Vatican City is an independent state and enclave in Italy’s capital city. It’s a roman-catholic religious center and the official home of the Pope. However, whether you’re religious or not, a visit to Vatican City could well be worth your time. Not only is it the smallest country in the world, with a landmass of just 0.49 square kilometers, but it’s also unparalleled in beauty with landmark art and history around every corner.
That said, as a monument in and of itself, the Vatican is a busy tourist attraction, and long queues, sometimes in the scorching Roman sun, are a prerequisite. Vatican City also has a strict dress code, and while the area is free to enter, you’ll have to pay a fee to visit the museums which house some of the most iconic sites.
So, is Vatican City worth visiting and what can you expect when you’re there? Find out everything you need to know before you go in our guide. Let’s get into it.
It’s easy to assume that a visit to Vatican City is all about religion. It’s true that the Vatican City is a monument to catholicism, and probably the most important in the world, while also being the home of the Pope and the seat of the Church and Roman Curia. Nevertheless, Vatican City is so much more and even if you’re not religious, it’s not hard to be amazed by the architecture, beauty, and trove of treasures housed in its museums.
There are actually 26 museums in Vatican City, which are hosted in the Vatican Palaces and hold an exceptional collection of art, archaeology, and architectural features. Your entrance ticket gets you into all of the museums. At €17 for full entry, this is an arguably fantastic deal. Children can enter for €8 and those in certain catholic professions also get a discounted price.
A common misconception about the Vatican is that all of the art in the museums is religious. This is far from the truth. The Vatican has been dubbed “the museum of all museums”, and although most of the ensemble of riches has been chosen by reigning Popes over the years, you can explore everything from famous paintings to ethno-anthropological relics and antique furnishings in the many artistically significant rooms.
Some of the highlights of the museums, which make Vatican City worth visiting in themselves, include:
The Spiral Staircase – As soon as you enter the main museum, this impressive spiral stairwell cannot be ignored. It was designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1832 and is one of the most photographed features of Vatican City. It’s otherwise known as the Snail Staircase and boasts two iron-engraved stairways in the shape of a double helix.
Vatican Historical Museum – Actually the most modern of all galleries in the complex, the Vatican Historical Museum was curated in 1973 and features a famous collection of portraits of all the Popes from the 16th century to the present day. You can also witness the evolution of the ‘papamobili’, the vehicle designed to carry the Pope during public appearances, with the first carriages to the motorized ones of today all on display in the museum..
The Sistine Chapel – The Sistine Chapel is one of the most visited churches on the globe and a stand-alone feature of the Vatican. It’s also one of the most artistically significant monuments in the world, with Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Last Judgement, adorning its ceiling. The ‘David’ sculptor started working on the piece when he was just twenty-five years old in 1546 and completed it forty years later when he was nearly 67. The Last Judgment depicts the second coming of Christ and God’s final judgment of humanity. There are 300 figures in the frame, all taking a different post. That said, don’t overlook Botticelli’s murals on the walls either.
The Raphael Rooms – These stand as grand reception rooms to the Vatican as part of the public section of the papal apartments. They were painted by Raphael and Michelangelo and the Renaissance frescos are equally as intricate as those in the Sistine Chapel.
The Religious Significance
Although equally fascinating for the non-religious, you can’t talk about the Vatican without honoring its importance to Christianity. One of the main reasons people visit the state is that it is the main pilgrimage site for followers of the Catholic Church and therefore the spiritual center for some 1.2 billion people. Not to mention, you could be in with a chance of seeing the Pope on one of his many public appearances in St. Peter’s square. A number of Christians make the trip over just for this reason.
The Vatican’s history as the seat of the Catholic Church started when St. Peter’s basilica was built over the grave of the eponymous saint in the 4th century AD. Peter is portrayed as the most prominent apostle in the bible. He was the first to whom Jesus appeared, and is often depicted holding the keys to heaven and hell, therefore representing the powers of absolution for Catholics.
Vatican City became a popular pilgrimage site and commercial center following the erection of the basilica. The Papal Court was moved to France in 1309, but the Church returned to the once-marshy region on the west banks of the River Tiber in 1377 and has remained there ever since. It didn’t become its own state until 1929, but it has been the home of the pope for 700 years and tangibly linked with Christianity for more than one and a half thousand years. There’s nowhere in the west more important for Catholics than this incredible city.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The original St. Peter’s Basilica, built on the grave of the apostle, was badly damaged in 846 following an attack by Saracen Pirates. Pope Leo IV ordered the construction of walls to protect it which later expanded to become the limits of Vatican City. The church that stands today might not be the first, but that doesn’t make it any less breathtaking and it is considered to be one of the holiest worship sites for the Catholic Church in the world.
The current cathedral was built between 1506 and 1626, first begun by Pope Julius II and completed under Paul V. Not only is it a major pilgrimage site, but it is one of the most renowned works of Renaissance architecture and one of the greatest buildings of its age. It has notable Baroque elements and is designed as a three-aisled Latin cross with a dome at its center. The dome is directly above the high altar, where the crucifix crosses and marks the shrine of St. Peter.
St. Peter’s Basilica was the largest church in Christendom until 1989 when the much newer Yamoussoukro, on the Ivory Coast, took its place. It’s one of just four churches in the world that holds the rank of major basilica.
Not only is it impressive in size and grandeur, but like the rest of the buildings in Vatican city, its walls conceal treasures and relics that tell its ancient history and honor the art world. Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces fill the interior, with some of the most notable including Michelangelo’s Pieta, the statue of St. Longinus, the tomb of Urban VIII, and the bronze cathedra of St. Peter in the apse.
