Vatican City, Italy, is an independent city-state, surrounded by Rome, and the ecclesiastical home of Roman Catholicism. It is bordered by the Tiber River on the east and stretches west (about 3,935 ft/1,200 m long and 2,625 ft/800 m at its widest point).
The first building seen from St. Peter's Square is the largest church in the world: St. Peter's Basilica. The highlights inside include many works by Bernini (the tomb of Urban VIII, the Cattedra and his ornate baldachin over the central altar), Michelangelo's Pieta and what may be the oldest statue of St. Peter in existence (whose foot has been worn completely smooth over the centuries by pilgrims who have rubbed it for good luck).
Plan at least three hours to navigate in and around St. Peter's: Be sure to take the elevator or climb the dome to the roof for a spectacular 360-degree view (try to time it for the beautiful sunsets), visit the treasury museum and see the grotto below the church (where St. Peter and other popes are interred). If you have more time, consider applying for a tour of the Vatican gardens or the Scavi, excavations of the necropolis below St. Peter's. These tours must be arranged in advance at the Vatican information desk.
Other Vatican sights include Bernini's Piazza St. Pietro with its massive colonnade and the various Vatican museums. To many, the highlight of the museums is the Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling, single-handedly painted by Michelangelo, has undergone a controversial restoration that revealed colors much brighter than seen previously.
But the museums offer much more: The Egyptian, Etruscan and Roman collections are among the finest and most extensive in the world; the Raphael Stanze are a series of spectacular frescoed rooms; the Gallery of Tapestries and Maps details the Earth as it was thought to be in the 16th century; and the Museum of Modern Religious Art has works by Rodin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Kandinsky, Gauguin and others from the 19th and 20th centuries. Don't miss the Cortile Belvedere with its ancient sculptures, including the much celebrated Laocoon group and the Apollo Belvedere.
The buildings (excluding the basilica) usually let visitors enter 8:45 am-12:20 pm, with weekday hours extended until 3:20 pm mid-March to October. Galleries remain open for about an hour after the entrance doors are closed. With so much to see in a limited time, you may want to see the Vatican over a period of two mornings, saving St. Peter's for the afternoons; the basilica is open daily until 6 pm (7 pm April-September). The museums are closed on Sunday except for the last Sunday of the month, when entry is free (and the crowds are huge).
As with most of Italy's museums and churches, hours do change and visitors sometimes arrive to find the museums closed—we recommend confirming the times so you won't be disappointed. Also remember that the Vatican museums are a good distance away from St. Peter's Square—you may want to take a cab.
On Sunday at noon, the pope blesses the crowd from his apartment window. He holds audiences on Wednesday at 11 am (except in August, when they are held at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, just south of Rome). To reserve a place, contact the Office of the Prefettura, phone 06-6988-3114.
Alternatively, you can apply in person (9 am-1:30 pm) by going to the Portone di Bronzo (Bronze Doors) on the right side of St. Peter's Square, under the colonnade, where you will see members of the Swiss Guard. They will be able to give you tickets (if available), which will give you access to the square on the day of the audience. If you want seats, you must go a step farther and apply at the office inside. Then, you have to go back to the Portone di Bronzo to pick up the tickets for your seats on the Tuesday before your audience, 3-8 pm. Take your passport with you to the audience.
For best viewing of the Vatican's art and museums, traditional wisdom holds that you should get in line before opening hours and steel yourself for tremendous crowds. Since this is everybody else's strategy as well, you may find shorter lines 11 am-2 pm, or else head to the museums the first thing Wednesday morning, when most visitors are packed into the piazza for the papal audience. Alternatively, if you purchase your ticket online, you can skip the lines altogether.
No passport is needed to enter the Vatican, but it does have a very strict dress code. Shoulders, midriffs and knees must be covered, or you will not be permitted inside any of the buildings, gardens or excavations. Regardless, summertime crowds are always very large. As in Rome, beware of thieves and pickpockets who prey on tourists—especially on buses bound for the Vatican.
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