The Vatican City (Italian: Città del Vaticano; Latin: Civitas Vaticana) is the world's smallest country both by area and by population, and is the center of Catholicism. As a district of Rome, it encompasses the Vatican City State (Italian: Stato della Città del Vaticano; Latin: Status Civitatis Vaticanae), as well as the surrounding Roman neighborhoods of Borgo and Prati. St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel are all in Vatican City. This tiny country completely within Rome is packed with more history and artwork than most cities in the world, and indeed many countries.
HistoryVatican City is all that remains of the Papal States, the former temporal land holdings of the Pope. Over the years, this territory varied considerably in extent, and may be traced back to AD 756 with the "Donation of Pepin". However, the popes had been the de facto rulers of Rome and the surrounding province since the fall of the Roman Empire and the retreat of Byzantine power in Italy. Popes in their secular role ruled portions of the Italian peninsula for more than a thousand years until the mid 19th century, when many of the Papal States were seized by the newly united Kingdom of Italy. In 1870, the pope's holdings were further circumscribed when Rome was annexed.
Disputes between a series of "prisoner" popes and Italy were resolved in 1929 by three Lateran Treaties, which established the independent state of Vatican City, granted Roman Catholicism special status in Italy, recognized the full sovereignty of the Vatican and established its territorial extent. In 1984, the agreement was revised to eliminate Catholicism's position as the only state religion of Italy, but the essential features of the agreement remain in force today.
DiplomacyThe Holy See — the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church which is housed in Vatican City — has diplomatic recognition from the overwhelming majority of countries in the world and has permanent observer status in numerous international organizations, including the United Nations General Assembly.
Although there are Papal nuncios (equivalent to ambassadors) in many foreign capitals, due to its limited size the Vatican does not house any diplomatic missions; instead, foreign embassies to the Holy See are based in other parts of Rome. This means that Italy hosts its own Embassy of Italy to the Holy See.
According to an agreement between the Holy See and Italy, foreign missions to Italy are not allowed to double as missions to the Holy See. Therefore, many countries have two embassies in Rome: one to Italy and another to the Holy See. Other countries that maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See but don't have a second embassy in Rome have their missions in another country (usually in Bern, Switzerland) double as representatives to the Holy See.
TerrainThe Vatican is between 19 m (62 ft) and 75 m (246 ft) above sea level. With a perimeter of only 3.2 km (2 mi), the Vatican City is not just the smallest country in the world, it's smaller than some shopping malls! Most of the area consists of the Vatican Gardens.
PopulationAlthough 1,000 people live within Vatican City, many dignitaries, priests, nuns, guards, and 3,000 lay workers live outside the Vatican. It has about 800 citizens, making it the smallest nation by population on the globe. The Vatican fields a soccer team composed of the Swiss Guard, who holds dual citizenship.
- Inside the Vatican by Bart McDowell. A light run-through of the history of the Vatican, with a particular focus on some of the recent Popes. It is illustrated with extensive photographs of the going-ons in this tiny country.
By taxi or footIt's easy to get to the Vatican by taxi or foot from Rome. There are 3 road entrances to Vatican City: from Via della Stazione Vaticana, Via Paolo VI and Borgo Pio. The entrance from Borgo Pio leads to the Vatican Museum, and the other two leads to St. Peter's Basilica.
By busThere are several bus stations beside Vatican City. For the St. Peter's Basilica and Square, the #64 bus goes from central Rome right to the southern end of the Vatican, but it is filled with pickpockets so guard your valuables! From western Rome, the #46 bus also goes to St. Peter's Basilica and Square.
For the Vatican Museums, the #49 bus goes from western Rome to the northern end of Vatican City. The gate to the Vatican Museums is carved on the wall right beside the bus station.
By metroTake the metro for the Museums, and for St. Peter's. To go from Cipro to the Museums, go east through Via Candia and then turn right at Via Santamaura. To go from Ottaviano to St. Peter's, go south through Via Ottaviano. A fun trip is to take the tram to Piazza del Risorgimento.
By trainIt's a little-known fact that the Vatican has its own train station. Historically, it has been used by the Pope for special travel on Italian rail or to send off papal remains.
Since 2014, there has been a weekly tour package each Saturday departing from the Vatican City railway station, spending the day at the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo, then returning to the Roma San Pietro station. In 2019, a full ticket of the tour cost €42.
By planeVatican City does not have an airport, but there is a heliport that is only used by the Pope. The closest airport is the Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome.
