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Explore the Vatican

Explore Vatican which needs no introduction. As the centre of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican City state – along with the surrounding Italian districts of Borgo, Prati and the area around the Monte Mario – is filled with more history and artwork than most cities in the world.

Vatican City is an independent country, the temporal seat of the Pope, head of the worldwide Catholic Church; entirely surrounded by the city of Rome, in Italy, the Vatican is also the world’s smallest state. Outside Vatican City itself, thirteen buildings in Rome and one at Castel Gandolfo (the Pope’s summer residence) also enjoy extraterritorial rights.

The main streets in the ward are also called borghi (and not vie as in the rest of the city); generally speaking, the further you get from St. Peter’s, the less touristy the neighborhood becomes. Of course, always keep in mind that often it’s not possible to escape completely the touristy hustle-and-bustle of the city centre.

Prati is the twenty-second, and last, rione of the city. An elegant district laid out in the late 19th century, it was designed to house (along with the Esquilino neighborhood and the area around piazza della Repubblica) the civil servants of the newly-established Kingdom of Italy. Unlike the Esquilino – which housed the less wealthy among the State employees – the district was home to the city’s rising bourgeoisie, and it showed in 1912 when Prati was the first neighborhood in city to be provided with electricity. Its most important squares are the recently renovated piazza Cavour and piazza del Risorgimento (near the Vatican Museums) while the main boulevard is via Cola di Rienzo, also one of Rome’s most famous shopping streets.

The neighbourhood was built during a time of tensions between the Pope and the Italian state and therefore, city planners designed its street layout in such a way to make impossible for anyone to see St. Peter’s dome from its wide and carefully planned streets. The district hosts, among the other things, a Waldensian church (on piazza Cavour).

With its 139 metres, Monte Mario is the highest rise in Rome; however, it’s not part of the historical seven hills. From its summit, locally known as the Zodiaco (meaning “zodiac”), you can enjoy a wonderful view of the city. Between the hill’s foot and Vatican City, there are two districts – Trionfale and Della Vittoria; both are relatively recent (early 1900s/1960s) and provide cheaper housing alternatives than Prati.

History

The origin of the Papal States, which over the years have varied considerably in extent, may be traced back to AD 756 with the Donation of Pepin. However, the Popes were the de facto rulers of Rome and the surrounding province since the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent retreat of Byzantine power in Italy; the Popes, in their secular role, ruled parts of the central portion of the Italian peninsula for more than a thousand years until 1860, when most of the Papal States were seized by the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy. On September 20, 1870, the Papal States ceased to exist when Rome itself was annexed.

Present concerns of the Holy See include interreligious dialogue and reconciliation, and the application of Church doctrine in an era of rapid change and globalization. About a billion people worldwide profess the Catholic faith.

Holy See

It is widely believed that the Vatican City and the Holy See are one and the same, whereas in reality they are not. The Holy See dates back to early Christianity and are the main episcopal see of more than a billion Latin and Eastern Catholic adherents around the globe. Ordinances of Vatican City are published in Italian; official documents of the Holy See are issued mainly in Latin. The two entities have distinct passports: the Holy See, not being a country, issues only diplomatic and service passports whereas Vatican City State issues normal passports.

Terrain

The Vatican sits on a low hill between 19 m and 75 m above sea level. With a boundary only 3.2 km around, the enclosed land area is smaller than some shopping malls; however, the buildings are far more historic and architecturally interesting. Note that, when talking about the country’s terrain, most of it is part of the Vatican Gardens.

Population

Although roughly 1,000 people live within Vatican City, many dignitaries, priests, nuns, guards, and 3,000 lay workers live outside the Vatican. Officially, there are about 800 citizens making it the smallest nation in demographic size on the globe. The Vatican even fields a soccer team composed of the Swiss Guard who hold dual citizenship.

Get in

Although not a member of either the European Union or the European Economic Area, the Vatican maintains an open border with Italy and is treated as part of the Schengen Area.

Visitors and tourists are not permitted to drive inside the Vatican without specific permission, which is normally granted only to those who have business with some office in the Vatican.

