Vatican City in a Day

Photo by Martha Bakerjian

See the Sistine Chapel, world's largest Christian Church, and Hadrian's tomb

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The Vatican City, also called the Holy See, is really the world’s smallest country but it’s a top place to visit on a trip to Rome. Because there’s a lot to see and do, and it can be very crowded, allowing a full day is advisable if you want to see everything.

The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel

Start your morning at the Vatican Museums. Because of its popularity, crowds can be very intense. In addition, the size of the Vatican Museums can make a visit overwhelming. For these reasons I highly recommend booking a skip-the-line tour that helps you navigate the museums and see the highlights. For the best experience, book a pre-opening tour that allows you access before the general public, such as this Pristine Sistine Early Entrance Small Group Vatican Tour.

Inside the Vatican Museums complex are numerous art works housed in the apartments of former popes. There are also artifacts from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire collected by the Popes. Another highlight is the hall of maps, a display of ancient maps.

Of course the most famous and popular thing to see is the Sistine Chapel, with the ceiling painted by Michelangelo and wall frescoes by several other Renaissance artists. With a pre-opening tour, your group will usually head straight to the Sistine Chapel to view it before it becomes overly crowded.

Ticket lines to enter the Vatican Museums are usually very long so it’s best to buy Vatican Museum tickets in advance if you don’t want to book a tour.  If you’re visiting on your own, there are 4 different suggested itineraries from which to choose when you enter. Plan to spend at least a couple of hours inside.

Entrance: The entrance is on Viale Vaticano, not in Saint Peter’s Square. Be sure to arrive well in advance of your tour or ticket time.

The Vatican Museums are usually closed on Sundays, except the last Sunday of the month when admission is free.

Castel Sant’Angelo with Lunch

The next stop on the itinerary is Castel Sant’Angelo, just a short walk down Via della Concilliazione. Castel Sant’Angelo, originally built as Hadrian’s tomb, is now a museum. The former papal apartments are decorated with frescoes and furnishings. It is also home to an important collection of ancient weapons. Castel Sant’Angelo gained fame on the premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Opera Tosca at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on 14th January 1900. The opera ends in tragedy with the main character, Tosca, hurling herself to her death over the castle’s ramparts.

Lunch: From the upper levels you’ll be rewarded by fantastic views of Rome. The cafe and restaurant on the terrace is a great place for lunch with a view, and not too expensive. If you’re hungry, you may want to head to the terrace first and then see the sights on your way down. This is a better choice than the tourist eateries by the Vatican.

Saint Peter’s Square – Late Afternoon

Visit Saint Peter’s Square and Basilica in the late afternoon when tour groups start leaving. If you didn’t opt for an early morning tour of the Vatican Museums though, start your day in Saint Peter’s Square and Basilica when it’s less crowded and visit the museums in the afternoon, heading to Sistine Chapel as your last stop when it might be less crowded.

Arriving in Piazza San Pietro, or Saint Peter’s Square, you’ll be struck by the grandeur of the elliptical square spreading out before Saint Peter’s Basilica. The square is framed by the magnificent four column-deep colonnade designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 140 statues depicting saints, martyrs, popes, and important religious figures within the Catholic Church top the colonnades. Also be sure to see the Swiss Guard.

Saint Peter’s Basilica

Saint Peter’s Basilica is the mother church of Catholicism. Enter the Basilica by climbing the three tiered set of steps (also designed by Bernini), and prepare to be awed by its vastness. The largest Christian church in the world, its surface covers about 22,000 square meters. The Michelangelo-designed dome is 42 meters wide and the entire building rises to a height of 136 meters.

A huge collection of masterpieces by major artists is inside. Top works include Bernini’s majestic bronze Baldacchino, Michelangelo’s superb sculpture the Pietà, and Giotto’s restored mosaic, The Navicella, in a lunette over the central opening into the portico. The tombs of many former popes are found in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Top tombs to see are those of Saint Peter, John Paull II, and the tomb of Pope Clement XIII created by Canova.

For an exquisite panorama of the square and Rome, climb the 330 steps to the top of the dome.

Hours: Open daily, usually from 7AM to 7PM. Admission is free but there’s a charge for going up to the dome.

Transportation: To get to Piazza San Pietro, take the Metropolitana Linea A to the Ottaviano “San Pietro” stop.

Visiting Information: Visitors who are not dressed in the appropriate attire will not be allowed entry into the basilica. This means no shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless shirts. If you’re wearing any of these, it’s advisable to bring a shawl or other cover-up.

People sometimes mistakenly think that Saint Peter’s is the cathedral of Rome, however it is not a cathedral. Rome’s cathedral is Saint John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), one of the 4 Papal Churches.

Where to Stay in Rome:

JK Place, near the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon, is a top boutique hotel choice.
Singer Palace Hotel, on Via del Corso, a top shopping street, has a rooftop restaurant.
St. Regis Grand Hotel has been recently remodeled and is a luxurious choice.
* See more top Rome hotels.

More Things to See and Do in Rome

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