The tiny Vatican City, in the heart of Rome, is the smallest country in the world with only 44 hectares in size (about 108 acres), and it has around 800 citizens. Despite its small area, the Vatican City still has many magnificent structures that are some of the most beautiful on Earth. Some of these buildings include St Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square, and many museums, like the Musei Vaticani or the Pinacoteca Vaticana.
Travelling in the Vatican
It’s hard to find a travel destination that’s more fascinating than The Vatican City. The smallest country in all of Europe, it has one of the most interesting histories and cultures in all of Europe. In fact, it is only slightly smaller than San Marino, which is home to just over 33 thousand people. Though a small country by population and land area, Vatican City has magnificent architecture, artworks, and culture that rival any other location on Earth. What makes it particularly unique is its location in Rome; many people will go there on vacation simply because they are already visiting Rome or Italy at large during their travels.
Tourists that are heading to Rome and Italy generally have plenty of activities and destinations they can check out while they’re in town. One thing that many people don’t realise, however, is that much of Italy is a highly religious country. Even though Vatican City doesn’t charge any tourism taxes, you will want to save some money to visit its religious sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel during your trip there. Keep in mind that Sunday is one of the days you should avoid going because it’s often very crowded with those heading to mass at Saint Peter’s Square. In other words, Sundays might not be the best day to visit the Papal Palace and its adjoining holy areas.
St. Peter’s Basilica
This imposing structure is one of the most famous buildings in Europe. It took over 100 years to build and was finally completed in 1626. St. Peter’s Basilica has been in use since 1807, when Pope Pius VII re-consecrated it after major renovations were completed. The enormous church boasts a capacity of over 60,000 people and draws huge crowds during Easter and Christmas Masses, as well as for special occasions such as blessings for new popes or commemorations for deceased Popes who are later canonized saints by popular acclaim.
The Basilica was originally built in a pagan cemetery and thus, as a matter of respect, is not aligned to either of Rome’s two main axes. Its distinctive tall dome took over 100 years to complete and its construction started in 1506 under Pope Julius II. As the years passed, this magnificent building quickly became one of Rome’s most well-known structures, and it is still one of the most-visited tourist attractions today. And because it was built on high ground, it’s easily visible from many parts of the city; for this reason, 3000 people were climbing St. Peter’s dome each week by 1566.
The Sistine Chapel is originally known as Pope Julius II’s Chapel, it is famous for its architecture, sculpture, and artwork. Michelangelo, who designed it between 1508 and 1516, was commissioned by Pope Julius II to redesign the basilica after a fire had destroyed much of it. By destroying everything except what he thought was important – namely, the greatest story ever told — he put his name on every corner of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are said to be some of the most influential works of art in Western civilization. It includes depictions of nine figures from Hebrew scriptures set against a blue background, forming one image which provides an example of how images can communicate many things at once; people understand that these figures represent God giving life to Adam (left) and Eve (right), while below them are those who formed their first family: Abel, Cain and Seth. Other scenes include Moses coming down from Mount Sinai carrying two tablets with the Ten Commandments; at far left is Noah sending out birds before the flood; at right are Jacob wrestling with an angel.
St. Peter’s Square
In terms of sheer size, St. Peter’s Square is unrivaled. In fact, it’s twice as big as Trafalgar Square in London or Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This large public space is bordered by buildings that feature some of Europe’s best Renaissance architecture; The colonnades lining its perimeter are full of decorative fountains and statuary and are a great place to meet locals or take pictures. The inside of St. Peter’s Basilica includes more than 100 chapels, one of which is Michelangelo’s famous Pietà and one of which is Bernini’s famous Scala Regia, which houses four spiral staircases leading up to a wide balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s tomb.
The Vatican Museums comprise two departments, called the Old and New Museums, that showcase art from all ages and periods. Originally built in 1506 to house Pope Julius II’s collection of statuary, they were not open to the public until 1891. The museums’ collections have been moved around frequently since their inception, but some highlights of what you can see include Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam ceiling fresco in Bramante’s Cortile del Belvedere and Raphael’s Transfiguration painting. You can also visit Raphael’s Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), which display paintings by Raphael as well as many other Renaissance artists such as Perugino and Botticelli.
St. Peter’s Cemetery
Located in the St. Peter’s Basilica cemetery is the crypts of important Italians, along with the burial site of Italian family members of popes. And, in a way, all cemeteries are beautiful but there is something about walking around in one that feels truly magical; perhaps it’s because you’re so close to those who have passed on or maybe it’s because we romanticize death as a concept. Although located inside one of Rome’s most famous churches (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), getting into St. Peter’s Cemetery isn’t difficult—in fact, you’ll be directed there upon entering St. Peter’s Basilica if you’re up for seeing it!
The entrance is through a side door to St. Peter’s Basilica, not near Pope Francis’ apartment.
Before entering you’ll be directed to cover your head and shoulders, as well as any exposed knees and/or legs; otherwise you will be turned away at entry (no shorts allowed!). However, once inside you’re free to explore without any additional restrictions.