The Vatican is the smallest independent state in the world but takes on global significance as being the home to the Papacy and the center of Catholicism. It is an ecclesiastical state governed by the Holy See — headed by the Pope, with key government positions held by Catholic clergy members. This city state also contains some of the world’s most famous artwork, sculptures, and architecture. While the Vatican became technically independent from Italy with the 1929 Lateran Treaty, the Holy See and its roots in the Papal States dates back centuries. Given its central location in Rome, the Vatican typically ranks at the top of any visitor’s list– and rightly so!
There’s a lot of history packed into this small country, so a guided tour is probably the best option for anyone looking to make the most of their visit.
One of the most famous sites in the Vatican is St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the world’s largest basilica. Emperor Constantine built the original structure over what was believed to be the Tomb of Saint Peter in 326, but it was damaged and fell into disrepair until the basilica was remade in the 1500’s. The architectural design is stunning, as is the history and interior liturgical artwork, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà sculpture. It’s also possible to visit the Necropolis, under the cathedral, with tombs of past Popes and clergy members.
It’s also possible to climb the dome out on to the roof, which provide unparalleled views over St. Peter’s Plaza, as well as views of the Vatican Gardens. Climbing the dome is a bit unnerving, as the ceiling and hallway curves along the dome’s edge as you reach the top — but it makes for an interesting perspective!
Another essential site is the Vatican Museums, which are connected to the Apostolic Palace, Vatican Library, and the world renowned Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo in the late 1400s. Despite the crowds at the Sistine Chapel, the quality, breadth, and scale of the artwork is truly stunning!
As you walk through the massive St. Peter’s Plaza, you’ll undoubtedly notice a huge Egyptian Obelisk that was originally taken to Rome from Egypt by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD, as well as two fountains.
Also noteworthy are the Pontifical Swiss Guards with their red, yellow, and blue-striped uniforms and pointed halberds — a guard force that was established by Pope Julius II in 1506 and follows a rigorous standard for training today.
Finally, don’t miss the Vatican Gardens–accessible only by tour–which date back to the 13th Century.