Reasons to visit the Vatican – why you cannot pass it by on a visit to Rome
This mini country may be small, but The Vatican is absolutely stuffed to the gills with splendid attractions. Culture buffs will be delighted to discover that The Vatican City is basically one exceptionally ornate museum! From the big hitting must-see Vatican attractions such as the frescoes of Sistine Chapel to lesser known points of interest, there are plenty of reasons to visit the Vatican when in Rome.
But just how many things are there to see in The Vatican? What are the big hitting attractions? When’s the best time to visit? These are just some of the questions that many of the almost 6 million annual visitors and pilgrims to the Holy See ask themselves as they plan their trip. But never fear – with a bit of help from us you’ll be uncovering the top must-see Vatican attractions in no time!
What is the Vatican City?
A city is a misleading name for the Vatican. Technically a state, the Vatican City is surrounded on all sides by modern day Rome, and operates its’ own banks, immigration and security.
Strolling the crowded streets just north of Rome’s city centre you could be forgiven for forgetting that one of the most holy sights on earth is just behind some non-descript ancient walls.
The epicentre of the Catholic Church, the Vatican City is the home of the Pope and has a tiny population of less than 1000 people. And whilst the must-see Vatican attractions are centuries old, the state itself has only been in existence since 1929 when Mussolini signed an accord to grant the Holy See independence.
Now, it’s the home of hundreds of nuns and priests from all over the world, and a mecca for pilgrims of the Catholic faith, as well as a popular tourist attraction in its own right.
Reasons to visit the Vatican City
Religion, art and history
There are hundreds of amazing reasons to visit the Vatican. Of course, the religious attractions of this beautiful city state are a magnet for the faithful, who come in droves to witness an audience with the Pope.
But there are other reasons too – art buffs will be blown over with the amazing frescos, sculptures and tapestries from some of the greatest artists of all time in the extensive Vatican Museums, and those who love architecture will gape in awe at the St Peter’s Basilica and its spectacular architecture.
For history and philosophy lovers the Vatican is an absolute dream – it’s a place where Roman sculptures meet with remnants of ancient Greek artefacts, and where hundreds of documents of important historical significance are maintained in the Vatican Archives.
Tip for those on a budget
The budget traveller doesn’t have to miss out on a trip to the Vatican either – simply wandering the awe inspiring St Peter’s square and taking in the stunning architecture of St Peter’s Basilica is free and enough to satisfy your culture cravings.
Must-see attractions at the Vatican
We’ve captured the must-see attractions at the Vatican here! Read on to get a feel for just what’s on offer as you plan your itinerary….
St Peter’s Square
It’s impossible to visit the Vatican and NOT come across the massive and awe-inspiring square St Peter’s Square. Hundreds of thousands of people can pack into this vast space to hear the Pope speak on special occasions and at his weekly audience, but even when there is no papal appearance the square is a must-visit when in the Vatican.
Take in the spectacular columns, the intricate saintly statues and the views of the splendid St Peter’s Basilica as you explore this space.
Make sure to talk a good look at the elite Swiss Guards who protect the Pope and also look particularly fetching in their traditional outfits.
St Peter’s Basilica
Entry to the world famous St Peter’s Basilica is free of charge and is a sheer marvel. The hands of many great artists, sculptors and architects have dipped into the building of this fabulous church.
The tomb of St Peter, one of the Catholic Church’s founding fathers, is to be located inside the Basilica, and the artwork here is out of this world. Delight in beautiful frescos and uncover the Vatican Grottoes where the tombs of almost one hundred past popes are to be found.
The pièce de résistance? The view from the Michelangelo’s dome at the top, which spills over the impressive St Peter’s Square to the city of Rome.
The Vatican Museums
The attractions of the extensive 16th century Vatican Museums deserve their own guide book! With almost five miles of art galleries and collections there are seriously too many to mention here, but we’ve included some of the must-see Vatican Museum attractions to get you started.
Bramante’s Spiral Staircase if a great place to begin your tour, and the Pinacoteca is an often bypassed art collection of works including Raphael’s Transfiguration.
Next, take in the Pio Clementino Gallery for some more art and its stunning red marble bath.
Our personal favourite thing to see in the Vatican Museum? The Tapestry Gallery on the way to the Sistine Chapel for its stunning collection of prints, and the Maps Gallery for its cartography and beautiful ceilings.
We’ve mentioned the fantastic St Peter’s Square, but what about other outdoor attractions at the Vatican? Make a beeline for Pinecone Courtyard, which as its name suggests includes a massive first century pinecone as well as a fabulous (and fun) bronze globe.
From here, you’ll be able to snap some amazing photos of St Peter’s Basilica as well. Another must-see Vatican attraction are the delightful Vatican Gardens – so expansive that half the state’s area is covered with them.
Entry is by limited reservation on tours only, but if you were a fan of the HBO Series The Young Pope you will definitely appreciate these gardens! With lovely fountains and greenery and stunning views of the Basilica, if you can afford to book a tour we definitely recommend spending some time here.
The Sistine Chapel
We’ve kept the best must-see Vatican attraction until the end – and even those who know nothing about the Vatican City have surely heard of this masterpiece.
This 15th Century chapel is best known for its fantastic frescos by Michelangelo depicting scenes from the Bible and the end of days, and is also the place where the Pope is crowned.
A walk around here will surely hurt your neck and jaw as you gape upward at some of the most famous artworks in history.
When to visit the Vatican City
With so many great reasons to visit the Vatican City, there’s never a day without crowds, but if you plan your visit strategically you should be able to avoid the peak periods.
If you are there to take in the many must see Vatican attractions such as the museums, and aren’t so fussy on seeing an audience with the Pope, then avoid a visit on a Wednesday.
Midweek, the crowds surge with the faithful and curious alike who are seeking a glimpse of the pontiff.
We’d also recommend steering clear of Sunday visits to the Vatican. On the last Sunday of every month the museums are opened free of charge to the general public, meaning every budget tourist in Rome will be making their way to this free Vatican attraction.
Note also that the museums are actually closed on the other Sundays throughout the month, so don’t try visiting then either!
So just when is the best time to visit the Vatican City? We’d recommend an afternoon (when the majority of tour buses have left and the early birds have had their fill of the frescos).
As for time of year, head for the off-season (but not Christmas – it is the birth of Jesus after all!). November and January are considerably quieter and you’ll have the added bonus of not sweltering under the Italian summer sun as you explore.
The Vatican City is easy to explore at your own pace, however if you wish to get a bit more out of your experience we definitely recommend a tour.
There are hundreds of different tours and city passes available offering generic top level tours of the main attractions to more specialised trips to certain museums or centred on certain themes.
It’s also pretty busy in the Vatican City year round, so look into pre-reserving some tickets to the major attractions by booking the tickets online in order to skip the queue
We hope this handy article has given you a taste for the fabulous attractions at the Vatican – now it’s time to get planning your trip!