A visit to Rome is not complete without seeing the Vatican. With its world-famous St. Peter’s Square, imposing dome, rather nice painted chapel ceiling, and fairly well-known resident, it has plenty of attractions. But with so much to see, where should you start?
1. St. Peter’s Square
This vast space is famous for being the home of Papal Addresses (and for being integral to the plot of Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons“). It can accommodate up to 300,000 people, a number that puts the World Series Final crowd to shame.
Designed by Borromini so that the maximum number of people could see the Pope at any one time (before the days of plasma screens), its elliptical shape is dominated by the Basilica. Stand on the stone discs between the fountains and the Egyptian obelisk to see the rows of columns magically line up.
2. The Basilica
It is hard to put into words the immense size of this building. Look out for the dimensions of the world’s other large churches marked on the floor to give you a sense of its scale. The Basilica is free to enter, and highlights include Michelangelo’s Pieta (now sadly behind glass after it was attacked and damaged), Borromini’s vast altar canopy (the Baldacchino) made using bronze taken from the Pantheon roof, and the 13th-century statue of St. Peter Enthroned. Join the queue to kiss his foot for luck.
3. St. Peter’s Dome
For the best views of Rome, pick a clear day, get there early to avoid the queues, and prepare to make the climb up the 320 steps to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. You can take the lift for the first part, but a long climb still awaits you with a mix of spiral, steep, and strange slopes, taking you up to the viewing point where staggering views stretch out before you on every side.
It will cost you €4 to make the climb (or €7 if you use the lift at the start). Get your tickets at the office just next to the Basilica entrance, clearly marked after you have passed through security checks.
4. The Vatican Museums
The endless rooms filled with Vatican treasures are a great way to spend a few hours. The highlight has to be the Sistine Chapel (which, contrary to popular belief, is not in the Basilica), which you have to pay to see. While everyone knows about the famous ceiling by Michelangelo, look out also for his huge mural depicting the “Last Judgment” and Botticelli’s “Story of Moses“.
Also make time to see the Raphael Rooms, Caravaggio’s “Deposition,” and the Borgia Apartments. The entrance fee is usually €15, though if you visit the last Sunday of the month, it’s free (though you need to get there at around 7 AM to avoid the queue which extends to many hundreds of people).
5. The Necropolis
A little-known tour of the Necropolis takes you under the Basilica to the hidden city below. Excavated in the 1930s, the ancient streets are lined with tombs that are almost untouched by time. The highlight has to be seeing the alleged site of St. Peter’s tomb and looking up to see the dome towering about you through the floor grates. You need to book the tour around four weeks in advance by emailing the excavations office. Tours cost €12.
Top tips for visiting the Vatican
· Whether you are visiting the Basilica, the Dome, or the Museums, get there early to avoid long lines.
· In the Vatican Museums, head for the Sistine Chapel first, as the tour groups head there last.
· Cover shoulders and do not wear shorts.
· The queue in the piazza is for the security checks. Once through, keep left for the Basilica. The queue is for the Dome.
· Unless you want a plastic model of the Vatican that lights up and plays “Ava Maria,” or even a “Pope on a Rope” soap, avoid the tacky souvenir sellers.
· Do not buy a coffee or lunch within 1,000 meters of the Vatican unless you want to pay prices that will bring you to your knees.