Italian artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, designed the baldachin, the canopy at the center of the crossing under the dome. Bernini also designed the elliptical piazza serving the cathedral approach, as well as the recesses within the walls for some of the most important relics originally housed in the basilica. These included the Veil of Veronica, the True Cross, a piece of the Holy Lance, and the skull of St. Andrew the Apostle.
St. Peter’s Basilica should be at the very top of your list if visiting Vatican City, partly due to the fact that it is completely free to enter and so even more accessible than the museums and the Sistine Chapel. There are optional costs for skipping the queue, receiving a guided tour, or entering the dome, but you can wander the cathedral without paying a penny and there’s even a free audio tour, although we recommend leaving a tip.
The Vatican Gardens are one of the most underrated attractions in Vatican City, not to mention, the most exclusive. There are never crowded since only a few reservations are accepted every day and most tourists don’t bother planning ahead to tour them, but we argue that they’re certainly worth visiting and offer some of the best views in the city.
A visit to the Vatican Gardens includes many small, curated gardens like the mini cactus garden and the collections of biblical trees, there are also a number of fountains and sculptures, perfectly balanced among shady trees, flowers, and bushes.
The leafy walkways feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Vatican and offer a completely different experience of the city to visitors. What’s more, the gardens offer spectacular views of St. Peter’s dome from almost every angle that you’ll struggle to find anywhere else. There’s also a handful of important holy sites, like a replica of the Grotta di Lourdes in France.
The gardens are located within the Vatican walls, although it doesn’t feel like it. You must reserve far in advance to book your slot since capacity is tightly limited in order to maintain the tranquility of the park. Most people don’t come to Vatican City to see the gardens, but they occupy almost half of the entire city and represent the green heart piece of the Vatican.
Even if you’re not into art, culture, wildlife, or religion, there’s still good reason for you to visit Vatican City, and one of these is its geographical significance. Not only is it located in Italy’s iconic capital city (more on that in a minute), but it’s also got a handful of world records to its name.
Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, and the only one entirely encircled by a city. It also has the smallest population of any nation or state with less than 600 people living within its two-mile borders. What’s more, Vatican City is one of the most popular religious and tourist sites in the world despite its small size, attracting five and a half million annual visitors.
Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than anywhere in the world, so it should come as no surprise that Vatican City is one of them, but it’s actually the only World Heritage Country, with the entire mini-nation recognized by UNESCO.
Vatican City drinks more wine per capita than anywhere else in the world too, with the average resident consuming over 54 liters a year. While this is mostly due to its very small population who all share similar beliefs and practices, it’s also because of the large volume of vino used for the celebration of the Eucharist sacrament or the Holy Communion during Easter.
The Vatican has its own football team and army, as well as the shortest railway network in the world with just 300 meters of tracks and one station. There are no regular passenger trains but this railway is used daily for importing goods and ceremonial purposes.
An absolute monarchy, headed by the pope, governs Vatican City and it prints its own euros, stamps, passports, and license plates. It also has its own flag and anthem, and it is home to the only ATM with Latin instructions in the world, belonging to the Vatican bank.
All accolades considered, another irrefutable reason to visit Vatican City is its convenient location in one of Italy’s, and the world’s, most exciting cities. Rome is even more famous than the Vatican itself, and the capital’s ancient sites, heady nightlife, and incredible food attract every kind of traveler. Once you’re in Rome, there’s no excuse not to wander over to Vatican City. The subway easily connects the historic center to Vatican City, with metro line A running between the Spagna (for the Spanish steps) and Cipro (outside the Vatican Museums) in just 6 minutes.
Rome is such a walkable city so you can also reach Vatican City on foot. The entrance via Via Della Conciliazone through St. Peter’s Basilica is just a 20-minute walk across the Tiber from the Pantheon in the heart of Rome’s historic center.
The Vatican City also anchors Trastevere, the upbeat, bohemian district on the west banks of the river. This area has become increasingly popular for its cheap accommodation, great nightlife, and authentic food scene. If you’re staying on the northern edge of Trastevere, the Vatican could be within ten minutes of your accommodation.
Vatican City is a fascinating place and worth visiting even if just to say that you’ve been to a country that holds such peculiar records. You don’t need a passport, Visa, or ticket to enter the actual city and everyone is welcome.
Is there a dress code for Vatican City?
There is a basic dress code for Vatican City that says men and women need to cover their knees and upper arms, while women should also avoid low-cut tops and men must remove hats before entering. It’s preferable to wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts in the Vatican to show respect but any modest clothing is acceptable.
Can you walk into St. Peter’s Square?
Visitors to Vatican City can walk into St. Peter’s Square freely, so long as there isn’t an event taking place like a Papal Mass or holding of an audience. Outsiders can still visit in the case of such events, but you’ll need to join the queues and go through security first. On a normal day, you can visit the piazza for free between 6.30 am and 11 pm.
When is the best time of day to visit the Vatican?
If you want to skip the crowds, the best time of day to visit the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica is first thing in the morning, between 7 am and 9 am when the queues should still be manageable. Between 10 am and 2 pm, the security lines at all of the Vatican Attractions are at their busiest. However, evening times, especially on a Friday, are also quiet. A number of attractions are free to enter in Vatican City on the last Sunday of each month, like elsewhere in Rome, but this also makes it a very busy time to visit. Bear in mind, the museums are closed every other Sunday of the month.
Can you stay in Vatican City?
Anyone can enter Vatican City, but all tourists must leave by 11 pm. There is no bookable accommodation within the city limits for outsiders, and only the clergy who contribute to the operation of the Vatican, including the Pope, as well as the Swiss Guards who defend the city, are allowed to reside inside the walls.