Nestled within the heart of Rome, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world and the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Steeped in centuries of history and mystery, this sacred enclave holds a treasure trove of art, culture and spirituality and welcomes millions of visitors each year. Vatican City can easily be added to any European summer itinerary, as it’s possible to explore the highlights of Vatican City in just one day!
Whether you’re a history aficionado, an art lover or a seeker of spiritual enlightenment, Vatican City promises an unforgettable experience that will leave you wanting more. So, pack your bags and join me on this journey as we uncover the history and unparalleled beauty that lies within the walls of Vatican City.
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History of Vatican City
So what is the history and significance of Vatican City? With a rich history dating back to the early days of Christianity, Vatican City holds immense significance for millions of Catholics worldwide. The origins of Vatican City can be traced back to the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine built the first basilica over the tomb of Saint Peter, thus establishing the Vatican as a place of religious significance.
The Papal States, which encompassed a large part of central Italy, were established in the 8th century and lasted until the late 19th century. Over the centuries, the Vatican faced numerous challenges and conflicts, including the rise and fall of various empires and the Protestant Reformation.
It wasn’t until the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929 that Vatican City became an independent state, ruled by the Pope and recognized by the international community. Today, Vatican City stands as a testament to the endurance of the Catholic Church and its profound impact on the world. And, its unique status as a sovereign entity adds to its allure and mystique.
Vatican City Architecture
One of the first things you’ll notice after entering Vatican City’s walls is its remarkable architecture. From ancient Roman influences to Renaissance and Baroque styles, each architectural wonder reflects a different era and showcases the evolution of architectural design throughout history.
The centerpiece of Vatican City is undoubtedly St. Peter’s Square, a grand plaza designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century. The square features a massive colonnade formed by two rows of columns, surrounding visitors as they approach St. Peter’s Basilica. The sheer size and symmetry of the square create a sense of harmony and reverence, setting the stage for the breathtaking sights that await within Vatican City.
Vatican City Hours
Just like any other country, you can visit Vatican City at any time. However, if you’re planning to visit the Vatican Museums, they’re open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm with final entry at 4:00 pm. From May 5th through October 28th, Friday hours are extended to 10:30 pm with a final entry at 8:30 pm, and Saturday hours are extended to 8:00 pm with final entry at 6:00 pm.
St. Peter’s Basilica is open daily from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm from April through September and from 7:00 am through 6:30 pm from October through March.
A Broad Recommendation: Avoid planning your visit to Vatican City on a Sunday, as the Vatican Museums are closed other than the last Sunday of each month from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm.
Things to Do in Vatican City
From the awe-inspiring St. Peter’s Basilica, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture, to the iconic Sistine Chapel, adorned with Michelangelo’s breathtaking frescoes, Vatican City offers something special for each visitor. Here are some of Vatican City’s must-see attractions.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are the public museums of Vatican City and offer a journey through the history of art and civilization. With more than 70,000 works amassed by the Catholic Church and the papacy throughout the centuries and around 20,000 on display, the museums boast one of the world’s most extensive collections.
To accommodate its vast collection, Vatican City is home to 54 galleries, known as the Vatican Museums. From ancient sculptures and Egyptian artifacts to Renaissance works and contemporary art, the Vatican Museums have something to captivate every art lover.
As you wander through the vast halls and galleries, you’ll encounter renowned works by some of history’s most prominent artists. You’ll see classical sculptures, tapestries and paintings by Renaissance greats such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini and da Vinci, as well as modern and contemporary art by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Carrà and Picasso.
From the exquisite sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome to the intricate tapestries and frescoes adorning the walls, every piece tells a different story and showcases the unique artistic vision of its creator.
The works shown above include a statue of the River god Arno, a marble chariot in the ‘Hall of the Chariot’, Nero’s bathtub, The Belvedere Torso, and a floor mosaic with the bust of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, warfare and handicraft.
One of the main highlights of the Vatican Museums is the ‘Gallery of Maps’, a stunning corridor adorned with detailed maps of Italy and corresponding frescoes depicting events that happened at each location. The gallery was painted by Ignazio Danti to provide Pope Gregory XIII with a view of the expanse of the papacy and remains an astounding piece of geographical art.
Another must-see at the Vatican Museums is the ‘Raphael Rooms’. A series of four lavishly decorated chambers, these once comprised part of the apartment of Pope Julius II and were painted by renowned artist Raphael and his assistants.
Each room has a different theme, the most famous of which is the ‘Room of the Segnatura’, which features Raphael’s most beloved work, The School of Athens. The School of Athens depicts a gathering of the greatest philosophers and intellectuals of ancient Greece, as well as a few Italian artists like da Vinci, Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael himself.
Also, be sure not to miss the Laocoön Group, which is located in the ‘Octagonal Courtyard’ and depicts three marble, life-sized figures, the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons, fighting off sea serpents. This was the Vatican’s very first piece of art and was purchased in the early 16th century when Pope Julius II founded the Vatican Museums.
The Sistine Chapel
A visit to the Vatican Museums would be incomplete without stepping inside the magnificent Sistine Chapel. The chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV and is renowned for its ceiling frescoes, which were painted by Michelangelo in the early 16th century under the guidance of Pope Julius II.
