One of the most dominating features of Rome’s impressive skyline is St. Peter’s basilica, which seems to impose itself upon the horizon whichever way you turn. It’s, even more, dominating up close; but as it’s the cornerstone of the mighty Catholic Church and the abode of its exalted leader Pope Francis, would you expect it to be anything less? Whether you’re a Christian or not, however, the Vatican still holds many wonders for an intrepid visitor, and shouldn’t be left off any decent Roman itinerary.
The first thing to know about the Vatican, which is officially named Vatican City, is that it’s actually a separate country. It’s a walled enclave within Rome, within Italy, but is, in fact, its own separate entity, and therefore the smallest state in the world by both population (451 at last count) and area (0.17 square miles). This means it’s pretty easy to find your way around (much more so than other countries), but it’s also pretty tough to tackle in one day alone; there’s a lot going on in Vatican City. Hop on to BUCKiTDREAM and see if anyone other travelers have braved the citadel, then whip out your BUCKiTDREAM planner and get busy sorting out your dream visit to the Vatican!
Essentially, it’s impossible to visit the Vatican without visiting Rome; it’s pretty impossible to stay within the walls of the big V itself (unless you’re a personal guest of The Pope), but you can get pretty damn close if you want. Luckily, there’s no real need to stay in and around the area itself, as Rome is a very walkable city. The Vatican is located to the North West of the city, just across the River Tiber; it’s never more than a half hour’s ramble across the Eternal City, and usually much less. Considering people traveled for weeks on pilgrimages for just a glimpse of the Holy Seat, you’ve probably got it pretty easy.
You don’t even need a map; just keep your good eye fixed on St. Peter’s dome. Your first introduction to the magnificence of the Vatican (and it is objectively and undeniably magnificent, despite your religious background) will be the long walk up to St. Peter’s Square (spoiler alert: actually a circle).
As you approach St. Peter’s Circle, you will be forced to engage with over-enthusiastic queue-jump merchants, who will put the hard sell on you to purchase a selection of Vatican package deals. Although your initial instinct will be to shoot these pesky peddlers back whence they came, it can be worth checking out their wares, as some of them will grant you access to the Vatican gardens, or allow you to hop into St. Peter’s via the museums, saving you a hike back around the outer walls. Just trust your gut on this one, because some of them are outright hustlers and not very Christian at all.
So, there are three main things to see in the Vatican; St. Peter’s basilica, the extensive Vatican museums, and the beautiful gardens laid out behind them. One of the highlights of your trip should be ascending St. Peter’s dome, which, while pretty unforgiving (ironically), will provide you with spectacular views of two countries; Vatican City and Italy’s beautiful capital. Other showstoppers in the basilica include Michelangelo’s staggering statue (the first of its kind; they usually stay totally still!) Pietà, which depicts an unusually youthful Madonna cradling the corpse of her notorious 33-year-old son after he was de-nailed from the cross. It’s free to enter the basilica itself, but you have to pay a small amount to visit a few choice areas. One of these is the Pope Tomb, also known as the Vatican Grottoes, which house scores of dead Popes, including the most recently deceased (and recently canonized) John Paul II.
Onwards to the Vatican museums, where wonder-boy Michelangelo is once again the star of the show with his intricate masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel. Worth the price of entry alone (which is around $20 by the way), this Renaissance stunner is truly a marvel to behold, not least of all because the artist did the whole thing lying on his back, suspended on a piece of wood. Elsewhere in the 54-strong museums are famous works by Raphael, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio’s exalted masterpiece ‘The Deposition of Christ’, which conveys, with astounding composition, the dead Christ being lowered into his temporary tomb.
A stroll through the magnificent gardens is the perfect way to cap off a Vatican visit, before you make your way back down through St. Peter’s Circle. However, if you want to see these fields of holy green, you must go through a tour guide, as they’re not open to the riff-raff public like the basilica and museums. Keep in mind that queues in and around the Vatican can be extravagant. In busy seasons, it’d take a miracle to clear them in less than an hour, but if you get lucky during an off-peak visit, there’s a chance to dodge the major traffic jams.
So with that, you should be all set to make the most of your holy visit. But the Vatican is certainly not all that Rome has to offer! In fact, there’s so much you can do with your time in the Eternal City, you’re practically spoilt for choice. Check out Where to find 5 Caravaggio Masterpieces in Rome or All Roads Lead to Rome (and so do all Bucket Lists) for some more BUCKiTDREAM-approved ideas of how to while away a few dreamy days in Rome!