Things To Do In Vatican City on a Vatican-Guided Tour

Vatican City

During my epic Italian summer, I spent six days exploring Rome. And when in Rome, do as the Romans do, which I was determined to do by visiting one of the most unique places in history- Vatican City. Where else can you immerse yourself in art, architecture, history, and religion, all in the smallest country in the world? With some of the most famous works of art here, including the magnificent Sistine Chapel, how does one see it all with millions of visitors packing in this country within a city? The easiest way to experience all the things to do in Vatican City is to take a Vatican Guided Tour.

Vatican City
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Where is Vatican City?

St. Peters Square and Basilica in Vatican City

Vatican City is easy to reach without fanfare. You can cross over any entrance of the fortified walls surrounding the country without showing your I.D. or passport. Leaving the Alessandro Downtown Hostel took me less than an hour to walk to the Vatican. They have a train station, but most people walk into Vatican City.

Officially named Vatican City State, this absolute monarchy, the Pope is the King, has been independent since 1929 and is entirely landlocked within Rome. Covering 120 acres over a once-marshy area on the west bank of the Tiber River, Vatican City shares its 3.5km border with Italy. There are many things to do in Vatican City in this tiny area, including seeing St. Peter’s Basilica, the Apostolic Palace, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Gardens, and Museums.

How Big is the Vatican?

St. Peter's Basilica

The Vatican is the smallest country in the world, at 0.19 square miles. The next smallest country, Monaco, is four times the size of Vatican City at 2 kilometers. Vatican City is so small that it has neither a hospital nor a prison, but it does have its own army, the Swiss Guard. The Swiss guards, originally hired as mercenaries in 1506, have been guarding the Pope and Vatican City for centuries. Only around 1,000 people reside here, including the Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, staff members, and the Swiss Guard.

Vatican City Fun Facts

  • Vatican City is the only UNESCO World Heritage Country.
  • Vatican City prints its own passports, Euros, stamps, and license plates.
  • Vatican City has its own national anthem, flag, telephone system, internet domain, national football team, and the only ATM with Latin instructions.
  • The Vatican has the largest library in the world, with over 1.1 million texts, and they add around 6,000 new books added every year – it has one of the largest collections of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts in the world;
  • All Vatican City citizens are immigrants – appointed by the Pope, and when they stop working for the city, they love their citizenship. Nobody has ever been born in the Vatican City.
  • Vatican City does not host any embassies in its territory.
  • Vatican City, called the Holy See at the United Nations, is the legal entity controlling much of the Catholic Church worldwide.
  • The Vatican Observatory owns a telescope in Tucson, Arizona. They conduct astronomical research with a state-of-the-art telescope that sits atop Mount Graham.
  • If you visit every room in the Vatican Museum, you will walk 9 miles. The total size of the museum is over 460,000 square feet.
  • The Vatican Museum’s art collection contains so many paintings that it would take four years to look at them for just 1 minute.

When is the Best Time to Visit the Vatican?

Crowds of people leaving the Vatican

With Vatican City being a pilgrimage destination for many Catholics and Christians., you can surely experience sizeable crowds during your visit. The crowds are especially large on Wednesdays when you can see the Pope’s general audience to the masses and on Sundays to catch his weekly blessing. On most other days, the crowds can be stifling as you walk through the one-way halls in the Vatican Museums. How can you enjoy the Vatican with fewer crowds?

There are several ways to beat the crowds in Vatican City. The optimum choices are to purchase your ticket in advance online, visit the Vatican City in the off-season (early spring, fall, and winter), or attend on a weekday, preferably Tuesdays or Thursdays. Avoid the summer months of June, July, and August, when it is the busiest, and the last Sunday of the month when there are several free attractions to see. Be forewarned: free equals extremely busy. The crowd size at the Vatican is legendary; some have spent over two hours waiting in line, stretching down the block and around the corner of the outer walls.