With 109 acres (44 hectares) within its walls, the Vatican is easily traveled by foot; however, most of this area is inaccessible to most tourists. The most popular areas open to tourists are the St. Peter's Basilica and Square and the Vatican Museums.
Latin enthusiasts rejoice! There is one country in the world that holds Latin (in addition to Italian) as its official language, and the able traveler is invited to check out the urban legend that you can indeed get by within the city-state only using the "dead" language. Italian, however, remains the more useful of the two. English is widely spoken here, as are most major languages of the world.
St. Peter's Basilica
- The dome, which dominates Vatican City, has a total height of 136.57 meters (448 ft) from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross. It is the tallest dome in the world. Its internal diameter is 41.47 meters (136 ft), slightly smaller than the Pantheon and the cathedral at Florence. Most of the final design was by Michelangelo, building on earlier designs by Bramante and Sangallo and taking much of his inspiration from the cathedral of Florence. After Michelangelo's death in 1564, the work was completed by Giacomo della Porta. You can take an elevator up to the roof and then make a long climb up 323 steps to the top of the dome for a spectacular view. Taking the elevator costs €10 (€8 to climb the stairs) and you should allow an hour to go up and down. During the climb and before reaching the very top, you will find yourself standing on the inside of the dome, looking down into the basilica itself. Be warned that there are a lot of stairs so it is not for the faint at heart (literally or figuratively) nor those suffering from claustrophobia as the very last section of the ascent is through little more than a shoulder-width spiral staircase. The dome opens one hour after the basilica and closes one hour before the basilica.
- In the first chapel on the right as one enters the basilica is a Pietà, the first of four works on the same theme by Michelangelo depicting the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. The sculpture, in Carrara marble, was made for the funeral monument of the French Cardinal Jean de Billheres and was moved to its current location in the eighteenth century. It is the only piece Michelangelo ever signed. In 1972 the Pietà was attacked by a mentally disturbed person using a geologist's hammer, which is why it now appears behind a bullet-proof glass wall. Reconstruction was not helped by the fact that some onlookers helped themselves to fragments after the attack.
- Underneath the altar in the second chapel on the right are the remains of Pope John Paul II.
- The first chapel in the south aisle, on the left as you enter, is the baptistry. The font is a fourth-century sarcophagus but its lid comes from another sarcophagus, which held the remains of Emperor Hadrian. This lid was dropped by workmen, broke into ten pieces, and was subject to expert restoration, with the gilt-bronze figure of the "Lamb of God" being added at that time. The tomb of Pope Alexander VII, towards the end of the aisle, is by Bernini and is considered a masterpiece of Baroque art. The tomb is supported by four female figures. The two at the front represent Charity and Truth. The foot of Truth rests upon a globe of the world, her toe being pierced by the thorn of Protestant England. The Baroque period coincided with the Reformation and St. Peter's was seen as an affirmation of Catholicism.
- The central internal feature is the Bernini-designed baldachin, or canopy, built over the Papal Altar underneath the dome. The baldachin had to be enormous to avoid being overwhelmed by the size of the basilica. To obtain the quantity of bronze required, Bernini was given permission by Pope Urban VIII to strip it from the portico of the Pantheon. It is considered to be one of the great works of the Baroque period and remains the largest bronze sculpture in the world.
- Against the northeast wall of the dome is a statue of St. Peter. One foot of the statue has been largely worn away by pilgrims kissing it over the centuries. Set in niches under the dome are four statues associated with holy relics held in the basilica including one of St. Longinus holding the spear that pierced the side of Jesus, by Bernini.
- In the apse, at the far end of the basilica, is a large bronze throne, also by Bernini. Known as the "Cathedra Petri" or throne of St. Peter the throne houses a chair which was claimed to have been used by Saint Peter, but is more likely to date from the twelfth century.
Free 90-minute tours leave daily from the Tourist Information Center at 14:15, many days also at 15:00. . €5 audio-guides can be rented from the checkroom.
The PopeIf you want to see the pope, you can either see a usual blessing from his apartment at the Apostolic Palace on noons on Sundays, just show up (but in the summer he gives it from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, 25 km from Rome) or you can go to the more formal Wednesday appearance. The pope arrives in the popemobile at 10:30 to bless crowds from a balcony or platform, except in winter, when he speaks in the Aula Paolo VI Auditorium next to the square. You can easily watch from a distance, or get a free ticket, which you must get on the Tuesday before. There are a number of ways:
- Your hotelier may be able to book one for you
- You could wait in a long line at St. Peter's on Tuesday where the Swiss Guards hand out tickets at their post to the right of the basilica, after 12:00 on Tuesday
- You could contact the Santa Susanna Church to get you a ticket (online or ), which you pick up there on Tuesday between 17:00 & 18:45, on Via XX Settembre, Metro stop: Repubblica.
