At just 44 hectares, Vatican City is officially the smallest sovereign state in the world. But don’t let that fool you. It might only have a population of 1,000 within its walls but thousands of visitors pass through its gates every day – which should be a clue that there’s plenty to do and see inside! Housing some of the most monumental works of art in the world as well as some of the most famous buildings, it’s no wonder for so many a trip to the Vatican is a once-in-a-lifetime visit.
Of course, there are a few must-sees such as St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums, but if you find yourself with a bit of spare time or want to do something off the beaten track there are plenty of unique and lesser-known spots too such as the Vatican Gardens, Mosaic Studios, or the underground archeological excavations.
So from bigger sites to hidden treasures, here’s your definitive list of the best things to do in Vatican City.
Visit St. Peter’s Basilica – and the Vatican Grottoes beneath
No visit to the Vatican would be complete without seeing St. Peter’s Basilica. One of the largest churches ever built, the building that we see today is actually the second St. Peter’s Basilica. Originally built in the 4th Century by Emperor Constantine, the Basilica marked the site where St. Peter was supposed to have been buried. However, by the 1400s the church was in a state of disrepair and was knocked down to be reconstructed under the orders of Pope Julius II.
Today, the site is free to enter but be sure to get there early as there can be long queues, especially during the summer months. While there is a charge to climb St Peter’s Dome and to enter the basilica’s treasury, both are well worth the fee! During your time in St. Peter’s Basilica you’ll also want to check out the Vatican Grottoes housed directly underneath. These are also free but be sure not to miss the entrance which is tucked away near the Pier of St Andrew by the high altar. Here, you’ll find the tombs and sarcophagi of several popes. Be aware that the Grottoes’ exit will lead you outside of the Basilica, so you’ll want to make sure this is your last stop to avoid having to queue up again!
See Bernini’s Colonnade at Saint Peter’s Square
It’s one of the most iconic pictures of Vatican City and a must-see for visitors near and far. St. Peter’s Square is located directly in front of its eponymous Basilica. Built from a design by Bernini between 1656 and 1667, the square has become one of the most famous of its kind. Seen from above it resembles a giant keyhole with two large colonnades which Bernini intended to resemble the ‘motherly arms of the church’.
A popular gathering point for tourists and visitors to the Vatican Museums, from this spot you can see the Papal Apartments and is the place where the Papal address is held every Wednesday during the summer months (but more on that below).
The square is free to visit and open 24 hours a day unless it needs to be closed for a special ceremony.
Take in the Sistine Chapel
Not only is the Sistine Chapel one of the most famous chapels in the world, we’re prepared to say it ranks as one of the most famous buildings in the world. Forming a small part of the Apostolic Palace – the Pope’s official residence – the Sistine Chapel was named after Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned the building during the 15th century. Today the chapel is both an attraction and the site of the Papal conclave for the election of the new Pope.
One of the main reasons for visiting the Chapel is to see the stunning artwork by Michelangelo adorning the ceiling which was completed during 1508-1512. Though all electronic devices are banned during the conclave, on a normal day you might just be lucky enough to get a selfie with the Pope, as previous visitors did.
The Sistine Chapel can get crowded during the summer months, so if you want a more exclusive visit why not try our Pristine Sistine™ tour, which lets you into the chapel before the general public, or our Vatican Night tour for a more peaceful experience.
Traverse Castel Sant’Angelo
This listing comes with a disclaimer. While it may not be officially within Vatican City, Castel Sant’Angelo is connected to the Vatican by a historic passageway, the Passetto di Borgo. Running 800 meters long it served as a refuge – not once but twice – when the serving pope found his life in danger.
Originally, the building was commissioned by Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for his family during the Middle Ages. But its favourable position next to the river soon resulted in a change of function. Instead it became a defensive fortress when the city came under threat and, thanks to its unassailable structure, the popes also used it to store their treasure during times of attack.
Inside you can see a collection of weapons and armour, Renaissance frescoes, and the Papal residence.
