The world’s smallest sovereign state, Vatican City is a truly tiny territory, comprising little more than St. Peter’s and the walled headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. There are no border controls, of course, though the city-state’s 800 inhabitants (essentially clergymen and Swiss Guards) have their own radio station, daily newspaper, tax-free pharmacy, petrol pumps, postal service, and head of state—the pope. The pope had always exercised a high degree of political independence from the rest of Italy in the form of the medieval Papal States, and this independence was formalized by the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Pope Pius XI and the Italian government to create the Vatican. The city is still protected by the flamboyantly uniformed (some say by Michelangelo) Swiss guards, a tradition dating from the days when the Swiss, known as brave soldiers, were often hired out as mercenaries for foreign armies. Today, the Vatican remains at the center of the Roman Catholic world, the home of the pope and—it is believed—the resting place of St. Peter. St. Peter’s Basilica is obviously one of the highlights, but the only part of the Apostolic Palace itself that you can visit independently are the Vatican Museums, with over 100 galleries, it’s the biggest and richest museum complex in the world.
The only entrance to St. Peter’s for tourists is through one of the glories of the Western world: Bernini’s 17th-century St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro). As you stand in the huge piazza, you are in the arms of an ellipse partly enclosed by a majestic Doric-pillared colonnade. Stand in the marked discd embedded in the piazza pavement near the fountains to see the columns all lined up in an impressive optical illustion. Straight ahead is the facade of St. Peter’s itself (Sts. Peter and Paul are represented by statues in front, with Peter carrying the keys to the kingdom), and to the right, above the colonnade, are the dark brown buildings of the papal apartments and the Vatican Museums. In the center of the square is a 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk, created in the ancient city of Heliopolis on the Nile delta and appropriated by the Romans under Emperor Augustus. Flanking the obelisk are two 17th-century fountains. The one on the right (facing the basilica), by Carlo Maderno, who designed the facade of St. Peter’s, was placed here by Bernini himself; the other is by Carlo Fontana.
On the left side of Piazza San Pietro is the Vatican Tourist Office, (tel) 06-69882019; Mon–Sat 8:30am–7:30pm. It sells maps and guides that will help you make more sense of the riches you will be seeing in the museums, and it also accepts reservations for tours of the Vatican Gardens.
A St. Peter’s Warning
St. Peter’s has a strict dress code: no shorts, no skirts above the knee, and no bare shoulders and arms. Note: You will not be let in if you come dressed inappropriately. If you’re showing too much skin, a guard hands out blue paper capes similar to what you wear in a doctor’s office. Only limited photography is permitted inside.
When the pope is in Rome, he gives a public audience every Wednesday beginning at 10:30am (sometimes at 10am in summer). If you want to get a good seat near the front arrive early, as security begins to let people in between 8 and 8:30am. Audiences take place in the Paul VI Hall of Audiences, although sometimes St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square are used to accommodate a large attendance in the summer. With the ascension of Pope Francis to the Throne of Peter in 2013, this tradition continues. You can check on the pope’s appearances and ceremonies he presides over including celebrations of Mass on the Vatican website. Anyone is welcome, but you must first obtain a free ticket; without a reservation you can try the Swiss Guards by the Bronze Doors located just after security at St. Peter's (8am–8pm in summer and 8am–7pm in winter). You can pick up tickets here up to 3 days in advance, subject to availability.
If you would prefer to reserve a place in advance, download a request form at www.vaticantour.com/images/Vatican_Ticket_request.pdf or www.vatican.va and fax it to the Prefecture of the Papal Household at (tel) 06-69885863. Tickets can be picked up at the office located just inside the Bronze Doors from 3 to 7:30pm on the preceding day or on the morning of the audience from 8 to 10:30am.
At noon on Sundays, the pope speaks briefly from his study window and gives his blessing to the visitors and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square (no tickets are required for this). From about mid-July to mid-September, the Angelus and blessing usually take place at the summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, some 26km (16 miles) out of Rome and accessible by Metro and bus, though it is unclear whether Francis will continue to spend his summers there every year.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.