“You don't need to be more Catholic than the Pope”
Visiting the Vatican is an essential part of any visit to the Italian capital. This small city-state is home to 799 inhabitants but visited by 6 million people every year. This means 7,509 tourists visit for each resident. Tourists tend to visit the Vatican’s museums, the Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s Square, and Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican and the Holy See is effectively an absolute monarchy with the pope, the Roman Pontiff, and the bishop of Rome exercising the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers.
Thinking about going to Rome?
In this article, we’re looking at everything you need to know about the Vatican.
Planning a Trip to the Vatican
The Janiculum was once the residence of the Roman nobility.
The site of the Vatican is full of archaeological remains dating back to the Antiquity. It’s effectively an open-air museum with over 2,000 years of history and art history. Since the reign of Emperor Constantine to the 4th century and during the time of the Papal States (752-1870), the popes have collected art since the High Antiquity.
So how can you plan to see the Vatican?
To get to the Vatican from the UK, you can always compare flights to Rome on Skyscanner. There are plenty of flights including from London to Rome for as little as £40 return.
From the centre of Rome, you can walk to the Vatican by taking the Porta Sant’Anna. There are plenty of buses that go to the Vatican from Rome, stopping at Risogimento or Largo di Porta Cavalleggeri. To visit Saint Peter’s Basilica and the museums at the Vatican, you can also take the Metro Line A, getting off at Ottaviano or Cipro.
In the Vatican, there’s no low season or high season, it’s busy the whole year round and welcomes 16,438 visitors a day (6 million annually). The best time to visit the Vatican is in autumn, winter, or spring as it tends to be slightly quieter than summer.
In terms of the weather, the Vatican has a Mediterranean climate resulting in warm dry weather in the summer and mild winters.
The Omnia Vatican Card will give you two free visits, and free access to public transport for €113. It’s valid for 3 days and allows you to visit one of the world’s best art collections. You can also get a queue-jump ticket for the attractions. There are plenty of tickets that combine the Colosseum, Villa Borghese, the Vatican museums, Sistine Chapel, and the Apostolic Palace. Don’t miss the dome at the Sistine Chapel, Apollo Belvedere, and Laocoon and His Sons.
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The Best Parts of the Vatican City
What can you see in the Vatican?
Despite its small size, the Vatican is home to plenty of art dating back to the Antiquity.
Whether you’re a pilgrim, practising Christian, or just a tourist who loves art and history, there’s something at the Vatican for everyone.
The most popular attractions at the Vatican include:
- Saint Peter's Square
- Saint Peter's Basilica
- The Sistine Chapel
- The Vatican Museums
- The Vatican Gardens
Saint Peter's Square was designed in a baroque style by Gian Lorenzo Bernini to welcome as many pilgrims as possible to the pope’s speeches. Don’t miss the dome with the statues and works from Michaelangelo. The obelisk in the centre of the square was brought to Rome from Egypt by Caligula. It was originally constructed nearly 4,000 years ago.
Saint Peter's Basilica was built between 1506 and 1626 and the largest Christian church in the world. It welcomes 150,000 visitors each Sunday for the “Angelus Blessing”. It’s the resting place of Saint Peter and many other popes.
How could you visit the Vatican without visiting the Sistine Chapel?
Built between 1477 and 1483, this is where the cardinals meet to elect the new pope. It’s famous for the ornate arch, the frescoes painted by Michaelangelo, including The Last Judgment and paintings by Pietro Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, and Pinturicchio.
Finally, there’s the Vatican Museums, which include a total of 12 museums including the Pinacotheca, the Gregorian Egyptian, Etruscan, and Profane museums, and the Chiaramonti Museum.
The museums are closed on Sundays but from Monday to Friday, you can visit the museums.
The History of the Vatican City
Even though the Vatican has been recognised as a sovereign state since the Lateran Treaty of 11 February 1929, it dates back to the Roman Antiquity.
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The Vatican’s history dates back to when the Vatican Hill was home to Roman nobility including Agrippina, the mother of Caligula and grandmother of Nero. Caligula built the Circus of Nero. The obelisk in Saint Peter's Square dates back to then.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Vatican Hill became the residence of the popes. In the 5th century, Pope Symmachus built a palace.
During the Feudal Age, the popes received donations from kings and princes, resulting in them possessing a colossal fortune. The pope became one of the largest landholders in Europe and was master of the Papal States, which allowed the Vatican to assert its power.
During the Italian Renaissance, the popes were veritable patrons of the arts. While the pope’s authority was increasingly challenged by humanist ideals, they continued to increase their collection of art.
Rationality, individualism, crusades, and political and social tension between the Medicis, Orsini, Borgia, and Colonna families all contributed to reducing the pope’s power. Paradoxically, this was when the largest buildings in the Vatican were built:
- The Sistine Chapel
- Saint Peter's Basilica
- Cortile del Belvedere
The invasion of Latium by Napoleon’s troops in 1798 resulted in the Vatican falling under French control. It was liberated following the fall of the French Empire in 1815 but the unification of Italy caused the papal states to disappear in 1870, driving the pope back to the Vatican.
As Rome was declared the capital of Italy and the pope’s powers were weakened, the dispute known as the Roman Question took place between Italy and the Papacy.
This was resolved on 11 February 1929, when the Vatican was recognised as a sovereign city-state where the pope was given political and spiritual authority over the territory.
Find out more about planning a trip to the Vatican.
Why Should You Visit the Vatican Museum?
When you visit Rome, you’ll probably think about visiting the Roman Forum, Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, etc.
But should you visit the Vatican if you’re neither Catholic nor a fan of large crowds?
Here are some good reasons to visit the Vatican:
- The art collections
- The Apostolic Palace
- European art and history
- Archaeological remains
There are 4 million visitors to the Vatican Museums each year, which is hardly surprising given that there are 2,000 years of history across several miles of corridors. You can explore various ages throughout history:
- The Gregorian Egyptian Museum: from the Neolithic Period to the Age of the Pharaohs.
- The Gregorian Etruscan Museum: with objects from archaeological digs from the 9th century BCE to the 1st century BCE.
- The Ethnological Museum, with its collection of over 80,000 pieces of art from as early as prehistoric times.
- Pio Clementino Museum: The largest of the 12 museums with collections from the Greek and Roman Antiquity.
In the Apostolic Palace, there’s the Sistine Chapel, which attracts most of the Vatican’s visitors. Inaugurated 15th August 1483, it’s regularly visited for the dome and frescoes painted by Michaelangelo. In addition to these monuments, you can also visit the Niccoline Chapel and the Raphael Rooms, which are filled with masterpieces from the Italian Renaissance. Finally, don’t miss the Bramante Staircase!
We recommend that you visit the Vatican either early in the morning or at the end of the afternoon to avoid the crowds.
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 involved 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. With fewer travel expenses, 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 also won't pay as much per hour as the cost tutor's time is shared amongst all the students in the tutorial.
See some of the best Italian language courses here.