The best time to visit the Vatican is first thing in the morning, between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. St. Peter’s Basilica opens at 7 a.m., and the Vatican Museums open at 9 a.m. The Vatican is the busiest between the hours of 10 and 2 p.m. Another good time to visit is during their evening hours on Friday and Saturday nights from April to October. The museums are open from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Visitors can tour them with a guide or alone. In addition, a happy hour is held in Pinecone Courtyard during this event, and sometimes live concerts are held as well.

Vatican Guided Tour

Vatican Guided Tour Gathering Point

One of the easiest ways to see the Vatican is to go on a guided tour. Most tours have skip-the-line access with excellent narrator guides who are a wealth of knowledge on the things to do in Vatican City. I prefer taking tours with Get Your Guide, which I have been using worldwide for day trips and excursions.

I booked the Skip-the-Line Vatican, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Tour, and I like that they try to keep the tour size under 20 people. One of the many benefits of a Vatican-guided tour is that you can avoid the long line to get into the museum. During the tour, I learned about the art and history within the Vatican Museums, including the Gallery of Candelabra, the Gallery of Maps, and the Gallery of Tapestries. Whatever tour operator you choose, the tours take you through the Vatican Museums in one direction, all leading to the Sistine Chapel. After maneuvering through the crowded chapel, you are led to an exclusive entrance into St. Peter’s Basilica. Inside, you can see the stunning altar, Michelangelo’s “La Pieta,” and Pope John Paul II’s tomb. The tour ends outside in St. Peter’s Square, where you can see the Pope’s balcony and take selfies to show you were there.

On average, the Vatican Museums bring in 6.5 million visitors a year. Because of the one-way direction of the flow of people, the crowd tends to move you along at a decent pace. Even if you want to admire a tapestry or map, let alone the Sistine Chapel, you won’t be able to linger for long and be prepared to hold your phone over your head to get photos. Because there is so much art to be seen within the Vatican Museums, guided tours let you see the best of the Vatican, so you can spend less time waiting and more time exploring these amazing works of art.

Note: Strict Dress Code touring the Vatican. No shorts, bare shoulders, cleavage showing, or hats are allowed within the Vatican.

Pinecone Courtyard

The Gardens of the Vatican

One of the first things you see on the Vatican-guided tour is the Pinecone Courtyard. This large grassy courtyard can be seen from the terrace, one of the tour gathering areas. This area was used for jousting tournaments and bullfights in the 15th century under Pope Alexander VI, and there are stories that Pope Leo X housed his pet elephant, Hanno, in the courtyard in the 16th century. Can you imagine an elephant roaming the Vatican grounds?

The Pinecone Courtyard

As you wander the courtyard, look at the massive 13-foot bronze pinecone the courtyard is named after. The pinecone used to be once a fountain with water sprouting out of the cone scales.

Sphere Within a Sphere

Sphere within a Sphere at the Vatican

On the center pathway in the Pinecone Courtyard is a unique sculpture, the Sphere within a Sphere. Created in 1990 by Arnaldo Pomodoro, it is one of the most modern art pieces in the Vatican. The 13-foot diameter sphere has many cracks representing the fractures in the Christian world today.

The Garden Terrace at the Vatican

Before you enter the Vatican Museums, most tours will stop on the terrace. From the terrace, you can have a great view of the Pinecone Courtyard, capture a nice photo of the dome of St. Peter’s church, and if you look toward the right of the terrace, you can see the lovely Vatican Gardens.

Vatican Museums

Vatican Museum Entrance

The Vatican Museums contain over 70,000 works of art spread across 1400 rooms. However, only 20,000 art pieces are on display in the 54 galleries, with an exceptional collection of art, archaeology, and architectural features, some almost 3,000 years old. Within the Vatican Museums, you’ll find Roman and Greek sculptures, tapestries, and paintings by Renaissance greats such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Bernini, and da Vinci. The Vatican’s collection includes Modern Religious Art by famous artists, including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso.

One of the most photographed spots in the Vatican Museums is looking down the Bramante Spiral Staircase. Not sure how I missed this, but it is right as you enter the main museum. Designed in 1832 by Giuseppe Momo, it is two iron-engraved stairways shaped like a double helix.

