit to the smallest country in the world – Vatican City. With only 1000 inhabitants, Vatican City was founded in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Pacts, which allowed the Vatican to exist as its own sovereign state. The Papal States which had been in existence since the days of emperors Pepin and Charlemagne, were no more. Thanks to Garibaldi, they were now part of modern day Italy. Vatican City was all that remained, but received some very generous financial compensation from the Italian government for its territorial losses.
Vatican City has amazing appeal in terms of history, politics, art, and architecture. While there’s a lot in Vatican City, most of the best places for tourists to see in this tiny sovereign state are in the Vatican Museums.
While the museums are one of the best attractions in Vatican City, you may also find them incredibly overwhelming. Wear your walking shoes and be prepared to spend hours and hours walking the halls. You could spend an entire day in the museums alone!
You may want to plan two days in Vatican City so you can dedicate the second one to St. Peter’s Basilica and other attractions – we spent about one day at Vatican City and it was great to get a good overview – but it was kind of overwhelming.
If you thought that Dubai is ostentatious and all about being pomp and wealth, then wait till you visit Vatican City. You will find that this tiny country, home of the Pope, is the epitome of grandeur and wealth.
Even if you visit at the end of January, which is off-season, you’ll be surprised to see how busy it still is. You may be skeptical about whether you really need a “skip the line ticket” because you may think that it’s just about paying extra. But it really does help you to skip lines. Even in off-season the lines are very long – people wanting to visit the St. Peter’s Basilica (which is free) are as long as the line of those wanting to visit the museum (which you need a ticket for).
So, before talking about the main reasons to visit Vatican City, here are some travel tips for those going there.
Looking for some of the best Vatican City travel tips?
- Get the “skip the line” Vatican City pass so you don’t end up in endlessly long cues. It will save you a lot of time.
- Wear comfortable shoes. If you have any issues with walking for a sustained period of time, rent a wheelchair (for free). The Vatican Museums have very few benches where you can rest — and you don’t want to lean on ancient art!
- If you want to go to the Dome of St. Peter’s, you’ll need tickets and a reservation. Make this far in advance.
- Dress appropriately. If you do go in summer, you won’t be allowed to enter the buildings of the city unless you cover your shoulders, and you can’t wear shorts or miniskirts.
- Leave yourself enough time. While yes, you can make a very long day of it and see the basilica and the Vatican Museums, you’ll miss out on a lot from rushing and won’t have much time to eat!
It’s tempting to cringe at the grandeur and decadence portrayed throughout Vatican City: The amount of money that went into the building and now maintaining the property is financially astronomical and even sickening. And although that’s unsettling, the vast array of art and history preserved by the Catholic Church is astounding. In a day and age where museums are struggling to keep the doors open, it’s encouraging to see such a diverse collection of artifacts on display.
Vatican City Main Attractions
Here are some place that you want to include in your “to do” list.
An art-lover will enjoy a tour through the four Raphael Rooms.
Some of the rooms were painted by the artist himself, while others were completed by his students in his style. His “School of Athens,” a fresco you’ve probably seen in textbooks, is there to admire in person. The painting is meant to embody “Philosophy” and in the center, you see Plato and Aristotle in the discussion.
While, yes, the Sistine Chapel and the art on the ceiling is all Biblical, it’s also breathtaking and famous.
One of the best places to see in Vatican City has to be this masterpiece by Michelangelo. I once read a biography of Michelangelo and ever since then I have become fascinated by him. So, reading a biography might not be a bad way to prepare a bit for your Vatican City trip.
The Sistine Chapel seems to be one of the only places in Rome where there is no talking and no picture-taking allowed. The guards are serious about enforcing that. It’s a good place for some quiet reflection and appreciation of truly fantastic art that must have been a pain in the neck to create.
It’s true! There are two mummies in the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, along with other artifacts reflecting the art and architecture of the Egyptian peoples and other ancient Near East civilizations.
