The Vatican

No bigger than one of Rome's surrounding districts, the world's smallest country has reserved itself a special place on the map. Seat of the Holy See and capital of the Catholic world, Vatican City holds sanctity for pilgrims, art lovers and history fans alike.
  • The Vatican
    © / Sergey Borisov
Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination The Vatican

The smallest of states

It is uncommon, if not impossible, to be able to see all that a country has to offer in one single visit. Exceptional in more than this respect, the Vatican City squeezes its churches and chapels into an area covering less than 0.17 square miles. So below you will find a fully comprehensive guide to everything found within the borders of the Holy city.

The main event

St Peter's Basilica is quite simply the largest church in the world. It stretches to dimensions that are difficult to grasp until you begin to explore its myriad of rooms. Wander its naves, stare up at its domes and admire its statues, Michael-Angelo's Pietà or Bernini's splendid Baldachin; believer or not, the sheer size will take your breath away.

Gardens galore

Nothing on the Vatican's territory can compete with the vast presence of St Peter's Basilica and its square. From there, the rest of the territory spreads out, taking in the Apostolic Palace (formal residence of the Pope himself), the Vatican museums, grand government buildings and sprawling private gardens, whose fountains and sculptures occupy a good half of the entire city.

Museum must-sees

The Vatican Museums are also perfectly preserved tributes to history and architecture. Aside from the reputed Sistine Chapel, the museums' highlights extend from the Gallery of Maps, the incredible collection of antique statues in the Pio Clementino museum, as well as the canvases and sculptures of Raphael, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci and the beautiful curves of the Bramante Staircase which will lead you out of the museums.

Extraterritorial property

The country itself may only cover a tiny area but its extraterritorial property covers the towering Castel Sant'Angelo and roughly fifty blocks of houses situated on either side of the Via di Conciliazone, which links St Peter's to the circular castle. Add these basilicas, churches, Vicariates and the pontifical villas at Castel Gandolfo (to the south of Rome) and you have a surface area of almost 4 square miles.

The Vatican: the key figures

Surface area : 44.0 km2

Population : 800 inhabitants

  • Full of historical richness and diverse heritage
  • Easy access on foot thanks to the proximity of the monuments
  • The large amount of tourists
  • The Vatican museums are only open in the morning, or until early afternoon

The Vatican: what to visit?

The Piazza San Pietro

The surrounding areas of the Vatican

The Vatican: what to buy?

Directly linked to a visit to the Vatican, pick up various souvenirs and religious objects. Complete your library with leather-bound or paperback books.

Roman shops are open Monday to Friday, from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm and from 3:30 pm to 7:30 pm (from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm in summer). Major shopping centres do not shut at lunchtime and are sometimes even open on a Sunday morning.

The Vatican: what to eat?

Essentially, the Vatican's food is that of Rome. Just as good as the districts which surround it, local specialities include fettuccine (Roman-style pasta similar to tagliatelle), gnocchi alla romana (small balls of semolina or flour mixed with egg and milk), saltimbocca (veal steak stuffed with ham) and abbacchio (slow-cooked lamb).

You should also try the myriad of Italian pastas on offer, along with cheeses such as caciocavallo, pecorino and ricotta. If you're a dessert freak, don't miss out on the great tiramisu and Italian gelato, before finishing it all off with an espresso. A visit to the Vatican is as good a chance as any to taste all the wonderful flavours of Italian cooking.

The Vatican: main cities

The Vatican: what are the cultural particularities?

The Swiss Guard, with its attractive uniform of large yellow, red and purple stripes, forms by far the most colourful of Vatican traditions. Officially charged with the security of the Pope, the guard is both the smallest in the world and the oldest still in existence.

Traditionally, every Wednesday between 10am and 12pm the Pope gives an Audience in St Peter's Square. To secure a place, you must request a ticket in advance from the Swiss Guards at the 'Bronze Doors', located just past security at the entrance to St Peter's Basilica. It is advised to arrive well before 8.30am, due to the amount of people and security measures to pass through.

For a full timetable of the Pope's audiences, visit the official website.

The Vatican: travel tips

It's worth dedicating at least two days to visiting the Vatican. Most important for first-timers to note is that although access to the museums and the Basilica is free, visitors must request a guide from the Ufficio informazioni pellegrini e turisti - located in St Peter's Square - in order to visit the rest of the city. Only one visit is organised per day, so an early arrival is advisable.

On Sundays and religious holidays, the Pope appears on the balcony of St Peter's to give a short speech and a blessing to the crowd gathered. This is an incredible experience to witness, usually attracting some 150,000 people to come together in communion. Tickets are not required, though blessings don't happen if the Pope is away from Rome on Pastoral visits or at his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

The beauty and the richness of the Vatican are open to all, not just to believers or practising Christians. That said, do not forget that you are entering a holy city. Therefore, make sure to dress appropriately - avoid shorts, very short skirts and bare shoulders or you may be refused entry into certain buildings, including Saint Peter's Basilica.

Also good to note are opening times. In winter (October 1 - March 31), the basilica is open from 7am to 6.30pm and during the summer (April 1 - September 30) from 7am to 7pm. The museums close early (4.45pm in summer and 1.45pm from November to February). Those who arrive early will have the best chance of enjoying a quieter atmosphere.

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