- Finally, to book a free spot in the square or auditorium,
The pope also gives masses during Christmas and Easter. He may occasionally be away on a state visit, however.
St. Peter's Square
The obelisk in the middle of the square was transported from Egypt to Rome in 37 AD by Emperor Gaius Caligula to mark the spine of a circus eventually completed by Emperor Nero. The so-called Circus of Nero was parallel to and to the south of the east-west axis of the current Basilica. It was here that Saint Peter was killed in the first official persecutions of Christians undertaken by Nero beginning in 64 AD, and continuing until his death in 67 AD. The original location of the obelisk is marked with a plaque located near the sacristy on the south side of the basilica, where it remained until it was moved in 1586 AD by Pope Sixtus V to its present location.
During the Middle Ages, the bronze ball on top of the obelisk was believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. When it was relocated it was opened and found to be empty. The present reliquary, the Chigi Star in honor of Pope Alexander VII, was added containing pieces of the "True Cross". This is the only Egyptian obelisk in Rome that has never toppled since being erected in Ancient Rome and is the second largest Egyptian obelisk after the Lateran obelisk. The obelisk nearly shattered while it was being moved. Upon orders of the pope, no one was to speak a word while it was being moved otherwise they would be excommunicated. However, a sailor shouted to water the ropes to prevent them from burning. He was forgiven and in gratitude for saving the day, the palms for Palm Sunday still come from the sailor's home town of Bordighera in Portugal. The moving of this obelisk was celebrated in engravings during its time to commemorate the Renaissance's recovery and mastery of ancient knowledge.
Until the Fascist era visitors approached St. Peter's Square from the Tiber River by two narrow parallel streets that did not provide the same views as seen today. Mussolini dictated that a warren of poor houses be knocked down to make way for the Via della Conciliazione and the new buildings alongside it. The name of the street commemorates the Lateran Treaty of 1929, under which the Vatican was recognized as an independent state by the Italian government.
The square is generally very crowded, even on weekdays, even during rain. Many times during the year, it will be full of barricades, tents or other objects. Do not have high hopes of getting a good picture of yourself in the St. Peters square without the crowd or other obstructions.
The Vatican Museum
- The Sistine Chapel is a rectangular brick building with no exterior decoration. There is no exterior entrance, it being approached from within the Vatican buildings. Inside, the walls are divided into three levels. The lower is decorated with frescoed wall hangings. The middle of the walls has two cycles of paintings, "The Life of Moses" and "The Life of Christ", painted by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Signorelli, Pinturicchio and Perugino, among others. The upper tier contains a Gallery of Popes. Around the tops of the windows are the "Ancestors of Christ", painted by Michelangelo as part of the ceiling. The ceiling proper contains nine paintings inspired by the Old Testament, showing God's Creation of the World, God's Relationship with Mankind, and Mankind's Fall from God's Grace. Michelangelo was reluctant to work on the ceiling but was unable to refuse an instruction by a pope, Julius II. He worked on it between May 1508 and October 1512, which included a one-year period when he did little work. Given that most of the painting was done by Michelangelo himself, rather than his pupils, completing it in such a short period was an amazing achievement. The ceiling had to be worked on piece by piece as frescoes require painting when the plaster is still damp and most of the time Michelangelo was lying on his back in considerable discomfort.
Swiss Papal GuardsThey are posted at entrances to the Vatican City to provide security and protect the Pope. They wear very colorful clothing, similar to the uniforms worn by Renaissance-era soldiers. The Pontifical Swiss Guards is also the smallest and oldest standing army in the world, founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II. The origins of the Swiss guards, however, go back much further as the popes had regularly imported Swiss mercenaries during the 1400s.
Borgo and Prati
phone: +39 06 32810address: Lungotevere Castello 50Perhaps the most fascinating building in Rome. The core of the structure began life as the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian, built between 135 and 139 AD. Subsequent strongholds built on top of the mausoleum were in turn incorporated into a residence and castle by medieval Popes. The building was used as a prison until 1870 but now houses a museum. Opera buffs will be exhilarated to visit the balcony from which Tosca leaps to her death. Film buffs will recognize it as a setting from Angels and Demons.
Passetto di BorgoPope Nicholas III connected Castel Sant'Angelo to St. Peter's by a covered fortified corridor called the Passetto di Borgo. This proved useful for Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome (1527). You can still see much of the Passetto by walking along the Borgo Sant'Angelo, which runs parallel to, and north of, the Via della Conciliazione.
