Visit the Vatican

It may be the smallest sovereign state in the world, comprising less than a half square kilometer, but Vatican City has enormous appeal for visitors from around the globe. The capital of the Catholic world, the city is a spiritual superpower and one of the most visited areas in Rome.

The State of the Vatican City is a contemporary incarnation of the Papal States, which encompassed most of central Italy for over a thousand years. When Italian troops conquered Rome in 1870, Pope Pius IX had to relinquish his territories, and relations between the papacy and the Italian government were contentious until Pope Pius XI and Mussolini signed the 1929 Lateran Treaty establishing the Vatican State.

Ponte St. Angelo bridge

Surrounded by Rome, the best way to enter Vatican City is by foot over the Ponte St. Angelo bridge. Untold numbers of pilgrims have made the trek over the bridge since its construction in 239 AD, and the streets nearby are lined with original buildings stemming from the 15th and 16th centuries.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Once inside the Holy See, breathe in the exhilarating energy of the square and absorb the view of the astonishingly impressive St. Peter’s Basilica. It is an iconic image you won’t forget, and few monuments can compete with this highlight. According to Catholics, the basilica stands on holy ground. Saint Peter, an apostle of Jesus, was martyred close by in 64 AD, and his burial place is the basilica’s centerpiece. The famed artist Michelangelo took over renovations in the mid-16th century, and although more alterations were made in the early 17th century, the basilica still retains much of its original structure and style.

If the exterior of the basilica is impressive, the interior is absolutely awe-inspiring. The grand dome alone soars higher than the Statue of Liberty, and artwork by Bernini, Guercino, Michelangelo, Giotto, and others line the walls. Pause to rub the bronze statue of St. Peter for good luck, and stroll through the over 100 tombs in the underground crypt. A guided tour is really the best way to explore the basilica because there is simply so much to be awed and fascinated by.

Fresh off my trip to Rome, I’ve created a list of the seven best ways to spend an afternoon at the Vatican.

How to See the Pope

There are 3 ways to see the Pope:

  • Request a private audience.  You can send an email 48 hours before your planned Vatican visit and request a private audience. Good luck with that.
  • Wednesday general audience. You need a ticket for this viewing in St. Peter’s Square, which can conveniently be purchased online at Papal Event Tickets.
  • Sundays at noon. When the Pope’s in town, he’ll appear at the second window from the right of the Apostolic Palace, to pray the Angelus and bless the crowd in the Square. No ticket required.

Visit the Vatican Museums

One of the most unforgettable experiences in the Holy See is visiting the Vatican Museums, one of the world’s most notable museum complexes. Their series of interconnected museums was established in the early 1500s by Pope Julius II and expanded by successive pontiffs. Taking in the whole complex in just one visit is impossible and seeing just the highlights take several hours, but it is worth it.

The popes were among the first sovereigns who opened their personal art collections to the public. The Vatican Museums, in fact, started when Pope Julius II (1503-1513) revealed his collection of sculptures to the masses.

Subsequent popes followed suit and today the Vatican Museums is a compilation of each pope’s artistic taste, providing a bit of insight into each pope’s mind, for instance:

  • Julius II and Leo X (1513-1521) – the Sobieski Room and the Room of the Immaculate Conception
  • Gregory XIII (1572-1585) – the Gallery of Maps
  • Pius XI in 1926 – the Missionary Ethnological Museum
  • Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) – the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Religious Art

Then start your visit to the Vatican Museums off on the right foot, buy your ticket online before you arrive. This will allow you can skirt ahead of the line that is literally hugging the wall for a mile surrounding Vatican City. I bought my ticket at 10:00 am in the morning, for a 1:00 afternoon admission. It’s that easy.

Gaze Upon the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring and remarkable sites in the Vatican City, largely due to its famous ceiling. Michelangelo’s frescoes were commissioned by Pope Julius II ain 1508, the artwork remains one of the artist’s most profound masterpieces. Divided into nine panels, the ceiling’s artwork tells the stories of Noah, the creation of Adam, his expulsion with Eve from the Garden of Eden, their fall from grace, and other Biblical tales. Grandiose images of angels and prophets line the sides of the chapel, and a giant fresco above the altar depicts harrowing scenes from the Last Judgement. Even non-Catholics can enjoy this amazing artwork, making the Vatican City a must-see place for all.