Pio Clementino Museum

The Pio Clementino Museum has 12 rooms showcasing the oldest art collection in the Vatican Museums. Opened in 1932, these galleries have some impressive classical statues from the 16th century that were stolen by Napoleon but were brought back to the museum after his defeat. The Pio-Clementino Gallery is named for Popes Clement XIV and Pius VI, who created these magnificent galleries.

Octagonal Court

Laocoon Statue in the Octagonal Court
Laocoon Group Statue

The Octagonal Court is one of the first galleries in the Pio Clementino Museum that you walk through. This outdoor courtyard displays the impressive Ancient Roman statues that Pope Julius II acquired, and two of them, the Laocoon Group and Belvedere Apollo, are in the same spot when they were introduced to the public in 1506.

The first statue Pope Julius acquired was the Laocoon, discovered at an Esquiline Hill excavation in 1506. The statue is believed to be from the 1st century B.C., created by the sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, and Athendorus from the Greek Island of Rhodes. The story behind the statue is that all the Trojans were excited to receive the Trojan horse inside the city- except the priest Laocoon, who warned it would be their downfall. Athena, or the god Apollo, who sided with the Greeks, sent two serpents to kill the priest and his sons, silencing them forever. This statue is powerful in capturing the moment of pain and fear in their faces.

Apollo Belvedere in the Octagonal Court
Apollo Belvedere

Pope Julius II brought the Apollo Belvedere statue to the Vatican in 1508 from his own collection. Sculpted by Leochares, a Roman sculptor, sometime between 120 and 140 A.D., Apollo is posed after letting go of an arrow, supposedly to slay the serpent, Python. Standing at 24 feet, the Apollo Belvedere is considered one of the most beautiful statues in the world. Michelangelo even studied the Apollo Belvedere and used his face as a guideline to paint Jesus Christ in the Last Judgement Fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

Nile River God Statue in the Octagonal Court
Nile River God Statue

The Nile statue is a Roman 1st-century A.D. copy of a Greek original. The sculpture represents the River Nile as an old man while Egypt is the sphinx, supporting the Nile. This is another priceless work of art that Napoleon took, which created an international debacle before it was returned to Italy. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Pope demanded the French return the artwork to the Vatican. The French were reluctant to return this treasure and offered a nude statue of Napolean in trade. Obviously, the Pope declined, and the Nile was returned.

The Gallery of Statues and the Hall of Busts

Gallery of Statues and the Hall of Busts
Gallery of Statues and the Hall of Busts

The Gallery of Statues is a long hallway filled with numerous Roman and Greek statues leading to the Hall of Busts. You can still see painted frescoes and tiny cupids on the walls from when this gallery opened in the late 1770s.

Busts in the Gallery of Statues and the Hall of Busts

Hall of Animals

Hall of Animals in the Vatican Museum
Hall of Animals

Adjacent to the Octagonal Court is the Hall of Animals. This galley is overflowing with statues of Roman animals from the 18th century to create a ‘stone zoo.’ The animals are displayed in natural settings and showcase their interactions in the animal world. I liked that the sculptors used colored marble to add depth to their coats.

Hall of the Chariot

Hall of Chariot in the Vatican Museums
Hall of the Chariot

The Hall of the Chariot was designed by Giuseppe Camporese and completed in 1795. The gallery has a huge marble two-horse chariot in the center, surrounded by sculptures depicting athletic competitions. The floor is special, with elements of Pope Pius VI’s coat-of-arms, the stars, and the Boreal wind blowing on lilies designed into it.

The Hall of Muses

The Belvedere Torso in the Hall of Muses
The Belvedere Torso

The Hall of Muses has statues of Muses surrounding a magnificent incomplete statue in the center of the room, the Belvedere Torso. Arguably, one of the most important statues in history, created by Athenian sculptor Apollonio, was added to the Vatican collection in 1530. This highly admired sculpture was a big deal during the Renaissance, as dissecting humans to study muscles and anatomy was forbidden. Showing a powerful and vigorous musculature, the sculptor had to have intimate knowledge of anatomy. The sculpture is believed to be of Ajax contemplating suicide after losing the competition with Odysseus from the Iliad.

