The independent state of Vatican City is essentially the smallest country in the world. Within the state borders you can find some of the most beautiful architecture, including St Peter’s square and St Peter’s basilica, ancient history, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, and some of the most famous artworks ever known including the Sistine Chapel and Raphael rooms. It is a must visit if you’re heading to Rome and here’s what you can expect.
Staying in central Rome near the Spanish steps meant that it was easiest and quickest to take the metro, getting off at Vatican City. When you come back up from underground you can either follow the signposts, or simply follow the crowds. It’s pretty easy, but you will be accosted along the way by street sellers trying to get you to buy guided tours and tickets for the Vatican Museum. Unlike the Colosseum, we had pre booked a time slot for the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel for the afternoon, so instead we were going straight to St Peter’s.
Like most world famous tourist attractions, it gets very busy very quickly, so the best advice I can give you is to get up and go early. We were there before 9am, and there was still about a half hour queue to get into St Peter’s. This could get pretty uncomfortable later in the day, stood for hours in the sunshine. Unless you’re prepared to pay to join a tour group, the wait would be pretty full on, so definitely get there early.
St Peter’s Square
The queue for St Peter’s itself forms inside St Peter’s Square, so at least it gives you a chance to appreciate this magnificent space, the architecture and St Peter’s Basilica from the outside. The square was designed and built by Bernini in the 1600’s, and is made up of two parts. At the foot of the basilica the space is more square, with seating arranged for those who come weekly to hear the Pope’s blessing. The rest is a more round shape, encircled by 284 pillars, and above them are 140 statues of saints.
Saint Peter and Saint Pail statues aren’t elevated above the pillars, they are at the foot of the staircase directly in front of St Peter’s basilica, as if to welcome visitors in. In the centre of the square is an ancient Egyptian obelisk that was there over 100 years before the square was built around it, and on either side are fountains, one built by Bernini and one by Maderno. You will also notice the giant Royal Staircase, which leads to the Vatican Palaces.
The Egyptian obelisk wasn’t originally intended for the square, being built so much earlier, but it was moved there in 1586 by the Pop of the time, and is the only Egyptian obelisk in Rome that still stands in tact. When designing St Peter’s square, Bernini used it as the central focus point to build around.
While the square feels big, and was designed to welcome as many as possible to hear the Pope, it also feels very confined too. The adjacent buildings including the Vatican Palaces are so close, that you’re almost taken by surprise when you suddenly find yourself in the open square after wandering the streets just outside it.
St Peter’s Basilica
When you get near to the front of the queue to enter St Peter’s itself, the queue splits into separate ones to go through security. It’s the same as airport security, and as with most places large bags aren’t allowed. Also be prepared for plenty nuns to push to the front, they have the right, and security will move anyone out of the way to let them pass.
Once through security, you’re free to walk the rest of the way to the church itself, and wander around at your leisure. The only Italian churches I had been inside prior to St Peter’s was the Duomo in Florence, which I found to be quite plain and empty. St Peter’s is nothing like that at all, and you’ll be completely mesmerised by the place from the minute you enter.
Both the floors and the ceiling are ornate and detailed, as are all of the columns, and smaller chapels that run alongside the main entrance. It’s the largest church in the world, with a world famous dome that can be seen from far and wide across Rome, and up to 80,000 a week flock to see the Pope give his blessing on a Wednesday.
It was designed by a number of great artists and architects including Michelangelo himself, and is naturally the burial place of St Peter himself, who’s tomb lies underneath the altar. Among the many chapels that you can enter should you wish are a baptistery, a choir Chapel and a Chapel of confession.
As someone who isn’t religious, I didn’t enter any of these, preferring instead to just take in the whole place, admiring the marble sculptures, relics, tombs of popes and other notable figures and artists found in this UNESCO heritage site. The most impressive was undoubtedly Michelangelo’s Pieta, made of marble and showing Jesus’ body lying over Mary after his crucifixion.
Religious or not St Peter’s is an incredible basilica, and absolutely worth a visit for it is truly impressive. Once you’ve spent some time taking it all in, you emerge back out on the other side of St Peter’s Square, which gives a clear view over the square and further down Via della Conciliazione.
Vatican Museum & the Sistine Chapel
As well as St Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel is another top destination for visitors to Rome. The Chapel is part of the Apostolic Palace, or the official residence of the Pope, and is the sacred place where the Papal conclave, or the choosing of new Pope’s occurs.
To visit the Sistine Chapel, you have to also visit the Vatican Museum, as this is the only way it can be reached. The Vatican Museum is enormous, and is full of thousands of Christian artworks, sculptures and collections that have been gathered by Pope’s of the past centuries.
You can stand outside and queue on the day but I honestly have no idea why anyone would do this. You will waste so much time so I’d definitely advise booking a time slot in advance. A time slot will get you past the general queue, but still expect to spend some time queueing simply due to the volume of people.
Entry into the museum as an open do it yourself tour is priced from 17 euros per adult, 8 euros for children, and booking online has a 4 euro per ticket booking fee. This is the most flexible option, allowing you to spend as much or little time as you choose in the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. You can book online here at the official Vatican Museum website, and add on audio guides, or guided tours depending on your preference.
If you’re interested in the collections themselves then you could easily take an entire day if not longer exploring the galleries and wings of the museum that house all of these artworks. There’s plenty of cafes, shops and also the stunning Vatican gardens to enjoy as well. For many though, the Vatican Museum is simply something to pass through, with the Sistine Chapel being one of the last rooms that you come to.
I’m not going to lie, walking through crowds and crowds of people is a pain in the arse. It’s immensely busy, and the guided tours bustle and push through not caring who gets in their path. The museum staff try their best to manage the crowds, opening and closing extra rooms to accommodate the volume of people, but I have to say it felt to me like it was just one big slow moving queue, that took over an hour to get through until you reach the end goal.
Once you get there the Sistine Chapel is of course incredible. The ancient Renaissance ceiling painted by Michelangelo is something you have to see in your lifetime, and despite the room being entirely full of people, you can still appreciate it’s beauty. Crowd control in the Chapel itself is very strict, they insist on silence and no photography. People were sneaking photos, but for this I didn’t bother, so I’m sorry I don’t have a photo to share.
Overall I’m really glad I saw the Sistine Chapel, it’s one of those bucket list things you really need to see in person to appreciate, but I don’t think I’ll return purely because the slow journey through the museum to get to it on a hot day in Rome wasn’t pleasant at all. We were all more than ready for a drink outside afterwards. St Peter’s Square and Basilica I would recommend to anyone as well, and are both things I would take a day to revisit if and when I return to Rome.
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