Your Personal Tour of the Vatican
Traveling may be limited, but if you always wondered what it would be like to visit the world's smallest "country," consider this your inside look.
Vatican City is home to the Pope and the Apostolic Palace. There's also St. Peter's Basilica, one of the world's largest Catholic churches, and museums aplenty! Even if you spend a full day in Vatican City, it would be difficult to see everything, especially when herded along with the other thousands who visit. (A whopping 20,000 people visit the Vatican on a daily basis during the summer months!)
Do you wish you could see more? Take our personal tour of Vatican City sans the crowds.
Vatican City is 121 acres in size with a 2-mile border that's surrounded by Rome. It's one-eighth the size of Central Park in New York City — making it the smallest country in the world.
With a population of 825 people, Vatican City is home to the Pope and is a Papal State.
St. Peter's Square
To enter Vatican City, you will walk into the piazza named for the Apostle Peter. More than 300,000 people can fit into this square, which has been tested whenever welcoming a new pope.
Known as Piazza San Pietro in Italian, a 131-foot Egyptian obelisk stands in the center of the square and is flanked by fountains.
At the front of the square are statues of St. Peter and St. Paul, and atop the building's pillars are 140 statues of saints who have kept a heavenly watch since 1670.
St. Peter's Basilica
Construction of the holiest Catholic shrine began in 1505 under Pope Julius II. It took more than a century to be completed, which occurred in 1615 under Paul VIII.
The basilica stands above the burial spot of Peter and is the second to do so. The original basilica had been built under Rome's Emperor Constantine during the 4th century.
As an active church, there is no charge to enter and visit.
The Dome of St. Peter's
St. Peter's famous dome was designed by Michelangelo, although he did not live to see its completion. It is one of the largest domes in the world at a height of 446 feet and a diameter of nearly 138 feet.
You can climb 491 stairs to reach the dome for views of Rome — or you can take the elevator. You will have to pay a fee to visit either way, but it's cheaper if you take the stairs.
Inside St. Peter's
Because Italy was home to several Old Master painters, including Bernini and Raphael, the interior of St. Peter's Basilica is filled with their works. Like Michelangelo, Raphael was an architect of the building until his death.
Behind bulletproof glass, you can see Michelangelo's marble carving of Pieta, which is the only work to which he ever added his signature.
Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica
The church of St. Mary was built on the location of a former pagan temple. Pope Liberius said he had been visited by the Virgin Mary with instructions on how to build the church and began its construction to fulfill that dream.
It's the largest church in the world to be dedicated to Mary and is believed to have experienced a miraculous August snowfall that is celebrated annually with the Miracle of the Snows. Held on Aug. 5, the holiday is marked with white flower petals falling from the ceiling.
The Apostolic Palace is home to the pope and often called the Papal Palace. As the leader of the Catholic Church, the pope conducts much of his business here, akin to the president residing in the White House.
The current palace was constructed in the 15th century. There are nearly a dozen rooms in the Papal Apartments, including a medical suite, a kitchen, a dining room and staff quarters.
Often mistaken for being in St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel is actually a part of the Apostolic Palace. Not only is its ceiling covered in paintings but its walls are as well.
These frescoes were created by Botticelli, Rosselli and others, and include Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" on the altar wall. Of course, it was Michelangelo that created the ceiling's frescoes, the most famous of which is the "Creation of Adam."
Inside the Apostolic Palace
Serving as the home of several popes over the last 150 years, the Apostolic Palace includes personal touches from all of them with various additions and decorations.
Tours are now available of the Papal Apartment and the Pontiffs' Portrait Gallery.
Rodrigo de Borja y Doms of Spain served as pope from 1492 to 1503 as Pope Alexander VI. His apartments on the first floor of the palace now include six spaces under the Vatican Museums' Collection of Art.
The decorative frescoes found here were painted by Renaissance artist Pinturicchio.
On the second floor of the palace, just above Borgia Apartment, are four rooms that make up Raphael's Rooms: Constantine, Heliodorus, Segnature and Fire in the Borgo.
Each room is adorned with the painter's storytelling works created in the early 1500s for Pope Julius II (who wanted to one-up the Borgia Apartments below).
Room of the Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception became dogma in 1854 under Pope Pius IX. This room houses the painting that captures the moment, painted by Francis Podesti.
Podesti witnessed the event and included himself in his painting.
When the pope meets with leaders from churches and other groups, he welcomes them into his large office and study.
The Pauline Chapel is a private chapel to the pope within the palace, and it was built by Pope Paul III in the 16th century.
It features two frescoes painted by Michelangelo. One is the "Conversion of St. Paul," and the other is the "Crucifixion of St. Peter," but you won't see them on a tour.
Sala del Concistoro
Located on the third floor of the palace is the large Sala del Concistoro Hall, or Hall of the Consistory.
The space is used for ceremonies and large gathering.
