People love to count the number of countries they have been to (myself included), and little old Vatican City is an easy one to tick off during a visit to Italy.
Surrounded by walls, in the middle of Rome, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, ever since it became an independent sovereign state in 1929. Completely independent of surrounding Italy, Vatican City has its own stamps, railroad station, flag, national anthem, own security service, and real police force: the famous “Swiss Guards” who have been protecting the Pope since the early 16th century. The entire country is only 100 acres, so about the same size as New York’s Central Park.
This country has on soul purpose. To give the Catholic Church, and it’s spoilt Popes, a luxurious, elaborate home. It also makes a great tourist attraction for Catholics, and anyone else who just wants to admire some pretty outstanding architecture and art.
I have visited Vatican City twice now. The first time I was 14 and part of a group singing for the Pope (which totally justifies lifelong bragging rights). The second time was 5 years later, as an average tourist who lost her ability to hold a tune sometime during puberty. Both times I have visited I have been completely astonished by the scale and number of exquisite architecture and masterpieces (as well as being not so impressed by the hundreds of overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops nearby).
A visit to the Vatican will leave you in complete awe, especially after you enter St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums (where you’ll find the Sistine Chapel).
Any visit to Rome is going to involve visit at least a few outstanding churches, but there is no church in the world that can even hold a candle to the Basilica di San Pietro. Built atop an earlier 4th-century church, it was completed in 1626 after 150 years of construction. It contains many spectacular works of art, including three of Italy’s most celebrated masterpieces: Michelangelo’s Pietà, his soaring dome, and Bernini’s 29m-high baldachin over the papal altar.
Due to it’s magnificence, the basilica attracts up to 20,000 people on a busy day, so expect a line. I would highly recommend doing a tour to fully appreciate the history of Vatican City, and if you can deal with some intense claustrophobia and physical exercise, climb the 551 stairs to the top of the dome to admire the most stunning rooftop views of St Peter’s Square.
After you have explored the Basilica you cannot miss a visit of the Vatican Museums, which is home to one of the world’s greatest art collections. Displayed along 7km of galls and corridors, the collection features Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronzes to ancient busts, old masters and modern paintings. Highlights include the spectacular collection of classical statuary in the Museo Pio-Clementino, a suite of frescoed rooms by Raphael, and the grand finale, Michelangelo’s painted Sistine Chapel.
On a busy day, the Sistine Chapel can attract up to 20,000 people. Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508–1512) and the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment; 1535–1541) are two of the world’s most famous works of art. But Michelangelo wasn’t as obedient as the Popes of the time would have liked, and he got some revenge on the Catholic Church through his masterpieces. The Popes assistant of the time criticised Michelangelo, saying his art was better suited for the baths than a chapel. He ended up being painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with horns, right next to the devil himself.
The Vatican City is not just a country to add to the list. Is is a country with a rich history and an amazing art collection. Be amazed by St Peter’s Basilica, be impressed by the Sistine Chapel, and be amused by the stories that surround the tiny home of the Catholic Church.
Vatican Museums Visitor Information
Location: Viale Vaticano, 00165 Rome
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9 am until 6 pm (ticket office closes at 4 pm); closed Sundays, January 1, January 6, February 11, March 19, Easter Sunday and Monday, May 1, June 29, August 14, August 15, November 1, December 8, December 25, December 26.
During summer season (starting late April), the Vatican Museums are usually open on Friday evenings too.
Free admission: The Vatican Museums are open for free on the last Sunday of every month. Hours are from 9 am – 2 pm (ticket office until 12:30 pm). Exceptions include Easter Sunday, as well as June 29, December 25, or December 26 if they fall on a Sunday. Free admission to the Vatican Museums is also available on September 27 (World Tourism Day). While free admission to the Vatican Museums may be easy on your budget, be prepared for long queues for admission and crowds around all the famous artworks.
Visiting Tip: Avoid the (very) long entrance line by buying your ticket in advance, within 60 days of your visit.
You can buy tickets on the Vatican Museums web site.
Information: Vatican Museums web site; Tel. (0039) 06-6988-4676
Admission: €16 (as of 2015), check current prices on above web site.
Admission is included in the combination Vatican Rome Card.
Guided Tours: Guided tours can be booked through the Vatican Museums. Some of the tours allow you to see parts of Vatican City not usually open to tourists. Find out about Vatican Museums guided tours, including what you’ll see and how to book each tour. Select Italy also offers a guided tour – Two Masters at the Papal Court: Raphael and Michelangelo in the Vatican. For a really special experience, consider a before or after hours tour so you can see the Sistine Chapel without the crowds.