10 Things to Do and Places to Visit in Vatican City

10 Things to Do and Places to Visit in Vatican City

Vatican City may be small, but it houses breathtaking sights and spectacular artworks. You might even get to see the Pope if you’re lucky!

With a total size of 0.44 square kilometres and a population that’s less than 1,000, Vatican City is the world’s smallest independent state. It is home to the Pope who is the head of the Holy See, the headquarters of the Catholic Church. This intriguing city is also easily accessible as it is located in the centre of Rome, so you can spend a day there and tell your friends you’ve seen another country. How cool is that?

As the spiritual and administrative centre of the Catholic Church, there are many things to see and places to visit in Vatican City for both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Whether it’s marvelling at the splendour of St Peter’s Basilica or taking a stroll through the Vatican Museums and seeing Michelangelo’s famous paintings at the Sistine Chapel, here’s what you can do in the world’s smallest state.

1. Snap a picture at the world-famous Saint Peter’s Square

The most iconic image of Vatican City, Saint Peter’s Square is the heart of this small state. This colossal piazza was designed by famous Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini from 1656 to 1667. It was built around the Egyptian obelisk in the centre of the square, which was placed there in 1586. It can hold as many as 400,000 people and is where the Pope holds his papal audiences.

Bernini wanted to make the square as symmetrical as possible, and so he designed an elliptical piazza that was enclosed by two large imposing colonnades, which are four columns wide. These colonnades are supposed to symbolise ‘the maternal arms of Mother Church’. Two small fountains, equidistant from the obelisk and the colonnades, are in the square as well. When you visit the city, you simply must take a picture on the square with the regal St Peter’s Basilica as your backdrop.

How to get there: Take the Metro Line ‘A’ and stop at the Ottaviano ‘San Pietro – Musei Vaticani’ station.

2. Marvel at Saint Peter’s Basilica

For those who don’t know, Saint Peter’s Square is but a taste of another grand site. It is the entrance to the majestic Saint Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. Built between 1506 and 1626, it replaced the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica and is built on the supposed location of the tomb of Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome and the chief disciple of Jesus.

Designed by renowned Italian architects like Michelangelo, the basilica’s interior is decorated in an ornate fashion and features many intricately designed statues, ornaments, and monuments. You can also climb to the top of the dome to see stunning views of Rome.

Image credit: Tjflex2

Check out the grottos beneath the basilica as well, which house the tombs of dozens of popes dating from the 10th century. The entrance can be found near the high altar. Admission to both the basilica and the grottos is free, but there is a dress code. Do refrain from wearing shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless tops when visiting.

3. Visit the Vatican Necropolis

Image credit: Andy Montgomery

Even further beneath the basilica is the Vatican Necropolis, where Saint Peter’s Tomb is located. Not to be confused with the grottos, this site is a former cemetery housing Christians killed by Emperor Nero, including Saint Peter.

Pope Pius XI commissioned a series of excavations in the 1940s and uncovered almost 20 mausoleums, including Saint Peter’s Tomb, which supposedly contained his remains. It is only accessible via a guided tour, and just 250 visitors are allowed each day, so do book your visit as soon as you can!

4. Meet the Pope at a Papal Audience

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, leader of the Catholic Church and head of state of Vatican City, and is one of the most influential people in the world. Every Wednesday at 10.30am, he holds an audience with the public in Saint Peter’s Square if he is in town. The audience consists of small teachings and readings, as well as greetings to special visiting groups from around the world. The Pope will then pray the Lord’s Prayer with the audience, before imparting a special Apostolic Blessing and going around the square to meet the crowd.

Do note that you do need a ticket to be in the audience, but thankfully, it is free! Click here to find out how to obtain one. If you are unable to make it on Wednesdays, the Pope delivers a short speech from his window in the papal residence at noon on Sundays, so that would be a good chance to see him as well.

5. Appreciate artworks at the Vatican Museums

things to do in vatican city

Any trip to Vatican City would not be complete without a visit to the Vatican Museums. One of the largest museums in the world, it was founded in the early 16th century and contains 54 galleries spanning over 1,400 rooms in total. The galleries feature works that have been collected by Popes throughout the centuries. Aside from that, you will also find sculptures and paintings by renowned artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci, and historical artifacts collected by the Catholic Church from around the world.

