When you go to Rome, the Vatican is a must see! Please try and schedule at least two full days here. Vatican City is an amazing place, so you’ll want to be sure not to miss a thing.
A great place to begin your visit is The Vatican’s own tourist office which is on the left side of the piazza. Finding your way around can be challenging and over-whelming. Be sure to book a tour or purchase maps and other guide books for self-guided tours of the square, basilica, and museums.
Here’s a brief overview of this amazing and holy place:
Vatican City is completely encircled by the city of Rome. This area is only 110 acres, and the population is less than 1,000. None of them are permanent. The population of this tiny area, which surrounds St. Peter’s Basilica, is made up of priests, nuns, guards, high-ranking dignitaries and, of course, the pope, and is constantly changing.
It is the smallest state in the world by both area and population and serves millions of practicing Roman Catholics worldwide. This unique state is ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. The city state is protected by its own military, the strangely-clad Swiss Guards.
Within Vatican City are cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, numerous beautiful gardens and nearly a dozen Vatican museums. They feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures. These are some of Rome’s most popular attractions and my personal favorites.
Guests enter the Vatican through the expansive St. Peter’s Square. The square was laid out by Bernini during 1657-1667. Visitors to this magnificent square (which is actually an ellipse) are surrounded by two huge colonnades with 284 Doric columns arranged in four rows, atop which stand 140 statues of saints.
In the center of the square, you’ll find an 83-foot obelisk, brought to Rome all the way from Egypt in 37 AD. How they accomplished this back in the day is a mystery to me.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is the crowning glory of Vatican City. The cornerstone of this church was laid more than 500 years ago in 1506. The magnificent altars and monuments inside the church are too numerous to mention, but even those who aren’t art aficionados will be wowed by what they’ll find inside this gorgeous church. It includes works by the renowned Bernini and Michelangelo. I’ll never forget the first time I saw inside St. Peter’s Basilica, it brought me to tears.
Also, the many Vatican museums boast one of the most impressive art collections in the world. Some of the most famous works of art on display here include the wall and ceiling paintings of the angelic Sistine Chapel. A tour of the museums is a must for any visitor.
It’s important to know that for all areas of the Vatican there is a very conservative dress code that is strictly enforced. Visitors must have their legs, above the knee, covered and no bare shoulders. If you forget, you can always buy a large scarf nearby and be very creative with it. This happened with us on our first visit.
It wasn’t until my third trip to Vatican City that I learned about a hidden treasure – it’s a great tour of the Cupola. It’s something that you don’t often hear about and was a highlight for my husband Ron and I – if you are up for a major hike! The enormous dome of St. Peter’s is accessed from an elevator to the roof. Once you’ve reached the basilica rooftop, there are 551 additional steps and the area gets very narrow near the top. Your reward is the best view of Rome from anywhere in the city!
We didn’t realize that at the level where the elevators let you out you can go inside the very top of the basilica and walk around the interior of the dome. All the beautiful artwork inside the very top of the dome is mosaic and fascinating. That was a real treat and a fabulous perspective of the basilica.
The price is 7 Euros to ride halfway up. But it is definitely worth the elevator ride to skip some of the steps. My thighs are still burning from that climb but the view of the entire Vatican grounds is truly spectacular.
When I was there, the basilica was absolutely packed and no one was in the line for the Cupola. It’s a good idea to go before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m. to avoid extremely long security lines.
The Vatican has everything a city would have including their own stamps and a post office. Rumor has it that the Vatican’s postal system is better than that of the city of Rome, so be sure to mail your postcards there!
One more thing to know: There are so many wonderful accommodations near Vatican City – it’s my favorite area in all of Rome to stay as it’s very safe, clean, interesting and a good central location.
But also consider having a more unique experience. Get off the beaten path and actually lodge in a convent or monastery at the Vatican. I hear it’s quite the experience. That’s now on my bucket list!
My next travel column will be on Ancient Rome.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Teri Guthrie, a world traveler, shares her adventures in this new online column, TERRI’S TRAVELS, offering traveling tips, photos and more. This is the second installment of a three-part series on Rome, the latest of her travel adventures.