Vatican City Travel Guide

Vatican City is a city-state located within the city of Rome. It was established by the Lateran Treaty on 11 February 1929. It is the home of the Pope.

With an area of 0.17 square miles, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. It is surrounded by high walls.

For obvious reasons, many travel guides, including this one, speak about Vatican City and Rome interchangeably. Vatican City uses the same money as Italy and uses Italian as one of its official languages (in addition to Latin and French). But it has its own post office (Poste Vaticane), bank, police force (Swiss Guard), and other services.

Another name used interchangeably with the Vatican is the Holy See. The Holy See is the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) and it oversees the properties within Vatican City as well as extraterritorial properties in Rome, Italy, and beyond.

The best-known tourism sites in Vatican City are St. Peter’s Basilica, along with St. Peter’s Square, and the Vatican Museums, home of the Sistine Chapel and countless other treasures.

Other properties of the Holy See include the papal basilicas of Rome — St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls; the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi; Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, and others.

If you are visiting Rome, you cannot afford to miss visiting Vatican City, the world’s smallest country and home to the Pope. Here you will find the most important church in Christendom, St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as some of the world’s most significant artistic treasures, including the Sistine Chapel.

Top Tours in Vatican City

Though it is small, there is a lot to see in Vatican City. And some parts of Vatican are accessible only by guided tour. Here are the best ones:

  • Complete Vatican Tour. See St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel with an expert guide.
  • St. Peter’s Dome Tour. Travel to the top of St. Peter’s to get incredible, bird’s eye views of the interior and Vatican City.

For private tours of Rome and Vatican City with a deep focus on Catholic history and religious services, contact The Catholic Traveler.

Top Things to See in Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica

Saint Peter's Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world

St. Peter’s Basilica, the mother church of Christendom, is the largest church in the world. It contains a trove of art, including Michelangelo’s tender Pietà and Bernini’s baldacchino. The elaborate and enormous bronze baldacchino, also known as a baldachin, canopy, or ciborium, rests under the basilica’s magnificent dome and is the high altar of the church. It marks the spot of Saint Peter’s tomb.

The current basilica, completed in 1626, was built on top of the tomb of Saint Peter, the first pope. Pope John Paul II is also buried here.

St Peter’s draws millions of visitors each year for mass and other liturgical celebrations. Pilgrims also flock to St. Peter’s during Easter and Christmas, as the pope performs special masses at the basilica during these times.

To reserve free tickets for mass at St. Peter’s, you must send a fax to +39 06 698 85863. This applies for Easter and Christmas masses as well as papal audiences.

St. Peter’s Square

Portion of the colonnade that surrounds St. Peter’s Square. It was designed by Bernini.

St. Peter’s Basilica is located on St. Peter’s Square, a grand piazza at the end of Via della Conciliazione. The large colonnade that embraces the square on each side was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

At the center of St. Peter’s Square is an ancient Eyptian obelisk. The monumental fountains on the square were designed by Bernini and Carlo Moderno.

Tip: St. Peter’s Square was not always the grand, open piazza that you see today. Part of Rome’s Borgo neighborhood (the Spina del Borgo) was demolished to create the space. The Museum of Rome at Palazzo Braschi in Piazza Navona is a great place to go to learn more about this.

The Vatican Museums

A corridor in the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are home to some of the most famous pieces of art in the world, from ancient sculptures to Renaissance masterpieces.

The highlights include:

  • Sistine Chapel. The highlight of a Vatican Museums tour, with frescoes by Michelangelo. More details below.
  • Raphael Rooms. These four rooms contain frescoes by Rafaello Sanzio, also known as Raphael, who was a young contemporary of Michelangelo. The School of Athens fresco in the Room of the Segnatura is the most famous of these.
  • Borgia Apartments. Frescoed by Pinturricchio in the late 15th century. Restored to glory in 2020.
  • Gallery of Maps. A geography lover’s dream. Map frescoes of significant Italian cities decorate both walls on this long corridor.
  • Greek and Roman Antiquities. The original heart of the Vatican Museums is the collection of antiquities from Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The Pio­ Clementine and the Gregorian Profane Museums feature the Apollo del Belvedere, the Laocoön, the Belvedere Torso, and much more.

The Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment altar fresco, both by Michelangelo

Most visitors to the Vatican Museums come for one thing and one thing only: The Sistine Chapel.

Outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel is the most important landmark in Vatican City. This is the place where conclaves convene to elect a new pope. And they do so under the famous frescoed ceiling of Michelangelo Buonarotti.

Michelangelo worked on the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512. He also painted “The Last Judgment,” the huge altar fresco known for its raw depictions of hell, from 1536 to 1541.

The other Renaissance greats that assisted in transforming this chapel into a hall of art include Perugino, Botticelli, and Rosselli.

The Vatican Museums are routed in such a way that the chapel is at the end of the tour.

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Last Updated: March 28, 2021