Vatican City is a strange entity. It’s a city. It’s a state. It is recognized as an independent country; the smallest country in the world, with a population of less than 1000. It’s basically just the most important catholic cathedral, the residence of the Pope, the adjacent museums and gardens and a few other buildings.
Vatican City was established only in 1929 but the history of the place and the treasures that it contains are much older.
Vatican City is a walled enclave entirely located on Vatican hill, in the middle of Rome. It’s impossible to visit Vatican City without passing through the historic centre of Rome. Hence two UNESCO sites in one.
The official name of the UNESCO site is Vatican City and it belongs to the Holy See. The Holy See owns many other properties outside the walls of Vatican City but, for the purpose of the UNESCO World Heritage List, they are included in the Historic Centre of Rome.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The most recognisable landmark of the Vatican City is with no doubt St. Peter’s Basilica.
The church stands along one side of an imposing elliptical square, surrounded by four rows of perfectly aligned columns and with a massive egyptian obelisk in the centre. The church is open to visitors and the entrance is free. Visitors are only required to wear respectful attire and have to go through airport style security checks before entering the church. The dome can be climbed from the inside and the way leads to an outside terrace with beautiful views of St. Peter’s square and Rome.
The inside of St. Peter’s Basilica can’t be described with words. It’s an incredible collection of sculptures, painting, mosaics, beautiful ceilings and more and more. On the right hand side, next to the main entrance of the church, one of the most notable examples of renaissance sculpture is the Pietà by Michelangelo, protected now by a strong glass after suffering an attack with a hammer in the ’70s.
St. Peter’s Basilica can be easily reached by the centre of Rome. There are several public buses going that way or, if you feel adventurous, walking along Via della Conciliazione, the street that leads to St. Peter’s square can be an interesting alternative. Another way is taking the Metro, Line A, to Ottaviano Station and then walk for 10 minutes along via Ottaviano. This street is lined with religious souvenir shops and will take you through Piazza Risorgimento, Borgo Vittorio and Borgo Pio which make up an old quarter of Rome.
Next to the church is the residence of the Pope which is part of the same building that houses the Vatican Museums and the unbelievable Sistine Chapel.
The museums cannot be accessed by the square. The entrance of the museums is on Viale Vaticano, the street that follows the walls of the Vatican City. Again, many bus lines are in the area and the closest Metro, Line A, stations are Cipro and Ottaviano, both less than 10 minutes walk away.
The museums are an endless collection of art masterpieces and the Sistine Chapel is also accessed from the museums, with the same ticket. Photos can be taken anywhere except in the Sistine Chapel, where stewards constantly walk around reminding it and urging to keep quiet.
October 2016 Update: As of October 2016 the regular entrance ticket to the Vatican Museums is 16€. Keep an eye for the numerous tourist guides outside the entrance of the Museums who will offer “discounted” tours of the museum, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, for around 40€ per person. This is a huge rip-off as the Sistine Chapel is always included in the 16€ entrance ticket and the Basilica has always been free. They also promise you to skip the line, which you can do it on your own by reserving the entrance ticket online for 4€. They also lie about the Basilica being closed to public on that day, and the only way to get in is with a guide, so that you are forced to visit it with them. Don’t trust a word they say and, please, don’t hire them. If you want a guide there are official tour guides or audio-guides that can be booked directly at the museums.
How long is long enough?
Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican Museums can take up to a full day. The line to get into the museums can be painstakingly long especially on the last Sunday of the month when the entrance is free from 9 am to 12.30 pm. Keep in mind that the museums are closed on any other Sunday and any catholic festivity. Don’t plan much more for that day.
A short distance from Vatican City, along the river, is Castel Sant’Angelo, which is more than worth some time, if you have some energy left after walking for hours in the corridors of the museums and the aisles of the church.
Although the entire Vatican City state can be visited in less than one day, most likely a record for any country, the concentration of treasures can make anyone’s head spin in circles. It is a religious place, the very centre of Christianity for about 1600 years, but it is also an important archaeological and historical site and definitely a cultural landmark independently on religious (or nonreligious) beliefs.
When in Rome…don’t miss Vatican City!