Top 10 Things To Do In Vatican City
The Vatican - A Must-See in Rome
As the capitol of the Catholic church, this tiny walled state within the city limits of Rome draws millions of pilgrims as well as tourists to view the wealth of treasures housed in The Vatican. It takes a minimum of a 1/2 day to take in just the bare minimum of sites within Vatican city (things like the Sistine chapel and St. Peter's Basilica). If you want to experience all that The Vatican has to offer, you would be wise to allot a day or two (depending on how crowded it is) to get your chance to see some of the world's finest treasures.
In this lens, I share my list of Top 10 Things To Do in Vatican City. My husband and I have done them all and we even managed to kiss the Pope's hand along the way (more about that in another lens). I hope these tips will enable you to enjoy your trip to The Vatican even more!
A NOTE ABOUT THE DRESS CODE - Bare knees or shoulders are not allowed in St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museum, or in the modern building used for the audience with the Pope. Be sure NOT to wear shorts or tank tops. You'll be sent packing by ushers that stand guard at the entrances.
#1) Have an Audience with the Pope - Want To See The Pope Up Close & Personal???
If you want to see the Pope and hear him speak, then this is the ticket you need! Every Wednesday morning while the Pope is in residence (he spends summers at Castel Gandolfo outside the city), he holds an audience. This normally takes place in a large modern building that seats somewhere around 5,000 people (in my estimation). To attend, you must apply in writing for tickets at least 10 days in advance to the Papal Prefecture. I suggest more like a month in advance since seating is limited and the place is packed to the rafters. We had the best luck sending a fax to the office at 06/69885863 with our preferred date, our language and the hotel where we were staying in Rome. Not only did we get tickets, but we even got to shake the Pope's hand. For more details about securing your tickets, visit my How To Get An Audience with the Pope lens.
My Tip - The Pope enters the auditorium around 10:30 AM. However, you will need to arrive hours in advance to get through tight security. The best seats fill up fast!
Video of Outdoor Audience with the Pope
#2) Feast Your Eyes Upon The Sistine Chapel - See the famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo!
The Sistine Chapel is home to some of Michelangelo's famous works including The Creation of Adam and The Last Judgement. In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned a young Michelangelo to paint the 10,000 square foot ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artist spent 4 long years creating his ceiling masterpiece from 1508 - 1512. It is said to have taken a great toll on the artist both physically and mentally. That said, he did accept another commission from Pope Paul III to paint the area above the chapel alter with The Last Judgement. It was meticulously painted from 1537-1541.
The Sistine Chapel serves as the site of the Papal Conclave when the College of Cardinals meets to select a new Pope after the previous one passes away. They use a smoke signal to let the faithful know whether or not a pope has been selected. White smoke means yes, a new pope has been elected. Black smoke means no.
The Sistine Chapel is accessible to tourists via the Vatican Museums (only special guests are allowed entry from the St. Peter's side of the Vatican). Tourists are led in small groups inside the chapel and are given maybe 10 - 15 minutes to take in the walls and ceiling. The entire time, group leaders are saying "Shhhhh" because of course, there isn't supposed to be any talking. Be careful not to strain your neck looking up at the ceiling....they used to let you lie on the floor, but not anymore which makes it difficult to see everything in the crowded room. The entire place is much smaller than most people expect.
My Tip - Bring a small pair of binoculars if you really want to see the ceiling and wall details.
#3) Visit The Vatican Museum
The Roman Catholic Church has amassed quite a collection of paintings and sculptures by well known artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael. The artwork is housed in a series of buildings that have 1400 rooms and the complex covers 13 acres. While the Sistine Chapel may be the goal of many, most tourists are surprised at the amazing art that they'll uncover along the way as they wind to the chapel itself. Slow down and take it all in. Some favorites along the way include the Raphael Rooms (one amazing Raphael painting after another), the Octagonal Courtyard, the Map Room (walls covered with ancient maps and an amazing ceiling), the New Wing (reliefs full of sculptures dating from 1st century), and the Museo Egizio (a grand collection of ancient Egyptian works).
