Spending a day in Vatican City is high on most travellers’ list. This city-state is the epicentre of the most influential religion in Europe for the last 2000 years. It has been home to the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, since the fifteenth century. It may be the world’s smallest independent nation-state, covering only 109 acres (0.4 sq km), but from there, its believes and teachings have shaped, changed and guided many political, cultural and social developments around the globe.
In your past travels, you would have witnessed many magnificent religion-inspired architecture, paintings, sculptures, designs, plays and music. Now imagine all that brilliance amplified in one monumental museum and church, packed with works from the best Italian artists of the time. That is what you will be experiencing on a day in Vatican City. Our personally tested itinerary below will help you make the most of your day.
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Being a religious place, shorts, short skirts or dresses (exposed knees) and exposed shoulders are not allowed.
Vatican Museums (Mvsei Vaticani)
Your “Day in Vatican City” itinerary starts at the Vatican Museums (museivaticani.va, map). It is a collection of museums and gardens as well as access to some of the private rooms used by Popes over the years in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope.
The Pope’s museum was established in the early 16th century to evangelise through the beauty of art. It houses an extensive collections of art and archaeological findings gathered by the Popes, who viewed themselves as the legitimate heirs and guardians of Roman history. The museum has also commissioned some of the greatest masterpieces known to mankind. There are over 70,000 exhibits ranging from Egyptian mummies to Etruscan bronze, legendary sculptures, old masters and modern religious paintings.
It was first opened to the public in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV. It is 42,000 sq m, as big as 165 tennis courts and has 7 km of lavishly decorated halls and corridors.
Do not rush or be rushed. There will be lots of waiting and there will be lots of people. Budget for half the day for the museums and take your time to appreciate all the beauty. As a guide, below are 6 masterpieces that you must see before completing your visit.
Top 6 Vatican Museums Masterpieces
1. Raphael’s Transfiguration at Pinacoteca
Hailed as the most beautiful painting by one of Renaissance’s great, it was also his last. The painting blends two biblical stories. The 1st occupied the top half, centred on Christ revealing his true form in the presence of prophets Moses and Elijah, together with disciples Peter, James and John. The 2nd is the “Miracle of the Possessed Boy”. Raphael masterfully portrayed expressions of confusion, hope and helplessness with a crowd waiting for Christ to heal a devil-possessed child. The painting positioned Rafael as a master of light and shadow as well as facial expressions.
2. Belvedere Apollo and Laocoön in Pio Clementino Museum
Started by Pope Julius II (1503 – 1513) in 1506, Pio Clementino Museum displays an impressive collection of ancient sculptures, mostly notably the Belvedere Apollo and the Laocoön. Both are found at the outdoor 8-sided courtyard, one of the earliest section of the museum.
Belvedere Apollo depicts the youthful and athletic Greek god of music, sun, light, medicine and archery. The marble masterpiece, believed to be created in the 2nd century, has long be admired for its gracefulness, lightness and gentleness – a perfect sculpture. It was much admired by Michelangelo whom has allegedly painted God in its image on the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
Laocoön on the other hand conveys a very different emotion. It is filled with high adrenaline, fear, tension and struggle. The sculpture depicts a scene from the Greek mythology where Laocoön, a priest in the city of Troy, and his two sons were attacked by two sea-serpents sent by Athena and Poseidon to stop them from warning the Trojans about the Trojan horses left by the Greeks.
3. Pintoricchio’s Room of the Saints in Borgia Apartment
Residence to the infamous Pope Alexander VI (1492 – 1503), Borgia Apartment is the Apostolic Palace’s most exclusive wing. A stunning cycle of lavish frescoes by Pinturicchio/ Pintoricchio (Bernardino de Betto), completed in 1494, decorating the 6 interconnecting rooms.
There are brilliance at every corner, but our favourite is the Room of the Saints. Admire the use of vivid bright colours, ornate patterns and the passion for details, even in the background. Look out for the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill in the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
Today, the apartment is also home to the Vatican Museum’s Collection of Contemporary Art, which includes works by Paul Gauguin, Salvador Dali and Wassily Kandinsky.
4. “The School of Athens” in Raphael’s Rooms
Pope Julius II (1503 – 1513) commissioned Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, or more commonly known just as Raphael, to redecorate four rooms in the Apostolic Palace in 1509. In 1511, Raphael revealed what is now widely regarded as his greatest piece of work in what is supposedly the Pope’s library.