Image credit: Cintaz (Off)

Highlights of the museum include Raphael Rooms, a large collection of frescoes painted by the artist himself, and the Gallery of Maps, which features topographical maps of the Italian peninsula. Many colourful paintings adorn the vaulted ceiling of the gallery, making for an awe-inspiring sight. Opt for a guided tour to get the most out of your experience!

6. Be amazed by Michelangelo’s breathtaking frescoes

Image credit: Colin Tsoi

Included as part of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel is worth mentioning as a sight in itself. Best known for housing Michelangelo’s stunning frescoes on the ceiling and on the altar wall, the Sistine Chapel functions as the Pope’s private chapel. It is also where papal conclaves are held to select the next Pope.

Every inch of the chapel is covered in amazing works of art, but don’t ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ too loudly as the guards will not hesitate to shush you. They will also stop you if you try to take a picture of the chapel.

Tip: Come early or book a private after-hours tour of the Vatican Museums and the Chapel for the best experience! To skip the queue outside the museums, reserve your ticket here now!

7. Saunter around in the Vatican Gardens

Image credit: BriYYZ

If you need to get away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist crowds in the city, why not relax in the natural green paradise of the Vatican Gardens? Taking up more than half of the total area of Vatican City, the gardens are only open to guided tours, and are divided into different sections that reflect different historical periods.

Stroll leisurely amidst trickling Renaissance fountains, beautifully curated mini-gardens, and historical sculptures, with the iconic dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica as your backdrop.

Tours are coupled with trips to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica, making for a great day out.

8. Click a photo with a Swiss Guard

things to do in vatican city

Despite their slightly comical appearance, the Swiss Guards are a force to be reckoned with. Known as the de facto military of the city, they have guarded the Vatican since 1506, and are comprised of Swiss Catholic males aged 19 to 30 who have gone through military training. They carry traditional weapons such as the halberd but will use firearms and their martial arts training to defend the Pope from attacks if need be.

You are welcome to take a picture with a Swiss Guard, but don’t tease them or expect them to pose for pictures, as they’re actually on duty!

9. Tour the Castel Sant’Angelo

Also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, Castel Sant’Angelo was built in the second century as a tomb for the Roman emperor Hadrian. It was then subsequently converted into a military fortress and then a papal residence, before finally becoming a museum in the modern day. It is easily recognisable thanks to the iconic statue of the Archangel Michael that is perched on top of the towering fortification.

Inside, you can see rooms that functioned as papal residences, an extensive collection of weapons, and prison cells where historical figures were incarcerated. The top floor also has a small terrace that serves coffee with a great view of Rome.

10. Come back at night!

things to do in vatican city

Most tourists visit Vatican City during the day, but for a magical experience, tour the city at night! The Vatican Museums open their doors on Friday nights from April to October, giving you a chance to roam the corridors and admire the artwork at a more relaxed pace and without the usual crowds. In the mood for music under the moonlight? Outdoor concerts that feature classical musicians are held right outside the museums at this time, too.

Or, you can take a romantic stroll along Saint Peter’s Square, illuminated by the lights of the basilica’s dome, and bask in the peaceful ambience. Exploring the city at night means it’s much cooler as well! And when you’re done, you can go for a sumptuous dinner at one of the nearby restaurants in Rome.

Whether you’re on a pilgrimage to visit the Vatican or a tourist staying in Rome, the splendour of the city will surely enthrall you. Spend a day walking through its hallowed buildings and admiring the magnificent artworks in the museums, while taking in the historical charm of the city. This is surely not a place to be missed!

Also read: Best Cheap Eats to Try in Rome

About Author

Isaac Neo
Isaac Neo

Isaac used to love airports, until he went on exchange and experienced one too many delays for his liking. He believes the best part of travelling is experiencing the local food, which explains his expanding waistline. When not at work, he can be found reading, watching football, or browsing the dankest memes.

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