Capital of the Catholic Church, this tiny walled city-state is a place where some people go to find a work of art—Michelangelo’s frescoes, rare ancient Roman marbles, or Bernini’s statues. Others go to find their souls. Whatever the reason, thanks to being the seat of world Catholicism and also address to the most overwhelming architectural achievement of the 16th and 17th centuries—St. Peter’s Basilica—the Vatican attracts millions of travelers every year.
In addition, the Vatican Museums are famed for magnificent rooms decorated by Raphael, sculptures such as the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön, paintings by Giotto, frescoes by Raphael, and the celebrated ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The Church power that emerged as the Rome of the emperors declined gave impetus to a profusion of artistic expression and shaped the destiny of the city for a thousand years. Allow yourself an hour to see St. Peter’s Basilica, at least two hours for the museums, an hour for Castel Sant’Angelo, and an hour to climb to the top of the dome. Note that ushers at the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums bar entry to people with “inappropriate” clothing—which means no bare knees or shoulders.
Getting Here and Around
From Termini station, hop on the No. 40 Express or the No. 64 to be delivered to Piazza San Pietro. Metro stops Cipro or Ottaviano will get you within about a 10-minute walk of the entrance to the Vatican Museums. Use Ottaviano for St. Peter’s.
Basilica di San Pietro.
The world’s largest church, built over the tomb of St. Peter, is the most imposing and breathtaking architectural achievement of the Renaissance (although much of the lavish interior dates to the Baroque). The physical statistics are impressive: it covers 18,000 square yards, runs 212 yards in length, and is surmounted by a dome that rises 435 feet and measures 138 feet across its base. Its history is equally impressive. No fewer than five of Italy’s greatest artists—Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi, Antonio Sangallo the Younger, and Michelangelo—died while striving to erect this new St. Peter’s.
As you climb the shallow steps up to the great church, flanked by the statues of Sts. Peter and Paul, you’ll see the Loggia delle Benedizioni (Benediction Loggia) over the central portal. This is the balcony where newly elected popes are proclaimed, and where they stand to give their apostolic blessing on solemn feast days. Pause a moment to appraise the size of the great building.
As you enter the great nave, immediately to your right, behind a protective glass partition, is Michelangelo’s Pietà, sculpted when the artist was only 25. The work was of such genius, some rivals spread rumors it was by someone else, prompting the artist to inscribe his name, unusually for him, across Mary’s sash.
Farther down, with its heavyweight crown barely denting its marble cushion, is Carlo Fontana’s monument to Catholic convert and abdicated Queen Christina of Sweden (who is buried in the Grotte Vaticane below). Just across the way, in the Cappella di San Sebastiano, now lies the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II. The beloved pope’s remains were moved into the chapel after his beatification on May 1, 2011.
Exquisite bronze grilles and doors by Borromini open into the third chapel in the right aisle, the Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento (Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament, generally open to visitors only from 7 am–8:30 am), with a Baroque fresco of the Trinity by Pietro da Cortona. The lovely carved angels are by Bernini. At the last pillar on the right (the pier with Bernini’s statue of St. Longinus) is a bronze statue of St. Peter, whose right foot is ritually touched by lines of pilgrims. In the right transept, over the door to the Cappella di San Michele (Chapel of St. Michael), usually closed, Canova created a brooding Neoclassical monument to Pope Clement XIII.
In the central crossing, Bernini’s great bronze baldacchino—a huge, spiral-columned canopy—rises high over the altare papale (papal altar). At 100,000 pounds, it’s said to be the largest, heaviest bronze object in the world. Circling the baldacchino are four larger-than-life statues of saints whose relics the Vatican has; the one of St. Longinus, holding the spear that pierced Christ’s side, is another Bernini masterpiece.
Meanwhile, Bernini designed the splendid gilt-bronze Cattedra di San Pietro (throne of St. Peter) in the apse above the main altar to contain a wooden and ivory chair that St. Peter himself is said to have used, though in fact it doesn’t date from farther back than medieval times. (You can see a copy of the chair in the treasury.) Above, Bernini placed a window of thin alabaster sheets that diffuses a golden light around the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, in the center.
Two of the major papal funeral monuments in St. Peter’s Basilica are on either side of the apse and unfortunately are usually only dimly lighted. To the right is the tomb of Pope Urban VIII; to the left is the tomb of Pope Paul III. Paul’s tomb is of an earlier date, designed between 1551 and 1575 by Giacomo della Porta, the architect who completed the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica after Michelangelo’s death.
Many believed the nude figure of Justice to be a portrait of the pope’s beautiful sister, Giulia. The charms of this alluring figure were such that in the 19th century, it was thought that she should no longer be allowed to distract worshippers from their prayers, and she was thenceforth clad in marble drapery.
It was in emulation of this splendid late-Renaissance work that Urban VIII ordered Bernini to design his tomb. The real star here, however, is la Bella Morte (“Beautiful Death”) who, all bone and elbows, dispatches the deceased pope above to a register of blue-black marble. The tomb of Pope Alexander VII, also designed by Bernini, stands to the left of the altar as you look up the nave, behind the farthest pier of the crossing.
