The smallest country in the world with less than a square kilometer in area, having its own police force, army and diplomatic corps, Vatican City sits as an island within the Rome city limits separated by a wall. The state was established in the middle ages, and was obliterated in the 19th century under the Italian state, but was finally re-established in 1929 in lieu of the Lateran Treaty between the Italian state and the Holy See.
Suggested Time Spent: 5 Hours | Admission: €40.00+ for Adults | Hours: Varies (Check details here)
Roaming around the St. Peter’s Basilica you will spot guards in their fancy dresses; they are the Swiss Guards. Originally founded in the 16th century by Julius II for Pope’s personal security, their evocative uniforms designed by Michaelangelo himself has remained the same for five centuries.
Top things to see
As you enter through the doors of the Vatican, you will be guided through the museums and the gardens, eventually making way to the St. Peter’s square. While you can roam around as much as you want, it is difficult to come back to Sistine Chapel without a tour group, so take your time while there. We list out some of the key attractions –
St. Peter’s Basilica
Possibly the most iconic of the buildings, the dome visible from afar, St. Peter’s Basilica sits at the top of the St. Peter’s square. This is where the heart of Christianity has resided for two thousand years. Constantine, converted to Christianity, built a basilica at the spot where St. Peter was martyred. First residence of the Bishop was also built here in the 500’s. Over time this grew in size, and use of the basilica has evolved. Many famous artists including Raphael, Michaelangelo, Bramante and Carlo Maderno were commissioned to enhance the beauty and dominant structures.
It was in 1600’s when Bernini built the huge piazza (see below) and the current intricate facade of the Basilica. Top of the dome, commissioned by Michaelangelo is accessible by 500 steps. At the top of the facade, there are equestrian statues of Constantine , first Christian Emperor and first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. There are five entrances to the Basilica, each with its own flamboyant artistry.
Feel free to ditch the tour group as you enter the majestic Basilica, the biggest Christian Church, and your jaw drops admiring the incredible detail and peaceful vastness. Pieta by Michaelangelo and the Statue of St. Peter are remarkable. You won’t miss the gigantic Baroque structure in bronze, Baldachin by Bernini. Under this structure is the Tomb of St. Peter.
Piazza San Pietro
An elliptical area harmoniously open to the heavens and an obelisk with the True Cross at its peak reaching up to the heavens, St. Peter’s Square has been the center of Christianity for centuries. Featured in many popular movies, this piazza is flocked by tourists all the time. This is where the papal audience swarms in and the faithful cheer on during the pope election process.
On the perimeter, you will find astonishing colonnades by Bernini with 284 Doric pillars and 140 statues set in perfect harmony. There are two remarkable fountains as well on either side of the obelisk. From the end of the piazza, the triangular roof of the Sistine Chapel along with the famous chimney is also visible.
Our first glimpse of the inside of the Sistine Chapel was a mixed bag of awe for the number of masterpieces all around, and the smaller than expected size of it. From the novels and movies, it appeared larger; but in no means the grandeur of the artwork alone dumbstruck us. About 40 meters long, 20 meters high and 13 meters wide, it was built in the 15th century sort of imitating Noah’s Ark. Frescoes in the walls contain scenes from Life of Moses to Life of Jesus by Botticelli, Signorelli, Perugino and
Pinturicchio. The greatest masterpieces though are in the ceiling – by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. The gigantic biblical scenes, executed by the artist alone, including a variety of poses ranging from the Creation and Original Sin to Redemption. The most iconic is the Creation of Adam where the divine finger is almost touching the first man. The other significant work worth mentioning here is the Last Judgement in the wall made up of 390 naked yet uniquely posing figures surrounding the Christ and the Judge.
On and around the Basilica, you will walk through different halls within the Vatican Museum. The intricate artwork and vivid paintings in the hallways and staircases will overwhelm you in minutes. I tried taking notes, but could not keep pace. From what I could recall, over time, the Vatican museums have accumulated so much worth of antiquities, from Egyptian and medieval tapestries to Renaissance paintings, that it is humanely impossible to admire in one go. See below some pictures, though admittedly they do not do justice.
The Gallery of Maps on your way to the Raphael rooms is one of our favorites. It boasts topographical maps of the Italian peninsula from a 16th century perspective. If looked at carefully, you will find intricate historical evidence (e.g. Malta being part of Italy) and that history is written by winners. The vaulted ceilings, however, with its vibrant colors steal the thunder easily.
Before entering the Raphael rooms through the narrow corridor, look out of the balcony to the Belvedere Courtyard which was home to Pope Julius II. But surprise! Its a parking lot now, and looking at those fancy Alpha Romeos will suddenly bring you back to reality from appreciating the splendor inside. But keep walking to the incredible Raphael Rooms where 16th century renaissance masterclasses by Raphael are embellished on the vaulted ceilings and the walls. I would list down the paintings here, but it is a rather long and arduous task which I’d like to refrain from lest the reader loses interest.
- More than 15,000 people on average visit Vatican city every day! So expect things to get a bit crowded.
- Because of the same reason above, there is a queue every day at the entrance to the Vatican Museums. The wait times can be up to 5 hours at its worst. So, definitely buy the tickets online.
- Even with a ‘skip the line’ kind of ticket, the tour groups in a guided tour are not small, and in the crowd it becomes difficult to follow. Instead be an early bird and get there before 7:30 a.m. Foot traffic is a lot less at that hour, and will give you a bit more breathing space to enjoy the masterpieces.
- The tours, for whatever reason, is extremely hurried. You hardly get a chance to appreciate the splendor.
- Remember, the tickets are one time use only but gives you access to all the museums inside. Take your time and plan ahead to spend up to 5 hours inside.
- Dress Code – The Vatican has a fairly strict dress code. Cover your shoulders (no off-shoulder or halter neck tops/dresses) and knees (no shorts, hot pants and short skirts/dresses). Because Rome gets pretty hot during the summer months, bring a shrug or light scarf to cover the bare skin while you are inside. Also, hats and food are not allowed.
- Passport/Visa – Remember this is a different country, so carrying your passport is advisable, although we never had to show it. Visa is not required if you are in the Schengen area, and no, you won’t get your passport stamped in Vatican ;-).
- Photography – While it is generally okay to take as many photos as you want, it is absolutely not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Do not try, guards are watching punctiliously. Instead, stay quiet and look up to admire the Michaelangelo’s.