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Vatican City

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Did You Know … ?

  • Vatican City is the world’s smallest independent country (108.7 acres).
  • Most of St. Peter’s Basilica, Europe’s largest church, was designed by Michelangelo.
  • The Swiss Guards have protected the pope at the Vatican since 1506.
  • Vatican City has the world’s lowest birth rate (zero) whereas literacy is 100%.
  • Nudity in Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” (Sistine Chapel) was painted over in the 16th century.

The world’s smallest country

Visitors to the Vatican tend to consider the destination a city within a city, the latter being Rome. It isn’t much of a city though. Consider its size (smaller than the grounds of the U.S. Capitol) and its population (less than 1,000).

Those statistics belie the Vatican’s importance as the ecclesiastical home of Roman Catholicism and its true status: It is an independent city-state. It maintains diplomatic relations with more than 150 countries and issues coins (these days, euros), passports and stamps.

For the tourist in Rome, Vatican City is a de rigueur portion of the typical itinerary, based on its architectural appeal, rich art collections and historical significance for the Western world. It’s a phenomenon that must be seen.

But the Vatican has its own market, religious pilgrims, who in their turn make room in their schedules to see Rome for all the same reasons of architecture, art and history. Besides, Rome is where the hotels and restaurants are.

In Vatican City, the centerpiece is St. Peter’s Basilica and the square it sits on. Although no longer the world’s largest church, it is awesome. It is not merely a huge dome-topped hall, after all, but a lovingly designed house of worship with art and design details too numerous to absorb quickly. These include, most notably, Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and several works by Bernini, including his striking bronze canopy over the altar.

And, there are the museums. Their best-known treasure is Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, and judging from the crowds, everyone with a museum ticket spends considerable time there.

The museums, like the basilica, require a generous allotment of time because there is much to absorb. Even then, it’s wise to concentrate on areas of special interest — which may range from ancient art to rooms of Raphael’s frescoes or modern religious art.

Vatican City can be very crowded, especially in summer, and it imposes a dress code requiring that shoulders, midriffs and knees be covered to enter buildings, gardens or excavations. Finally, like Rome, it has a problem with petty crime, such as purse snatching and pickpocketing.

Things to do for Venturers

  • In the Sistine Chapel, study “The Last Judgment,” not only to admire the work of Michelangelo but also to amuse yourself. Some of Michelangelo’s figures exposed too much skin to suit contemporaries and thus were painted over. Look for likely examples.
  • When it is near sunset, climb to the roof of St. Peter’s for a fantastic view of the Vatican and beyond.
  • Apply for a tour of the Scavi, meaning the excavations of the necropolis below St. Peter’s.
  • Not all the art here is medieval: Take a whirl through the Museum of Modern Religious Art which has 19th and 20th century works by Gauguin, Kandinsky, Matisse, Rodin, Van Gogh and others.
  • Fan out into the neighborhood and shop for packaged spices you can take home — for the creation of piquant pasta sauces.
  • Drive a few miles southeast of Rome to the town of Castel Gandolfo, known as the pope’s summer residence. The Holy See owns the pontiff’s 17th century villa there, which is not open to the public, but visitors enjoy a pleasant lakeside town with appealing craft workshops and dining establishments.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Get a ticket that allows you to attend an outdoor papal audience, a regular event on Wednesdays when the pope is in town.
  • Send postcards to your friends — using the Vatican’s stamps, of course — from the Vatican Post Office.
  • Remind yourself of the 16th century world view. Visit the Gallery of Tapestries and Maps, which shows how people perceived our planet about 500 years ago.
  • Stand in awe (along with the other thousands) admiring the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.
  • Book a guided walk in order to gain entry to the Vatican Gardens.
  • While at St. Peter’s, eye the treasures in the Treasury Museum and visit the underground grotto where numerous popes are interred.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Buy Vatican City postage stamps for your collection.
  • Attend Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • Join a guided tour of the Vatican Museums.
  • Shop for religious products appropriate to you and your memories of visiting the Holy See.
  • Photograph the Swiss Guards.
  • Rub the foot of the statue of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica. The foot has been worn smooth by the pilgrims who preceded you.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Vatican City’s official site at and choose your language if necessary.