The Sistine Chapel (in Italian: Cappella Sistina; in Latin: Capella Sixtina) is the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City. In addition, the chapel serves as a place of both religious and functionary papal activity, and today it is the site of the Pala conclave, the process by which a new Pope is selected.

The chapel is named after its founder, Pope Sixtus IV, and most famous for its frescos painted by Michelangelo and Botticelli. Michelangelo painted the chapel’s ceiling between 1508-1512 and it is regarded as the artist’s greatest artistic achievement.

As you enter the Vatican museums, there are teaser signs along the way promising “The Sistine Chapel this Way.” But be forewarned that the Sistine Chapel is a full two hours from the entrance of the museums. And it’s hard to get there any faster because the crowds are mind-boggling.

As a bonus, you get to see a lot of cool stuff before you arrive at Michelangelo’s crowning glory. My personal favorite is the Galleria Delle Carte Geografiche (or the Gallery of Maps). This room was decorated under the pontificate of Gregory XIII (1572-1585) and restored by Urban VIII (1623-1644). Simply beautiful!

Hang out in St. Peter’s Square

The open space which lies before St. Peter’s Basilica was designed so that the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing.

The center of the piazza is paved with travertine tiles and is an elliptical shape, which the architect Bernini thought would best enclose the visitor within “the maternal arms of Mother Church.” A highlight of the courtyard is the Egyptian obelisk which took 13 months to be re-erected in 1586.

The obelisk, made of red granite and standing 25.5 meters tall, is supported by bronze lions. The obelisk is actually a sundial that hits the signs of the zodiac with sunlight throughout the day.  Bernini’s foundation, which was erected in 1675, is also a noted attraction.

View the Swiss Guard

Ever fancy in their full regalia, the famous Swiss Guard cut an impressive figure. The Swiss Guard (in general) is the name given to Swiss soldiers who have served as bodyguards and palace guards at foreign European courts since the late 15th century.

The Papal Swiss Guard (aka the Pontifical Swiss Guard of the Vatican City) has been based in the Vatican City State since it was founded in 1506 and is the only Swiss Guard that still exists.

The Swiss Guard has a respected reputation for discipline and loyalty to their employers. I like their jaunty hats.

Attend Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica is open daily, 7:00 am – 7:00 pm during the summer months, and Mass is held pretty much continuously throughout the day.

You can’t get too close to the altar at St. Peter’s – unless you say you’re attending Mass. Only then will the guard will open up the red velvet rope (really!) and let you through.

We tried the first time and said “no” to the Mass and were denied entry. We then went to the other entrance and said “yes” to attending Mass and got right in. Of course, then we had to attend Mass. The choir was nice though.

Send a Postcard

If you’re a stamp collector or have a friend who is – sending a piece of mail from the Vatican is a philatelic treat! The Vatican post office has been in operation and issuing stamps since 1929, and most stamp production runs are limited to only 300,000-500,000 stamps.

It’s €1.50 for a letter and €0.50 for a postcard. And according to the Universal Postal Union, “more letters are sent each year, per inhabitant, from the Vatican’s 00120 postal code than from anywhere else in the world.” Wow!

I think so many people are sending postcards due to the super convenient Papal Post doublewide, located right in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. Can’t miss it!

Vatican City Geographical Location

Vatican City is located in the western center of Rome. Vatican City is a city-state and is the smallest country in the world. The population of

Vatican City is approximately 830.

Vatican City Language

Italian and Latin are the official languages of Vatican City while French is also common.

Vatican City Predominant Religion

100% Roman Catholic

The Pope resides in Vatican City and is where he conducts all of his papal duties.

Vatican City Currency

The Euro is the official currency of Vatican City.

Vatican City Climate

The Mediterranean climate of Vatican City defines the mild spring and autumn as well as the long summer. Vatican City’s summer season grows quite hot at its peak in July and August. The winters are not very cold and snowfall is extremely rare.

Vatican City Main Attractions

  • Basilica di San Pietro
  • Vatican Museum
  • Sistine Chapel
  • Roman Necropolis
  • St. Peter’s Square
  • Vatican Gardens
  • La Pieta