In fitting with the use of the room, Raphael brought together some of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and scientists from different times in history. These intellectual icons were cleverly placed in a space of lively academic debate. They were painted in the foreground of a perfectly recreated architectural illusion of a Greek court with sculptures of Apollo and Minerva. Ponder about what Aristotle is saying to Plato. Why are these two historical figure taking centre-stage? Find Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy as well as a self-portrait and a his arch-rival, Michelangelo.
5. Gallery of Maps
Near the Sistine Chapel, admire walls covered with 40 large-scale maps of Italy in a 120m by 6m hall. This beautiful harmony of scientific accuracy and artistic expression is the results of the partnership of great mathematician and cosmographer Ignazio Danti and painter Girolamo Muziano. The work is commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII (1572 – 1585). Your attention will constantly be pulled upwards to the Late Renaissance-styled grand and elaborately decorated curved ceiling. There is also superb view of the Vatican Gardens from the large windows.
6. The ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina)
This is the star of the show and it deserves all the accolades. In an architecturally plain rectangular room measuring 40 m long, 13 m wide and 21 m high, the frescoed walls and ceiling brought love, passion and beauty. Here stands two greatest Renaissance paintings from Michelangelo, commissioned by Pope Julius II (1503 – 1513).
The 1st piece is on the ceiling painted between 1508 – 1512. Michelangelo took inspiration from the Book of Genesis (Old Testament) and depicted nine scenes of three stories from it, surrounded by life-like images of prophets and sibyls. The most famous is the instantly recognisable “The Creation of Adam”, with three scenes from “The Creation of the Heavens and Earth” and another three scenes from “Noah and the Great Flood” on either sides. Rest on the bench surrounding the hall and take your time to admire the mastery expression of movements, flow and emotions.
The 2nd piece is on the altar wall, painted 20 years after the ceiling frescoes. Known as the Last Judgement, Michelangelo painted over 300 human figures depicting ascendence to heaven of the elected and the condemnation to hell of the damned. Interrogate the figures and decipher the many stories being played out. Find the man damned for his sin of greed and the one for his sin of lust. Locate St. Peter giving back a key to Christ. Ponder about the reason for Michelangelo inserting himself into this fresco.
The Vatican Museums are closed on Sundays, except for the last Sunday of the month when it is also free to enter. It is therefore, busiest on the free-entry Sunday followed by general Mondays and Saturdays due to the Sunday closure. It is also particularly busy on Monday as most museums in Rome are closed on Monday.
If you are here at peak travel seasons, invest in one of the early-bird tickets that get you into the museum before it is open to general admission. Or at the very least, invest in a skip-the-line ticket. There is so much to cover and you will need all the energy (and patience).
Vatican Gardens (Giardini Vaticani)
Before going for lunch, take a 45 min open bus tour of the Vatican Gardens, the Pope’s personal Garden of Eden. At 57 acres, more than half of Vatican City is this peaceful and exclusive garden. A respite from battling the crowd at the museum and perfect for resting the feet after all the walking. Look out for the Pope’s coat of arms sculpted from decorative shrubs and flowers in front of Palazzo del Governatorato. You will also find a replica of Lourdes Grotto, the miracle cave in France associated with Virgin Mary. (Ticket: €20 pp)
We recommend the bus tour over the two hour walking tour. Although it is a lovely garden, we didn’t thought it warrant the time and energy given all the other unique things to see at Vatican City. The bus tour also come with an informative audio guide.
The bus tour doesn’t stop to allow you to walk around the garden, but stops long enough for you to snap some photos at key attractions in the garden. It runs every hour from 9 am to 2 pm. Book for 1 pm to give yourself sufficient time to cover the Vatican Museums.
On the way to lunch, pop into the Vatican Post Office to mail a postcard to a friend (or yourself) from this unique service. They produce their own stamps. The post office is situated in a converted white shipping container box at St. Peter’s Square by the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Take a lunch break
Given all the walking you have been doing, we will stay local for lunch. Below are two options we short-listed within 15 mins walk from St. Peter’s Square.
How about some wine tasting with lunch? Magazzino Scipioni is contemporary and classy wine bar with a small but sufficient lunch menu. Enjoy a charcuterie and cheese platter for a light lunch or bring on the succulent slow-cooked beef cheek in red wine, San Marzano tomato beef balls or flavoursome carbonara pasta if you are looking for something more wholesome. Service is attentive and friendly. Finish off with tasting a desert wine and cheesecake – it will certainly fuel you for the 2nd half of the itinerary.
