Nestled in Rome, the Vatican is the smallest country in the world. Since 1929 it has been an independent city-state of just over 110 acres with a population of 800. It has its own stamps and coins, even its own passports although very few are issued. The head of state is the Pope.
Except where the Vatican opens towards the river along the Via della Conciliazione, the Vatican is surrounded by walls. Approach from the river as medieval pilgrims did: walk or catch a taxi to the Ponte Sant’Angelo on the far side of the river, cross the wonderful bridge of angel statues, heading for the majestic fortress (now museum), Castel Sant’Angelo, then veer left and walk up the long promenade facing the magnificent Saint Peter’s Basilica. The curving colonnades of the church forecourt seem to embrace you, welcoming you in.
Less welcoming, but understandable, are the metal detectors and security checks you have to pass through to enter St Peter’s. The Papal Swiss Guards in their striped yellow, red and blue uniforms guard the place as they have since the 15th century. The first time I entered St Peter’s I barely got past Michelangelo’s Pieta – this sculpture moved me with its astounding beauty. Unfortunately it’s now behind glass due to having been attacked.
The second time I went there was a Mass being held involving dozens of cardinals in impressive red robes. The security guard let us into the roped off area to watch. The Vatican museums can have extremely long queues – do a private tour to get in faster. Or, even better, check out Viator’s VIP behind-the-scenes Sistine Chapel & secret rooms tour to get an exclusive look at the Vatican.
Some of the corridors are narrow, especially leading to the Sistine Chapel, and at busy times you are jammed side by side. Book ahead if you want to tour the Vatican Gardens as guided tours have limited places. The Pope appears to bless the public on Sundays at noon, or you can book ahead to attend a Papal audience on Wednesdays at 11am. Also book ahead to tour the necropolis and St Peter’s Tomb below the Basilica. Or if you feel like a real challenge, you can climb 537 steps to the top of the dome.
Check out our video of Vatican City.
Another way to see the Vatican is like an insider with Viator VIP Access: Sistine Chapel Private Viewing and Small-Group Tour of the Vatican’s Secret Rooms! Read more: Going Behind the Scenes at the Vatican with a Private Viewing of the Sistine Chapel.