My Tip - If you are visiting during the peak summer season, arrive at the museum early in the morning. Long lines to get tickets develop quickly and by late morning, you'll likely wait over an hour to get in and then face huge crowds which can detract from the treasure trove of antiquities. Get the audio guide which will lead you through all the major sites within the museum in about 90 minutes. Finally, wear your walking shoes....the museums are large and you'll literally walk for miles during the tour (especially to get to the Sistine Chapel which is on the far end from the museum entrance).
#4) Grab A Seat & People Watch in St. Peter's Square
St. Peter's Square serves as the main entrance to Vatican City. The photos above are a bit deceptive since it was early in the day and there aren't many people. However in the afternoon, the famous St. Peter's Square is abuzz with people fluttering from one amazing site to the next so grab a seat and take it all in....you are at The Vatican after all!
St. Peter's Square itself was designed by Bernini with two semi-circular colonnades (on either side of St. Peter's Basilica) which represent arms welcoming people to the church. The colonnades are topped by a balustrade with 140 statues of saints. The main square that took 11 years to build was completed in 1667. Within the square, there is a 13th century BC obelisk at the center and two fountains to the sides (one by Bernini and one by Maderno).
Vatican City Travel Guides - Great Guidebooks Are An Essential Tool for Planning A Great Trip!
#5) Tour The Inside of St. Peter's Basilica
With the largest interior of any Christian church in the world, St. Peter's Basilica is truly a site to behold. It is over 600 feet long with a dome that rises about 435 above the floor. Upon entering the church, you will be struck with the enormity of the interior space which will hold up to 60,000 people. The current basilica took 120 years to build and was mostly completed by 1626.
Gorgeous inlaid marble forms the nave's aisles. Where the four aisles cross, the massive dome is supported. In addition, it is where the high altar sits with its baroque altar canopy designed by Bernini. Great religious artworks are housed throughout the interior of the basilica. For instance, Michelangelo's La Pieta which is a sculpture of Mary holding the crucified Jesus sits above an altar in a side chapel. The stairs leading down to the lower level Pope tombs are magnificently ornate. And the faithful wait for 30 minutes or more to kiss or rub the heavily worn bronze foot on St. Peter who sits about halfway up the right aisle. In the above photo, you can see a faithful bride kneeling in prayer in one of the side chapels. If you are getting married at St. Peter's Basilica or having an Italian inspired wedding, check out these amazing Italian wedding favors.
My Tip - Give yourself at least 1/2 - 1 hour to explore the Basilica interior.
#6) Climb The Dome of St. Peter's Basilica
The roof of St. Peter's Basilica is accessed either by elevator or stairs (the first level). However by climbing the interior staircase 170 steps to the base of the dome, you can get a lovely view of the dome up close and personal and look down below to see the interior of St. Peter's Basilica. Magnificent!
But the real money-shots are the views one gets by climbing the one person wide, one way, semi-claustrophobic, 330 stairs that lead up to the balcony of the lantern. From here, you get amazing views of the Vatican Gardens and sites of Rome.
My Tips - Keep in mind that this is the tallest church dome in the world. Climbing it is no small feat so if you aren't in the best shape, just take the elevator to the first level and skip the rest. Follow the one way rule on the climb up the last 330 stairs. My husband had someone in front of him who decided to turn back half-way up the climb. Trying to get by other people on that narrow, curving stairway is a nightmare.
#7) Go Underground on the Vatican Scavi Tour - Go on a guided tour that most tourists don't even know about!
