Vatican City Guide
Our Vatican City Guide will help you navigate the many sights to see at St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. Vatican City, or “The Vatican,” is the sacred and historic headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. When you visit the Vatican, there is a vast and revered collection of artistic and architectural treasures to be found within the ancient city-state.
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WHAT IS VATICAN CITY
Located in Rome, Italy, the Vatican is the world’s smallest sovereign state. Within the 109-acre territory lies St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. Onsight there are administrative buildings, apartments, a post office, a radio station, and daily newspaper. Vatican City’s head of State is the Pope. The pontiff and some 800 clergy, staff, and Swiss Guard live and work in Vatican City.
The main focal point of Vatican City is magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro). Pilgrims visit the Vatican to view the basilica that is said to have been erected over the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle. It is the holiest Roman Catholic shrine. Admission is free, and pilgrims flock to the famous cathedral.
The Vatican Museums are also a major tourist draw. The museums comprise one of the largest and most important collections of art in the world. Exhibits span through two-millennia (from Roman sculptures to modern masterpieces), and include the famous Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms. Largely housed in Vatican palaces, the museums are open to the public for an admission charge.
There are many other things to do in Vatican City. You could easily spend a week here, but most visitors have only a day. First-time visitors should be aware that the complex is crowded, passages are narrow, and exhibits aren’t always well-signed. It can be tough trying to decide where to go and what to see at the Vatican. Use our Vatican City guide to help plot a course through the glorious, and sometimes confusing compound.
WHAT TO SEE AT THE VATICAN
St. Peter’s Basilica
In AD 64, the Emperor Constantine commissioned that a church be built on the site where Peter was thought to be buried. In 16th and 17th centuries, that original sanctuary was rebuilt by the Italian masters Bramante, Bernini, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Today, the massive Renaissance- and Baroque-style St. Peter’s Basilica is the center of the church, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Entering St. Peter’s Basilica, visitors move into the longest nave in the world. On the right side of the space is Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Pieta. The sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary holding Christ after his death. There are breathtaking works of art throughout cathedral including a bronze of St. Peter (with a worn foot from the kisses of the devout), and a statue of Pope Alexander VII.
At the end of the nave, Michelangelo’s dome soars majestically upwards. Beneath it, Bernini’s Baldacchino (ceremonial canopy) rises over the papal alter. The alter is over the spot Peter is thought to be interred. The ornate canopy was said to have been crafted from bronze pilfered from the Pantheon.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are a group of 26 museums housing one of the greatest collections of art in the world. The museums feature treasures from all corners of the globe that have been amassed by the church over the past 600-years. The artwork is displayed in Vatican palaces, and in its connecting corridors and courtyards.
Visit the Vatican to explore its 14-acre museum complex with 4-miles of linking galleries. Exhibits include Egyptian mummies, Etruscan busts, and priceless paintings. There is so much to see! Here a few special, not-to-be-missed exhibits:
Sistine Chapel – The chapel is home to two of the world’s most brilliant paintings; Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos depicting the book of Genesis (1508-1512), and his Last Judgment fresco (1535 to 1541). The walls of the Sistine Chapel also boast breathtaking frescoes that include Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ. The election of new popes takes place in the historic chapel.
Raphael Rooms – The Stanze di Raphaelli (1508-1524) are a suite of four papal apartment rooms in an apostolic palace. The rooms are awash with detailed frescos painted by the Italian master Raphael, and his workshop.
Museo Chiaramonti – running down a long corridor in the Belvedere Palace is an exhibit featuring thousands of Roman busts portraying characters spanning from the serious to ludicrous.
Egyptian Museum – The Egyptian exhibit features works taken from Egypt during Roman times. There is a well-preserved mummy, a sarcophagus from around 1000 BCE, and a statue of Ramses II.
Museo Pio-Clementino – This exhibit includes gorgeous classical statues. In the Octagonal Courtyard look for the Apollo Belvedere (Sun God Apollo) and the Laocoon (a Trojan priest and his sons locked in a battle with two sea serpents). In the Sala Delle Muse room, find the Torso Belvedere (a fragment of a Greek sculpture that Michelangelo used as a model for his nudes in the Sistine Chapel. Finally, in the Sala Rotunda room, take in the massive statues including the bronze Hercules.
Map Gallery – this long corridor is lined with 16th century topographical maps of Italy.
St. Peter’s Dome
On the far right of basilica’s main portico is the entrance to St. Peter’s Dome. For those without mobility issues or claustrophobia, the hike up 551 steps (320 steps if you take the elevator) leads to stunning views at the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Breaking out of the narrow staircase that leads to the dome, climbers are rewarded with fresh air and amazing panoramas of Vatican City and St. Peter’s Square. It is an exhilarating experience to gaze out over the rooftops of Rome, and think about where you are. Before descending, there is a rooftop gift shop to peruse.
The Gardens of Vatican City date back to medieval times. Today, the gardens are spread over some 57-acres that are adorned with fountains, sculptures, and Renaissance-styled gardens. For a separate fee, guided tours of the Vatican Gardens are available. The number of tickets sold is limited, giving visitors a peaceful place to reflect as well as an opportunity to observe everyday papal life.
The Treasury Museum
Off of the left side of the basilica’s nave is the entrance to the Museo Storico (The Treasury). The Treasury is full of holy relics that sparkle and shine. For a small fee, visitors can view jewel encrusted chalices, papal tiaras, and crosses. Also, on display are papal clothes, busts, and statues.
