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The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Vatican City: Tips and Highlights for Every Traveller

When visiting Rome, everyone will want to spend some time in Vatican City, with stunning art and architecture, a rich history, and of course, its religious significance. Even though I'm not Catholic, nor even religious, I can find delights throughout this intriguing city-state. Vatican City can be enjoyed by every visitor regardless of budget, religious affiliation, or travel style. Today I'm going to share some of the things you can expect to see and do, along with some tips and hints that I hope will make your visit go smoothly.

History

The heart of the Roman Catholic church, Vatican City is an independent city-state within the city of Rome. The only residents of Vatican City are the Pope, clergy and the Swiss Guards who defend the city.


Emperor Constantine built the first basilica. That first basilica was replaced in the 16th century by St. Peter's Basilica in 4CE, after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity. In 1929, Vatican City became an independent city-state with its own government and territory.

What to Expect

The Roman Catholic Church owns much of the world's great art and architecture. St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums including Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel are likely the best-known locations but don't miss the Vatican Gardens.

It is important to be prepared for crowds, especially during high season or on significant holy days. Line-ups can stretch for hours and parts of that line will be in the direct sun. The shortest lines are in the early morning and late afternoon. It can get excruciatingly hot during the summer. If you are travelling with a companion, take turns holding your place in line while your partner grabs some shade. Wear a sun hat and bring water. Don't forget that this is a religious site so dressing modestly and appropriately is essential: shoulder and knees should be covered.


Visitors also need to be prepared for strict security measures that include metal detectors and bag searches at each entrance. Larger bags will need to be checked and should not be taken along if you are climbing the dome. There are excellent tours and audio guides available in English.


Getting There

I suggest walking from Castel Sant'Angelo. Your first glimpse of the stunning Piazza San Pietro will take your breath away. It truly doesn't matter how many videos or photos you've seen, that first view is a truly special experience.

St. Peter's Square is an immense open plaza surrounded by impressive colonnades, a soaring obelisk and of course the grand exterior of the Basilica. The crowds of people milling about the plaza add a real buzz to the atmosphere.

The two beautiful fountains can't be missed. The oldest one was placed there in 1490. After the colonnade had been constructed this fountain was moved and a second one was built to ensure perfect symmetry in the plaza. In times of drought, these fountains may not be running as the current Pope is committed to many environmental preservation causes.

For most visitors, there are more priests, nuns, and other clergy gathered here than many have seen in our lives. Visiting Vatican City is the ultimate pilgrimage for Roman Catholics. Don't be surprised to see groups of nuns and priests doing the typical tourist activities including taking many selfies and souvenir shopping. I'm not sure why this amuses me but it always does. Sadly, you'll also notice the many beggars, often with severe disabilities, scattered throughout the area. These unfortunate souls rarely approach visitors. They tend to situate themselves on the ground near entrances.

As you explore the plaza or while waiting in line to visit the Basilica, be sure to notice the intricate architectural details of St. Peter's Basilica. The carvings, statues, and mosaics are truly awe-inspiring.


The Swiss Guards

As you move around the Vatican, you will see guards in colourful uniforms standing at attention. These are the Swiss Guards, the oldest and smallest army in the world, and protectors of the Vatican and the Pope since the 16th century. Swiss Guards are carefully selected for their positions. They are all young, single Catholic men who have completed their basic military training.

The Swiss Guard uniform is very recognizable. It is extremely colourful and includes a blue, yellow, and red striped tunic, a black helmet with a red feather, and white gloves. Interestingly, this uniform was designed by Michelangelo, a friend of the Swiss Guard commander at the time. Don't be fooled by their pretty ensembles, these are highly trained and skilled soldiers who provide security throughout the Vatican. I admit to feeling quite sympathetic to these guards during the summer heat as those crisp and heavy fabrics must be very hot.

What to See

The most popular attractions are St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums, (including the Sistine Chapel), and the Vatican Gardens. Since line-ups are long and there is much to see, most visitors will want to put aside a full day to explore.


St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica is the largest church in the world. The Basilica was designed by a group of architects that included Michelangelo, Bernini, Maderno and Bramante. The entire building is filled with incredible art, especially from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including Michelangelo's Pieta, Bernini's Baldacchino and of course, the mosaic-covered dome designed by Michelangelo. While there is some explanatory signage, the best way to learn about the art, architecture, and chapels is by taking a tour.

Located in the underground crypts of the Basilica are the Tombs of the Popes. The most significant tomb belongs to St. Peter, the first pope. His tomb is located directly beneath the main altar.

Continuing my apparent need to climb every tower I come across, I have climbed the 551 steps to the top of the dome on two different occasions. The climb can be challenging and the space narrows dramatically as you climb higher into the roof area. I found it cramped near the top and I'm only 5'1"! I think the spectacular views from the top make it all worthwhile.

Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are a treasure trove of art and artifacts, with over 70,000 pieces on display. The highlights include the Raphael Rooms, the Gallery of Maps, and the Gallery of Tapestries. A visit to the Museums is a long walk through the galleries on your way to the Sistine Chapel.

In the courtyard is one of my favourite sculptures, called Sphere Within a Sphere, by Arnaldo Pomodoro. In the 1960s Pomodoro created a number of spheres of different sizes where the outer sphere is cracked to reveal a smaller sphere inside. Originally the Sphere within a Sphere was intended for the Vatican but Pomodoro created numerous versions, all in different sizes, which are displayed all around the world. The outer sphere can be spun to reveal the inner sphere. On my first visit, after carefully checking that the guards were not paying close attention, our guide enthusiastically demonstrated this with a gigantic tug to my group of amazed students. The sphere continued to revolve for more than 10 minutes. It was a real treat. Our guide did get a disapproving look and a finger wag from one of the guards and I've never had a guide demonstrate this since, but I hope you are lucky enough to be able to see it in motion

I always enjoy the Gallery of Tapestries which is filled with beautiful 16th-century tapestries, woven with intricate details and vibrant colours. Walking through the gallery, I am always impressed by the craftsmanship, still-vibrant colours and beauty.