Visit the area underneath St. Peter's Basilica to see the underpinnings of the great basilica along with what archaeologists have excavated. Only 150 - 200 per day are led in groups of 12 (broken down by language) into the necropolis below the Basilica. After going 30 feet below ground, the dimly lit narrow passageways must often be walked single file on uneven ground as you duck in and out of rooms in the subterranean tunnels. You'll see the mausoleums where wealthy, early Roman families entombed their dead. And for the grand finale, you'll see what they believe to be the remains of Saint Peter himself in a tomb below the current high altar. Since photos are not really allowed in the excavations, the above photos include exterior photos and pope tombs from the basement of St. Peter's Basilica.
Request reservations at least 30 days in advance (or longer if possible) by faxing or e-mailing the name of the individuals, your preferred date (give a range), language spoken, home contact information, phone at local hotel in Rome. Reservations will normally be confirmed just a few days in advance of the tour date with instructions (you only get confirmation if you have a reservation - if not, you will receive no response). If you forget to book tickets in advance, you can go to the Scavi Tour office at 9 AM the day you are visiting to check if they've had any cancellations. You may score tickets...you may not.
My Husband's Tips - Don't go on this tour if you are CLAUSTROPHOBIC and it isn't handicapped accessible either. Don't forget to dress like you are entering the Basilica (no shorts, no tanks, no bare shoulders). Don't bring large handbags or things like personalized kids backpacks (it is a tight fit in the excavation area). Kids under 15 are not allowed on the tour and they won't make ANY exceptions.
#8) Tour Castel Sant' Angelo - Fortress That "Guards" Vatican City
Originally built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian in 135 B.C., this building was transformed into a fortress in the 6th century and served as a refuge for popes for about 1,000 years. For them, it was conveniently accessed via a covered passageway that runs from The Vatican to the fortress itself. In the 14th century, it was converted into a castle and then in the early 1900's, it was converted into the museum that you can tour today. Here you'll find military items such as cannons, prison areas, narrow staircases leading to rooms and frescoed walls, courtyards, and the rooftop terrace.
The cylindrical building is best approached from the Sant' Angelo bridge that is lined with angel statues (by Bernini) where it crosses the Tiber River.
#9) Tour The Vatican Gardens
Walk in the footsteps of popes who have strolled along these manicured gardens for centuries. Reservations are required for a two hour guided tour of the Vatican gardens (1/2 by bus and 1/2 on foot). You'll see exotic plants, shady paths, and beautiful fountains. The Vatican Gardens feature a typical 16th century design with the focus on structure, sculpture, water, and form. If you are looking for lots of flowers and color, you won't find it in this garden. That said, it is worth a visit for gardening enthusiasts who enjoy Italian-style gardens.
The tour costs 25 to 31 Euro and can be booked online here.
Take A Virtual Tour of the Vatican Gardens
#10) Be Amused With Those Swiss Guard Uniforms
You'll see the Swiss Guard in their colorful uniforms standing guard at all the entrances to The Vatican. The Papal Swiss Guard was founded in 1506 and they have been on duty ever since (that is over 500 years!). The Swiss Guard take their job VERY seriously (which is funny considering those costumes they call uniforms). Recruits must meet all kinds of stringent standards like being single males between the ages of 19 and 30, Catholic, 5' 9" tall or more, and a Swiss citizen with a high school diploma or professional degree. Who knew?
These two guards really didn't want their photo taken so we had to snap one off on the sly. We got some great photos of the Swiss guard during the Audience with the Pope as well. They stand at either end of the auditorium stage.
Vote For Your Favorite Thing To Do or See!
What is your favorite thing to see or do in the Vatican?
Purple Star Award
This lens was awarded a beautiful purple star on February 19, 2011. I am so honored that someone nominated one of my own favorite travel lenses for this prestigious award. Thanks so much to whoever you are!
Italian Travel & Wedding Resources
- Italian Wedding Favors
The Vatican is a hotspot for Catholic couples to get married so these favors are great whether you are doing a destination wedding in Italy or just want to add some Italian flair to your reception.
- Italian Food Gift Basket
Rome and Italy are all about the food so upon returning home from your trip, consider getting some of these Italian baskets that feature pasta, sauces and other tastes of Italy.