Tips for Visiting the Vatican
Map of Vatican City
The walled enclave encompasses just over 100 acres within the city of Rome.
As the center of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican hosts up to five million visitors each year at its St. Peter's Basilica and Square, museums, and Sistine Chapel. The Vatican actually runs as a separate sovereign state, located in a walled enclave within Rome. It is the smallest country in the world with just over 100 acres, about one-eighth the size of New York’s Central Park. An absolute monarchy governs the Vatican with the pope at its head. The Vatican puts out its own newspaper, stamps, license plates, flag, and anthem.
Millions of visitors descend upon the Vatican throughout the year. Visitors can spend the day viewing the extensive art collection in the Vatican Museums, stand in awe of the magnificent ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, visit St. Peter's Basilica, and even attend Mass in St. Peter's Square.
The Swiss Guard
One of the first things you will notice when you visit the Vatican is the colorfully costumed Swiss Guard. Dressed in Renaissance-style uniforms, these guards have served and protected the pope since 1506. Although the soldiers reside at the Vatican, they are actually Swiss citizens. Their role may appear to be primarily ceremonial, however they are highly-trained and skilled soldiers. During a recent visit to the Vatican, I had several interactions with the Swiss guards, securing tickets for the Mass I attended and answering questions. I found them to be very poised and eager to assist.
St. Peter's Square
St. Peter’s Square encompasses the enormous plaza area at the forefront of St. Peter’s Basillica. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century, massive colonnades, four columns deep, surround the plaza's elliptical shape. Bernini expressed that the design embraced visitors in "the maternal arms of Mother Church."
The Vatican Obelisk marks the center of the plaza where the Pope holds Mass for the people. In 1586, the obelisk was moved to the plaza from its home in the Roman Circus of Nero and remains the only obelisk still standing since the time of ancient Rome.
Mass for the people is held at St. Peter's Square as well as papal blessings from the window of the papal apartment.
Pope Francis Greets the Crowd
Mass at St. Peter's Square
Attending Mass at the Vatican is an awesome experience even if you are not a practicing Catholic. If you are fortunate to attend a Mass lead by Pope Francis, you can usually expect him to tour the crowd after Mass to greet the people. I was fortunate to attend a papal Mass during a recent visit and cheer and wave to Pope Francis during his drive around the crowd. Use the links in the Resource section at the end of this article to visit the Vatican website where you can view the Vatican calendar for masses and get free tickets in advance of your visit.
St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world, sits atop an ancient catacomb that according to the faithful houses the tomb of St. Peter. Built in the 16th century, the basilica represents Renaissance architecture at its glory, designed by period architects and artists, including Michelangelo Buonarroti and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
A Latin cross defines the layout, with a central dome reaching to 136.57 meters from the basilica floor to its maximum outer height at the top of the exterior cross (about 448 feet), and an interior diameter of 41.5 meters (about 136 feet). It is said that the dome’s architect, Michelangelo, used a slightly smaller diameter than the Pantheon's dome out of respect for this grand Roman structure.
Visitors can climb the dome for a stunning panoramic view of Rome atop as well as amazing views top down to the main alter from inside the basilica. An elevator will take you most of the way up for seven euros or you can opt to climb all 551 steps for five euros.
Beautiful architecture, sculptures, frescoes, paintings, and ornament fill the basilica from renowned Renaissance architects and artists, including the famed Pieta sculpted by Michelangelo. One of his most well-know sculptures, this piece was sculpted when the artist was only in his twenties.
Slightly aside from under the dome sits the baldachin, a large bronze sculpted canopy structure. Designed in stunning Baroque-style by Bernini, the baldachin's location was intended to sit directly over the place of St. Peter's tomb. Underneath the 20 meter (66 foot) canopy sits the basilica's high alter.
Just below the basilica (and just above the Vatican Necropolis), you can visit the tombs of popes, kings, queens, and cardinals. You can access this level from the center of the basilica near the statue of St. Andrew. Very limited visits are available to tour the Vatican Necropolis, another level under, including the tomb of St. Peter. Advance written request must be made through the Vatican for this tour.
Tips for Visiting St. Peter's Basilica
Daily 7:00am to 6:30pm with exceptions for events.
Lines move quickly. To minimize lines, go early or visit at the end of the museums visit.
Shoulders and knees must be covered; no shorts and no hats.
Large bags are not allowed inside but can be checked free of charge.
Free, daily 90-minute tours are available from the Tourist Information area.
Use Rick Steves Rome Travel Guide
The best tip I can offer is to bring "Rick Steves' Rome 2015" travel guide with you to Rome or anywhere in Italy. Steves gives great, savvy advice and we used the detailed information for just about everything we did in Rome, including visiting the Vatican. It includes self-guided tours that were very useful especially when visiting ruins at the Forum in Rome.
It can be purchased as a hard cover book or as an e-book that can be loaded to your smart phone or tablet before your trip. Click the "Buy Now" link highlighted in yellow here to find out more about this amazing guide and read the glowing reviews.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are actually a series of mini pontifical museums. A walk through the museums and galleries will lead to the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican art collection is one of the largest in the world with works from famed artists and sculptors including Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and even modern artist Henri Matisse.
