Best things to do in Vatican City
Find out more about those top places in Vatican City
Located in Rome’s historic core is the world’s smallest sovereign nation, the Vatican City. While the state was only formed in 1929 when the Catholic Church and Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship signed the Lateran Accords, the institutions of the world’s largest branch of Christianity have been rooted on the western banks of the River Tiber for millennia. Much of what you see today, including the magnificent Saint Peter’s Basilica, was laid out in the early 17th century by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and forms one of the world’s most spectacular architectural and artistic ensembles.
In the heart of the Apostolic Palace, the Pope’s residence, is the Sistine Chapel, which is one of the oldest buildings in the Vatican City and contains some of the world’s most priceless works of art. Most notably, the chapel is home to Michelangelo’s mammoth ceiling fresco and his The Last Judgement, both of which were painted in the early 16th century. As the chapel is part of the Vatican Museums, guided tours are available regularly.
No other church in the Italian Peninsula – maybe even the whole of Europe – can compare to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Consecrated in 1626 after more than a century of construction, the church was the crowning achievement of Michelangelo’s career as an artist-cum-architect and his dome remains one of the world’s largest. Beyond this, the cathedral is notable for Michelangelo’s Pietà and Bernini’s imposing baldachin that sits above the altar.
Founded in the 16th century by Pope Julius II, the Vatican Museums have since expanded into one of the world’s largest collections of art. The museums are housed in the Apostolic Palace and the works displayed range from ancient Egyptian mummies to Etruscan artifacts and pieces of art produced by modern masters. Tickets to the museums also give you access to the dazzling Sistine Chapel.
While the typical image of the Vatican is of the monumental Saint Peter’s Square, much of the territory is in fact covered with immaculately maintained verdant gardens that can be visited as part of a guided tour. The gardens contain everything from underground grottos to medieval fortifications and grandiose monuments to popes gone by.
Dominated by the towering façade of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the square of the same name is one of the most impressive public spaces in Europe. Ringed by colonnaded arcades that funnel visitors towards the vast basilica – they are rightly known as ‘the motherly arms of the church’ – the square is worth lingering in to admire the picture-perfect views of Saint Peter’s.
Beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica is the remains of a much earlier church, which was consecrated sometime in the 3rd century AD by the Roman emperor Constantine. Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of this ancient structure and what is believed to be the even earlier tomb of Saint Peter, who was buried there in the 1st century AD. Visits to this archaeological treasure trove are by guided tour only.