You’ll find ancient Sumerian Cuneiform tablets that are nearly four thousand years old, the Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II, which is more than 2,500 years old, as well as a hemicycle of granite statues from different ages. If you didn’t read up on the what to see in Vatican City ahead of time, this exhibit will probably surprise – and delight – you.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Come for the architecture and the view. The magnificent dome of St. Peter´ Basilica offers more amazing work by Michelangelo, and the church as a whole features a unique blend of Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
It’s undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Vatican City. It’s free to enter, unless you want to pay for the amazing view from the dome, which is worth it. St. Peter’s Basilica is the focal point of the entire city state, and it’s one of the largest churches in the world, able to hold some 60,000 people. St. Peter’s Square is equally as grand with 284 columns surrounding the elliptical courtyard in front of the basilica.
There is an entry fee to get to the top.
You can either climb all stairs go get up, or take the lift and get out after a few levels and then climb the stairs to get to the top. You will have to pay right at the lift, which costs a bit more than if you choose to climb all the stairs by yourself.
Located inside St. Peter’s, this is undoubtedly religious sculptured art crafted by the master Michelangelo.
It depicts the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ and is remarkably the only work Michelangelo ever signed. Because of an attack in the 1970s that took off part of Mary’s nose and her arm, the sculpture is now behind bulletproof glass.
Regardless of your religious views, a sculpture depicting a mother holding her dead son is moving and knowing that it was made by the famous Michelangelo makes it worth viewing.
Maybe this seems like a trivial thing to include when describing things to do in Vatican City, but walking down this amazing staircase is a fun experience.
It’s designed as a double-helix (like DNA) with one staircase leading up, and the other down, but never intersecting. It’s one of the most photographed staircases in the world, so it’s certainly worth a look, although going down it after walking a large portion of the 9 miles of museums can make your legs feel a bit wobbly.
Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis
Where to go in Vatican City? If you haven’t had your fill of ruins during your stay in Rome, then taking a special tour of this ancient Roman burial ground may be of interest.
You’ll walk along modern terraces and that gives you a full view of the excavated site, filled with now-open tombs of Roman citizens. Be warned! There are real skeletons in there!.
What’s remarkable is that you can still see the painted interior of one tomb.
There is so much art within the 9 miles of the Vatican Museums that it’s hard to pick just a few pieces to focus on.
However, the Laocoön, a famous sculpture depicting the death-by-sea-serpent of the Trojan priest who warned his people about the Trojan horse deception, is a brilliant marble copy of the bronze original sculpture worth stopping to admire in the Octagonal Court.
The Gallery of Maps
This is also part of the Vatican Museums where you’ll find the two walls of a long hallway that is frescoed with topographical maps of Italy.
The hallway is bright and beautiful and the maps are truly gorgeous, even if only about 80% accurate. It has a different feel than the rest of the Vatican Museums, and allows one to appreciate a different type of art. This has been one of the most stunning places in Vatican City.
The marble statue of the young god Apollo has been in the Vatican since at least 1508, and is a 2nd century A.D. copy of a 330 B.C. bronze original.
Why this statue out of all the hundreds of marble creations in the Vatican? According to German art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, “of all the works of antiquity that have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo represents the highest ideal of art.” Now that’s a compliment! It also stands around Nero’s red porphyry bathtub, something worth seeing on its own merits.
If you go during the northern hemisphere winter, you won’t be able to fully appreciate the Vatican Gardens. But if your visit takes place when plants and trees are blooming then you’ll get to experience a variety of wonderful and ornate fountains and relative quiet.
They only allow a certain number of reservations per day, so unlike the can’t-breathe-claustrophobia of the Sistine Chapel, the rolling shaded walkways of the gardens will be a relief from the crowds. Cactus gardens, grottos, trees, shrubbery and views of St. Peter’s dome make this possibly one of the most beautiful places in Vatican City.
So whether you’re religious or not, Vatican City is definitely worth your time. When in Rome make sure to add Vatican City to your itinerary and if you’re into attractive looking doors, then you’ll receive an extra bonus.
Acknowledgements: Arzo Travels
For further reading on visiting The Vatican, this article on the Vatican City Dress Code might interest you.