Room of the Chiaroscuri
A small room located near the pope's bedroom, the Room of the Chiaroscuri serves as a small meeting spot and is more often than not meant for private meetings.
Raphael added the artwork, which features apostles and saints.
St. Damase Courtyard
An interior courtyard accessible only to the Papal Palace is St. Damase Courtyard, guarded by the Swiss Guard. Here, the pope and his guests arrive by car.
The Swiss Guard has protected the pope since 1506 when Pope Julius II installed them as protection.
Tower of Nicholas V Chapel
Within the depths of the Apostolic Palace's Tower of Innocent III is the Niccoline Chapel, one of the oldest rooms in the palace. It was created as the private chapel of Pope Nicholas V.
The chapel, painted by Fra Angelico, can be accessed via a passage from Raphael's Rooms.
Chapel of St. Peter Martyr
Also located in the tower is a small chapel, built under St. Pius V in the mid-1500s.
The story of St. Peter is painted on the walls and is a product of Giorgio Vasari's skilled hand.
The Papal Apartments even have a private, rooftop garden to safely give the pope space outdoors when the city is teeming with tourists.
As Vatican City is its own nation, it needs its own post office.
Created in 1929, visitors to the Vatican often purchase postcards to send home with a postage stamp from Vatican City.
Church of St. Anne
Officially Sant'Anna dei Palafrenieri, this parish church is found in Vatican City and serves its citizens.
It is dedicated to Saint Anne and was built at the end of the 16th century. You can even get married in this church!
Inside the Church of St. Anne
The baroque building, with its oval design, was introduced by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola. Inside, there are eight side chapels.
The Cortile del Belvedere was created to connect the ancient palace to the new palace. Its location on a small hill called del Belvedere bore the courtyard and its villa their name.
There are a number of terraces connected by stairs connecting to the palace with narrow wings running down the sides that have become part of the Vatican Museums.
The Chiaramonti Museum, named after Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti, is inside a long wing that connects the palaces. There are more than 1,000 antique sculptures on display in this wing.
Napoleon confiscated most of the items here in 1797, but the Vatican was able to negotiate to get much of it back in 1815.
After Napoleon stole much of the artwork of Vatican City, a new wing was created to better organize the works when they were returned.
This wing, Braccio Nuovo, is a part of the Chiramonti Museum and houses classical sculptures.
Pio Clementino Museum
Another museum relocated to the long wings in 1963 is the Pio Clementino Museum, which features more classical sculptures. Originally housed in the Octogonal Court, the statues were the collection of Pope Julius II.
This museum's name, however, is dedicated to the two men who founded it: Clement XIV Gangavelli and Pius VI Braschi. It also features the Hall of Animals, Cabinet of Masks and Hall of the Muses.
Gregorian Egyptian Museum
The nine rooms that make up the Gregorian Egyptian Museum were originally the papal apartments of Pius IV.
Beginning as a curated collection of Egyptologist Barnabite Father Luigi Ungarelli, the museum showcases the connection between Egypt and Rome, and includes the Terrace of the Niche.
Ethnological Museum Anima Mundi
The Vatican Exposition was held in 1925 to showcase more than 100,000 pieces from around the world. That temporary exhibit became this permanent exhibit in the Lateran Palace, referred to as the Ancient Palace.
It found its way to its current location in the 1970s. There are so many pieces in the collection that it rotates, so you may spot different items with multiple visits.
The first museum to showcase the Vatican's antiquities, the Profane Museum was inaugurated in 1761. Its four galleries showcase items through the early 19th century. "Profane" means "pagan," so you'll find items from the Roman and Greek pre-Christian eras.
Two of the most famous works by Raphael can be found here: "Parnassus" and "The School of Athens."
More than 2,000 inscriptions are housed in the Christian Lapidarium. They were first organized and displayed in 1854 in the Lateran Palace, but the collection was moved in 1974 to its current location.
Included in the exhibit are Dogmatic inscriptions.
The Vatican also houses nearly 200 inscriptions from pre-Christian time periods.
These had been hidden in a catacomb and were not reviewed or displayed until the 20th century.
Lapidario Profano ex Lateranense
So many items from the Lateran Palace were relocated to create the Vatican Museums that the Lapidario was created for more inscriptions.
There were more than 3,430 inscriptions with 2,000 in fragments. Here, 78 inscriptions on stones and altars are displayed.
Before the advent of the automobile, popes traveled via carriage. Some of these were gifts from royal houses, including Napoleon III, emperor of France.
In this exhibit, nine carriages, or Berlins, are on display with a sedan chair and opulent harnesses and livery for the horses. These four-wheeled carriages carried passengers in style.
The Vatican has an extensive collection of books that date back to the beginning of the press. It was Pope Nicholas V who began to create a library for the Vatican.
Today, there are more than 80,000 manuscripts and 1.6 million printed volumes of books, along with prints, drawings, photographs, engravings and more.
