Vatican City is a city-state located within and surrounded by Rome. Also known as the Holy See or simply the Vatican, it's the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and home of the pope. Although Vatican City only covers .44 square kilometers (.17 square miles), you'll find plenty of things to do including visiting the most important church in Christendom, Saint Peter's Basilica, as well as some of the world's greatest artistic treasures, including the Sistine Chapel. Whether you're a devout Catholic or just have a passion for impressive architecture and elaborate ceremonies, a visit to the Vatican is a great addition to your trip to Rome.
Built over what is considered the site of St. Peter's martyrdom, Saint Peter's Basilica is the largest church in the world, a treasure trove of art, and the resting place of many former popes. Visitors flock to Saint Peter's Basilica during religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter when the pope performs special masses at the Basilica.
The Basilica is free to visit and is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. However, it is usually very crowded and there can be long lines to enter, so the best time to go is early in the morning. Note that visitors who are not dressed in the appropriate attire will not be allowed entry into the basilica (no shorts, mini-skirts, or sleeveless shirts). Additionally, the cupola, accessed by stairs or an elevator, can be visited for a fee. Also worth seeing is the crypt below Saint Peter's, which contains the tombs of dozens of popes, including John Paul II and Saint Peter himself.
Piazza San Pietro, or Saint Peter's Square, is one of the best-known squares in Italy. This grand piazza unfolds at the end of Rome's Via della Conciliazione in front of Saint Peter's Basilica and is open 24 hours a day unless it's closed for a ceremony. It was designed by Roman artist Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1656 and has an elliptical shape with 140 statues atop the colonnades surrounding it and two large fountains in the square itself.
The vast square is where lines form to enter Saint Peter's Basilica, and it also provides some unforgettable photo opportunities throughout the year. The pope holds regular Papal General Audiences on Wednesday mornings in Saint Peter's Square, and while there is no cost, tickets to the Papal Audience are mandatory to attend.
The huge complex that is the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) holds some of the most famous pieces of art in the world, including works by Raphael and Michelangelo as well as art and artifacts from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire, all of which were collected by popes throughout the ages.
Must-see highlights include the Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello), which were once the private apartments of Pope Julius II and include the monumental School of Athens fresco, and the Gallery of Maps (Galleria delle Carte Geografiche), which measures 394 feet and is covered with more than 40 full-size geographical paintings by the 16th-century Dominican monk and cosmographer, Ignazio Danti.
For other galleries within the museums, it's best to study ahead and decide what you most want to see (Roman coins, Etruscan sculptures, and antique maps, among others), and then head to these collections and resist the temptation to try to see it all, as the entire collection is far too much to take in on one or even a dozen visits.
You can avoid the long entrance line by buying your ticket in advance or booking a tour. Buy Vatican Museum tickets with payment in U.S. dollars from the Vatican Museums website. Just like with the Basilica, you won't be allowed inside unless you are dressed properly.
With ceiling and altar frescoes painted by Michelangelo and wall frescoes painted by other Renaissance greats, the Sistine Chapel is the highlight of a visit to the Vatican Museums and is one of the world's most important artistic treasures.
The Sistine Chapel is open Monday through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (with final entry allowed at 4 p.m.) and on the last Sunday of the month from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. As the last stop on most guests' Vatican Museums tours, the chapel is usually very crowded, but you can avoid some of the crowd by going as soon as it opens or by booking a Sistine Chapel Before or After Hours Tour.
To get a seat when visiting the Sistine Chapel, head to the perimeter and hover near the benches that line the wall. When someone gets up, grab their seat. It's a lot more comfortable way to view the ceiling and wall murals, and you can sit as long as you like, within reason.
There are a number of interesting tours that can be booked either through the Vatican or from private companies. Because the complex is so big and often crowded, having a guide makes navigating the vast collections more manageable and interesting. Some museum tours have special themes that let you choose what interests you, or if you have a private guide, you can focus on what you want to see most. Other special tours are offered, including visiting the Vatican Museums gardens, a Behind the Scenes Vatican tour, and tours of other areas of Vatican City. Alternatively, you can book a pre-opening or after-hours tour with The Roman Guy tour company.
For a truly special tour, only the Ufficio Scavi is allowed to bring groups to the catacombs underneath the Basilica, with a dramatic finale at the tomb of St. Peter himself. This exclusive tour is limited to only 250 people per day, and you must request an appointment from the Ufficio Scavi to be a part of it. The English instructions say you must request the tour via fax or in person, but you can also select the option "Prenotazioni Visite" at the top of the webpage and send your request online.
Built along the shores of the Tiber River by Rome's Emperor Hadrian in the second century as a cylindrical mausoleum and converted into a military fortress in the 14th century, Castel Sant Angelo serves as a museum, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo. While technically located in Rome, Italy, it also used to be connected to the Vatican by the Passetto di Borgo, a rather infamous corridor that allowed former popes to take refuge in the castle when Rome was under siege. Today, visitors can take guided tours of the museum's five floors or stop by the top-floor cafe to take in great views of Rome while sipping coffee and eating classic Italian diner food.
See the Statues on the Ponte Sant’Angelo
The Ponte Sant’Angelo (Sant Angelo Bridge) was also constructed by Rome's Emperor Hadrian in the second century to serve as a grand entrance to the mausoleum of Castel Sant Angelo. Today, the bridge is most known for the second-century statues of angels that line either side of the walkway. Although technically part of Rome and not Vatican City, this ancient passageway used to serve as the primary route between the center of Rome and the entrance to the Vatican.
Covering over half of the land area of Vatican City, the Vatican Gardens are dotted with monuments and buildings that date back to the ninth century, including the Vatican Radio Station, the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto, and numerous sculptures and fountains. Originally established during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the gardens owe their current look to Pope Nicholas III, who enclosed the area and planted orchards when the papal residence returned to the Vatican from the Lateran Palace. Tours are available for the Vatican Gardens Mondays through Saturdays and last approximately two hours each. Afterward, guests can continue with an open, unguided tour of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.