With only 109 acres (44 hectares) within its walls, the Vatican is easily travelled by foot; however, most of this area is inaccessible to tourists. The most popular areas open to tourists are the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums.

If you’re heading up Monte Mario, wear comfortable shoes – it’s quite a climb!

Talk

Latin enthusiasts rejoice! The Holy See holds Latin as its official language, and the able traveller is invited to check out the urban legend that you can indeed get by within the city only using the “dead” language. Italian, however, is the official language of Vatican City and remains the more useful of the two.

English is widely spoken here, as are most major languages of the world; this is the Vatican, a city for the world’s Catholics and all who wish to see St. Peter’s Basilica.

What to see

The Swiss Guard is tasked with protecting the Pontiff himself. They wear very colorful clothing, similar to the uniforms worn by Renaissance-era soldiers; winter palette of clothing differs from summer palette. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did not design the Guards’ uniforms – rather, they were created by one of the Guard’s commanders, Jules Repond, in the 19th century. The Pontifical Swiss Guard is also the smallest and oldest standing army in the world, founded in 1506 by the “warrior Pope” Julius II (the same Pope who kick-started the construction of this ‘new’ basilica and making Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel). The origins of the Swiss guards, however, go much further; the Popes, as well as a lot of European rulers, regularly employed Swiss mercenaries since the 15th century. Said Swiss mercenaries were a major “export” of Switzerland (before they decided in 1515 not to be involved in military conflicts anymore) and turned particularly useful during the Sack of Rome of 1527.

St. Peter’s Basilica

The centre of the Catholic world, this magnificent basilica with its dome (designed by Michelangelo) has an awe-inspiring interior. This place is huge, but everything is in such proportion that the scale escapes you. To give you a comparison, you can fit the Statue of Liberty, statue and pedestal (height from ground of pedestal to torch: 93m), underneath the dome (interior height of 120m from floor to top of dome) with room to spare.

To get in, you will first go through a metal detector (after all, this is an important building). Don’t be put off if there is a long line in front of the detectors; the whole thing moves quickly. The line is usually shorter in the morning and during mid-week.

Aside from going inside, you can take an elevator up to the roof and then make a long climb up 323 steps to the top of the dome for a spectacular view. During the climb and before reaching the very top, you will find yourself standing on the inside of the dome, looking down into the basilica itself. Be warned that there are a lot of stairs so it is not for the faint at heart (literally or figuratively) nor the claustrophobic as the very last section of the ascent is through a little more than shoulder-width spiral staircase. Instead of leaving out the doors you came in, go down into the crypt to see the tomb of Pope John Paul II, the crypt leaves out the front.

Note: a strict dress code is enforced (as in many other places of worship), so have your shoulders covered, wear trousers or a not-too-short dress, and men must take your hats off (which is the custom in churches in Europe. You might be required to check bags at the entrance. Photos are allowed to be taken inside, but not with a flash. The lack of light will probably cause your pictures not to turn out very well, so you may want to buy a few postcards to keep as souvenirs.

The basilica is open Apr-Sep 07:00-19:00 daily and Oct-Mar 07:00-18:00; closed W mornings for papal audiences.

Daily masses M-Sa 08:30, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, and 17:00, and Su and holidays at 08:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:10, 13:00, 16:00, and 17:30.

Free 90 minute tours leave daily from the Tourist Information at 2:15PM, many days also at 3PM.

Tours are the only way to see the Vatican Gardens, Tu,Th, & Sa at 10:00, depart from tour desk and finish in St. Peter’s square. To tour the Necropolis and the Saint’s Tomb, call the excavations office at least a week in advance for 2-hour tour, office open M-Sa 09:00-17:00.

If you want to see the Pope, you can either see a usual blessing from his apartment at noon on Sunday, just show up (however, in the summer he gives it from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, 40 km/25 mi from Rome) or you can go to the more formal Wednesday appearance. The pope arrives in the popemobile at 10:30 to bless crowds from a balcony or platform, except in winter, when he speaks in the Aula Paolo VI auditorium next to the square. You can easily watch from a distance or get a free ticket, which you must get on the Tuesday before. There are a number of ways:

Your hotelier may be able to book one for you

You could wait in a long line at St. Peter’s on Tuesday where the Swiss Guards hand out tickets at their post to the right of the basilica, after 12:00 on Tuesday

Note that the Pope may occasionally be away on a state visit, however.