If you are after a more functional lunch to maximise your time at Vatican City, head straight to 200 Gardi. It is a no-frill sandwich shop but they do churn out tasty, made to order paninis with fresh ingredients. Tuck into some prosciutto, laced with brie and rocket salad. There are seats to dine-in but why not order to-go and enjoy back at St. Peter’s Square to reflect on your day in Vatican City so far?
Tomb of St. Peter and the Necropolis
With a full tummy and rested legs, time to continue the discovery of Vatican City. This part of the itinerary is not one for you if you are travelling with kids below the age of 15 (due to age restriction), but a must visit otherwise. The tomb is underground, beneath the basilica and was only discovered in 1950s through a secretly funded excavation. Some part of the tomb has been around since the 1st century. The highlight is certainly the alleged St. Peter’s tomb, but don’t expect the same opulence you have gotten accustomed to so far on your day in Vatican City so far. But the story surrounding the discovery of the tomb and St. Peter’s bones will make the visit worthwhile.
Visit is only possible as part of a 90-min guided tour by the Vatican Excavation Office. Only 250 visitors are permitted per day due to conservation and the limited space. Please follow the instruction on the Excavations Office to book the tickets (scavi.co), months ahead of your travel. (Tour & entrance fee: €13 pp)
Try your luck and ask for a ticket just after lunch time. If you succeed, you will save an hour as the tour ends in St. Peter’s Basilica, and you do not need to queue to get in.
It is hot and humid and can be claustrophobic in some parts in the tomb. Bring along a handheld fan and water bottle.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
From the Pope’s museum to the Pope’s garden, it is finally time for the Pope’s church on your day in Vatican City. Be prepared to grab your dropping jaw as you step into this church. Words can’t describe the spectacular scale and opulence of St. Peter’s Basilica (vatican.va, map). The construction of this magnificent pilgrimage site started in 1506 by Donato Bramante at the order of Pope Julius II (1503 – 1513).
Over the next 100 years, many great names added their contributions to it from Raphael to Michelangelo, Bernini, Maderno to various members of the Sangallo family. Giacomo della Porta completed St. Peter’s celebrated dome in 1590 and work on the grand structure finally finished in 1615. St. Peter’s Basilica is 138 m (452 ft) tall, encompassing 5.7 acres and was the world biggest church until 1989.
There is an entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica from the Sistine Chapel that is reserved for tour groups. You can try your luck with it if you rather not join another queue to get back in. This will involve skipping lunch and soldiering on from the museum.
St. Peter’s Basilica is closed every Wednesday morning due to the Papal Audience (read on below for more information). It will reopen at about 12.30pm.
Tours of St. Peter’s with seminarians at the North American College (pnac.org) are highly recommended. Tours take place at 2.15pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Please check out their website for more information. They also do occasional tours to the Necropolis/ Scavi.
There is so much to feast your eyes on. Every inch of this vast space and structure is an exquisite work of art. From the ornate gilded curved ceilings to the colourful glass mosaic tiles and the larger-than-life sculptures to the shiny tiled floor. Take your time and wonder. Below are 5 must-see to help you navigate but do not be limited by them.
Top 5 St. Peter’s Basilica Masterpieces
1. Michelangelo’s Dome
The majestic dome is the crowning glory of St. Peter’s Basilica. It still holds the title of the tallest dome in the world. Taking inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome and the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore in Florence, Bramante, Sangallo and Michelangelo produced a Renaissance masterpiece. The 4 colossal piers supporting the dome is adorned with marble sculptures of saints with the 4 relics allegedly housed in the basilica – The Holy Lance, The True Cross, The Veil of Veronica and The Head of St. Andrew.
Make sure you climb the 231 steps up to the inner rim of the dome to fully appreciate it. Look up to admire the gold and vivid coloured glass mosaic. Look down and your leg will wobble as the sheer size and scale of the structure strikes you. A view not to be missed. You can also step out to the roof from here and look at the 6 m (20 ft) tall statues of Jesus and the Apostles on the top of the front facade.
For a bird’s eye view of Vatican City and Rome, you will need to climb another 320 steps. Unlike the previous steps, the staircase for this section is narrow and finishes with a slim spiral staircase. Could be a touch claustrophobic for some. (Entry fee: €8 or €10 with use of lift/escalator instead of the first 231 steps climb)
The start of the staircase to the dome is just to the right of the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. The return staircase will bring you back into the basilica. Hence, you this should be the 1st place to visit in the basilica.