For those map nerds like me, I also recommend taking time in the Gallery of Maps, with intricately detailed maps of Italy from the 16th century.

The Raphael Rooms, which house a collection of frescoes painted by Raphael and his students, is also fascinating. I learned a lot from one of the guides about how to detect Raphael's influence on his students' work.

Sistine Chapel

The journey to the Sistine Chapel is long as the route takes visitors through multiple galleries. It is worth every step. The halls, galleries, and corridors leading to the Chapel are filled with some of the most breathtaking art in the world.


The walls are covered with frescoes and other artworks, some with religious scenes while others are more historical. There is something remarkable with every step -- take your time and soak it all in. Look closely at the frescoes to discover mythical creatures and prominent Romans. I especially enjoy lingering under the "carved" ceilings are actually very clever tromp l'oeil (a style of painting that creates a 3-dimensional image).

Finally, after what seems like an endless walk, you'll arrive at the Sistine Chapel, the most chapel in the world. Absolute silence is required in the Chapel. If you are on a tour, you will be given earphones to listen to your guide's narration. For those who need to sit, there are some benches along one wall and a few pews in the rear but it is expected that most visitors will be walking around.


The high vaulted ceiling with biblical scenes and the immense fresco called The Last Judgement were painted by the Master, Michelangelo. Each ceiling panel and wall is a masterpiece.


You will be given many reminders that no photographs is allowed inside the chapel. Circulating priests watch closely and those caught violating the rule will be escorted out. Since the 1980s, all photography and video rights have belonged to Nippon Television Network who donated more than $4 million to restore the chapel.

The chapel is kept dark to protect the art. The vibrant colours and intricate scenes will enthrall you in wonder to think a human being could create something so beautiful... but then you'll be bumped by one of the too-many tourists crowded in the chapel or you'll be jarred back into reality by the oft-repeated loud "ssshhhhh" from the priests doing crowd control that day.


Vatican Gardens

The Vatican Gardens are often overlooked by tourists but after dealing with the crowds inside the Basilica and Museums, this is a perfect and tranquil oasis, with a wide variety of plants and trees, as well as fountains and sculptures. The gardens are meticulously maintained: the lawns and plants are carefully manicured and perfectly pruned. The air is filled with the sweet scent of blooming flowers, and the gentle sound of fountains and water features creates a peaceful atmosphere to relax and find freshness on a stifling day.

The Grotto of Lourdes is an artificial cave that is a copy of the famous shrine in France. The grotto is quiet. There is small stream flowing through the Grotto past a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Ticket and Tourist Information

The Vatican Museums are open every day except Sunday, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. The last entry is at 4:00 pm. St. Peter's Basilica is open daily from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm, while the Sistine Chapel is open from Monday to Saturday, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. For those wishing to attend a Mass, entry to the service is free but you must clear security. During the summer when the Pope has moved to his summer home, huge screens are set up in the plaza on Sundays. The cost of admission to the Vatican Museums is 17 Euros for adults. Admission to St. Peter's Basilica is free, but tickets must be reserved for the climb up to the Dome, which costs 10 Euros (an elevator ride + 320 stairs) or 8 Euros for 551 stairs. The Sistine Chapel is included in the ticket for the Vatican Museums.


There are several ticket options available to visitors, including a standard admission ticket, a skip-the-line ticket, and those that include a guided tour. The official website of Vatican City offers online booking for tickets, making it easy to plan your visit in advance. Tickets purchased online are non-refundable. Skip-the-line access is currently included with the Rome City Pass.

Rules and Regulations:

Visitors to Vatican City must dress modestly, with shoulders and knees covered. Large bags, backpacks, and tripods are not allowed inside and must be left at the luggage storage outside -- do this before getting in line! Photography is allowed but with restrictions in certain areas. Always check for signs as you will be asked to leave if this rule is broken.


Other Things to See

There are no restaurants in Vatican City itself, but there are plenty of dining options in the surrounding area. ATB#1 and I spent a lovely afternoon enjoying a prosecco (or three) at a café just outside the walls as we lazily watched a storm move across the sky while hoping that some rain might actually fall on our much over-heated bodies -- unfortunately, it didn't. I did not keep the name of that café but there were several to choose from.


Don't miss the Vatican Post Office. You'll likely pass by the branch in St. Peter's Square while in the queue. There are other branches in the Vatican Museums. This is a large and unremarkable trailer but this is where you can buy Vatican stamps, and send postcards with the Vatican postmark, which makes for unique and memorable souvenirs for the stamp collectors and faithful on your postcard list.

If you are more scientifically-minded, the Vatican Observatory, located in the Papal Palace in Castel Gandolfo should be on your list. The observatory has a long history of scientific research and discovery. It is rarely open to visitors and those tickets are gone very quickly. If this is on your wishlist, make sure to check the website regularly.... or take a large group of teens; their educational programs are outstanding.

Whichever parts of Vatican City you choose, you will find that there's much to see and do. The crowds can be overwhelming at times, but if you are prepared for those crowds you are sure to enjoy this incredible city-state.

So, have you been to Vatican City? What was your favourite part? Share your thoughts in the comments below! I'd love to hear your stories.


 

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