The frescoes portray scenes from the Book of Genesis and are collectively regarded as one of the major artistic accomplishments of human civilization. The most famous of the frescoes is the Creation of Adam, which depicts the moment when God gave life to Adam, and thus created all of humankind. The Last Judgment, another iconic fresco which is painted on the chapel’s altar wall, depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment of humankind.
The Sistine Chapel is not only a notable work of art but also a place of great significance for the Catholic Church. The chapel serves as a venue for important religious ceremonies and is the location where the College of Cardinals gathers to elect a new Pope.
A Broad Recommendation: You may have noticed that I didn’t include any photos from inside the Sistine Chapel. That’s because photos are not permitted here. So, put away your phone and admire the beauty of the masterpiece that changed the course of Western art forever. Talking is also not permitted inside the chapel. Be respectful and don’t be one of those people who’s whispering, sneakily taking photos and ruining the experience for everyone else!
St. Peter’s Basilica
Adjacent to the Vatican Museums is the stunning St. Peter’s Basilica. Initially planned by Pope Nicholas V, then commissioned in the 16th century by Pope Julius II, St. Peter’s Basilica is a glorious fusion of Renaissance and Baroque styles with a central dome that dominates Rome’s skyline.
It was constructed under the guidance of renowned architects Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini and remains to this day, the largest church in the world.
To reach the basilica, visitors cross St. Peter’s Square, which was also designed by Bernini and is one of the largest and most beautiful squares in the world. The façade of St. Peter’s Basilica stretches across the end of the square and is approached by steps, on which stand two statues of the apostles to Rome, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
The interior of the basilica is lavishly decorated with ornate altars, intricate mosaics and inspiring sculptures, including Michelangelo’s La Pietà, which depicts the Virgin Mary grieving the body of Jesus, who lies across her lap. The centerpiece of St. Peter’s Basilica, however, is its incredible baldachin, a bronze canopy that stands high over the Papal Altar and was also designed by Bernini.
The basilica is also the home to the tombs of several popes, including that of St. Peter himself.
A Broad Recommendation: If you have time, climb to the top of the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s the world’s tallest dome – how cool! – and you can either climb all 551 steps or take the elevator to the terrace and climb the remaining 320 steps. From the dome, you’ll get an incredible view of St. Peter’s Square and the rest of the city.
Unfortunately during our Vatican City visit, the basilica was closed for a private event, so we had to settle for a walk around St. Peter’s Square and a couple photos from outside the basilica.
Other Things to Do in Vatican City & Hidden Gems
While the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica are Vatican City’s main attractions, there are also plenty of other things to do here.
- The Vatican Gardens: Covering an area of around 2.5 acres, these lush green gardens offer a peaceful retreat within the heart of Vatican City. Stroll along the winding pathways and discover beautifully manicured lawns, vibrant flower beds, hidden fountains, ancient monuments and more.
- The Vatican Necropolis: Located beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, this ancient burial ground is believed to be the final resting place of St. Peter himself and offers a glimpse into the early days of Christianity.
- The Vatican Library: Another must-see attraction is the Vatican Apostolic Library, which houses one of the most extensive collections of books and manuscripts in the world, including ancient texts and rare documents that offer valuable insights into history philosophy, and theology.
- The Vatican Pharmacy: Another hidden gem is the Vatican Pharmacy, a historical pharmacy that has been serving the needs of the Vatican community for centuries and is known for its use of herbal remedies and traditional medicines.
- The Vatican Post Office: The Vatican Post Office is also worth a visit. Here, you can send postcards and letters with the coveted Vatican City postage stamps.
- Passetto di Borgo: This secret, fortified passageway connects the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo and was historically used by popes as an escape route during times of danger.
Tips for Visiting Vatican City
Here are some tips to help make your Vatican City visit a success:
- Book your Vatican City tickets in advance. Vatican City attracts millions of visitors each year, and our guide mentioned that on average, there are 30,000 visitors per day – wow! Buy your Vatican City tickets online well in advance and book the earliest time slot available to try to beat the crowds.
- Avoid Vatican City during peak tourist season. If you’re looking for a more peaceful experience and to avoid some of the crowds that summer brings, consider visiting Vatican City during off-peak seasons.
- Adhere to the Vatican City dress code. Vatican City follows a strict dress code, and if you don’t adhere to the rules, you’ll be denied entry or have to buy expensive clothing from vendors outside the entrance. Your shoulders and knees must be covered, and you should avoid wearing hats or revealing clothing.
- Pack light for your Vatican City visit. Large bags, backpacks, luggage and tripods are prohibited at the Vatican Museums.
- Take a Vatican City guided tour. A guided tour with a knowledgeable guide will provide you with valuable insights, history lessons and access to hidden gems that you may miss on your own. We did the earliest time slot of this Rome: Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums Highlights Tour, which also gave us privileged entry before the museums open to the rest of the public, as well as skip-the-line access so that we didn’t have to wait in line for tickets.
- Be respectful during your visit to Vatican City. It probably goes without saying, but Vatican City is a place of worship. Refrain from loud conversations or photography in restricted areas and follow the staff’s instructions.
- Avoid the cafés and restaurants near Vatican City. The cafés and restaurants directly outside the walls of Vatican City are mostly tourist traps. A 10 to 15 minute walk will bring you to some more authentic and affordable eateries.
Have you ever been to Vatican City? What was your favorite thing to do here?
XOXO Sara at Travel A-Broads