Many Renaissance artists studied the Belvedere torso’s motion, which you could see in their work. Look at Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco, where St. Bartholomew and the body of Christ are modeled on the Belvedere torso. Even Rodin’s The Thinker was based on how he believed the torso would have been posed.

the God Apollo in the Hall of Muses
the God Apollo

Another statue in the Hall of Muses beside the Muses is the God Apollo holding a lyre. Apollo is often lumped in with the Muses because of his association with music. The ceiling in the Hall of Muses is amazing, as are many Vatican Museum gallery ceilings. Painted by Tommaso Conca, the ceiling shows scenes of Apollo and the Muses’ inspiring artistic endeavors in others.

Ceiling in the Hall of Muses in the Vatican Museums
Ceiling in the Hall of Muses

Round Room

Nero’s Bathtub in the Round Room

The Round Room is an imposing room with impressive statues on the outskirts, with a center gated area showcasing the massive Emperor Nero’s bathtub. Designed in 1779 by the architect Michelangelo Simonetti, the ceiling is modeled after the Pantheon, including a large oculus in the ceiling, and the mosaic floor dates back to the third century B.C. from the ancient bathhouses from Ostia Antica, an old port of Rome, telling the story of the battle of the Centaurs.

Emperor Nero’s bathtub is made from a rare and precious stone called Red Porphyry, originating from Egypt. The purple color is extracted from sea snails. It was so hard to find that to get one gram of purple dye; you would have to extract it from 10,000 sea snails.

Braschi Antinous in the Round Room
Braschi Antinous

This enormous statue of Antinous is the first statue you see as you enter the Round Room. Antinous caught the eye of Emperor Hadrian at a young age and made him his companion. When he drowned in the Nile at 18, Hadrian was devasted. After his death, Emperor Hadrian had numerous statues placed throughout the Roman Empire of Antinous, including this statue. Hadrian even had Antinous declared a God.

The Bronze Hercules in the Round Room
The Bronze Hercules

The large bronze statue of Hercules holding a wooden bat is the only bronze statue in the Vatican from Ancient Roman times. What is fascinating about this statue is that all the bronze statues were melted down after the fall of the Roman Empire, except this one. It had the unfortunate circumstance of being struck by lightning, or fortunate as it seem, since Romans thought a lightning strike was a bad omen and had the statue buried. It was uncovered in 1864 near Campo de Fiori.

Emperor Galba in the Round Room
Emperor Galba

Emperor Galba is the only seated figure in the Round Room. Galba followed Nero as Emperor for seven months during the year of the four Emperors. He was murdered by his personal army that was supposed to protect him.

Emperor Claudius in the Round Room
Emperor Claudius

Claudius was underestimated before he became Emperor after the death of his nephew, Caligula. Emperor Claudius was considered a good Emperor responsible for Britain becoming part of the Roman Empire. The statue is over 2,000 years old, 8 feet tall, and shows Claudius with a young man’s body with the head of a man who became Emperor at 50.

Greek Cross Hall

Sarcophagus Of Saint Helena in the Greek Cross Hall
Sarcophagus Of Saint Helena

The Greek Cross Room, designed by Michelangelo Simonetti and Giuseppe Camporese, is named after the room’s shape. The Greek Cross symbolizes the four elements of nature: earth, water, air, and fire. Make sure to look at the floor as you are hustled through to see the Cnidian Venus mosaic; it is designed like a shield with the head of the goddess of war, Athena. Besides the mosaic floor, the things to see in the Greek Cross Room are the statue of Octavian and the red porphyry sarcophagi of Saints Helena and Constantine.

On either side of the room, you can walk by one of the large red Egyptian porphyry sarcophagi of Saint Helena, Constantine the Great’s mother, on the left, or Saint Constance, Constantine’s oldest daughter, on the right. Helena discovered the True Cross on which Christ was crucified; only fragments of the cross remain in different churches worldwide. Saint Helena’s sarcophagus is designed with military scenes of soldiers on horseback. Saint Constance’s sarcophagus is designed with cupids and grapes and sits on a base with four lionesses. Their remains are no longer in the coffins and have been reburied in Rome.