Send a Postcard from the Vatican
Before Instagram, travellers posted something else as a memento of their travels. That’s right, Postcards. Whether you’re a postcard collector, old soul or simply want something unique to do whilst in Vatican city, sending a postcard from the Vatican is a fun and cost-effective activity anyone can enjoy. It’s also a unique opportunity to send mail from this independent state! Send one to family, friends, or even to yourself at the Vatican Post Office which is located on the right at the exit of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Make (plenty of) time for the Vatican Museums
One of the main draws to the Vatican is undoubtedly the Vatican Museums which contains a mesmerising total of fifty-four separate collections. Spanning nine miles of masterpieces, the Museums feature works by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, ranging from paintings to sculptures and mosaics. All in all it’s estimated that the collection is worth over €15 billion. So it’s certainly a place worth taking the time to explore.
The Gallery of the Maps, the Gallery of the Statues, the Vatican historical Museum, and of course, the Raphael Rooms are some of the most popular museums within the complex. But if you have the time all of the museums are worth their weight in gold – literally in many cases.
Wander the Vatican Gardens
Few countries can boast that gardens take up half of their land, but the Vatican certainly can. Made up of three styles of gardens, Italian, English and French, the Vatican gardens are an oasis in the middle of the bustling Vatican City. The gardens date back to medieval times, while Pope Nicholas III was the first to enclose the gardens with walls and included an orchard
Over the years the gardens have been expanded and dedications, sculptures and fountains have been added dedicated to various saints in Christendom. Despite getting so many visitors per year only a small fraction of them enter the Vatican Gardens. This is mainly due to the fact that entry to the gardens is restricted to those who have booked a guided tour led by official Vatican staff. But trust us, this is all the more reason to go! Less crowded than other areas of the Vatican, the gardens make for a wonderful experience for the religious, secular and admirers of beauty alike.
And if you’re looking for more historic Papal gardens, try our day trip to Castel Gandolfo – the pope’s summer residence.
Attend an audience with the Pope
On Wednesday, if the Pope is in Rome visitors have the opportunity to attend the Papal address and receive a Papal Blessing which is held in St. Peter’s Square during the summer months. The Pope will usually begin with some learnings said in multiple languages including Latin, English, Portuguese, Polish, German and Spanish among others. He’ll also bless significant items and extend blessings to relatives, especially if they are ill or deceased.
While tickets to the audience (which are always free of charge) are available by request from the Prefecture of the Papal Household, the Pope has emphasised that everyone is welcome to attend his address, regardless of whether they have tickets or not.
The seated section at the front of St. Peter’s Square is reserved for those with tickets but fills up on a first-come first-served basis, which is why even if you have a ticket, it’s a good idea to arrive early!
See the Vatican Mosaic Studio
Tucked away in a small area within the Vatican are the Vatican Mosaic Studios. Though they might not be the most ornate rooms in the building, they produce some of the most beautiful works of art. The studios are dedicated to restoring the ten thousand square meters of mosaic to be found within Saint Peter’s Basilica, along with producing mosaics for individual collectors and the Pope who occasionally gifts them to heads of state.
The degree of artistry and care put into these works is acute, with pieces of mosaic being heated up to 800 degrees to form a unique colour hue. Which is why the price for a bespoke mosaic can reach up to €200,000.
You’ll only be able to access the studios on a privately guided tour, which is a small price to pay to witness Vatican artists at work!
Explore the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis
Derived from greek words necròs (dead) and pòlis (city), Necropolis means a “city of the dead”. Because Ancient Roman law forbid bodies from being buried within the city, these ancient cemeteries functioned as a sanctioned place for the dead within society, many of which have been found under significant sites around Italy.
The Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis forms an Ancient underground cemetery located beneath the Vatican Gardens. After extensive excavation and refurbishment, the site has been made into a museum with multi-media educational apparatus to provide information about its history and past life. You’ll also be able to see the burial chambers, mosaics and frescoes preserved from the ancient world.
The Necropolis is only accessible when you book a tour which can be purchased from the official Vatican website.
Read More: Italy’s creepy crypts, catacombs and more!