In my visits to the Vatican, I’ve seen Pope Benedict give his weekly address to thousands of pilgrims, and I was there in the crowds when Pope Francis canonised Saint John Paul II. I even proposed to my now-wife in – or rather on top of – the Vatican City.
With so much personal attachment to the world’s smallest state, as well as there being lots of good reasons to visit in general, I’ve put together some of my top things to do for those who want to visit the Vatican City.
Walk around St Peter’s Basilica
I’ve been inside numerous churches, basilicas and cathedrals around the world, but I don’t think any have had quite the impact as St Peter’s Basilica. It’s absolutely massive, incredibly beautiful and truly awe-inspiring. From the tall columns, to the exquisite sculptures and paintings, to the general ambiance, the basilica is an incredible place and well worth a walk-around.
Visit Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture
It’s astonishing just how perfect Michelangelo’s sculpture is. I find it impressive enough that people can start with a large block of stone and chisel it away into a recognisable form, such as a human figure. But the Pieta is stunning in the detail and emotion it conveys; one can sense Mary’s grief as she holds her dead son in her arms. Truly remarkable.
Tour the Vatican Museums
The Vatican City is first and foremost a religious city, but within its walls is one of the most impressive collections of artwork from across the world, encompassing all time periods in history. I spent an entire day in the Vatican Museums and it wasn’t enough to explore all the great treasures on display. If you’re a fan of art history, the museums are a must.
Explore the Vatican grottoes
Many of the great popes throughout history have been laid to rest below St Peter’s Basilica. It’s fascinating to walk through the rooms of the tombs, surrounded by the relics of these men who helped shape the world into what it is today.
Visit the Sistine Chapel
One of the most famous tourist attractions when visiting the Vatican City is the Sistine Chapel. The frescos that cover the walls and ceiling were painted by Michelangelo and depict many biblical scenes, such as from the Book of Genesis. The Sistine Chapel is also where the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals; so not only is the chapel a beautiful place to visit, it’s also the setting of historic, world-shaping events.
Attend a Mass
Whether you’re Catholic or not, the heart of the Catholic faith is the Mass, so why not take the opportunity whilst you’re there to attend a service and get a better sense of what the culture and atmosphere is like. Indeed, the reason St Peter’s Basilica exists is for the Mass, so why not try out the experience.
Stand in St Peter’s Square and check out the Egyptian obelisk
St Peter’s Square is stunning, with its pincer-like shape, outlined with beautiful columns and statues of saints throughout history. In the centre is an Egyptian obelisk, which is believed to date back to 2500 BC. Once resident in the Circus Maximus – the location of much brutality against early Christians – the obelisk was moved to the Vatican in 1586.
View all of Rome from the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica
Ascend the dome of St Peter’s Basilica and you’ll be treated to a spectacular view of the Eternal City. Words don’t do it justice; you have to see for yourself. In fact, so beautiful is the view that I proposed to the woman who is now my wife there. Just as the top of the Eiffel Tower is considered a romantic place for proposals, being Catholic, the top of the Vatican felt like an even more fitting venue to propose!
Attend a papal general audience
If you can get tickets, it’s well worth trying to attend one of the papal weekly audiences, where the Pope will greet the thousands there, have some things to say and will be welcomed by pilgrims who have travelled to visit the Holy Father. Different from merely looking around the Vatican in a touristic fashion, attending one of the lively papal audiences brings to life the historic city.
Take a photo with a Swiss Guard
Notice how lots of people like to take photos of the British soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace in London? They’re pretty cool with their red uniforms and big, black bearskin hats. Well, the Vatican has its equivalent called the Pontifical Swiss Guard. There’s certainly no one else dressed like them, so use the opportunity to take a snap with them.