Even though it’s the smallest country in the world (covering just over 100 acres), the Vatican City is one of the world’s most important religious sites, governed as an absolute monarchy with the pope at its head. Over 5 million people visit the Sistine Chapel inside the Vatican each year.
Nestled in the heart of Rome, one of the most historic, beautiful, and bustling cities in the world, the Vatican City is a place of ancient history, religious and artistic significance. What surprises most people is that it’s not only the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church but as you walk the halls of the Vatican City you see and experience something that leaves you speechless. You realise it’s the papal residence, the tomb of Saint Peter, The Basilica, the Vatican Museum with century-old artefacts, Michelangelo’s art in the Sustain Chapel, the mere scale of the buildings. It’s truly an experience like no other.
If you’re not sure what to expect or why to go, welcome to your overview of what to see and experience inside the Citta del Vaticano.
The Sistine Chapel
Built in the 1400’s the Sistine chapel’s main function is that of being the Papal Chapel, official residence of the Pope. The main attraction of course, is Michelangelo’s frescoes which adorn the interior. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo took four years to complete the work, starting in July 1508 and finishing in October 1512. Contrary to some theories, he wasn’t lying on his back when he painted the ceiling – instead, an enormous platform was erected at a height that would allow him to walk upright around while painting. Consider too that while painting, Michelangelo had no way of seeing the work he was doing from below. He somehow managed to paint these images on a vast scale from a distance of just a few inches. True genius!
This is also where the papal election takes place – a hugely important building in the Vatican complex. Jorge Marion Bergoglio is the current pope of the Roman Catholic Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City. He was named the 266th pope on 13 March 2013. No photos allowed inside the chapel, so if you want to see Michelangelo’s unfathomable art, you’re gonna have to go see it for yourself.
Top Tip: Do not wait in line for hours in peak season, rather book your ticket well in advance and save heaps of time. We’ve included guided tours of the Vatican on all Italy tours that pass through Rome.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is the most prominent building in the Vatican city, the largest Christian church building and one of the four major basilicas in Rome. The basilica was built in the 1500s and i’s under the sovereign jurisdiction of the Vatican City State. It sits over a maze of catacombs including St.Peter, the head disciple of Jesus Christ’s suspected tomb. St. Peter’s is considered one of the holiest of Catholic sites in the world and of huge importance historically and artistically.
The Obelisk in St Peter’s Square
In the year AD 64 during the rule of the Roman Emperor Nero, Paul was executed near this ancient Egyptian Obelisk in the Circus of Nero. He was crucified head down and the obelisk that now stands in St.Peter’s Square is honoured as a witness to Peter’s death. A gilt ball that was located on top of the obelisk was once believed to hold Julius Caesar’s ashes. The obelisk which doubles as an enormous sundial, was captured by the Emperor Caligula and transported from Heliopolis, Egypt, where it had been erected for an Egyptian pharaoh around 3000 years ago. Originally placed in the circus at the base of Vatican Hill, it was later moved to St Peter’s Square by Pope Sixtus V in 1586. Weighing more than 350 tons, that was no mean feat.
The Swiss Guard
Easily recognisable in their multi-coloured Renaissance-era garb, the Swiss Guard has been protecting popes since 1506 when Pope Julius hired one of the Swiss mercenary forces for his protection. And don’t be fooled by their strange outfits – the Swiss Guards are known for their marksmanship and extensive training.
Interesting Fact: The church of San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome, built where St Paul was buried after his execution in AD 67, has images of all the popes since St Peter. According to legend, the world will come to an end when room for another portrait runs out. There are just seven spaces left after Pope Benedict XVI…
Mandylion of Edessa
Whether you’re religious or not, historical artifacts from the time of Christ are still a sight to behold. The Mandylion of Edessa, which is housed in the Matilda chapel in the Vatican Palace, bears similarities to the infamous Shroud of Turin and is said to be a towel on which Jesus dried his face. There are several conflicting legends regarding its origins, but the most frequently cited tale recounts an epic race by a servant to seek healing for his dying master, who happened to be the Turkish King Akbar of Edessa. The king had dispatched his messenger, Ananias, to find Christ and bring him to heal him of leprosy. He instead returned with a towel on which Christ had wiped his face, which left an imprint, and is said to have miraculously healed the king.
The Papal Loo
There are 1200+ rooms in the Vatican complex, many of which haven’t been accessible to the public until now. When you embark on a VIP access tour of the Vatican, you travel with the Vatican guard, who are permitted to open locked doors and lift velvet ropes to spaces that have been off limits till now, which allows you to see all sorts of amazing things. This includes the ancient Roman mosaics taken from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, the frescos in the Niccoline Chapel, oh, and a vintage Papal Toilet. No kidding!
Hundreds of animal statues
The Vatican’s Sala degli Animali houses 150+ statues depicting all sorts of animals – real, ancient and mythical. What makes this so fascinating is that statues used to be commissioned in honour of important people and events, and were really quite expensive. The fact that so many animal statues remain intact is testament to the big role these beasts played in the history of cultures around the globe.
Enshrined Marian images
The Vatican Gardens are private urban gardens and parks located in the west of the territory that happen to cover more than half of the country. Established during the Renaissance and Baroque era, this beautiful expanse of greenery is decorated with many fountains and sculptures, including 15 exceptional Marian images that range from Our Lady of the Watch and the Madonna of Schoenstatt, to Santa Maria de la Antigua and the Virgin of Mercy.
Egyptian artefacts (including the sacred Book of the Dead)
It may seem a little out of place, but the Vatican is home to an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. The Popes’ interest in Egypt was connected with the fundamental role the Sacred Scripture in the History of Salvation attributed to this country. Pope Gregory XVI established the Gregorian Egyptian Museum established in 1839 and today it occupies nine rooms that showcase everything from pharaonic statuary and votive bronzes, to cuneiform tablets and seals from Mesopotamia.