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Jan 26

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7 Things to See at the Vatican

Bucket List VaticanLet’s play “Word Association.” When I say Vatican, what’s the first thing you think of?

I’ll bet it has something to do with Catholicism. And why wouldn’t it? Vatican City is the official residence of the pope and the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church.

Three cities in seven days

We were in Italy for one week with a plan to squeeze Rome, Florence, and Venice into that time. Of the three, Rome was definitely the biggest challenge in planning our itinerary. I mean, is it even possible to squeeze 2000 years of history into that time?

Our final itinerary included two days in Rome and one in the Vatican. With all the history, art and culture in both of these places, we had a lot to fit into a little bit of time. I think we did pretty well, though we didn’t try to see the Pope.

Lots of folks have a Vatican City bucket list, even people who aren’t Catholic. Catholic or not, if you add the Vatican to your list of places to see before you die, you won’t be disappointed. Even if you only have one day available.

Here are a few items to add to your own bucket list. Just remember: When you check them off, be sure you are wearing comfortable shoes. You’ll be doing a whole lot of walking!

1. Visit Vatican City

vatican exterior with text

St. Peter’s Square as seen from the porch of the Basilica.

This 4000-year-old obelisk has stood on this site since the 1st century.

Pin to Pinterest! Click on the button at the top left of our photos to share to your Pinterest boards.

It might look like just another district of Rome on the map, but when you enter Vatican City you have officially left Italy! With a microscopic population (fewer than 1000) and only taking up 110 acres of global real estate, Vatican City actually qualifies as the smallest independent country on the planet.

Think of it: You can see an entire country in only a few hours, no visa needed! How cool is that?!

As an independent nation, though, they have their own unique set of rules. Besides passing through the normal security lines, they also screen visitors to ensure they are “dressed in a way befitting entrance to a holy place.” While it is unlikely anyone will have a problem walking around St. Peter’s Square in skimpy clothing, they will turn anyone away at the door who they deem is not suitably dressed.

And of course, as in other places, you should be prepared to leave backpacks and bags with security if asked.

Vatican dress code in a nutshell

  • Remove hats indoors.
  • Shoulders must be covered. No sleeveless tops or halters. A scarf/pashmina is acceptable as a cover up.
  • Knees must be covered. No cut-offs or short skirts. No shorts, either.

Tip: If the thought of wearing pants in hot weather is unbearable, wear zip-off pants (the ones that convert to shorts with zippers around the knees) and bring along those lower legs.

2. See St. Peter’s Basilica

see St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Baldachin, designed by Bernini, is 10 stories tall.

Statue of St. Peter in the Basilica, feet worn by centuries of devotion.

St. Peter’s Basilica is a pilgrimage site for many Catholics. There has been a church on this site since the time of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. This is the second church, built in the 1500s to replace the 4th century Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Today, St. Peter’s is the largest and one of the best known churches in the world.

The original basilica was built over the historical site of the Circus of Nero, where the Romans martyred thousands of Christians in the first century. According to ancient writers, Jesus’ disciple Peter and many other well-known Christian leaders were martyred here. (Paul was also martyred in Rome but not here.)

The high altar of the basilica was very deliberately centered over the spot where Peter is said to have been buried.

3. Tour the Vatican Museums

Tour the Vatican Museums

Pieta by Michelangelo, in the Vatican Museums

Pope Julius II was the patron of Michelangelo, Bramante and Raphael as well as of Bernini, the architect responsible for St. Peter’s Basilica. Ever since then popes have collected art, and now the Catholic Church actually owns some of the best-known classical sculptures and masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world.

The same Pope Julius needed a place to house all of his treasures and founded the Vatican Museums in the early 16th century. It now ranks as the 5th most visited art museum in the world.

I would go back there in a heartbeat. It was amazingly impressive despite that we only had time to view a tiny fraction of the works on display. I say “on display” because there’s only enough room to show a portion of what the Vatican holds. After we left I learned that most rooms aren’t open, but some can be viewed. So the next time we go we are going to request a guided tour of the Hidden Vatican Museums, areas of the Museum normally closed to the public.

