A guide to Vatican City

Vatican City, officially Vatican City State or State of Vatican City is a small state inside the city of Rome. It is a sovereign state with an area of 44 hectares or 110 acres, and a population of about 1,000 people. It is the smallest state in the world by both area and population! The Vatican City State is governed by the Pope. I have been often to Vatican City and believe that it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Vatican City is a unique state, not only because of its size and people, but also because of its many historical and cultural treasures.

There is no other place in the world with as many museums and churches in one country. You will be absolutely amazed by the history, architectural grandeur and artistic wonders and you will not be able to leave.  Because of it’s popularity it is advised that you book skip the line tickets for the Vaticam Museums as I did in both my visits. The lines are huge and you don’t want to waste your time in the queue. In this post I will tell you more about the most important monuments and museums in Vatican City.

Capela Sixtina

The Capela Sixtina or Sistine Chapel is by far the most famous attraction in Vatican City. Everyone has seen a picture of ‘The Creation of Adam’ once in their life. It is one of the most famous artworks of all time, the centerpiece of the Capela Sixtina ceiling is a fresco painting depicting God bringing Adam to life with his fingertips. The Sistine Chapel is also one of the most famous painted interior spaces in the world. This fame comes from the breathtaking painting of its ceiling, created from about 1508-1512.

the map room at the Vatican with the impressive ceiling
the map room at the Vatican with the impressive ceiling

The chapel was built in 1479 under the direction of Pope Sixtus IV, who gave it his name. The location of the Capela Sixtina is very close to the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican. Besides being a museum, the Sistine Chapel is still in use. It serves as the space to gather for cardinals of the Catholic Church when they elect a new pope. Even today, it is used for this purpose, including in the recent election of Pope Francis in March 2013. The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. From May through October, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are open on Friday evenings from 7:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m.

St. Peter’s Basilica

What I remember most from the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is its size and the feeling of being to small standing in front of it. The St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the most important places for Christendom and one of the largest churches in the world. St. Peter’s Basilica can fit 20,000 people. It measures 190 m long and the central nave is 46m. Its Dome stands 136 m tall.

Pieta michelangelo st peters cathedral
The famous Pieta

It is here where the Pope presides many services all year round. The new St. Peter’s Basilica (the old one was torn down) was build in 1506 and finished in 1626 with the help of many famous artists such as Michelangelo and Bramante. Its name comes from the disciple Saint Peter who is one of the founders of the Catholic Church and was executed and buried where the Basilica now stands. A must see inside the large and overwhelming St. Peter’s Basilica is Michelangelo’s world famous sculpture ‘Pieta’. If you do not fear small, dark and underground spaces, you can also opt for a tour to the Vatican Necropolis where the bones of St. Peters are buried. Find here more information about the Vatican Scavi Tour.

The Cupola or Dome

View from the Dome

Don’t miss out climbing to the top of the Dome. You will have a number-one stunning view of the St. Peter’s Square and (on a clear day) most of the city of Rome. To climb the Vatican Dome, you need to take the elevator to the first level. Here you can admire the inside of the Dome and its frescos. You continue a climb of 281 steps up to the top of the Dome. The Dome was created by Michelangelo and it climbing it will be one of the highlights of your visit to Vatican City. Note that it is a tough climb in a rather confined space but well worth the effort!

You can enter the Basilica for free. It is open from October until March from 7 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. and from April to September from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. The Dome opens at 8 a.m. and closes one hour before the Basilica. You need an entrance ticket for the Dome.

The Cortile del Belvedere

The Cortile del Belvedere or The Belvedere Courtyard is part of the three Vatican Courtyards and the Pope’s palace. It is of impressive architecture and displays several of the most important Art works in the world. The Belvedere Courtyard is designed by Donato Bramante from 1506 onwards. It is part of the High Renaissance at the Vatican Palace in Rome. Its concept and details reverberated in courtyard design, formalized piazzas and garden plans throughout Western Europe for centuries.

inside the Vatican Museum

It is a single enclosed space and connects the Vatican Palace with the Villa Belvedere in a series of terraces connected by stairs. If you are interested in architecture and art history, than you cannot miss the Belvedere Courtyard. Its names comes from the statue that has been placed here: the bronze Belvedere Apollo by Leochares. Other must-see artworks in the Belvedere Courtyard are the first century Roman bronze ‘Pigna’ (pinecone) and the enormous Sphere within a Sphere brass mobile. From the outside space of The Belvedere Courtyard you will enter the Vatican museums. The Vatican Courtyards are part of the Vatican museums, they are open from Monday until Saturday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Have a great visit to Vatican City!

Looking for more things to do in Rome? Check out my 5-day itinerary.

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