The Gallery of the Candelabra

The Ceiling in the Gallery of Candelabra
The Ceiling in the Gallery of Candelabra

Entering through beautiful bronze gates, the Gallery of the Candelabra is the beginning of three long hallways leading you directly to the Sistine Chapel. This long hallway has large marble columns and marble candelabra, which divides the gallery into six sections. The gallery was renovated in the late 1800s with artworks that could be furnishings in a fancy house. Don’t forget to look up. The impressive painted ceilings display 19th-century events during Pope Leo XIII’s reign.

Lapis Lazuli Mosaic in the Gallery of the Candelabra
Lapis Lazuli Mosaic

On the floor in the middle of the Gallery is a beautiful mosaic of Pope Leo XIII’s Papal coat of arms, which I desperately tried to get a nice photo of and failed. Sunshine was streaming through the windows directly on the blue lapis lazuli. The papal coat of arms consists of the papal tiara, the two keys of St. Peter representing the divine world and the world here on earth. On the shield is his personal emblem of a shooting star, a cypress tree, and two fleurs de lis. One of the reasons the mosaic is cordoned off is that Lapis lazuli is a very expensive stone mined in Afghanistan and is comparable to the price of gold.

Satyr with Dionysus in the Gallery of the Candelabra
Satyr with Dionysus

An important statue not to miss is the Satyr with Dionysus as a child. Dionysus is known as the Ancient God of wine and is usually holding or is surrounded by grapes. This statue is unique with its marble-colored eyes, making it appear life-like, whereas most Ancient Roman statues’ eyes have worn down to plain marble.

The Gallery of Tapestries

Maffeo Barberini is made a cardinal by Pope Paul V Borghese Tapestry in the Gallery of Tapestries
Maffeo Barberini is made a cardinal by Pope Paul V Borghese Tapestry

Make sure you don’t rush through the next two galleries and make a bee-line to the Sistine Chapel; you’ll miss some of the most amazing works of art in the Vatican Museums. The first one is the Gallery of Tapestries, 245 feet long, with large tapestries that have hung here since the 1830s. The tapestries are made from wool, silk, silver, and gold.

The infamous painter Raphael designed the tapestries on the left wall. Commissioned by Pope Clement VII, the designs depict scenes of the life of Christ. On the right wall, the tapestries were commissioned by Pope Urban VIII to show scenes of his life. Make sure to look at the Ressurection of Christ Tapestry. A little optical illusion is designed into it, where Jesus Christ’s eyes follow you down the hallway.

Resurrection Of Christ Tapestry in the Gallery of Tapestries
Resurrection Of Christ Tapestry

And not to disappoint, another Vatican ceiling to impress you. The Gallery of Tapestries ceiling is completely flat but painted to look three-dimensional. The 18th-century artists learned to paint with shadow and light tricks to create a 3D appearance on a 2D surface. When you look up, you can’t tell the ceiling is flat.

Ceiling in the Gallery of Tapestries
Ceiling in the Gallery of Tapestries

The Gallery of Maps

A regional map of Italy in the Gallery of Maps

The Gallery of Maps is my favorite gallery in the Vatican Museums. There are 40 amazingly detailed fresco maps of Italy down the 393ft hallway created between 1580 and 1583 by painter and architect Ignazio Danti. The gallery is divided into two sides, the regions of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic Sea, with the Apennines Mountains separating them. The maps show the Italian regions, peninsula, islands, and Papal territories. If you plan on visiting Venice after Rome, take a photo of the Venice Map; almost all the streets and canals are accurate today.

One of the Italy maps in the Gallery of Maps
Close-up of the ceiling in the Gallery of Tapestries

The Gallery of Maps ceiling is the second most magnificent ceiling in the Vatican Museums. The colorful ceiling showcases the important historical events from each region of Italy, matching the maps as you walk down the gallery. Be careful not to trip on the person beside you as you strain your head to see each ceiling painting. I can’t tell you how often I had to apologize for stepping on someone’s feet or bumping into them.

