Vatican City is an enclaved state within Rome and has the population of 842; the smallest state in the world by population and size. Smallest yes but not poor by any means, culture, history, money and tradition, all are intertwined in this Holy city.
Vatican was not a separate country but Mussolini made it one to separate the church and state in 1929. Since then it has its own boundaries, foreign policy and embassies all located within the enclosed walls. The most important person in Vatican is obviously the Pope and everything revolves around His Holiness.
Fun Fact: Vatican is the only country in the world that has diplomatic ties to almost every country in the world at present.
Despite its size, Vatican has treasures no other country does, from manuscripts dating back to original Saints to painting masterpieces to whole buildings that are revered around the world, St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel are two good examples.
Vatican has an interesting history and despite its current ‘Holy’ nature, Papal history is full of controversy, bigotry and even outright blasphemy. From lavish banquets and orgies to pope acting as pimps the whole story is an interesting read.
If you’d like to know more there is an 8 part BBC documentary on the history of Rome that will shed some more lights and the link is here, enjoy! 😉
Things to Do
Vatican is an extremely popular destination amongst tourists visiting Riome and indeed the history of Rome is utterly incomplete without Vatican for Popes have ruled this city and the rest of continent from this seat for 2 millennia. You need not spend a lot of money for this visit if you’re smart which I am very proud about 😉
Tours and Tickets Bookings
This is the most important part of your trip and I booked my tickets considerable in advance which not only gave us access to official tours at much cheaper price but also official guides have access to far more areas than unofficial guides and tour operators.
You can check the details of official Vatican Museum Tour that takes you around and choose the tour based on your needs be it Pilgrimage to hidden Vatican or Vatican by train or simply to see the collection and Sistine Chapel. They also do out of hours and night tours as well as archeological visits as well as papal gardens and villas. You will need to choose a few things and manage it based on timings and your interest. I chose the Collection and Sistine chapel as well as Sistine Chapel which gave us free entry and took us through the Museum to Sistine Chapel and ended in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Tip: Make sure you confirm that the tickets and tours include Fast Track entry to avoid queues.
The closest metro stations to the entrance of Museum are Ottavino and Cipro on Mtero Line A, both on a few minutes’ walk. We arrived for the day at 9am and stood in the queue for 10am Tour start. Yes there is a queue even if you have booked tickets so come early. We stood in the fast track queue and after security checks we were handed our tickets and told to wait for the guide. Staff there was very courteous and tried to help everyone as much as they could.
The getting here page from Vatican Museum website is very useful and you can calculate the route as well. The link is here.
There was a feeling of distinctness once we entered Vatican like the city has a special aura around it. I won’t call it religious or spiritual but more about the history this place has seen and the role these walls played through millennia in shaping the world we live in from Crusades to burning people on stakes to the feeling that Michelangelo perhaps entered through the same door as me to paint Sistine Chapel…
Tip: There are a lot of touts outside offering tickets and fast track tickets at a higher price. I would recommend bargaining with them to get tickets instead of waiting for the official queue. The queues outside Vatican Museum are legendary and as the day goes, they get bigger and slower.
Warning: If you arrive in dress code not considered appropriate you will be turned away, make sure you wear something that covers your shoulders and legs, sleeveless shirts and tops and shorts are not allowed, I’d recommend an extra scarf for women folk just to be cautious.
Tip: Please don’t turn up with massive bags, it will not only delay your visit with extra security checks but will hinder you throughout the visit or you will have to pay for the cloakroom.
Finally the tour started and we went from one room to another, one area more beautiful than other with stories of Popes, Saints, leaders, Kings, Queens and religion. The only part missing was the common people. I am not religious and nor do I criticize or compare religions particularly but it did make me wonder when the followers of a hungry man riding a donkey eating dry bread turned into these aristocrats and money gobblers they never paid any thought to the real message.
In all honesty I only remember a little bit from all that talk and information but the decor and the interior, the paintings, sculptures shout beauty and the depth of papal involvement in patronage of art and architecture. My favourite part was the maps room because it revealed so much about the world at the time and I could imagine the Popes bending over deciding which part would go next and how. The fates of common men is always decided in rooms shielded from views of their faces and miseries..
Sistine Chapel is perhaps the most sought after experience in Vatican. This Chapel that sees herds of visitors every single day is located at the end of the tour was our last stop inside Vatican Museums and before St Peter’s Basilica. The guide explained the history and Michelangelo’s work and took us inside but since it is still a place of worship, guides are not allowed to provide info and you are definitely not allowed to take photos. The walls and ceilings are stuff of dreams. It was a very strong case of desire as well for I have been seeing pictures and reading about it for ages, got slightly emotional there..
We stayed for roughly 15 minutes before heading towards St Peter’s Basilica..
Fun Fact: The work Michelangelo was doing was very expensive. For example the blue colour was made with ground Lapis Lazuli, a blue stone that came from North East Afghanistan and at times Pope couldn’t afford it so the projected was halted..
Warning: If you have booked the guided tour that includes St. Peter’s Basilica, you cannot go back to the museum at the end of tour and you will have to stand in the queue and buy a separate ticket.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The last stop on the tour was St. Peter’s Basilica and the tour guide brought us in and gave his details of the Basilica. For someone obsessed with Basilicas and cathedrals, It was a slightly weird experience. For starters all the paintings inside have been replaced with murals to avoid damage which seems a little bit like cheating. The statues on the other hand are absolutely magnificent and with so many of them and the really high dome, I felt like a small man, perhaps this effect was intended..
This Basilica has gone through immense changes throughout its existence and reported to be a guardian of a lot of secrets of Christianity and Vatican but there is a certain lack of spirituality that I was expecting and the city seems devoid of that. I am not sure whether it was because I was exposed only to the tourist areas or because I felt a certain sense of hypocrisy from a place that is supposed to be humble and helping but it actually sits o top of piles of money when the poor go hungry…
A few more minutes and then we headed to the most fun part of our tour, climbing the Cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica…
Tip: the queues outside St Peter’s Basilica are longer than the one’s outside the museum and to avoid this book an inclusive tour. The queue moves much faster here than museum..
Climbing the Cupola
The cupola or dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is purely feast for senses. The art work inside and the arches around is so beautiful to look at, I could stare at that for hours. The main fun however is to climb this Cupola.
Warning: It is definitely not for the weak hearted and certainly not for claustrophobics.
The entrance is on the right hand side when you go out of Basilica where you will buy the tickets.
Tip: I strongly recommend buying the ticket with lift because the remaining 320 steps still drain a lot of energy and you don’t want to do 551 instead of 330. The difference is price is 2 Euros which is certainly not worth all the hassle.
We went up the lift and waited our turn to enter. The dome is a classical double dome with an inner dome and an outer dome and we started feeling the difference when we reached the interior balcony at the end of lift from where the spiral staircase starts. It is really narrow at times but the consolation is small windows around that provide the beautiful views outside.
After what seemed like never ending series of spiral stairs we reached the top which honestly felt like the back yard of some council estate with old stuff lying around but the views towards the square as well as the city were so beautiful I was willing to forgive and forget everything. The aches in my legs were replaced by the breeze in my heart when I saw the clouds floating above the square. It was a beautiful moment that stretched for some time and I wish it could have last a lifetime…
Vatican city is a must-do attraction when you visit Rome whether you are Catholic, Christian, a history buff, Rome obsessed, obsessed with churches or simply a traveler passing by. It has all the right weapons to impress you with its grandeur, magnificence and 2 millennia of history (plus it also brings a welcome change from the Roman ruins around).