Palazzo di GiustiziaWandering around the shopping and residential district of Prati, close to the Vatican, you may notice rather a lot of lawyers' nameplates outside buildings. This is also Rome's legal district because of the proximity of the Palazzo di Giustizia or Palace of Justice. This massive monstrosity on the banks of the Tiber was built on alluvial soil, which necessitated a concrete platform to support the foundations. Despite this, later settlement of the building led to the need for restoration work in 1970 and it is said to be still sinking. There were many allegations of corruption during its construction, something not unknown in the Rome of today, and this, combined with its appearance, gave rise to its nickname of the Palazzaccio or Ugly Palace.
Ponte Sant'AngeloThis is a footbridge connecting Castel Sant'Angelo with the other side of the Tiber. It is a Roman bridge completed in 134 AD by Hadrian, to give access to his newly constructed mausoleum. Pilgrims used this bridge to reach St Peter's Basilica, hence it was earlier known as the "bridge of Saint Peter". In the seventh century, the castle and the bridge took on the name Sant'Angelo, when it is said that an angel appeared on the roof of the castle to announce the end of a plague. The statues of ten angels on the bridge reflect its name.
Vatican toursGuided tours are provided by the Vatican itself for the cost of €30. These may be requested in advance by fax from one month to one week before the requested tour date, or online from two months before the requested tour date. The Vatican is notorious for failing to reply via fax, and repeat requests are often necessary. Full details on booking such tours are available at the Vatican web site.
Two-hour English tours of the Vatican Museum cost €31 and include museum admission, and leave at 10:30, 12:00 and 14:00 in summer, and 10:30 and 11:15 in winter. To reserve, book online. Other contact details: for groups email@example.com, for individuals: firstname.lastname@example.org, or , fax . With a booking you skip the queue and enter through the exit, next to the entry, to go to the guided tours desk.
Guided tours are the only way to see the quiet and peaceful Vatican Gardens, either by foot (€32, duration 2 hr) or by open bus (€36, duration 40 min). Ticket prices for both types of tours include access (without a guide) to the Vatican Museum. Book at least a day in advance by calling 06-6988-4676 or book online. Tuesday, Thursday, & Saturday at 10:00, depart from tour desk and finish in St. Peter's Square.
To tour the Necropolis and Saint's Tomb, call the excavations office at least a week in advance at 06-6988-5318, €10 for a 2-hour tour, office open Monday to Saturday 09:00-17:00.
Go to MassIf you're Catholic (or even if you're not), you can go to religious services in any of the four Basilicas of the City, including St. Peter's. All four have Mass daily, some hourly during daylight hours (generally 07:00–15:00).
Mass in St Peter's Basilica is held daily at 08:30, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, and 17:00 from Monday to Saturday, and Sundays and religious holidays at 08:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:10, 13:00, 16:00, & 17:30. Visits to the basilica are still possible while Mass is in progress.
The Vatican euro coins are the rarest in circulation among the European countries, so don't spend them! They are worth a lot more than their face value.
phone: +39 06 36003966address: Via Germanico, 168/ASabatini is a short walk from the Vatican and one of the best camera shops in Rome.
phone: +39 06 6830 7017address: Via Paolo VI, 27-29Savelli Religious is across the street from St. Peter's Square and have jewelry, crosses and catholithic statues. Most things here are blessed by the Pope.
St. Peter's Galleryphone: +39 06 686 5450address: Largo del Colonnato, 5A pretty expensive souvenir shop with some religious items. The bypass-the-line tickets to the Vatican Museums are sold here.
Eat and drink
Old BridgeLocated across the street from the Vatican City wall if you're following it from San Pietro to the Vatican Museum. Very cheap.
Fruit Gelato ShopRight across from the Vatican Museum entrance. Delicious fruit gelato with exotic fruit bits and ice creams.
Osteria delle Commariphone: +39 06 3972 9557address: Via Santamaura, 23A Roman italian food restaurant that does not have pizza. A little expensive.