Pigna, or pine cone, is a fountain that sits in this courtyard in front of the Belvedere. A pine cone sculpture is flanked by two peacocks.
This courtyard originally connected the Belvedere to the Apostolic Palace but was divided up with the addition of the library building and new wing.
The "Sphere Within Sphere," or Sfera con sfera, is a bronze installation by sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro.
Casina Pius IV
The summer house of Pio IV, built in 1561, featured a courtyard with a fountain.
The oval courtyard connects four buildings that make up the villa, which is now a museum.
Academy of Sciences
In 1936, Pope Pius XI established an Academy of Sciences, housed in the Casina Pius IV. It stems from the Academy of the Lynxes, founded in 1603. (However, the Lynxes did not run continuously until the formation of this academy.)
It is independent of the Holy See, which means the academy is free to conduct research and investigation without input from the Catholic Church.
Old and New Gardens
Occupying nearly half of Vatican City are extensive gardens. Since Vatican City is walled, the gardens have been a place of quiet and reflection for the popes since Nicolas III.
The gardens are filled with nearly 600 statues, fountains and artifacts, and may be visited by tourists.
Found within the gardens is the Lourdes Grotto, a man-made cave that is a replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France.
It is believed a child was visited by the Virgin Mary multiple times in the French grotto, and within its waters, about 70 miraculous healings are said to have taken place.
For 100 years, Vatican City has been home to the Ethiopian Seminary. In 1919, students from Ethiopia and Eritrea began training seminarians to return to Africa to continue practicing Catholicism in their homeland.
It is the only Pontifical College that is a part of Vatican City. (More on that later in this tour!)
St. Martha's House
Although popes have lived in the Apostolic Palace for generations, the current Pope Francis has chosen to live in Domus Sanctae Marthae, St. Martha's House. This guesthouse was built in 1996 to provide comfortable accommodations for cardinals staying during a conclave.
Living in suite 201, Francis is the first pope not to reside in the palace for more than 110 years.
Santa Marta Chapel
Adjacent to St. Peter's Basilica is the chapel where Pope Francis gives daily Mass.
Santa Marta Chapel, much smaller than the Basilica, features a triangular peak and triangles found throughout its design to represent the Holy Trinity.
Civil Administration Building
As an individual country-state, Vatican City has its Civil Administration Building to operate legislative, executive and judicial power — its capitol building, if you will.
Church of St. Stephen
Officially called Santo Stefano degli Abissini, this small church is dedicated to Protomartyr Stephen, appointed by the Apostles to serve as deacon.
This is the national church of Ethiopia.
Palace of Justice
The Uffici Giudiziari, or Palace of Justice, is home to the Palazzo del Tribunale.
The judicial court has been in operation behind St. Peter's Basilica for 91 years.
Built during the 1960s under Pope VI, the Audience Hall can accommodate 12,000 people.
Located at the edge of Vatican City and crossing the border into Rome, the contemporary building was designed by Pier Luigi Nervi using cement and glass as primary elements.
Inside the Audience Hall
The Pope sits on his Papal throne to meet with a general audience in the Audience Hall. He hosts the audience every Wednesday morning.
In 2007, a solar roof was added to supply the building's heating, cooling and lighting.
Palace of Holy Office
Located in Rome, the Palace of Holy Office is the only building of the Vatican not found within its borders.
Built in 1514, Michelangelo, Roselli and Leni were architects of this building near St. Peter's Basilica. It was originally called Palazzo Pucci because it was built for Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci.
Pope Pius IV purchased the building in the mid-1500s and made it the Holy Office. It is home to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the oldest of nine congregations of the Roman Curia (Court of Rome).
Found within Vatican City is the German College. But remember, didn't we say the Ethiopian college is the only one in Vatican City? That's because this pontifical college is a part of Rome and not operated by the Vatican.
The Teutonic College is the oldest German establishment in Rome, and beside it is a cemetery founded by Charlemagne.
Connected to St. Peter's Basilica is the Sacristy holding the church's most sacred items.
This treasury includes papal clothing, crowns and tiaras, and jewels and gems.
During the 9th century, Pope Leo IV wanted to protect his people and began to build the Vatican City Walls. (Not all of the walls are that old; some areas did not receive walls until the 15th and 16th centuries.)
The walls don't keep everyone out, though. The entry at St. Peter's Square is wide open and welcomes all.
Collection of Contemporary Art
Housed in its own space is the Collection of Contemporary Art, established in 1973. Created under Pope Montini, the museum features paintings, graphic arts and sculptures.
You'll find works by renowned artists such as Van Gogh, Chagall, Bacon and Matisse.
If you do make it to Vatican City, you can see the pope at noon on Sundays.
He appears from a window of the Papal Apartments to give a speech, the Catholic Angelus and a blessing to the people below in St. Peter's Square.