The vast collection began as a number of statues collected by Pope Julius II early in the 16th century. Over the centuries, artwork was added to the halls and galleries by popes who were also among the first sovereigns to display their collections for the public viewing.
The museums flank a central plaza called the Cortile del Belvedere, designed by Donato Bramante in the 16th century. A wing of the Vatican Library dissects the plaza placing the Cortile della Pigna (translated pinecomb courtyard) at the upper half. At about four meters high, this once-working Roman bronze fountain stood near the Pantheon. Initially the fountain was moved to the original St. Peter's Basillica courtyard and then to its present location in 1608.
Here are just a few highlights from what you will see inside the Vatican Museums:
- Pio Clementino Museum
Sculpture museum dating back to the original collection from Pope Julius II. Highlights include: Hall of Animals, Octagonal Court (Belevedere Apollo and Laocoön statues), Gallery of Statues and the Hall of Busts (Ariadne), Round Hall (Heracles bronzed statue), Hall of the Muses (The Belvedere Torso), Greek Cross Hall (Sarcophagus Saint Helena), Hall of the Chariot (two-horse chariot sculpture), Gallery of the Candelabra (The Persian Warrior).
- The Gallery of Tapestries
One of the few air-conditioned spaces in the museums, this gallery features Flemish tapestries created from drawings made by Raphael's students in the 16th century. One tapestry, the Tapestry of Christ, creates an optical illusion of a rotating stone door as Jesus steps onto it emerging from his tomb.
- Sala Matisse
A collection of 20th century religious art from French artist Henri Matisse.
- The Gallery of Maps
Features a series of painted maps of Italy by Ignazio Danti, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580.
- Raphael Rooms
Includes four rooms that were once part of the apartment of the Pontifical Palace. The artwork was completed by Raphael and his students between 1508 and 1524.
The museums are filled with so many more art treasures. The Vatican website includes a more complete list of museum collections online, including a few virtual tours. See the Resources section below for a link to this website.
Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museums
16 euros, less for children and students. Extra 4 euros for online tickets.
Monday through Saturday 9am to 6pm; last Sunday of the month 9am to 2pm.
Very long, especially during peak season and on the last Sunday of the month when entry is free. Purchase tickets online to avoid lines.
Knees and shoulders must be covered, no shorts and no hats. Many museum halls are not air-conditioned and it can get hot. Bring a scarf to cover shoulders if needed.
You may take photographs, however, no flash photography or tripods are allowed.
I highly recommend using a guide due to the vast and historically rich collections. The Vatican offers two hour group tours for 32 euros (less for children and students) that includes museum admission.
The Sistine Chapel
The famed chapel of the Apostolic Palace and Papal conclaves, the Sistine Chapel gets its name from Pope Sixtus IV who restored the chapel between 1477 and 1480. In 1508, Pope Julius II decided to adjust the design and assigned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling.
The ceiling decoration consists of nine scenes from Book of Genesis, highlighted by The Creation of Adam, the most infamous of the painted scenes depicted. The scenes starting from the alter are in the following order:
- The Separation of Light and Darkness
- The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth
- The Separation of Land and Water
- The Creation of Adam
- The Creation of Eve
- The Temptation and Expulsion
- The Sacrifice of Noah
- The Great Flood
- The Drunkenness of Noah
Michelangelo used a painstaking method of fresco painting to create some 300 figures in elaborate scenes over four years. Contrary to popular assumption that Michelangelo painted the ceiling on his back atop scaffolding, he actually painted the ceiling standing upright from scaffolding he built himself. This proved uncomfortable at best as the artist describes his physical discomfort in a sonnet he wrote.
In 1536, Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement on the alter wall in the Sistine Chapel. The fresco depicts the moment preceding when the verdict of the Last Judgement is uttered. It also took four years to complete. The painting contains a self portrait of the artist in the skin held by St. Bartholomew. Much controversy plagued the painting as Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said that "it was most dishonest in such an honoured place to have painted so many nude figures." As a result of the continued controversy, the Council of Trent decided to cover "obscene" figures with painted drapery in 1564.
Other Renaissance artists that contributed to the decoration include Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Roselli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Examples of their work include frescos depicting the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses on the chapel walls.
Tips for Visiting the Sistine Chapel
Included in museum admission.
The same rules apply - knees and shoulders must be covered, no shorts and no hats. You may bring a scarf to cover shoulders.
Must maintain silence.
No tours are given since silence is required. A good tour guide can explain the history and what you will see before or after you enter the chapel. If a tour guide is not an option, bring Rick Steves' Rome travel guide on your trip.
More Vatican Artworks
The Vatican Museums house a vast collection of historic artwork. Here are just a few examples:
"La Santa Sede." Vatican.va. The Vatican, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://w2.vatican.va/content/vatican/it.html>.
Steves, Rick, and Gene Openshaw. Rick Steves' Rome 2015. N.p.: Avalon Travel, 2014. Print.