Admission: General tickets are €16,00 and include entry to the Sistine Chapel. Guided tours are also available. Either way, get exclusive access and skip the long line by buying your ticket online ahead of time.

Avoid visiting on the last Sunday of the month if you can. Entry is free and the museums are so crowded that it’s hard to see anything at leisure.

4. See the Sistine Chapel

entire interior of Sistine Chapel

Don’t expect to take your camera into the Sistine Chapel and snap your own photo of the Almighty reaching out to touch Adam’s finger. Absolutely no photography or video is permitted in the room.

The reason is not so that they can protect their precious frescoes from flash damage. Nope. Not at all.

When the Vatican decided to restore Michelangelo’s frescoes back in 1980, the price tag was so high that they had to seek outside funding for the project. The highest bidder was Nippon Television Network Corporation of Japan. In return for funding the $4.2 million project they received the exclusive rights to photography and video of the restored art.

Interestingly, Nippon’s exclusivity expired three years after the Sistine Chapel’s restoration was completed. It seems to me that the current “no photos” rule does little more than encourage purchases from the museum gift shop.

Or am I just being cynical?

Admission: Included with Vatican Museum ticket.

5. Tour the Scavi

Scavi necropolis pinnable
No photos allowed inside.

No photos allowed inside.

We are so glad we did this tour. It was the highlight of our entire Vatican experience.

Under St. Peter’s Basilica is a first century necropolis known as the “Scavi,” where St. Peter is said to be buried. It is possible to visit with special permission granted from time to time by the “Fabbrica di San Pietro.”

Only around 250 visitors are permitted to tour the necropolis per day, due to the tight spaces and in order to limit traffic and temperature and humidity levels.

  • Visitors must be over 15 years old – no exceptions.
  • The guided tour lasts about 1½ hours.
  • No cameras of any type are permitted.
  • This is not something you should attempt if you have difficulty with stairs or tight spaces.
  • You must request a reservation ahead of time. If your requested time is available they will require payment immediately. See the official Vatican Scavi website for details.

6. Meet a Swiss Guard.

Swiss Guardsman speaking with nuns

Don’t let the frou-frou of those vibrant Renaissance uniforms fool you: Every Swiss Guardsman has been in the Swiss army, which means they are well trained in firearms and martial arts. Swiss Guards have such a stellar reputation that they have been protecting the Pope and the Apostolic Palace since 1506.

Even when they are on tourist duty you’ll find them outfitted with medieval halberds (a spear-axe combo), swords and pikes. It might not seem very threatening but believe me, those ancient weapons aren’t just for show. Every Swiss guardsman is well trained in each one and won’t be afraid to use it, so don’t try any funny business or you may find yourself at the wrong end of a 9-foot pike.

To be a Swiss Guard you must be single, Swiss, Catholic, male, aged 19-30, former the Swiss military and of excellent conduct and reputation. Those who are accepted get great benefits: 1300 Euros per month (about $1600) plus overtime. They pay no tax, get free accommodation, and eat free, good Swiss-Italian food cooked by Polish sisters. Their tour of duty lasts for two years.

The Swiss Guard are quite serious about their duties. In May 1527 the army of Emperor Charles V stormed Rome. Heavily outnumbered, the Swiss Guards fought the army on the steps of the High Altar of the Vatican while the Pope escaped through a secret passage to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Only 42 of the 189 Swiss Guards survived, but the Pontiff was saved.

As for meeting a Swiss Guardsman, they will talk to you, but don’t expect them to be tour guides or pose for photos. They won’t let anything stand in the way of duty.

7. See the Pope

Swiss Guards guarding a door

If you can get to Rome, it’s easy to see the Pontiff (if you’re dressed appropriately). He speaks to the crowds twice a week whenever he is in town.

Here’s how to see the Pope
Wednesdays – 10:30 AM

  • General Audiences last for about 2 hours.
  • You will need a ticket. TICKETS ARE ALWAYS FREE but must be requested and picked up ahead of time.

