Your trip to Rome will almost certainly include at least one day spent in Vatican City, the city-state located within, and surrounded by,Rome. Vatican City, or simply The Vatican, is the world's smallest country and it's home to the Pope. Here you will find 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. Click on the links to find out more about each attraction.
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, but it is usually very crowded, and there can be long lines to enter. The best time to go is early 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). 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. It was designed by Roman artist Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1656 and has an elliptical shape. There are 140 statues atop the colonnades and 2 large fountains in the square.
The vast square is where lines form to enter Saint Peter's. It also provides some unforgettable photo ops. The Pope holds regular Papal General Audiences on Wednesday mornings in Saint Peter's Square. While there is no cost to attend, tickets to the Papal Audience are mandatory.
The huge complex that is the Vatican Museums 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. These artworks 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.
You can avoid the (very) long entrance line by buying your ticket in advance or booking a tour. Buy Vatican Museum tickets with payment in US dollars from the Vatican Museums website. Just like with the Basilica, you won't be allowed inside unless you are dressed properly.
For other galleries within the museums, it's best to study ahead and decide what you most want to see (Roman coins, Etruscan sculptures, antique maps, etc.). Then head to these collections and resist the temptation to try to see it all–it's far too much to take in on one or even a dozen visits.
With ceiling and altar painted by Michelangelo and walls frescoes painted by other Renaissance greats, the Sistine Chapel is the highlight of a visit to the Vatican Museums and one of the world's most important artistic treasures. The chapel is usually very crowded. You can avoid some of the crowd by going as soon as it opens or even better by booking a Sistine Chapel Before or After Hours Tour.
Hint: 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.
This article has been edited and updated by Elizabeth Heath