Vatican City is much more than simply where the Pope lives. It is a 110-acre sovereign city-state within the city of Rome. With a permanent population of under 1,000, Vatican City is the smallest independent city-state in the world. It has been the papal enclave of the Roman Catholic Church since the 14th century. For tourists to Rome, the Vatican City is a destination within a destination, including:
St. Peter's Square
One of the most famous public squares in the world, Piazza San Pietro is an architectural masterpiece and free to visit. An Egyptian obelisk erected in 1586 stands in the center of the square. The square designed by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini was built directly in front of St. Peter's Basilica. The place always delivers a buzzy atmosphere, thanks to crowds of the faithful, costumed Swiss guards, two beautiful fountains and plenty of Pope Francis souvenirs (both respectful and tacky) being sold by vendors. Look for shady places to sit in the giant curved colonnades, four columns deep, that line the square.
Side note: When we visited the Vatican City, my two teen sons had recently read Dan Brown's bestseller, Angels and Demons, which includes scenes set in Rome's top sightseeing spots, including St. Peter's Square, the Pantheon, and the Piazza Navona. This is a great book to engage teens' interest.
St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica is the holiest of Catholic shrines: a church built atop the tomb of St. Peter, the first Pope. It is imposing in the Italian Renaissance and one of the largest churches in the world. On the top of the Basilica are 13 statues, depicting Christ, John the Baptist and 11 apostles. The church is filled with amazing art works such as the Pietà by Michelangelo.
Admission is free but lines may be long. Consider arriving early in the morning and booking a guided tour that bypasses the public line. You can visit the Michelangelo-designed dome (for a fee), which involves either climbing 551 steps or taking an elevator and climbing 320 steps. The climb is rewarded with a wonderful view of Rome's rooftops.
The Vatican Museums are jewels of Rome but parents with young kids should consider carefully whether it is worth the long lines and constant crowds. (Again, consider a guided tour to bypass the regular lines and gain insight into the priceless collection.) Too many visitors simply rush past the collection of exquisitive artworks and antiquities on their way to the Sistine Chapel which, with its famous paintings by Michelangelo, is the highlight for most visitors. Keep in mind that a limited number of visitors are permitted inside the Sistine Chapel at one time, and lines get longer as the day goes on.
Know Before You Go to Vatican City
- Visitors who are not dressed in appropriate attire will not be allowed entry into St. Peter's Basilica. Don't wear shorts, short skirts, tank tops, or sleeveless shirts.
- On a hot day, visitors can fill water bottles from the fountains in St. Peter's Square (as can be done at many fountains in Rome.)
- Admission to the Vatican Museums is free on the last Sunday of each month.
- Crowds tend to be lighter midweek around lunchtime.
- See more advice on visiting Vatican City from About.com's Italy Travel expert.