The world’s tiniest country is home to its most legendary ceiling and its largest church. Your guide to the Vatican’s must-see sights in Rome.
Built over centuries by the Roman Catholic Church and made beautiful by Italy’s most revered artists, the secrets of Vatican City will richly reward your time.
There is a dress code for visitors entering St Peter’s Basilica, so it’s a good idea to dress appropriately before your trip to Vatican City: Knees and shoulders should be covered, so avoid wearing shorts, short skirts and sleeveless tops. Make sure to remove your hat before entering the Basilica. Keep in mind that most Catholic churches in Rome expect visitors to follow similar guidelines.
St Peter’s Square
You’ll be awed at the scale and grandeur of the 17th century Piazza di Pietra (St Peter’s Square), as you pass on the way to St Peter’s Basilica. Built under the pontificate of Pope Alexander VII and designed by the legendary Bernini, St Peter’s Square can accommodate over 300,000 people. It’s a work of art in its own right, with nearly 300 Doric columns, statues of 140 saints and an ancient Egyptian obelisk flanked by elegant fountains. On summer days, the sunshine can be punishing: bring a hat, water and sunscreen.
St Peter’s Basilica
It’s not just the world’s most famous Catholic church. As a shrine to Saint Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles (and considered the first Pope), St Peter’s Basilica is one of the holiest sites in Christendom. Founded in 324 by the Emperor Constantine, it was rebuilt in the 16th century. Allow at least an hour to revel in masterpieces from Michelangelo’s soaring dome to Bernini’s Baroque baldacchino at the altar. If you’ve never been moved to tears by a statue, then perhaps you haven’t seen Michelangelo’s Pietà. His depiction of Mary embracing a dying Jesus is so lifelike it’s hard to believe it’s carved from stone.
The Vatican Museum
One of the best museums to get lost in. The massive collections in the Vatican Museum rival those of the Louvre, stretching across ornate halls and galleries from the Belvedere Palace to the Vatican Palace. Peruse a vast gallery of 16th century maps from the time the museum was founded, and don’t miss the breathtaking statues of the Museo Pio-Clementino, or the Stanze di Raffaello – four chambers with frescoes by Raphael. The audio tour is fascinating and well worth a listen.
The Sistine Chapel
If you only have an hour in Vatican City, go directly to the Sistine Chapel. You may have seen reproductions of its iconic images, but standing in the actual Sistine Chapel will blow your mind. Ranked among history’s most celebrated works of art, Michelangelo’s awesome ceiling frescoes depict the Bible’s most dramatic events, from the Flood to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. Pause by the main entrance for an overview before gazing on Michelangelo’s Giudizio Universale (The Last Judgment) and 15th century frescoes by Botticelli and Perugino. Expect crowds of people, even in the dead of winter.
Castel St Angelo
Come for the lavish rooms and the stupendous view, stay for Renaissance art and Medieval relics. While the Castel St Angelo can’t compete with the Vatican Museum, it has atmosphere in spades. Built in 123 AD as a tomb for the Emperor Hadrian, the Castle of the Holy Angel has also served as a military outpost, a prison and papal fortress. Opera fans, head to the terrace and sing a bar from Puccini’s Tosca, and for Puccini fans in particular – stand in the spot where she makes her tragic leap at the end.