“I'd love to go and visit the Mosque in Mecca again, just for the sheer beauty of it, not for God - much the way a non-Catholic might go to Vatican City because of the beauty of the buildings and the artifacts.” - Ayaan Hirsi Ali
If you visit Rome, you’ve got to visit the Vatican, the world’s smallest country. Whether you’re Christian or not, the Vatican is worth a visit, especially if you enjoy history or art.
It’s effectively an open-air museum sitting atop 20 centuries of history and it’s hardly surprising that the Vatican is visited by between 5 and 6 million tourists every year.
With a population of only 799, the Vatican City State is an enclave within Rome and covers just 44 hectares. It’s the world’s most visited sovereign state in terms of the visitors-to-inhabitants ratio.
As the head of the Catholic Church, the Vatican is regularly visited for the beautiful architecture and extensive art collection dating back to the Antiquity.
In this article, we’ll look at the monuments you have to visit when you’re there.
Saint Peter's Square
This Baroque-style square is located in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
This is probably one of the most regularly visited parts of the Vatican and you’ll regularly see large crowds of pilgrims and tourists waiting to get a glimpse of the pope.
The Square was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1656 at the behest of Pope Alexander VII. It was built between 1658 and 1667. The goal was to make the most of the space in front of the basilica so that it could welcome as many people as possible to see the pope. Bernini designed the square in a Baroque style with a colonnade reaching out like to arms in an elliptical shape as if embracing the crowd.
Nowadays, visitors arrive from the Via de la Conciliazone, complete with a statue by Michaelangelo, and a view of the basilica and the Episcopal Palace. It’s hard to miss the huge obelisk in the middle of Saint Peter's Square. This is an Egyptian obelisk that was erected in the 19th century BCE and brought to Rome in 37CE at the beginning of the Roman Empire. It was originally part of the Circus of Nero. It’s been at the centre of Saint Peter's Square since 10 September 1586.
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Saint Peter’s Basilica
You can’t miss Saint Peter’s Basilica when you visit the Vatican. It was built between 1506 and 1626 in a Baroque and Renaissance style. This is the largest Catholic building in the world and it overlooks Saint Peter's Square and the banks of the Tiber.
The basilica is one of the most visited monuments in the world, one of the finest buildings of its time, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It welcomes 150,000 people each Sunday for the Angelus Blessing and is also the burial site of Saint Peter. Similarly, several popes are buried here. Whether you’re Christian or not, it’s hard not to be impressed by this ornate church. Furthermore, it’s free to visit! However, you can wait up to an hour just to get in.
Before you leave the monument, you might want to visit the dome, which costs €5 to visit using the stairs and €7 using the lift. Again, you’ll need to wait in a queue for between 30 and 60 minutes, but it’ll be worth it for the view of the centre of Rome, Roman ruins, and the rest of the Vatican.
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The Sistine Chapel
Visiting the Vatican and not visiting the Sistine Chapel would be a shame. It’d be like visiting Rome and not seeing the Colosseum or Roman Forum. Of course, there’s almost always a queue, unless you get up early to visit the chapel when it opens.
You might want to consider getting the OMNIA Vatican and Rome Card which allows you to visit many of the sites without having to wait in the long queues.
Built between 1477 and 1483, the Sistine Chapel is one of the rooms in the Apostolic Palace. Since the 15th century, this has been the place where the cardinals meet to elect the new pope. It’s the largest chapel in the Vatican and is famous for its ornate arch decorated with frescoes painted by Michaelangelo between 1508 and 1512.
On the back wall, there’s Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgment, which was unveiled on 1 November 1541. There are paintings by Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, and Pintericchio. A victim of its success, it attracts between 10,000 and 20,000 visitors a day, making it particularly difficult to preserve the murals since the carbon dioxide produced damages the art.
In addition to The Last Judgment, there’s also the north and south walls that depict the lives of Jesus and Moses, including the Punishment of the Sons of Corah (Boticelli), Temptations of Christ (Boticelli), Baptism of Christ (Perugino), and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The Twelve Vatican Museums
The museum complex is another great reason to visit the Vatican. The Vatican Museum contains 12 museums that house sacred and profane art from the Antiquity, Egyptian, Etruscan, and Roman eras to the modern-day.
The popes were among the largest collectors of art in Europe. During the time of the Papal States (752-1870), over 1,000 years of art was collected.
You can get queue-jump tickets to visit the Vatican and avoid the crowds during the high season. The museums attract up to 6 million tourists each year, making it the fourth most popular museum in the world and the most popular museum in Italy.
The museum came about when Pope Julius II (1443-1513) installed the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoon in the Cortile del Belvedere.
The complex includes the following museums:
- The Pinacotheca
- The collection of modern religious art
- The Pio Clementino Museum
- The Ethnological Museum
- The Gregorian Egyptian Museum
- The Gregorian Etruscan Museum
- The Gregorian Profane Museum
- The Christian Museum
- The Vatican Apostolic Library
- The Carriage Pavilion
- The Chiaramonti Museum
- The Philatelic and Numismatic Office
- The Sistine Chapel
- The Pauline Chapel
- The Niccoline Chapel
The museums are home to five galleries that you shouldn’t miss: the Lapidary Gallery, the Braccio Nuovo, the Gallery of the Candelabra, the Gallery of Tapestries, and the Vatican Gallery of Maps. The museums are closed on Sundays.
The Vatican Gardens
To the west of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, there are the Vatican Gardens, an unmissable part of any visit to the Vatican.
The gardens were created back in the Middle Ages where there were orchards and vineyards to the north of the Apostolic Palace. In 1279, Pope Nicholas III decided to change his residence to the Vatican. He installed a meadow, a garden, and an internal vegetable garden. The gardens were filled with shrubs, pine, and cedar from Lebanon. The 23-hectare space perched on the Vatican Hill and included a 3-hectare woods. The gardens offered a green space to the complex of Medieval monuments and statues. You can now see:
- The Square Garden
- Casina Pio IV
- The Eagle Fountain
- The Lourdes Grotto
- The monument to the assassination attempt of John Paul II
- The Vatican Radio Building
The nearby Vatican Train Station allows you to take the train to the Italian coast to the Castel Gandolfo, the property of the Holy See outside of the Vatican.
Visiting the Vatican Gardens is a way to see three distinct styles of gardens: Italian, English, and French. You can either go as part of a guided tour with someone from the gardens, a private guide, or an open-top bus tour with an audio guide.
It’d be a pity to miss all of this, wouldn’t it?
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Before you go to the Vatican, consider learning some Italian. While Latin is also the official language of the Vatican, you'll get much farther with Italian. There are plenty of talented Italian tutors on Superprof who can help you with this.
With three different types of tutorial available, face-to-face tutorials, online tutorials, and group tutorials, each with their pros and cons, you need to carefully choose which one is right for you and your learning objectives.
Face-to-face tutorials take place with just you and the tutor. Since this involves a lot of extra work for the tutor outside of the tutorials, you'll pay a premium for these types of tutorials. However, with the tutor's undivided attention, these tutorials are also the most cost-effective tuition you can get.
Online tutorials come with a lot of the same benefits as face-to-face tutorials but your tutor won't be there in the room with you. While this works fine for academic subjects, these types of tutorials aren't always as effective for hands-on subjects. With fewer travel expenses, though, your tutor can charge less for the tutorials.
Finally, group tutorials involve several students and one tutor. You won't get as much one-on-one time with your tutor but you won't pay as much per hour as the cost tutor's time is shared amongst all the students in the tutorial.