This small country, with a permanent population of less than 1,000 welcomes millions of visitors each year. Its unique status as center of the Catholic Church and home of Pope Benedict XVI would likely draw crowds of tourists in any case, but its unique artistic treasures (including the famed Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel) are truly what makes this an important place for visitors of any faith (or no faith at all).
The emergence of a new force in Roman history and culture--that of the Church--along with the establishment of the Pope at the location of St. Peter’s tomb in the 14th century-- made the Vatican the spiritual core of Rome. However, it was not until 1929 and the Lateran Treaty (between the Pope and the government of Mussolini) that the Vatican became an independent, sovereign state.
Approximately 100 acres in size on a hill west of the Tiber River lies the Vatican. Its complex is separated from the rest of Rome by high walls, except at the Piazza di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square), where the curved colonnades designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1667 (like arms) reach out to embrace the millions who fill it each year to see the Pope say Mass or give a general blessing to the crowds assembled below.
Within its walls, the Vatican runs many functions found in an independent country. It has its own mail system (said to be the swiftest in Italy), its own daily newspaper (L’Observatore Romano), it issues its own stamps, and mints its own coins (although admittedly for collectors). It also has its own administration (with offices of foreign affairs), banks, pharmacy, department store, gas stations, and supermarket. It houses an observatory, print shop, school for mosaics, and institute for art restoration (with plenty of material within its museums).
The Head of State is of course, the Pope. Today Pope Benedict XVI (elected in April 2005) holds full executive, legislative, and judicial powers. He is also head of his own armed forces (the Swiss Guards and Vatican police system) as well. Of course, this is largely secondary to his role as spiritual leader to the world’s Catholic community and his (perhaps less accepted) role as peacemaker worldwide.
Visiting the Vatican
Despite its small size, the Vatican is one of the most jammed sites in all of Rome, and a little pre-planning would benefit any visitor. Anyone who has waited in long lines at the Vatican at opening will tell you that this is not the time of day to begin your tour of the place. Perhaps the best hours to enter the Vatican are between 12 noon and 2 pm. Another good time to schedule a visit for touring is on Wednesday when crowds gather to hear the Papal Mass. While everyone gathers outdoors, the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel will be pleasantly open and free of the usual crowding.
Another way to avoid long lines is to reserve a guided Vatican tour, which are offered and can be booked at the Vatican itself. These tours offered by the Vatican Museums guarantee a designated entrance time, as well as offering great insight into the treasures within.
Finally, with the abundance of religious days of observance, it is critical to make verify that the Vatican Museums will be open at all. The Vatican’s website (http://mv.Vatican.va) provides helpful information.
What to See While Visiting the Vatican
Visiting the Vatican can be overwhelming. The sheer size and number of things worth seeing means that to truly get the most out of a visit, any traveler would have to spend more than a single day there. No doubt the two biggest attractions are the Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica) and the Vatican Museums, which includes the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museums truly contain some of the finest works of art ever created. These Museums cover about 4.5 miles of displays. In addition, there are almost 40 acres of Vatican Gardens, which make a refreshing respite from all that walking.
Top Five Sights at the Vatican
While there are easily more reasons for touring the Vatican than these top five, this list is a good starting point for any visitor to this independent country.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel - Not only is this one of the world’s most famous artworks, this 10,000 square foot fresco tells the history of the Church. Just as interesting is the struggle to create the ceiling, something the artist resisted but eventually undertook in a fight of wills with the Pope.
Vatican Museums - This is truly one of the Western World’s most stunning art collections, with works by Renaissance Masters, such as Raphael, and amazing sculpture, tapestries, and more. Look for the Egyptian Museum or Map Collection for a break from the overload of religious art.
St. Peter’s Dome - Those who can overcome feelings of claustrophobia are in for a treat. By climbing the twisting Renaissance stairway to the top of St. Peter’s Dome, tourists are rewarded with breathtaking views.
St. Peter’s Basilica - Visitors are awe-struck when they see the High Altar, a true Renaissance masterpiece. Be sure to seek out the nave, lined with sculpture, including the famed "Pieta" by Michelangelo.
Wednesday Papal Blessing - Don’t miss being part of the flag waving, singing joy that overcomes visitors to St. Peter’s Square every week when the Pope makes his appearance.
Despite its small size, visiting the world’s smallest state is rich in rewards. It takes some planning to make the most of a visit (and avoid the overcrowding), but the riches on view are well worth any hassle.