I have to say - that on my first trip to Vatican City - I had no idea what to expect. My honeymoon found me landing in the city of Rome on a beautiful, golden October day - and I was soon to find that the city I had been told was overcrowded and hostile was going to become one of my very favourite cities in the world. With the exception of a few very crowded top tourist sites, instead I found the place warm and beautiful - with a relaxed and genteel atmosphere almost unknown to cities these days. I revelled in the city - and even though I had no idea how that would translate over into Vatican City - I was soon to be pleasantly surprised.
I'm embarrassed to say - I knew very little about Vatican City before I arrived. My interest was in Rome, and I knew that I would be venturing into the tiny independent state only because I was determined to see the Sistine Chapel. But I had no idea how big an issue it was going to be moving from Rome to the Vatican. I knew it resided within a walled enclave in the midst of the city - but I did not know how much that would impose itself on the visitor. The home of the Pope - and arguably one of the holiest places in the world - I had no idea if I would find it an easy stroll across from one to the other, or meet guarded gates where passports were checked and we were made to go through a series of metal detectors.
After being in Rome and the Vatican City - I am once again left feeling shamed and annoyed at the overinflated sense of self-preservation I find in so many other places these days - particularly on my journeys home. The easy answer was - the first time I stepped foot into the smallest independent state in the world - I didn't realize I'd done it. All I did was cross the street, and suddenly I realized - I was in Vatican City.
And what a city! Not being a catholic myself, I did not feel myself the pilgrim there, nor did I feel any religious tug at the heart strings (but oh, I can imagine what a feeling it would present for those who do!) but I still found myself revelling in the surprisingly peaceful atmosphere that made up the cobbled entry way to St Peter's Basilica.
It's hard to think of Rome without seeing the Basilica, glistening in the afternoon sun - even if technically it is in Vatican City. And I can't now imagine the experience of Rome without the pointedly unique taste that the Vatican brings. You'll realize you’re getting closer to the Vatican the more the pope and other religious souvenirs begin to appear in windows. Even the gelato shop we stopped in, I suddenly realized, was plastered all over with postcards and little plastic images of the Pope - and a few steps outside I crossed the street and realized I was standing at the Basilica - an image that no photo you have ever seen will do justice to. We had planned to spend our first night in Rome just wandering around, with a visit to Vatican City on the cards for early the next morning - but if all roads lead to Rome, then all Roman streets appear to lead to the Vatican, because somehow we found ourselves there on that first golden afternoon anyway.
Vatican City has a lot to offer inside and out - but even if you don't visit any of the (granted highly touristed) sites inside - be sure to get as many opportunities to view the city and the basilica as you can. Early morning is the best time for visiting the inside - as it's quiet and the crowds have not yet descended - it's almost otherworldly the sense of grandeur that you find there when you are not having to be pushed past each wondrous sight. But the outside view is best in the falling afternoon sun (which sets just behind the basilica) as well as late at night where the stars align above it, and the lights around it's quiet walls let you feel you're seeing something truly spectacular.