Often, thinking of the Holy See, what comes to mind is the Pope's speeches, Saint Peter's Square and Michelangelo's fresco embellishing the Sistine Chapel. However, this is just the starting point of any Vatican visit. It's a real treasure trove of artwork, the site of important historical events since Roman Imperial times and a collection of lesser-known landmarks.
Read on to find out the things to know before visiting the Vatican in Rome and get inspired for your next trip.
1. There is a dress code you need to follow
Probably because one of the most popular landmarks in Rome, many travelers forget to properly abide by the Vatican's dress code rules. While some other churches and cathedrals might be more permissive, if you want to enter Saint Peter's Basilica make a point of not showing up too scantily dressed. I know, in summer it might be a pain, but it's definitely worth it.
So, since the main basilica is a must-see of every visit to the Vatican City, remember that both men and women must avoid shorts and sleeveless t-shirts and tops, and women mini-skirts. Knee-level skirts are fine, short-sleeve t-shirts, too, as long as shoulders are covered. You can also resort to the ruse of covering your shoulders or legs with a shawl or sarong, but don't even think of taking it off while inside; the basilica has eyes everywhere.
2. To save time, go online
The lines to enter the different areas of the Vatican are notoriously endless any time of the day. This is why, if you are tight in time and wish to speed things up, you should book tours online before your visit.
You can do this by accessing the Vatican website itself, it's very well organized and comes in different languages, or by booking a private tour with a skip-the-line option.
While the Vatican Museums is usually the longest ticket line, you can also book tickets and tours to the Dome of St. Peter’s, the Vatican Gardens, and others. Find tickets here.
ⓘ TIP: For more tips and information on the Vatican, check out this full guide.
3. There is a Roman cemetery right underneath the basilica
This is possibly one of the most fascinating and mysterious areas of the Vatican City, and it lies right beneath Saint Peter's Basilica. Of pagan origins, this was built close to Caligula's (or Nero's) Circus, on top of which today stands the basilica. This Roman necropolis is the place Saint Peter was martyred in, by being crucified upside down, and it's where his real tomb is kept.
This ancient graveyard appears as a mix of pagan and Christian tombs as the members of the wealthy Roman families were buried close to their Christian servants.
Since only 250 people are allowed per day, you really need to book your visit much in advance specifying your range of available days, the number and names of the participants and your preferred language. The same dress code for the Basilica is required here, too.
Tip: Check the Excavations Office website for more information.
4. Popes haven't lived there since the beginning
The first 1,000 years of the Vatican history are pretty shrouded in mystery. One thing is certain, though: Popes didn't move to the Holy See as soon as Christianity was recognized by Constantine's Edict in 313.
On the contrary, they kept living in other areas scattered around Rome, such as the Aventine Hill and the Quirinale (today's seat of Italy's President), and around central Italy in cities like Assisi, Perugia, Tivoli, and Viterbo.
Initially the Vatican was used for ceremonial purposes. But beginning in the 14th century, popes Nicholas V and Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) started using it as residence and seat of the Holy Church. Now the Vatican, especially after losing its status of kingdom when Rome was annexed to the newly unified Italy in1870, is the permanent residence of the Pope.
5. It's true, you can “meet” the Pope!
While you can't really book a dinner with the Pope, if you wish to attend his public audiences you need to reserve your seat (mandatory, albeit free of charge).
The Papal Audiences are every Wednesday and last from one to two hours. You can request your reservation by phone or fax and you need to collect your ticket at the Bronze Door on Monday morning or Tuesday all day. The Audience takes place on Saint Peter's Square in summer and in the Audience Hall in winter.
If you can't make it for the Audience but still want to see the Pope, he appears from his window every Sunday at noon for about half an hour. Just show up in the square for a short speech and his blessing.
ⓘ TIP: Find out the details of how to see the Pope here.
6. Charlemagne was crowned here
History buffs will certainly know that Emperor Charlemagne was crowned in Saint Peter's Basilica in December 25th, 800 in the presence of Pope Leo III. However, probably not many people are aware that the huge red porphyry disc where he kneeled for the occasion is still kept at the entrance.
Saint Peter's Basilica as we see it today was built on top of the former basilica ordered by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. As the renovation works started during the Renaissance, the porphyry disc most people step over unaware of its glorious history belonged to the old basilica.
If you are a history lover, you will definitely want to see the big circular stone and take a picture of it.
7. They have their own Constitution
While the Vatican doesn't beat the of world's largest basilica record, it does beat another record: the world's smallest country. Covering an area of 44 hectares, the Vatican counts some 1,000 residents, Vatican passport holders, half of whom don't even live in the Vatican City but abroad as diplomats or representatives of their state.
Not only the Vatican has its own Constitution, but also its bank, currency, police, prison, and laws. The Chief of the State is obviously the Pope and has legislative, judiciary and executive powers, alongside representative and moral duties.
8. Saint Peter's is not the biggest basilica
This will probably sound surprising to many, but Saint Peter's Basilica is not the world's largest.
So which building holds the position of the largest Christian church? Counting 272 31-meter-high columns, a 149-meter-high dome and a capacity of 18,000 worshipers inside and 300,000 on the esplanade, the world's biggest church is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Africa.
Almost a replica of the Roman Saint Peter's Basilica, it was built between 1986 and 1989.
The African church was consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1990, but not without criticism. This was due to the striking contrast between its sumptuous appearance and the poor surroundings in a time of economic recession in the country.
Here are some resources to help you plan your trip:
Plan your Vatican visit
- The Vatican’s website has many useful trip planning resources.
- Visas– Find out if you need a visa to Italy here.
- Lodging– Research your sleeping options here.
- Transportation– Rome2Rio shows how to get anywhere by plane, train, bus, ferry and car.
- For more sightseeing, you’ll enjoy our Vatican photo gallery.
- Scroll around Google’s satellite photo map for a good aerial view of Vatican City.
- Pope’s Summer Residence Tour with Lunch
- Skip-the-Line Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Tour
- Rome in One Day: Low Cost Vatican & Colosseum Tours
Here are some related books and articles for further reading.
- Visiting the Vatican City, the Ultimate Guide to the Holy See
- Rome Actually is an excellent website resource and run by this article's author, a Rome resident.