Tip: Seats are on a first-come, first-served basis. Arrive 3 hours early to get a good seat. With no ticket, if the Pope is holding audience outdoors, there is always standing room at the back of the Square.

Sundays – 12 noon

  • On Sundays he appears in his apartment window on St. Peter’s Square and speaks for around 15-20 minutes.
  • Sundays, he gives a short speech, recites the Angelus and ends with the Apostolic Blessing. He may also greet the crowds in various languages.
  • You DO NOT need tickets for the Sunday Angelus.

For the Pope’s current schedule and details on getting an audience ticket, see the Vatican’s official page.

Click for more practical information and details about visiting Vatican sites.

large unesco logo
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated certain places in the world as of outstanding cultural or natural importance to humanity.
Read more about why Vatican City is a UNESCO Site on their website.
Or if you prefer, enjoy our stories about the UNESCO sites we have visited.

(Visited 9,114 times, 13 visits today)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.aswesawit.com/vatican-bucket-list-ideas/


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  1. Charles McCool

    Touring the Scavi sounds cool. I will have to check that out.
    Charles McCool recently posted…Finding Lower Airfares, 2015 EditionMy Profile

    1. Linda

      Yeah, those offbeat tours are always fun.

  2. The GypsyNesters

    We have been to the Vatican several times but never seen the pope, now we know how, thanks.
    The GypsyNesters recently posted…How Did a Buffalo Grow Wings?: The Origins of Some of America’s Favorite FoodsMy Profile

    1. Linda

      You’re welcome. I was surprised at how easy it is to do.

  3. Cathy Sweeney

    I had Rome on my wish list for 2014, but didn’t quite get there. So it’s on the list for 2015 — wish me luck! I want to see and do everything you’ve mentioned. When I hear Vatican, I think “Pope”, so one of my top things would be seeing him. Thanks for the tips on that.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted…Wining, Dining, and Mining in El Dorado CountyMy Profile

    1. Linda

      Best wishes on scheduling your Rome trip this year. I hope you manage to spend more than three days in the city (as we did) and get to see everything you want to.

      If you’re a museum lover you might want to consider planning a second day at the Vatican. The Wednesday morning audience eats up a lot of the day.

  4. Nancie

    I think my favorite part of the Vatican was the Sistine Chapel. I was there right after the restoration in the mid 1990s.
    Nancie recently posted…Chiang Mai: Wat Ket Karam for Travel Photo ThursdayMy Profile

    1. Linda

      Hi, Nancie, you have good taste. We enjoyed the Sistine Chapel a lot but we probably need to return and spend more time examining the paintings. The last time we didn’t want to stand around very much because our feet were too tired.

  5. Shelley

    It’s been 30 years since we visited Rome (and the Vatican) so I feel like we’re overdue for a visit. Thanks for the great insider tips like the Hidden Vatican Museums.
    Shelley recently posted…Ten things to love about IstanbulMy Profile

    1. Linda

      Hi Shelley. I hope you do decide to return. The transportation system has been transformed.

  6. Katie

    We only had 2 days in Rome as well, and decided to skip Vatican City due to time constraints (and all the food I had to fit in). It’s hard to see all of Rome in a few days! I didn’t think I’d like the city, but turns out I loved it! Italy is still one of my favorite countries.
    Katie recently posted…7 Amazing Things to Do on Isla Holbox MexicoMy Profile

    1. Linda

      We certainly can’t blame you for wanting to fit in as much food as possible! We want to explore more of the country besides just the Big Three (Rome, Florence and Venice), especially because the food differs by region. Do you have any experience with other places?

  7. Juergen | dare2go

    I always knew that the Catholic church was very thorough at rising/making money, but I would have never expected such high admission fees combined with such drastic “no photo” rules. Still, I guess the devoted are exited to visit the place. [Disclaimer: this comment in by somebody who has travelled much of the world and has always by-passed Rome.]
    Juergen | dare2go recently posted…Coal Magnates of Southern ChileMy Profile

    1. Linda

      Sorry to hear you’ve bypassed Rome, Juergen. Between the ruins and the art it is a fabulous destination. The Roman Empire has its roots there and it’s everywhere you look, which is kind of cool. Besides, the food in Lazio is unique.