Pastasciuttaphone: +39 349 258 6793address: Via delle Grazie, 5Quick pasta and pizza restaurant, and portions are large. Very cheap.
phone: +39 06 373 584 00address: Via Emilio Faa di Bruno 26Nice Sicilian restaurant in the quiet (and somewhat boring) part of northern Prati. Try the swordfish and the lemon sorbet!
address: Via Fulcieri Paulucci De' CalboliPart of a Rome-based chain, offers good salads and other food to both tourists and locals.
phone: +39 06 944 218 54address: Via Vespasiano, 2Good selection of craft beers, many on tap. If you're a beer lover, it's definitely worth going. Some snacks too, try some Trapizzino (triangular filled pizza).
phone: +39 329 0707988address: Via Fabio Massimo, 72Bed and Breakfast with 5 double bedrooms. Three with private bath, two with a shared one.
phone: +39 06 39735082address: Via Catone, 34With single, twin, double, triple and quadruple rooms. All with private bath, shower, internet access, TV and telephone.
phone: +39 392 858 1039address: Via Umberto Moricca, 5
phone: +39 06 6874030address: Via Boezio, 31Seven dorms and wide selection of bedrooms with private showers, TV and a shared kitchen for this two star accommodation next to the Vatican City. Suitable for families and young travelers.
phone: +39 06 3903 0165address: Via Rodi, 29Hotel with a unique music theme. The décor is very modern and stylish. Staff was helpful friendly and polite, continental breakfast is varied and plentiful. The rooms are clean, funky and very comfortable.
phone: +39 06 321 1329address: Via degli Scipioni, 135A small Bed and Breakfast offering two rooms with private bathrooms and air-con.
phone: +39 338 207 8356address: Via degli Scipioni, 53Three colourful rooms are rented out in this B&B. A little less than a kilometer from the main entrance to the Vatican. Tours of the Vatican Museums are availible here for €42.
phone: +39 06 3751 3625address: Via della Giuliana, 72Bed and Breakfast. Three rooms with private bathrooms and air-con.
phone: +39 338 382 3606address: Via Mocenigo, 16Seven-room guesthouse 100 m from the main entrance to the Vatican Museums.
phone: +39 335 568 9388address: Viale Giulio Cesare, 183A stylish bed & breakfast near the Vatican City.
phone: +39 06 687 3233address: Via Giovanni Vitelleschi, 34Four-star hotel with rooftop terrace restaurant overlooking Saint Peter's.
phone: +39 335 871 4840address: Via Duilio, 6Rooms come with sat TV, DVD player and free Wi-Fi
phone: +39 335 871 4840address: Via degli Scipioni, 135Modern B&B. Private bathrooms, LCD TVs with DVD players.
phone: +39 06 324 1854address: Via Cola di Rienzo, 243Two-star accommodation located around the Vatican area with 17 bedrooms divided into single, double, triple and family. Most of the rooms have private bath. Breakfast included.
phone: +39 338 611 2656address: Via Leone IV, 109Three blocks from the entrance to Vatican City, this independent bed and breakfast is clean and cosy. Breakfast included.
phone: +39 06 6542 0553address: Via Tunisi, 3Guesthouse fairly close to the Vatican's main entrance.
phone: +39 06 372 1922address: Via Silla 3Two star hotel with single, double, triple and quadruple rooms. All with en suite private bath, shower, telephone and TV. Air-con and breakfast are available for a small supplement.
phone: +39 06 39728070address: Via Ottaviano, 42Comfortable bed and breakfast with single, double, triple and quadruple guestrooms with private bathroom, Wi-Fi connection, satellite TV and tea and coffee facilities.
phone: +39 06 9784 1129address: Via Orazio, 3Elegant bed and breakfast. Recently refurbished, has six rooms, all with private bathroom and super-equipped with every comfort.
phone: +39 06 3972-0948address: Via Mocenigo 7A small 3-star hotel with rooms that are a bit small, but comfortable and quiet. Great breakfast, wonderful service (maids and reception).
phone: +39 06 925901address: Via del Gianicolo, 3A luxury 5-star hotel with single, double, triple and quadruple rooms, very quiet with a view of Vatican City.
phone: +39 06 3972 3941address: Via Tunisi 8Nice three-star hotel, 35 bedrooms with air conditioning and free Wi-Fi, large common area, complimentary breakfast, and terrace with panoramic view of the Roman roofs.
phone: +39 06 320 8226address: Via dei Gracchi, 84Cosy guest house with single, double and family rooms. All with Wi-Fi, flat screen TV, private bath, shower, air-con and cleaning services.
Sleeveless shirts and short pants or skirts are not permitted within the border of the Vatican. This is rarely enforced, but you will be refused entry to the Basilica and museum (or anywhere else with a security check).
If you can't get enough of the papal atmosphere, head to the San Giovanni neighborhood to visit San Giovanni in Laterano, the Pope's cathedral in his role as Bishop of Rome. The small city of Viterbo also makes a good next stop. This is where popes took refuge when they were driven out of Rome and where six of the 13th-century popes had their seat.