St. Peter’s square is, actually, an ellipse. There are two stones (one on each side of the square) between the obelisk and the fountains. If you step on either of these stones, the four columns on the colonnades merge into one.

The fountains were designed by two different architects, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The obelisk in the middle of the square was transported from Egypt to Rome in 37 A.D. by the Emperor Caligula to mark the spine of a circus eventually completed by Nero. The so-called Circus of Nero was parallel to and to the south of the east-west axis of the current basilica. It was in this circus that St. Peter was crucified in the first official persecutions of Christians undertaken by Nero beginning in 64 A.D. and continuing until his death in 67 A.D. The original location of the obelisk is marked with a plaque located near the sacristy on the south side of the basilica, where it remained until it was moved in 1586 A.D. by Pope Sixtus V to its present location.

The Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums. M-Sa 09:00-18:00 (last tickets at 16:00). Closed Su except last Su of the mo; when it is free, crowded, and open 09:00-14:00. The museum is closed for holidays on: 1 1 & 6 Jan, 11 Feb, 19 Mar, 4 & 5 Apr, 1 May , 29 Jun, 14 & 15 Aug, 1 Nov, and 8, 25 & 26 Dec. One of the greatest art galleries in the world, the museum is most famous for its spiral staircase, the Raphael Rooms and the exquisitely decorated Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s frescoes. It’s organized in such a way that the visitor has to follow a one-way route; do see it! Don’t put it off, because it closes before the rest of the museum does!

The Museums are, usually, most crowded on Sa, M, the last Su of the month, rainy days, and the days before or after a holiday. Dress code: no short shorts or bare shoulders. There are often lengthy queues from the entrance that stretch around the block in the early morning. Non-guided visitors should join the queue that is to the left as you are facing the entrance; the queue on the right is intended for guided group visitors. Always check if there is actually a queue before getting a guide on the street to skip it, many guides will tell you that there is a huge queue ahead even when there is none or a short one. Two hour English tours leave at 10:30, 12:00, 14:00 in summer, 10:30 and 11:15 in winter. To reserve, book online.

With a booking you skip the queue and enter through the exit, next to entry, to go to the guided tours desk. There are also audio-guides available from the top of the escalator/ramp.

Accessing the Sistine Chapel requires walking through many other (spectacular) halls and buildings (including the Raphael’s Rooms) and it takes about an hour, but if you are confined to a wheelchair or travelling with a baby pram or stroller you can use the lifts and go straight to the Sistine Chapel. It takes 5-10 minutes unless you stop along the long corridor. Note that although the Museum is quite large, no free map is available (only a simple leaflet with the order of the rooms) – you must bring your own, or purchase a guidebook in the shop.

Also, be aware that it is not allowed to take pictures or to talk loudly in the Sistine Chapel (although everybody flagrantly violates these rules). While one may agree with this policy or not, the visit would be a much more pleasant one without the guards having to yell out “Shh!” or: “No foto e no video!” every two minutes. The bottom line is: respect the rules and let every visitor enjoy the best of the experience, even if no one else does. If you try to sneak a picture (again, like everyone does), you’ll get a bad photograph and a screaming guard as your reward. You may even be kicked out and forced to delete the pictures if you are taking them too boldly.

Other

Castel Sant’Angelo. 09:00-19.00, last entry at 18:30, closed Ms. Perhaps the most fascinating building in Rome. The core of the structure began life as the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, built between 135 and 139 AD. Subsequent strongholds were built on top of the mausoleum during the Middle Ages and were in turn incorporated into a residence and castle by the Popes. The building was used as a prison until 1870, but now houses a museum. Opera buffs will be exhilarated to visit the balcony from which Tosca leaps to her death; film buffs will recognize as a setting from Angels and Demons.

