Welcome to Vatican City, headquarters of the Catholic Church and home to the Pope. A soverign city-state landlocked in western Rome, Vatican City is home to 840 residents, and at 110-acres, this is the smallest country in the world. It is so small that eight Vatican Cities could fit into New York City’s Central Park.
Top sites for tourists include St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum. The Pope also gives a papal audience on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.
I’m not Catholic and, outside of reading The Da Vinci Code and attending Lutheran confirmation in eighth grade, I can’t say I’ve done much study of the religion’s history. Couple my lack of background with my typical lack of travel research and there I am, standing outside the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica, scratching my head in my usual state of being lost.
For non-Catholic visitors who don’t have a graduate degree in religious studies, here are a few tips for making the most of a visit to this Holy place.
Tips for Visiting the Vatican
1. Don’t forget your Dignity Outfit
In order to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you must be “dressed with dignity,” meaning shoulders and legs must be covered. Yes, you will be inspected prior to entry. Rome is a very hot city, especially in the summer, so to avoid a miserable day of sweating in long pants, follow my Italian friends’ tip and bring along a scarf. You can use this to cover arms and/or legs while in the chapel and remove after exiting. My travel companion Alessandra and I nicknamed this fashionable look a dignity outfit.
2. Take a Tour or Purchase an Audio Guide
I did not take advantage of a guided or audio tour and regret it. There is not much signage in the cultural sites and even the informational pamphlet does not contain many details. To avoid the several hours I spent wondering what the heck I was looking at, spring the extra euros for extra information. The area outside the city walls is swarming with guides who will give you a basic tour for a reasonable price in a variety of languages. While the incessant pitching of these guides may make them seem questionable, most are legitimate and can get you a pass to skip the entrance queue as well.
3. Don’t miss the Pope Tombs
Of the 264 deceased popes in the Catholic Church, around 100 have papal tombs in existence. Many of these tombs are located in St. Peter’s Basilica and can be seen by visitors. Take some time to walk around and look at the details of each tomb. The bodies of the popes are embalmed and on display, which is something I found rather…. Interesting.
4. Climb the Duomo
The 320 steps to the Cupola are a strenuous climb, but well worth the extra 5 euros. From the top, you will be able to see the entirety of Vatican City to get a better understanding of its size and be treated to some fabulous views of Rome. The tight, winding stairways also give you a better sense of the architecture of the dome and will make you glad you weren’t around in the 1600’s to help build it!
5. The Sistine Chapel is not for Praying
Of all the chapels I visited in Europe, the Sistine Chapel, decorated with famous frescos by Michaelangelo, is the noisiest. The Chapel is smaller than I expected, and packed almost wall to wall with whispering tourists. There are no pews to sit in and the guard who comes on the speakers every several minutes to remind visitors of the no photographs policy also puts a damper on the spiritual aura. Those looking to pray at this Holy site should instead do so at St. Peter’s Basilica. Here there is a special section reserved for prayer seekers that is quiet and free of flash-happy gawkers.
And there you have it — my five tips for visiting the Vatican. Have you been? What did I miss? Leave your tips in the comments below.