Sistine Chapel

The Ceiling at the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is probably what everybody wants to see when visiting Vatican City. And rightly so. Michelangelo’s magnificent painted ceiling and frescos are impressive. The Sistine Chapel is in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, and can only be accessed by going through the Vatican Museums. Built by Pope Sixtus IV between 1480 and 1482, it was his private chapel but destined to be where the Conclave would take place, the process by which Cardinals select a new Pope.

Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo Buonarroti, then 32 years old, to paint the ceiling. He was extremely reluctant as he was a sculptor, not a painter, but eventually, after being persuaded by the Pope and offered more money, he consented. Michelangelo ended up painting stories from the Old Testament on the ceiling, which took him four years to complete. I think everyone wants the iconic picture of the panel where God is reaching out to touch Adam’s fingers. He was asked to come back when he was 60 to paint the Last Judgment fresco on the back wall.

Because this room is the epicenter of the millions of people visiting the Vatican, you are moved through this room fairly quickly. Don’t expect to linger.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Inside St. Peter's Basilica

Located on Vatican Hill, St. Peter’s Basilica took over 120 years to build after the previous one, built by Constantine the Great, was torn down. Some of the most famous architects designed the Basilica during that time: Bramante (original design), Raphael (took over after Bramante died), Michelangelo (designed the dome), Giacomo della Porta (designed the cupola), and Maderno (designed the long nave). It is now one of the largest churches in the world with a capacity of over 60,000 people, covers 22,300 square meters, and is one of the four major basilicas in Rome.

The wonderful thing about visiting the Basilica is that you can wander it freely-there is no cost to enter St. Peter’s Basilica or use their audio tour. However, if you want to skip the queue, get a guided tour, or climb the dome, there is a separate fee. I highly recommend skipping the line, as the number of people visiting can get long, and the crowds within the Basilica are unbelievable.

The crowds inside St. Peter's Basilica

Some interesting facts about St. Peter’s Basilica are that there are no paintings, and the statues get bigger the higher up they are. The paintings you see are all glass or ceramic mosaics due to the humidity inside the Basilica. The statues increase in size the higher up the wall you look, but they appear to be the same size. At the ground level, the statues are six feet, but they are 24 feet tall toward the ceiling.

St. Peter’s Dome is one of the most recognizable buildings in Rome and the tallest in the world. When visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, you can purchase a ticket to climb the 491 stairs to the top of the dome. If you climb to the top, you will have some of the best views of Vatican City and Rome.

Marble columns and ceiling in St. Peter's Basilica

Did you know that St. Peter’s Basilica sits atop a city of the dead? St. Peter’s Basilica is on the site originally the Circus of Nero and a cemetery. There are two levels below St Peter’s Basilica; the first is the Vatican Grottoes, a large underground graveyard where the tombs of 91 Popes are buried, and only three women: Queen Christina of Sweden, Agnesina Colonna Caetani, and Queen Charlotte of Cyprus. The level below this is the Vatican Necropolis, which houses St Peter’s Tomb. St Peter, one of the 12 apostles, was the first pope and was crucified under cruel Emperor Nero’s reign in 64 A.D.

Air vents for the crypt in St. Peter's Basilica
Air vents for the crypt in St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Baldachin

Looking up in St. Peter's Basilica

The baldachin is the main altar in the Basilica, where the Pope gives mass. Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the 95-foot-tall bronze canopy with spiraling columns., which took him 11 years to complete. The baldachin is directly under the dome and above St. Peter’s tomb.

The Pieta

The Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo’s Pieta

If you turn right in the first chapel directly after entering Saint Peter’s Basilica, you’ll see one of Michelangelo’s first large-scale sculptures behind bullet-proof glass, The Pieta. Michelangelo was relatively unknown when he created this nearly 6-foot-tall masterpiece from one large block of Carrara marble in 1499. Using only a hammer and chisel, Michelangelo captured the poignant moment when the Virgin Mary held a recently crucified Jesus in her arms. This is the only sculpture Michelangelo signed; “Michelangelo from Florence made this” is on Mary’s sash.

