Travel Guide: The Vatican
In 1929, the Italian Government and the Church of Rome signed three agreements resolving a long standing dispute between Italy and the Vatican regarding territorial rights. The treaties recognized the independence and sovereignty of the Holy See and created the State of the Vatican City.
The term “Holy See” refers to the composite of the authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty vested in the Pope and his advisers to direct the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.
As the “central government” of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See has an authoritative legal standing that allows it to enter into treaties as the juridical equal of a state and to send and receive diplomatic representatives.
The Holy See has formal diplomatic relations with 177 nations and the Order of Malta. The Holy See also maintains relations of a special nature with the Russian Federation and the Organization for the Liberation of Palestine.
The Vatican City State (usually called the Vatican City) is located in the middle of Rome and is an independent country with an area of approximately half a square kilometer. Only limited sections of the Vatican City are open to the public, but those available are exceptionally interesting and very popular with most visitors to Rome.
A thorough tour of the Vatican will take most of the day if you want to see both St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. If you do not have enough time for a complete tour of the Vatican, come back again, as it should not be missed by any world traveler.
The best source for current information about visiting the Vatican is at the Holy See’s Website www.vatican.va .
For information on visiting and details on the areas of the Vatican that are open to the public, see this page of the Vatican website.
Finally, you may also want to take a look at the web pages for the Vatican City State, as they contain additional interesting information on the Vatican.
If you are interested in attending a general Papal audience, they are held in St. Peter’s Square, the Paul VI Hall (Aula Nervi), or in Saint Peter’s Basilica. During the summer, general audiences may be held Castel Gondolfo, the pope’s summer residence (approximately thirty miles outside of Rome).
Tickets are free of charge and available from:
Prefettura della Casa Pontificia (the Pontiff’s Household)
00120 Vatican City State
Tickets can also be requested through your local Catholic diocese.
If you do not have a ticket for an audience, you can attend the Sunday Angelus, held at noon in Saint Peter’s Square, which is hosted by the Pope, unless is at his summer residence or traveling.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in the world and one that is linked with Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and other famous artists. The present St. Peter’s was not the first church on this site and the building that we see today was put into construction in the early 16th century. St. Peter’s was a work in process for the remainder of the century and the original plans were altered numerous times
The exterior design and architecture of St. Peter’s are stunning, although eclipsed by its interior, which is richly decorated and awe-inspiring. The paintings, statues and architecture of St. Peter’s are noteworthy and the sights numerous. In addition, you may want to climb to the top of the Dome for an excellent view of the St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican.
See our one-page guide to Saint Peter’s Basilica for details on its construction and photographs of the interior and exterior showing the grandeur of this most impressive church.
If you are a follower of Catholic Church history, you should consider touring the excavations beneath the Basilica. These tours require advanced reservations, so see the Vatican website for details on whether this tour would be of interest to you.
Saint Peter’s Square
You have seen it on the evening news but it will seem even grander when you explore it on your own. Designed by Bernini and completed in the 17th century, the square is dramatic and impressive. However, it is just the start of an unforgettable day of touring the Vatican.
Elliptical in shape and designed so that its perspective leads to St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Square is comprised of several outstanding elements. Bernini’s curved colonnades run along on each side of the Square and are comprised of equidistantly-spaced, four-column supports throughout its extent, producing a formal and majestic border for the Square. The colonnades are topped with 140 statues of saints, who were crafted by followers of Bernini, who were members of his school of artists.
In the center of St. Peter’s Square is an obelisk of Egyptian origin that was moved to this site and erected by Fontana before Bernini began his renovation. There are fountains on each side of the Obelisk, although the second was added by Bernini to balance the first, which had been added earlier. The size of the Square was limited by the then existing Papal Apartments, but it was designed specifically to be impressive, while allowing room for large crowds to assemble and receive the Pope’s blessings.
Alterations have been made to the entrance of the Square since Bernini’s original work. The widening of the entrance and the establishment of a broad thoroughfare leading to Castel Sant’Angelo continues to be the subject of great debate as to whether it enhanced or detracted from the beauty of Saint Peter’s Square.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums include significant art collections and interesting cultural museums. Several tours are offered and all include a visit to the Sistine Chapel. Be sure to visit the Vatican Museums web site before your visit in order to prioritize what you want to see during your time in the Vatican.
Our separate Guide to the Vatican Museums provides details on visiting, as well as numerous photographs and a more detailed description of the major attractions than provided here. If you do not want to read the detailed guide now, each of the sections below provides a link to the corresponding section of our Guide to the Vatican Museums that provided more information on that attraction.
The Sistine Chapel
You will see many minor yet stunning sights as you pass through the Vatican Palaces on the way to the Sistine Chapel, including the marvelous Map Room and the Sistine Hall, previously part of the Vatican Library. However, a visit to the awe-inspiring Sistine Chapel is clearly one of the major highlights of a visit to the Vatican. Various portions of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel were created by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Perugino, and other world-famous artists from Italy.
Michelangelo’s frescos of the nine scenes from the Old Testament on the Chapel’s ceiling are considered among the greatest artistic accomplishments of all time. His enormous fresco of the Last Judgment, above the altar at the far end of the Chapel, is an image of incredible complexity and beauty. Click this link to the section of our guide to the Vatican Museums for more details on the fresco and the artist, as well as several beautiful photographs of the most important works in the Sistine Chapel.
Created by Raphael and his school of artists, the frescos in these four rooms are remarkable and include some of Raphael’s most important works. Click this link to the section of our guide Vatican Museums that provides more detail and examples of Raphael’s frescos.
Pinacoteca (the Vatican Art Gallery)
Giotto, Melozzo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Bernini are just a few of the artists’ whose works you will see in the Pinacoteca. The collection includes approximately 500 paintings and sculptures and much of the work on display is extraordinary. See our guide to the Vatican Museums for more details on the collection of art in the Pinacoteca.
In addition, you will find a number of other museums in the Vatican, such as the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, the Gregorian Etruscan Museum and the Ethnological Missionary Museum. While some of the minor collections will not appeal to everyone, there is much to see for those who are interested.
The Vatican Gardens
The Vatican Gardens occupy a large portion of the Vatican City. Fountains abound and the combination of statues, fountains and gardens present a beautiful scene.
A guided tour of the gardens is offered every day at 10 am, except Wednesdays and Sundays. Tickets can be purchased online. There are special guided tours for individuals and groups. The gardens are not guaranteed to be open every day and the Vatican reserves the right to cancel reservations without previous warning.