Vatican Grottoes and Necropolis
In the basilica, near the statues of St. Andrew and St. Helen, is the entrance to the Vatican Grottoes (Papal Tombs). Your ticket to the Vatican Museums includes entry to this area. The grottoes are filled with the tombs of over 90 popes, monarchs, and public figures dating back to the 10th century. Many visitors enjoy this area.
Past the grotto area is the Necropolis, or Tomb of St. Peter. Behind a panel of glass, visitors can view what is believed to be the tomb of St. Peter. Note: Visits to St. Peter’s tomb are limited, guided, and only by advance booking through the Vatican office.
St. Peter’s Square
Sitting directly in front of St. Peter’s Basilica is St. Peter’s Square. The colossal, key-hole shaped space has an Egyptian obelisk sitting in the middle of it. In the 1600’s, Bernini used the obelisk as a focal point when designing the piazza. The square’s majesty is derived from the 284 columns that surround the space in a colonnade of four rows. Topping the columns are 140 statues of saints that look down upon the crowds filling the square.
The Pope’s weekly Wednesday audiences are held in St Peter’s Square when in session. On occasion, the Pope conducts ceremonies from the balcony at the front of St. Peter’s Basilica. In addition, if large crowds are expected, the Pope may also speak from the plaza or balcony.
VATICAN CITY TIPS
You don’t need a passport or visa to visit Vatican City. You will only need a ticket to visit the Vatican Museums, Dome, Treasury, and Grotto. St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square are free.
Expect lines. To skip (some) of the queues and guarantee admission, book your tickets ahead online or book a private, guided tour.
There is a strict dress code at St. Peter’s that bars entry for anyone in shorts, in above the knee skirts, or with bare shoulders. In the basilica, hats are expected to be removed. On occasion, guards may hand out paper capes to visitors, but this is not a surety. As a last resort, visitors sometimes purchase shawls from souvenir shops to use as knee and shoulder coverings.
Research ahead and follow a set route. Whether you do a self-guided tour, free Vatican tour, or private guided tour; you should not attempt to navigate this location without a solid plan. With the sheer volume of exhibits and people, the day will be much more enjoyable if you know where you are going.
There are several entrances to the Vatican Museums. Avoid the crowds at St. Peter’s Basilica and enter via a gate that is closest to your hotel or subway stop.
Have a hardy meal before you arrive. There are several restaurants in the Vatican Museums, but there is so much to see you will likely not want to pause for a meal. There is no food or drink allowed in St. Peter’s Basilica or St. Peter’s Square.
St. Peter’s Basilica is a working church. Masses are held throughout the day on weekdays and weekends at various chapels around the cathedral. Mass is free and open to the public (they are generally conducted in Italian).
When planning your visit, look at the Vatican City website to ascertain upcoming religious holiday and major ceremonies (and avoid these days/times). drive through the crowd.
BEST TIME TO VISIT VATICAN CITY
The Vatican is the busiest tourist destination in Rome, Italy. People from all over the world make pilgrimage to the site throughout the year. Here are a few facts regarding attendance to consider:
Tuesday and Thursdays tend to be the least busy day at Vatican City attractions.
Avoid weekends if you are able, as visitors from Rome and Europe add to the crowds.
On most Wednesday mornings the Pope holds a weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square where large crowds assemble. On these mornings, the complex tends to get very crowded at the conclusion of the audience. Unless you are attending the audience, it is best to avoid these times.
Friday nights tend to be the least crowded times to visit the Vatican Museums.
The Vatican Museums are closed the first 3-Sundays of the month. On the last Sunday of the month, the museums are free (and very crowded).
Many people arrive early hoping to beat the crowds, but this is a common strategy. Mid- to late afternoons tend to be the least crowded hours.
December to February tend to be the least visited months; however, the exception to this is the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
VATICAN CITY 1-DAY ITINERARY
RECOMMENDATION: Pre-book an early-entry, guided Vatican Museums tour that includes the Sistine Chapel. This option will be pricey, but so worth the money in terms of your quality of experience. Look for an early entry tour that begins and ends in the Sistine Chapel (in between, these tours double back to take in the other exhibits). Understand that the chapel will still be crowded on an early entry tour – but not anything akin to the sardine-like experience you will encounter just a short time after opening.
On the day of your early-entry guided tour, take the museum portion of the tour. It will likely last around 4 hours, and end in the Sistine Chapel. From the Sistine Chapel, your tour group will utilize a one-way passage to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Once the basilica portion of the tour has concluded, head for the entrance to the dome climb (and hope the line is not too long). Take the elevator up the first 171 steps, and hike the remaining 320. Enjoy the views, and then visit the roof top gift shop.
Exiting the dome, head back into the basilica to take another spin around. Next, visit the Treasury and the Vatican Grottoes. Note: If you do not climb the dome; visit the Treasury and Grottoes, and then head to the Vatican Gardens.
By now, even the hardiest of travelers will be fading. Take a stroll from the basilica through St. Peter’s Square. At the Egyptian Obelisk, pause for photos. From there, head out of the square to a restaurant on the Via della Conciliazione for a well-deserved meal and glass of wine.
Don’t eat too much pasta, there’s more sightseeing to do tomorrow, Laura & Randy
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