One of the most exclusive attractions within Rome's tiny Papal State is the Gardens of Vatican City (Giardini Vaticani). The 57 acres of urban tranquility invite visitors to stroll among sacred monuments, sculpture fountains, and curious botanicals. Because entry is limited (only a certain number of bookings are accepted each day), it's rarely crowded, allowing you to enjoy the manicured grounds in relative peace and quiet. Commonly referred to as "the Pope's playground," the gardens abut the Vatican Museums and boast their own railway station, heliport, and even a bank.
They also have some of the best views of St. Peter's dome in all of Rome.
History of the Gardens
First conceived in 1279 by Pope Nicholas III, the area was enclosed by walls and planted with an orchard, a lawn, and a garden. It wasn't until the 16th century, under Pope Julius II, that major landscaping took place. Distinguished architect Donato Bramante (one of the designers of St. Peter's) drew up plans for the garden, which was eventually split into the three Renaissance styles (English, French, and Italian). A rectangular labyrinth (garden maze) was added to further enhanced its formal grandeur.
Today, the gardens remain a place where Pontiffs can find restful solitude, despite the hustle and bustle of Rome and Vatican City just beyond the garden wall.
What to See and Do in the Gardens of Vatican City
As you wander around the gardens, here are some highlights to explore:
Lourdes Grotto (Grotta di Lourdes): This is a replica of the pilgrimage cave in Massabielle, France where a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, saw a vision of the Madonna.
Fountain of the Eagle: This 17th-century fountain celebrates the return of water (Acqua Paolina) to the Vatican from the repaired aqueduct of Trajan.
Papal Coat of Arms: You can't miss this wonderful example of topiary figurative art in the shape of the Papal Coat of Arms. A permanent section features a crown and the keys of Saint Peter planted in colorful perennials, while the other area is adorned with annuals honoring the current Pope.
Casina del Giardiniere (Gardener's Lodge): This little building from the 12th century is the residence of the head gardener, who oversees a team of more than two dozen gardening staff.
Saint John’s Tower: Constructed in the 16th century by Pope Nicholas III, it was rebuilt in the 1960s by Pope John XXIII. Inside are papal apartments, but it is most famous for being the place where Pope Benedict XVI met President George W. Bush in 2008.
The Little Flower, Saint Therese of Lisieux: Named the patron saint of the Gardens in 1927, Saint Therese's official title is "Sacred Keeper of the Gardens." A shrine dedicated to her sits along the Leonine walls.
Our Lady of Fatima: In 1981, on the day of Our Lady of Fatima, Pope John Paul II was shot at St. Peter's Square. His miraculous survival is credited to divine intervention from Our Lady.
Gregorian Tower or Tower of the Winds: Built in the late 16th century, the square tower once served as an astrological observatory. It's said to be where the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar was made.
Palazzina di Leone XIII: One of the "Instagrammable" spots in the Gardens, this little building was erected in honor of Pope Leo XIII. It has two lovely fountains, hedges, arches of climbing roses, and the last exotic tree planted by Leo before his death. When the coral tree flowers, its blooms are bright red.
A Piece of the Berlin Wall: A gift to the Vatican from Marco Piccinini, the Italian acquired a portion of the famous wall at an auction in 1990. The segment, originally located on Waldemarbridge, reveals a hidden painting of Berlin's St. Michaels Church.
Vatican Radio Station: Added to the Gardens in 1931 by famed inventor Guglielmo Marconi, The Marconi Broadcast Centre is where he broadcasted his first message worldwide. Pope Pius XI understood the importance of the emerging technology and encouraged Marconi's research.
Vatican Railway Station: This short rail line primarily carries supplies into Vatican City. Nearby are a bank, a pharmacy, and a grocery store. Even popes need to run errands! Since 2015, and on Saturdays only, the Vatican offers rail service from the Vatican Railway Station to the Pontifical Villas at Castel Gandolfo, to the south of Rome. The full-day tour includes entry to the Vatican Museums and Gardens, round-trip train travel and access to parts of the Papal complex at Castel Gandolfo.
Location: Vatican City, 00120 Italy
Hours: The Vatican Museums and Gardens are open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (final entry at 4 p.m.) Closed Sundays (except the last Sunday of each month, when it's open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., provided it doesn't coincide with major religious holidays.) Accurate as of September 2018. Check the website for updates.
Admission: Guided tours last 2 hours and must be booked through the Vatican Museum's website or with a private tour company. Your ticket includes a visit (unguided) to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, on the same day only.
Prices: €33. Reduced: €24 (children 6-18 and religious persons with valid documentation.)
Visiting Tips: The tour is on foot. For those with mobility issues, an open eco-bus tour is available for €37/reduced: €23 (includes audioguide and illustrated map.) For safety reasons, children under 7 are not permitted on this tour.
If you need wheelchair assistance, you can book a tour with Vatican Gardens without barriers.
How to Get There:
Metro: Line A in the direction of Battistini, Ottaviano, or Cipro stations.
Buses: 49, 32, 81, and 982 stop at Piazza del Risorgimento; 492 and 990 stop at Via Leone IV/Via degli Scipioni.
Tram: 19 stop at Piazza del Risorgimento
Sights and Attractions Nearby
Castel Sant'Angelo: Built as a mausoleum by Emperor Hadrian, this imposing castle along the Tiber River is now a museum.
The Swiss Guard: Since 1506, these traditionally and colorfully costumed recruits have been guarding Vatican City.
Leonardo Da Vinci Experience: The new museum exhibits Da Vinci's inventions and reproductions of his most famous paintings, including the Last Supper.
Villas of Castel Gandolfo: Located 45-minutes from the center of Rome, it has been the summer residence of Popes since the 17th century. For information on arriving via train from the Vatican Rail Station, visit this page on the Vatican Museums website.