In addition to being the home of the pope, the Vatican City which is surrounded by Rome is also home to three major tourist attractions: St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel. It's possible to visit all three of these attractions in half a day, unless you want to look at everything in the Vatican Museums in detail. If so, I would allot a whole day there.
Before getting to the tips and highlights of these three attractions, a general word of warning: beware of the many people posing as tourist information staffers at the Vatican City. I saw many people standing around with tourist information vests on that were actually selling tickets for tours. I even had one of them tell me that I would not be able to go into St. Peter's Basilica without a ticket which is not true. If you are looking for tourist information, I would suggest going to the actual tourist information booths. I'm not saying that you shouldn't visit on a tour, but if that's not your intention, beware!
Now onto the tips and highlights!
St. Peter's Basilica
- If you want to meet the pope and be a part of his papal audience, you can do so if your dates/timing matches up. Check here to see when he is holding these masses and audiences. Tickets for the papal audiences are free.
- Regardless of whether you are a part of the papal audience or not, you will have to go through a toned-down version of airport security to get into St. Peter's Basilica. I would recommend that you dress simply, with not too many metals on you that you'll have to remove as there is a metal detector.
- Entry into St. Peter's Basilica is free, but there are parts of the Basilica that will require admission. For instance, if you want to head to the climb/take the lift up to the dome for a view of the Vatican City, there is an extra charge.
I'd literally like to say don't miss anything since the grandeur of St. Peter's Basilica blew me away. The interior of the Basilica is so lavishly decorated, there was marble and gold everywhere! But if I had to pick some highlights from the free parts of the Basilica, I would pick:
- Michelangelo's Pieta (bottom left). This is the second time on my trip to Italy where I was struck with awe at Michelangelo's work (the first time being when I fell for David). Pieta depicts Jesus in his mother Mary's arms after the crucifixion.
- The sculpture of St. Peter (bottom right). Facing the altar, on the right side of the church, you'll find a statue of St. Peter. Most likely there will be a line of people waiting to touch its foot. Historically, pilgrims would come to this sculpture to rub or kiss its foot and pray. Today, the foot has become very worn down!
- Bodies of former Popes. I didn't know they did this, but it was interesting to see the bodies of former Popes resting in glass coffins at St. Peter's Basilica.
- St. Peter's Baldachin and the Throne of St. Peter (below). The bronze canopy and the throne behind it are hard to miss. The baldachin sits right above the tomb of St. Peter and is over 60 feet tall. Take a moment to take in the intricate designs on it. The whole thing took 11 years for Bernini to complete. The throne is also a sight to behold.
Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
- You should definitely be buying your voucher (that you exchange for a ticket) to the museums ahead of time. I bought mine from this site here. The lines to buy tickets on the spot are very long. There will still be a little bit of a line to exchange your voucher for a ticket but it is significantly shorter.
- The Sistine Chapel is a part of the Vatican Museums so you cannot purchase a ticket into just the Sistine Chapel. Your ticket to the Vatican Museums includes entry into the Sistine Chapel.
- If you purchased your ticket online, at purchase you'll be asked to select a date and time for entry. You won't be able to enter into the museum until ~15 minutes ahead of the entry time on your ticket.
- Getting into the Vatican Museums is a bit of a gong show. You will have to put your bag through a security scanner, and the lines to get to the scanners are chaotic. I use the term 'lines' here very loosely. It was more like a throng of people with everyone trying to push their way through, so hold on to your fellow travellers tightly so you don't lose them!
- There is so much to see at this museum. If there are specific things that you know you want to see, I would definitely map those out beforehand if possible.
- You can enter the Vatican Museums for free on the last Sunday of every month. However, seeing how busy the museum is on a regular day during the off-season, I'm not sure if that would be a good idea if you want to avoid crowds.
The Vatican Museums have such a huge collection of art and there were so many people there, I honestly felt a little bit overwhelmed. It was room after room of artwork and grand sculptures and eventually most of the things I saw just melded together in my head. Here are the parts of the museum that personally stood out for me.
- The Sistine Chapel. This is a no-brainer! The artwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was the 3rd time Michelangelo blew me away with his work, and I truly believe that it is worth seeing at least once in your life. You are expected to remain silent while taking in the masterpiece, and taking photos inside the Sistine Chapel is not allowed.
- The Gallery of Maps. The Gallery of Maps is a gallery that is 120 metres long, with 40 large geographical maps frescoed on its walls showing various regions of Italy. Don't forget to look at the intricately designed ceiling of this gallery as well!
- The Raphael Rooms. There are four rooms in the Vatican Museums that are filled with amazing frescoes created by Raphael and his school. It's well worth slowing down here to take in these masterpieces.
- The Statues Courtyard. You'll find a number of sculptures displayed around the Statues Courtyard, including the famous Laocoön sculpture. Read more about the story behind this sculpture here.
- The Round Hall. Everywhere you look in this room, there is something to see. Displayed around the Round Hall are a number of large sculptures. In the centre of the room is a large purplish red basin. Look up, and you'll se a dome that imitates the dome of the Pantheon. And finally, look down and you'll see some amazing mosaics!
Have you visited St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums? Were there any tips or highlights that I missed?
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