2. Bernini’s Baroque-styled Baldachin
St. Peter’s Basilica is designed as a three-aisled Latin cross and your attention will gravitate towards the high altar, adorned with an imposing Baroque-styled baldachin, at the middle of the crossing. The high altar is built above St. Peter’s tomb and above it is the Michelangelo-designed dome. The 30 m (95 ft) tall, black and gold baldachin was designed by Bernini, who also designed the colonnade surrounding St. Peter’s Square as well as the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome’s Piazza Navona.
3. Bernini’s Throne of St. Peter
Bernini’s equally amazing creation is the Throne of St. Peter, right behind the high altar. A lavish raised chair is flanked by 4 majestic bronze sculptures of the Doctors of the Church (St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostomand St. Athanasius). Above the throne is an explosion of light emanating from the Dove of the Holy Spirit, cleverly paints on an oval stained glass. Both of these masterpieces showcased Bernini’s skill in marrying artistic sculptures with grand architecture.
4. Michelangelo’s Pieta
Feel the sorrow of Madonna holding her sacrificed child fill your heart as you admire Michelangelo’s Pieta (behind bullet proof glass). The realism of this masterpiece with its natural folding drapery, proportions and most amazingly flawlessly capturing the facial expression of sadness and acceptance is unparalleled.
5. Altar of Transfiguration
Marvel at one of the most beautiful mosaics in St. Peter’s Basilica, a reproduction of Raphael’s Transfiguration, the masterpiece you have seen earlier at Pinacoteca. Like all the mosaics in the basilica, most can’t tell that they are not paintings until it has been pointed out.
Additional item: Wave to The Pope
If you want to see the Pope while you are there, there are two events that you can participate in. The first is called the Papal / General Audience which is held from 9.30 am to 11 am most Wednesdays at St. Peter’s Square. Seating are available. It is advisable to get there as early as 7.30 am if you want to get a good seat as the event is attended by thousands. Please find further details on the Vatican’s webpage (vatican.va).
You can get your free tickets by writing or faxing to the Vatican in advance. It is not a slickest process and you may not hear back from them. If you hear from them within a month of your travel date, you can still participate by joining a tour.
The second event is called the Angelus and it takes place at 12 pm most Sundays, also at St. Peter’s Square. No ticket is required for this event, but do check the website above to check if it is taking place. For this event, the Pope will address the audience from the window of his official apartment. This is on the right when you are standing in St. Peter’s Square facing the church.
A Roman dinner at Trastevere
Jump into a cab and travel 8 mins south along River Tiber to get to Trastevere for some dinner to wrap up a wonderful day in Vatican City. This charming neighbourhood is famous for its cobbled streets, bohemian/ working class simplicity and a lively nightlife. But it is most famous for its congregation of trattorias churning our wholesome Roman pasta dishes.
Tonnarello (tonnarello.it, map)
This homely and lively trattoria has apparently been around since 1876, it must have done a few things right. You will spot many things that they are doing right after dining here. Tonnarello is a large restaurant, buzzing with locals and tourists alike. Although busy, the service is prompt, attentive and always friendly. It has a fantastic outdoor seating within a small cosy square, perfect for a summer’s evening.
Help yourself to a “pan” of their homemade traditional Roman tonnarelli pasta. Tonnarelli is more commonly known as spaghetti alla chitarra. It is a square, rather than rounded spaghetti with a bit more bite to it. Try is as most Roman do with just some grated pecorino romano cheese and some freshly ground black pepper (cacio e pepe). Or enjoy it in a rich Carbonara sauce, perfectly balanced with egg yolk, bacon and parmesan.
Try one of the ultra crispy pizza with the classic tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil (Margherita) or one with parma ham (Parma) or spicy salami (Diavola). Or indulge in one of their signature meatballs in oxtail sauce or cheese and pepper.
This place doesn’t take reservation and the wait for a table at peak travel season is easily 30 mins to an hour. Hence, plan for a slightly later dinner with gelato after St. Peter’s Basilica and a walk along the River Tiber. This place rocks till 1am, hence, there is no rush to get here before closing times.
And that’s it. Hope you have found the above itinerary and travel tips helpful in planning your perfect day in Vatican City. Feel free to drop us a message if you have any questions that we can help with.
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