This may be the most haunting memorial in the basilica, thanks to another frightening skeletonized figure of Death, holding an hourglass in its upraised hand to tell the pope his time is up. Pope Alexander, however, was well prepared, having kept a coffin (also designed by Bernini) in his bedroom and made a habit of dining off plates embossed with skulls.
With advance notice you can take a 1¼-hour guided tour in English of the Vatican Necropolis under the basilica, which gives a rare glimpse of Early Christian Roman burial customs and a closer look at the tomb of St. Peter. Apply by fax or email at least 2–3 weeks in advance, specifying the number of people in the group (all must be age 15 or older), preferred language, preferred time, available dates, and your contact information in Rome.
Under the Pope Pius V monument, the entrance to the sacristy also leads to the Museo Storico-Artistico e Tesoro (Historical-Artistic Museum and Treasury; | 06/69881840 | €10 includes audio guide | Apr.–Sept., daily 8–7; Oct.–Mar., daily 8–6:20), a small collection of Vatican treasures.
They range from the massive and beautifully sculptured 15th-century tomb of Pope Sixtus IV by Pollaiuolo, which you can view from above, to a jeweled cross dating from the 6th century and a marble tabernacle by Donatello. Continue on down the left nave past Algardi’s tomb of St. Leo. The handsome bronze grilles in the Cappella del Coro (Chapel of the Choir) were designed by Borromini to complement those opposite in the Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento.
Above, the vast sweep of the basilica’s dome is the cynosure of all eyes. Proceed to the right side of the Basilica’s vestibule; from here, you can either take the elevator or climb the long flight of shallow stairs to the roof (06/69883462 | elevator €7, stairs €5 | Apr.–Sept., daily 8–6; Oct.–Mar., daily 8–4; on a Papal Audience Wed., opens after the audience finishes, about noon; closed during ceremonies in piazza). From here, you’ll see a surreal landscape of vast, sloping terraces, punctuated by domes.
Only if you’re of stout heart and strong lungs should you then make the taxing climb from the drum of the dome up to the lanterna (lantern) at the dome’s very apex. A narrow, seemingly interminable staircase follows the curve of the dome between inner and outer shells, finally releasing you into the cramped space of the lantern balcony for an absolutely gorgeous panorama of Rome and the countryside on a clear day.
There’s also a nearly complete view of the palaces, courtyards, and gardens of the Vatican. Be aware, however, that it’s a tiring, slightly claustrophobic climb. There’s one stairway for going up and a different one for coming down, so you can’t change your mind halfway and turn back.
The entrance to the Grotte Vaticane (Vatican Grottoes; | free | Mon.–Sat. 9–4, Sun. 1:30–3:30; closed while the papal audience takes place in St. Peter’s Square, until about noon on Wed.) is to the right of the Basilica’s main entrance. The crypt, lined with marble-faced chapels and tombs occupying the area of Constantine’s basilica, stands over what is believed to be the tomb of St. Peter himself, flanked by two angels and visible through glass.
Among the most beautiful tombs leading up to it are that of Borgia pope Calixtus III with its carving of the Risen Christ, and the tomb of Paul II featuring angels carved by Renaissance great Mino da Fiesole. | Piazza di San Pietro, Vatican | 00193 | Apr.–Sept., daily 7–7; Oct.–Mar., daily 7–6; closed during the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wed. mornings until about noon | Station: Ottaviano–San Pietro.
Standing between the Tiber and the Vatican, this circular and medieval “castle” has long been one of Rome’s most distinctive landmarks. Opera-lovers know it well as the setting for the final scene of Puccini’s Tosca; at the opera’s end, the tempestuous diva throws herself from the rampart on the upper terrace. In fact, the structure began life many centuries before as a mausoleum for the emperor Hadrian. Out on to the upper terrace, at the feet of the bronze angel, take in a magnificent view of the city below.
A Morning with the Pope
The pope holds audiences in St. Peter’s Square (or a large, modern hall in inclement weather) on Wednesday morning at 10:30. Although attendance is free, you must procure tickets; either call 06/69883114 or fax 06/69885863, indicating the full names of attendants, the date you prefer, your language, and your hotel’s contact information. Pick up tickets through the Portone di Bronzo, the bronze door at the end of the colonnade on the right side of the piazza, from 9 to 1 on Monday or 9 to 6 on Tuesday.
You can also arrange to pick up free tickets on Tuesday from 5 to 6:45 at the Santa Susanna American Church.
Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museums).
Other than the pope and his papal court, the occupants of the Vatican are some of the most famous artworks in the world. The museums that contain them are part of theVatican Palace, residence of the popes since 1377. The palace consists of an estimated 1,400 rooms, chapels, and galleries. The pope and his household occupy only a small part of the palace; most of the rest is given over to the Vatican Library and Museums.
Beyond the glories of the Sistine Chapel, the collection is so extraordinarily rich you may just wish to skim the surface, but few will want to miss out on the great antique sculptures, Raphael Rooms, and the Old Master paintings, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome.