Bronze Statue of St. Peter

Bronze Statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica
Bronze Statue of St. Peter

The 5th century A.D. bronze statue of St. Peter sitting on a marble chair, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, holds the keys to heaven while bestowing a blessing. The tradition is that visitors touch or kiss St. Peter’s feet and ask for a blessing. Millions of people have done this, so much so that his right foot has worn down. However, I wouldn’t recommend kissing the foot.

Pope John Paul II’s Tomb

Pope John Paul II Tomb in St. Peter's Basilica
Pope John Paul II’s Tomb

Pope John Paul II was one of history’s most popular men and well-traveled world leaders. I remember how huge it was when Pope John Paul II visited Southeast Michigan to perform a mass at the Silverdome. He became Pope in 1978, and during his tenure, he visited 129 countries, helped to end Communism in Europe, and improved the Catholic Church’s relations with other religions. After dying in 2005, he was interred underneath St. Peter’s Basilica like previous Popes. But, once a Pope becomes a Saint, as Pope John Paul II did on April 27, 2014, their tomb is placed inside St Peter’s Basilica. Now, you can pay your respects immediately after Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Monument to Pope Pius VIII

Monument to Pope Pius VIII
Monument to Pope Pius VIII

Another St. Peter’s Basilica statue is the Monument to Pope Pius VIII. It has Jesus Christ enthroned with St. Peter and Paul on his sides and the Pope kneeling below them. Pope Pius VIII was imprisoned for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to Napoleon during the French occupation of Italy in 1808. There are also smaller statues representing Prudence and Justice on the sides of a small door. The door leads to the Sacristy and Treasury Museum, with the passage to the museum containing the list of the 91 Popes buried in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Outside St. Peter’s Basilica

Statue of Hope in the portico of Saint Peter's Basilica
Statue of Hope in the portico of Saint Peter’s Basilica

Don’t forget to look at the exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica; you’ll see many statues of importance tucked in porticos in the walls.

St. Peter’s Square

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City

St. Peter’s Square is an open-air square in front of the Basilica, with two colonnades circling the square like open arms welcoming you to church. Two beautiful fountains are on either side of the square, with an 83-foot-tall Egyptian obelisk at the center. St Peter’s Square, which contains 284 columns and 88 pillars, symbolizes the gathering of Christianity. The colonnades also have 140 statues of Saints and Martyrs on top. At the front of the square, you can see the large statues of St. Peter and St. Paul.

St. Paul Statue in St. Peter's Square
St. Paul Statue in St. Peter’s Square

Other items to see in the square are the Papal apartments and the balcony where the Pope recites the Angelus at noon on Sundays. On Wednesdays, you can hear him give an address (mostly in Italian) in St. Peter’s Square, followed by prayers and a homily. After the ceremony, the Pope will bless rosaries, bibles, or other religious items.

St. Peter’s Square is the easiest part of the Vatican to visit since you can walk in and enjoy the beautiful square and exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica. There are some interesting facts about St. Peter’s Square for you to get a kick out of while wandering around the square. There is an optical illusion designed into St. Peter’s Square. The colonnades have four rows of columns, but there is a disc in the center of the square that, when you stand on it and turn your head around, you’ll only see one row of columns. The other columns disappear.

Another cool thing is that the obelisk acts as a sundial. You can follow the sun’s shadow along five zodiac signs inlaid on the pavement. There are even circles for the summer and winter solstice on the pavement.


Heather at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City

Whether you want to wander through the peaceful Vatican gardens, embark on a Vatican Museums tour to the Sistine Chapel, or admire the beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica, you certainly won’t be disappointed by your trip to the world’s smallest country. I missed some things on the guided Vatican tour, but when I return, I can purchase a skip-the-line pass and tour the museums on my own to see the Raphael Rooms, for example. However, I’m glad my first time there, I went on the Get Your Guide tour. As you can see from this article, I saw a lot that day.

Before you go, research so you don’t miss anything that is a must on your things to do in Vatican City list. Check the opening hours, the history, how to get there, what to wear, and plenty of interesting facts to impress your travel companions.

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Further Reading

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