If you take the time to visit Rome, you must find time to book a Vatican tour. At the center of the Catholic Church, in one of the oldest areas of Rome, Vatican City is one of the most important religious centers in the world. It's the home of the reigning Pope and the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, but in addition to its religious role, the Vatican is also home to a stunning collection of some of the world's most exquisite art.
There are three main reasons for taking a Vatican tour: St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. Between them, they offer a wealth of architectural masterpieces and world-famous sculptures, frescoes, paintings and tapestries. If you appreciate beauty and you're fascinated by artistic expression, a Vatican tour will definitely be worth your time.
St. Peter's Basilica
The first stop on your Vatican Tour will most likely be St. Peter's Basilica, one of the world's most famous cathedrals. But be sure to allow time to explore St. Peter's Square. Designed by Bernini, the Square marks the entrance to the Basilica and Vatican City as a whole, but is worth a visit as well.
St Peter's is a historic landmark and a contemporary destination for both religious and artistic pilgrims. While there have been churches on the Basilica's site since the fourth century, the modern day St. Peter's was constructed in 1626. More than seven architects contributed its Renaissance and Baroque design, including Donato Bramante and Michelangelo himself. The interior is the largest of any Christian church in the world, and took 120 years to complete.
Overlooking the Tiber River, the Basilica's structure is defined by its magnificent dome. You can take an elevator to the top of the Basilica or climb the 330 steps; either way, the views of the Vatican Gardens and the city of Rome are breathtaking. The Basilica itself contains relics, monuments and sculptures by dozens of historic artists, including Michelangelo's masterpiece, The Pietà.
The Papal Tombs on the lower level are the burial sites of over 100 historic and prominent Catholic figures, including the popes. It's a custom to rub or kiss the bronzed foot of St. Peter's statue while visiting the tombs.
An Audience With the Pope
St. Peter's Square is the best place in the Vatican to catch a glimpse of the Pope at his window. But if you'd like a more intimate experience, you can attend an audience with the pontiff on Wednesday mornings when he's in residence, which doesn't include the summer months. Group audiences are restricted to 5,000 people, and take place in either a large auditorium or in St. Peter's Square itself. You'll need to apply in writing for tickets at least 10 days in advance, although 60 days is preferable.
Best known for its stunning and intricate frescoes, the Sistine chapel is the most famous of the many chapels within the Apostolic Palace. Many of the Renaissance's most gifted artists traveled to the Vatican to apply their talents in the service of the church. The result is a stunningly frescoed dome, with contributions by Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael and others. The Sistine Chapel, while famed for its magnificent ceiling by Michelangelo, is also an important architectural work based on Old Temple descriptions of Solomon's Temple.
There are often long lines to get into the Sistine Chapel, but it's definitely worth the wait. The chapel is small, yet it's difficult to take it all in. Some visitors use binoculars to capture the details. Photographs aren't permitted, although many visitors defy this rule when the guards are distracted. At the very least, avoid using a flash if you do attempt photos.
The Vatican Museums
Make sure your Vatican tour allows enough time to take in the Vatican Museums. In 1506, Pope Julius II purchased a sculpture of a Greek priest, sowing the seeds for what is now a stunning and expansive collection of ancient and modern art owned by the Catholic Church. Since his time, subsequent popes have added to the collection and opened the art and sculpture galleries up to the public. Several million visitors pass through the Vatican Museums each year.
The museums cover over 13 acres and span 1,400 rooms. For this reason it pays to schedule your Vatican tour early in the day when the lines are shorter. An afternoon visit may be a problem as you may run out of time before you've seen all the exhibits you want.
Highlights of the displays include:
Egyptian monuments and artifacts dating back to 2600 BC
Classical Greek and Roman sculptures
Paintings by Raphael, Leonardo, Caravaggio, and da Vinci, including Caravaggio's Entombment and Raphael's The School of Athens
A diverse collection of historically preserved tapestries, ceramics and mosaics
There are several other noteworthy collections to be enjoyed within the Vatican Museums. One is the Gallery of Maps, a 120-meter wall depicting Italy's topography. And your Vatican tour should include the Collection of Modern Religious Art, which features an eclectic group of contemporary religious paintings and sculptures by twentieth-century artists.
If you have time, you might also like to include these additional attractions:
Santa Maria Maggiore
There are four major papal Basilicas in Rome, and Santa Maria Maggiore is the most popular. On August 5th each year, local Christians celebrate the Miracle of the Snow by dropping white rose petals from the Dome during mass. This feast commemorates a night in August, 358AD, when, according to Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to two Roman Christians and the reigning Pope, Liberius, requesting that they build a church in her name on the site where snow would fall later that night. It snowed, and Pope Liberius commissioned the building. The Pope visits the Basilica on August 5th & December 8th each year.
The Vatican Gardens Tour
This two-hour tour combines walking and a bus tour through the Vatican's 16th century manicured gardens. Walk in the footsteps of the popes and sense the history behind the tranquil settings. Reservations are essential.
Shopping near Vatican City
On the fringes of St. Peter's Square there are usually vendors selling jewelry, scarves, food and souvenirs. Be warned that the merchandise tends to be overpriced because it's such a highly trafficked area. But if you have good negotiating skills, you can still find some genuine bargains.
And if you get hungry after your Vatican tour, you might like to try these nearby venues:
Castroni Via Cola di Rienzo 196 Rome (great espresso and hot/cold sandwiches)
Franchi 200 Via Cola di Rienzo Rome(deli/take-away)
The Angels & Demons Tour
If you're a fan of Dan Brown's Angels & Demons, The Official Angels & Demons Rome Tour is a four-hour morning walking tour that includes a visit to St. Peter's Square, as well as the St. Maria del Popolo Church, the St. Maria della Vittoria Church, the Piazza Navona, the Castel Sant'Angelo and the secret passage connecting the Vatican to notorious Castel Sant' Angelo.