Among the collections on the way to the chapel, the Egyptian Museum (in which Room II reproduces an underground chamber tomb of the Valley of Kings) is well worth a stop. The Chiaramonti Museum was organized by the Neoclassical sculptor Canova and contains almost 1,000 copies of classical sculpture. The gems of the Vatican’s sculpture collection are in the Pio-Clementino Museum, however.
Just off the hall in Room X, you can find the Apoxyomenos (Scraper), a beautiful 1st-century AD copy of the famous bronze statue of an athlete. There are other even more famous pieces in the Octagonal Courtyard, where Pope Julius II installed the pick of his private collection. On the left stands the celebrated Apollo Belvedere. In the far corner, on the same side of the courtyard, is the Laocoön group. Found on Rome’s Esquiline Hill in 1506, this antique sculpture group influenced Renaissance artists perhaps more than any other.
In 1508 Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint single-handedly the more-than-10,000-square-foot ceiling of the Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel).
Rivaling the Sistine Chapel for artistic interest—and for the number of visitors—are the recently restored Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms). Pope Julius II moved into this suite in 1507, four years after his election. Reluctant to continue living in the Borgia apartments downstairs, with their memories of his ill-famed predecessor Alexander VI, he called in Raphael to decorate his new quarters. When people talk about the Italian High Renaissance—thought to be the very pinnacle of Western art—it’s probably Raphael’s frescoes they’re thinking about.
The rooms aren’t arranged chronologically. Today, for crowd-management purposes, you head down an outdoor gallery to loop back through them; as you go, look across the way to see, very far away, the Pinecone Courtyard near where you entered the museums.
The tiny Chapel of Nicholas V is rarely open. But if you can access it, do: One of the Renaissance’s greatest gems, it’s aglow with Fra Angelico (1395–1455) frescoes of episodes from the life of St. Stephen (above) and St. Lawrence (below). If it weren’t under the same roof as Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s works, it would undoubtedly draw greater attention.
Downstairs, enter the recently restored Borgia apartments, where some of the Vatican’s most fascinating historical figures are depicted on elaborately painted ceilings. Pinturicchio designed the frescoes at the end of the 15th century, though the paintings were greatly retouched in later centuries.
In the frescoed exhibition halls, the Vatican Library displays precious illuminated manuscripts and documents from its vast collections. The Aldobrandini Marriage Room contains beautiful ancient frescoes of a Roman nuptial rite, named for their subsequent owner, Cardinal Aldobrandini. The Braccio Nuovo (New Wing) holds an additional collection of ancient Greek and Roman statues, the most famous of which is the Augustus of Prima Porta, in the fourth niche from the end on the left.
Equally celebrated are the works on view in the Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery). These often world-famous paintings, almost exclusively of religious subjects, are arranged in chronological order, beginning with works of the 12th and 13th centuries. A fitting finale to your Vatican visit can be found in the Museo Pio Cristiano (Museum of Christian Antiquities), where the most famous piece is the 3rd-century AD statue called the Good Shepherd, much reproduced as a devotional image.
To avoid the line into the museums, which can be three hours long in the high season, consider booking your ticket in advance online (biglietteriamusei.vatican.va); there is a €4 surcharge. For those interested in guided visits to the Vatican Museums, tours are €31 to €36, including entrance tickets, and can also be booked online. Other offerings include a regular two-hour guided tour of the Vatican gardens and the semiregular Friday night openings, allowing visitors to the museums until 11 pm; call to confirm.
Note: Ushers at the entrance of St. Peter’s and sometimes the Vatican Museums will bar entry to people with bare knees or bare shoulders
Piazza di San Pietro.
Mostly enclosed within high walls that recall the papacy’s stormy history, the Vatican opens the spectacular arms of Bernini’s colonnade to embrace the world only at St. Peter’s Square, scene of the pope’s public appearances. One of Bernini’s most spectacular masterpieces, the elliptical Piazza di San Pietro was completed in 1667 after only 11 years’ work and holds 400,000 people.
Surrounded by a pair of quadruple colonnades, it is gloriously studded with 140 statues of saints and martyrs. Look for the two disks set into the piazza’s pavement on either side of the central obelisk. If you stand on either disk, a trick of perspective makes the colonnades look like a single row of columns. At the piazza center, the 85-foot-high Egyptian obelisk was brought to Rome by Caligula in AD 37 and moved here in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. The emblem at the top of the obelisk is the Chigi star, in honor of Pope Alexander VII, a member of the powerful Chigi family, who commissioned the piazza.
Giardini Vaticani (Vatican Gardens).
Neatly trimmed lawns and flower beds extend over the hills behind St. Peter’s Basilica, an area dotted with some interesting constructions and other, duller ones that serve as office buildings. The Vatican Gardens occupy almost 40 acres of land on the Vatican hill. The gardens include a formal Italian garden, a flowering French garden, a romantic English landscape, and a small forest. You have two options for visiting the Vatican Gardens. You can take a two-hour walking tour with an official Vatican guide (make sure to wear good walking shoes).
Or you can take a one-hour minibus tour of the gardens, done with an audio guide; this new offering is run by the company RomaCristiana. For either tour, a reservation is necessary.