Palazzo di Giustizia (Palace of Justice), piazza Cavour (“buses). Designed by architect Guglielmo Calderini and built from 1889 to 1911 in order to house the Corte di Cassazione (the Italian equivalent of the Supreme Court), this imposing neo-Renaissance palace underwent extensive restoration in 1970, when its foundations nearly sunk into the alluvial terrain. Another partial restoration followed in 1984. The adjoining piazza Cavour was laid out by architect Nicodemo Severi in 1885, and a sculpture by Stefano Galletti celebrating Count Camillo Benso di Cavour (the éminence grise behind the Italian Unification) lies at the centre of the gardens. The square itself has been refurbished following the construction of an underground parking lot.

What to do in the Vatican

The two main entrances to Vatican City for tourists are

  • The Vatican Museums, accessible from viale Vaticano on the northern side of the city state. The Vatican Museums are closed on Sundays except for the last Sunday of each month when it is open from 09:00-12:30. Visitors can stay inside until 14:00. and
  • B) St. Peter’s basilica, on the southeastern side of the city and accessible from via della Conciliazione. The basilica is open usually from 07:00-19:00. The Vatican Museums is open to the public M-Sa 09:00-16:00. Visitors can stay inside until 18:00Take note that this day is usually extremely busy so it is preferable to visit another day if you are able to afford it.

While guidebooks do their best to provide an aid for viewing the collections inside the Vatican, a guided tour is a far better way to make sure you get the most out of your visit.

If you are into photography, the St. Peter’s square is perhaps a very irritating location because of always being full of people, barricades, security and speakers and lights hanging from places. Even on weekdays when it is raining, the area is just very crowded. Do not have high hopes of getting a nice natural picture in the Vatican.

Vatican Tours

Guided tours are provided by the Vatican itself. Tours can be booked, 60 days before the requested tour date. Guided tours are also offered by several other companies.

What to buy

The Vatican has a unique, noncommercial economy that is supported financially by contributions (known as Peter’s Pence) from Roman Catholics throughout the world. It also sells postage stamps, tourist mementos, and publications. Fees for admission to museums also go into church coffers.

Vatican City State has the euro (€) as its sole currency.

The Vatican euro is the rarest in circulation among the European countries, so don’t spend it! It is worth a lot more than its face value. The Vatican is also the only country in the world where ATM instructions are available in Latin.

What to eat

The Vatican Museums have a reasonable cafeteria-style restaurant, a bar and a pizzeria – all of which are open during museum opening hours and until about one hour after closing. Furthermore, the Vatican Apostolic Library and Vatican Secret Archives, which are only open to admitted researchers and Vatican staff, share a courtyard that has access to an Italian-style bar with cafe fare and a limited selection of alcoholic beverages. See also Rome.

What to drink

Coffee (caffè) in the morning, mineral water for lunch – either gassata/frizzante (sparkling) or liscia (plain mineral water) – and try to find rosé wine in the evening: it goes very well with all Italian dishes, and keeps one and one’s company fresh and summery. Care and solid experience is advised when arriving from colder climates, to absorb the many new, ever so pleasant, environments and tastes, and the delicate of balancing wine and water, with creamy sauces and vinegars.

Where to sleep

Unless you count the Pope as a good friend (and he concurs), there are no lodging opportunities in the Vatican City itself. However, there are many hotels in the surrounding neighborhoods of Rome.

Contact

Mail a letter. Since Vatican City is a separate country it also has its own postal system; send a postcard to your friends and it will be postmarked from Vatican City.

Respect

The Vatican is conservative in what they want you to wear, so if you visit a church there, make sure your clothing covers as much skin as it can, particularly your legs. Wearing skimpy outfits along with being condemned by people around you will limit what places you can gain entry to.

Respect and reverence to the Roman Catholic Church and its practices and doctrine is encouraged. Those who aren’t Catholic and are openly declaring it by blatantly attacking the Church’s views and beliefs might be treated as less than an equal. Try to keep your beliefs to yourself and avoid debating over them.

Unesco World Heritage List

Official tourism websites of the Vatican

For more information please visit the official government website: 

Watch a video about the Vatican

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