I’m not Catholic, so I didn’t feel like I had much of a reason to visit the Vatican, but “when in Rome” as they say, I thought it would be a great half-day trip! I would’ve been remiss to skip out on the heart of the Catholic faith, and I’m glad we decided to visit, because the architecture, museums, and mosaics were worth the flight to Italy in and of themselves. I was absolutely shocked, and slightly horrified, when I realized how massive Vatican City is, and how ridiculously expensive the entire thing must have been to build. We climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica and saw up close the hand cut glass and gold tiles that created the mosaics on the walls and ceilings of the basilica, we gazed in awe at diamonds, rubies, and other precious gemstones the size of bricks on display in the Vatican Museums that were “donated” by conquered lands and rulers during the years of the crusades, and many other sights that were equally impressive. Vatican City was beautiful and definitely worth visiting.
Common scams include “selling tickets” to skip the line or save money at the Vatican, but when you get there you will see signs that say only the tickets sold on site are valid. No other tickets or tour vouchers will be honored, so be sure to ignore people claiming to work at the Vatican you will see on the walk to the city, because they are selling you something fraudulent. Save yourself money and get to the Vatican early to avoid lines and scams. Most things inside the Vatican are cash only.
Inside Vatican City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is a very strict dress code. For men, they must be wearing shorts long enough to cover their knees, and their arms should be covered as well. A pair of jeans or chinos and a button up, or sweater would be appropriate. For women, dresses and skirts must hit below the knee (I’d advise wearing tights or leggings underneath if you plan to climb St. Peter’s Basilica, to avoid wardrobe malfunctions while climbing), shoulders and chests must be covered, and no one is allowed to wear hats of any kind (although religious head coverings are okay). We saw some people turned away because they were wearing cut off shorts and crop tops, so they do seriously enforce the dress code.
Backpacks, tripods and flash photography, animals, outside food or drinks (except water), smoking, drinking alcohol, swearing, saying things like “Oh my god!”, etc. are not allowed, and may get you thrown out. Weapons, even pocket knives, are not allowed and you may be kicked out if you set off the metal detectors everyone is required to pass through. The wait time to get in, despite getting there right when it opened was roughly 45 minutes. When we left about 4 hours later, the lines were much longer and the wait time was several hours, so plan to be there around the time when it opens.
Entrance to the city itself is free, but if you want to climb to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, it costs 6 Euros, or 8 if you want to use the elevator (which only takes you part way). There are 551 steps between you and one of the best views in all of Rome or the Vatican, but the climb up involves narrow, twisting passage ways, and even using a rope to climb up stair cases without hand rails! This part of Vatican City is, sadly, not handicap accessible. Once at the top of the Basilica, there are restrooms, and even a cafe that serves cake, beer, and water on the roof of the Vatican.
Many Renaissance artists including Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, Bramante, Raphael, and Bernini took part in creating or decorating parts of Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel, and the Apostolic Palace, and it’s one of the largest and most beautiful collections of Renaissance period art in the world. The scenes on the wall of St. Peter’s Basilica are all completely made of handout glass and gold pieces, and are hundreds of years old.
Quick Facts About Vatican City:
Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, at only 0.2 square miles.
The Swiss Guard (the men in bright yellow, orange, and blue outfits), are Swiss mercenaries hired to protect the Pope, even at the cost of their own life. They are scattered across the Vatican.
St. Peter was blamed by emperor Nero for the burning of Rome (it was not his fault), and was burned at the stake and then crucified, then allegedly buried at what is now the Vatican. The Vatican was built around him, and his tomb is visible within St. Peter’s Basilica.
There are only roughly 840 citizens of Vatican City, most of whom live abroad.
When one loses their Vatican City passport, which can only be given by birth or being appointed a high position within the Vatican, and can be lost when the position is forfeit, Vatican City citizens automatically become Italian citizens by default.
There is a secret passage that connects Vatican City with the Castel Sant’Angelo, which is located less than a mile away on the banks of the Tiber River.
Vatican City is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world that cover an entire country.
Rumor has it that there was once a female Pope, who pretended to be a man, and reigned capably, and fairly for more than 2 years, 855-857 A.D.. It was only when she gave birth during church business that her secret was discovered and Pope Joan was either murdered or died of complications from giving birth. Now they check to ensure all selected Popes are men. Her name was scrubbed from the official list of Popes (she had previously gone by John).
The Vatican doesn’t pay taxes on any of their income as they are both a sovereign nation and a religious organization. The total monetary wealth of the Vatican is estimated to be around $20 Billion USD.
Vatican City, as it stands now, took nearly 400 years to build, and is not a member of the United Nations.
The Obelisk in the photos above, built in 5th center Egypt and brought to Vatican City in the 16th century, can be used as a sundial.
The ATMs within Vatican City are the only ones in the world with the option of doing business in Latin.
Within Vatican City there is a secret, underground, archival Library that has more than 50 miles of bookcases filled with manuscripts, and documents dating back from the time of the first writings until now. There are less than a dozen people in the world who have access to this information, and there is no public record of what’s stored there.
The main dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is nearly 400 feet high!
I hope this information was useful for planning your trip! I’d recommend spending between a full day and a half a day here, depending upon. how long you’d like to spend praying, admiring art work, going to confession, or just admiring the architecture. For us, half a day was all we could fit into our schedules, but it was a great amount of time to sample what the Vatican offers to the public. If you have any questions, let me know below!
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