      As for the price, the Vatican Museums cost roughly the same as the Louvre.

  8. Irene S. Levine

    Well, your post makes me want to do it all over again!
    Irene S. Levine recently posted…The etiquette of dining abroadMy Profile

  9. Tam Warner Minton

    Oh, let me add one to your list! visiting the Necropolis is a must do for any history lover! The pre-Christian burial grounds are incredible, and the art on the walls there look new and fresh. The City of the Dead is a private tour, contact the Vatican for permission and tickets!

    1. Linda

      I’m glad you agree with us! Actually, the necropolis was on our list – it’s #4. They call it the Scavi (that’s Italian for excavations). I guess those are the only excavations in the country, lol.

      And yes, indeed, it is a private and exclusive tour that requires prior arrangements.

  10. budget jan

    I love the first panoramic view of Vatican Square. We went there ages ago and my memory of it is quite rusty, so your photos came in handy.
    budget jan recently posted…Galata is the best place for a first time stay in IstanbulMy Profile

    1. Linda

      We’re glad you like it. Most of these photos were formatted for Pinterest but it was too pretty to bypass.

  11. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    Well, I hadn’t thought to put Vatican City on our must see list next to Rome but, after this post, I definitely will. Rome has such an amazing history, wealth of art and so many other places to see we’ll have to plan on several days there to do it justice. And wow, am I looking forward to it!
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go recently posted…Life’s a Beach: Chillin’ in CartagenaMy Profile

    1. Linda

      Totally agree with you, Anita. We were there for four days and feel like we barely touched the surface of what Rome has to offer. Though I’m glad we went to the Vatican. It was a fabulous day.

  12. Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    Thanks goodness I checked this one off when I was much younger. Did you know the Vatican has its own currency?
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers recently posted…Sights to See: The Northeast, Seydisfjordur, IcelandMy Profile

    1. Linda

      True, that. The Vatican had its own currency until it was abolished in favor of the Euro. Now the Vatican mints its own Euro coins – which are hard to find because collectors grab them up as soon as they are minted.

  13. [email protected]

    Hi Linda, those are wonderful tips on Vatican. Like you, I’d go back to the Vatican Museum in a heartbeat. I didn’t about the Hidden Vatican Museum tour! Will definitely keep that in mind. It’s interesting to learn the history of “no photo” rule. I thought they just wanted to protect the artworks from flash exposures. Nice finding your blog.

    1. Linda

      Mi, Marisoil, did you make it to the scavi/necropolis?

  14. Anda

    A very daring plan to squeeze Rome, Florence, and Venice into one week. We had a week for each one of these cities and still left disappointed for not being able to see all we wanted. But sometimes you have to be happy with whatever you can get your hand on and if a week it’s all you get… what can you do? Your post is an excellent guide for this great city. I think no matter how many times you go to Vatican, you can’t help feeling exalted by its beauty and grandeur.

    1. Linda

      I like to think of the Rome-Florence-Venice trio as Italy 101. It came at the tail end of a 6-week trip through western Europe and was ambitious, to say the least.

      Thanks for the compliment. I suspect there’s a lot more to this little city-state that I missed. I’m hoping we’ll get a few tips from our readers here in the comments that will give us an excuse to return.

  15. Mary {The World Is A Book}

    We love the Vatican! These are all great tips and glad to say we checked it all off but we had a couple of days there. Like you, the highlight other than attending the papal audience was the scavi tour. It was an incredible experience. We saw the pope during the two hour audience but it was indoors since it was late November. It was amazing and we felt like we were at a rock concert. Pilgrims broke out into songs and spontaneous cheers. We highly recommend it.
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted…Photo Journey through a Guam Jungle River CruiseMy Profile

    1. Linda

      Tell you what, I definitely see the similarity with rock concerts. This pope is becoming quite popular, even among non-Catholics!

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