The world’s smallest sovereign state, Vatican City is a truly tiny territory, comprising little more than St. Peter’s Basilica 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, 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 (allegedly designed by Michelangelo) Swiss Guards, a tradition dating from when the Swiss, known as brave soldiers, were often hired out as mercenaries for foreign armies. Today the Vatican remains the center of the Roman Catholic world, the home of the Pope—and 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 is the Vatican Museums, the world’s biggest and richest museum complex.
On the left side of Piazza San Pietro, the Vatican Tourist Office (tel. 06-69882019; Mon–Sat 8:30am–7:30pm) sells maps and guides that will help you make sense of the treasures in the museums; it also accepts reservations for tours of the Vatican Gardens. Adjacent to the information office, the Vatican Post Office sells special Vatican postage stamps (open Mon–Fri 8:30am–7pm, Sat 8:30am–6pm).
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 marble discs embedded in the pavement near the fountains to see all the columns lined up in a striking optical/geometrical play. Straight ahead is the facade of St. Peter’s itself, 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 stands 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.
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.
Making the Most of a Day in Vatican City
Most Vatican visitors allot a day to see its two major sights, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel). We recommend starting with the museums. Pre-order tickets for the earliest time slot available (from 9am) the day you wish to visit. Plan to devote several hours to see the highlights of the museum collections.
Next, grab a quick late lunch, either in the museum cafeteria or at a nearby sandwich shop or pizza joint. The streets leading from the museum exit to St. Peter’s Basilica are lined with cheap eateries—mostly mediocre, but they’ll do in a pinch.
Once you enter St. Peter’s Square, head to the back of the line (always long, but it moves fairly quickly) to enter the basilica. From the time you enter the basilica, you’ll need at least 1 hour for even the most cursory tour.
By now it’ll be late afternoon, and you’ve got 2 options: Visit the Vatican Grottoes, burial place of dozens of popes, or climb the 551 steps (320 if you take the elevator) to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s. Note that the dome is open until 6pm April to September, 5pm October to March. The grottoes stay open to 7pm and 6pm, respectively. If you’ve still got energy, head to nearby Castel Sant’Angelo, which is open until 7:30pm year-round—the view of Rome from the castle’s roof is a perfect way to cap off your marathon Vatican day.
Want more time at the Vatican Museums? Arrive at St. Peter’s early in the morning to get in line before it opens at 7am; that way you can tour the basilica before the crowds get thick. Then head to a late morning appointment at the museums and spend the rest of the day there.
When the pope is in Rome, he gives a public audience every Wednesday beginning at 10:30am (sometimes 10am in summer). If you want to get a good seat near the front, arrive early and prepare to wait—security begins to let people in between 8 and 8:30am but the line starts much earlier. 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. You can check on Pope Francis’s appearances and the 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 prefer to reserve a place in advance, visit the Vatican website to download a request form, which must be submitted via fax (yes, really) 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 7pm on the preceding day or on the morning of the audience from 7 to 10am.
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 historically takes place at the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, some 26km (16 miles) out of Rome. Under Pope Francis, the residence, gardens, and villas of the castle have been opened to visitors as a museum, accessible via Metro and bus as well as a new train service that leaves from the Roma San Pietro station. Visit biglietteriamusei.vatican.va for information on seeing Castel Gandolfo by train.
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.