11 Best Places to Visit in the Vatican

  • February 23, 2022

The Vatican has been an autonomous state since 1929 when the Pope signed an agreement with Mussolini, and it is the world's most minor with only 0.44 square kilometers. However, there are enough attractions and things to do within its boundaries to keep travelers occupied for several days.

St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel are the two must-see sights. Still, the Vatican Palace also contains magnificent rooms decorated by the greatest artists of their time and priceless collections in more than a dozen museums. 

There are also missionary artifacts on display and over 800 works of modern religious art by Matisse, Dali, and others. With this list of the top-rated tourist attractions in the Vatican, you can find out what to see and do.

1. St. Peter's Basilica

The majestic St. Peter's Basilica is the centerpiece of the Vatican and one of the best sites to visit. It was erected between the 16th and 18th centuries to replace earlier structures that began in 326 on the site where St. Peter is said to bury. Incredibly, the sale of indulgences to fund this structure in the 16th century sparked Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation.

The work of prominent painters begins even before you enter the church: over the main gateway are remains of a mosaic by Giotto and an equestrian figure of Constantine by Bernini. It, like the two bronze doors, hails from an antique church.

The vast nave can accommodate a congregation of more than 60,000. Michelangelo's famed Pietà, which he sculpted when he was only 24, lies behind reinforced glass on your right. The richly decorated Chapel of the Sacrament, with Bernini's tabernacle and his rival Borromini's bronze grille, is also on the right.

The roof stairs are beside the Baptistery. You can ascend 330 steep steps within the dome to the lantern for a closer look at the dome's structure and spectacular views of St. Peter's Square.

2. Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is a rectangular hall that serves as the Pope's home chapel and helps for services and special occasions. Pope Sixtus IV built it in 1473-84. The conclave to pick a Pope's successor is convened here after a Pope's death. Michelangelo's and others' murals cover the walls and ceiling and are considered the pinnacle of Renaissance painting.

Large murals depicting Biblical events against the backdrop of Umbrian and Tuscan scenery, painted for Sixtus IV by the most known painters of the day, adorn the side walls. The Old Testament scenes are on the left wall, while the New Testament scenes are on the right.

Michelangelo created the ceiling frescoes in the reign of Pope Julius II, between 1508 and 1512, almost entirely without the assistance of helpers. Michelangelo showed the Creation in Genesis: God divided the light from darkness, made the sun and moon, separated land and sea, created Adam and Eve, and continued through Noah's tale.

The prophets and sibyls are enormous figures beneath the vaulting. In 1534, Michelangelo began work on the massive fresco on the altar wall, which depicts the world's ultimate scene, the Last Judgment. It is considered one of the finest triumphs of European painting because of its dramatic presentation and creative refinement.

3. Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's Square)

Bernini designed the vast Piazza San Pietro in front of St. Peter's Basilica between 1656 and 1667 to serve as a gathering place for pilgrims from all over the world. It continues to perform that job beautifully, and it is packed to the brim on Easter Sunday and other significant occasions.

The basilica's façade is the focal point. The Pope gives blessings and announces beatifications and canonizations from the central balcony.

4. Vatican Palace(Apostolic Palace)

The art-loving Pope Julius II and later by Pope Leo X commissioned the Palace of the Vatican's papal residences. These rooms were decorated with a superb sequence of Raphael's murals, completed between 1508 and 1511 and represented the pinnacle of Renaissance art.

Pope Alexander VI, a Borgia, had a private apartment building inside the Vatican Palace for himself and his family, now known as the Appartamento Borgia. Pinturicchio and his associates painted a sequence of images between 1492 and 1495 that mixed Christian themes with ancient and Renaissance humanist ideas.

It's easy to overlook this little gem as you exit the Raphael Rooms and enter the Sala dei Chiaroscuro, where the wooden ceiling will draw your gaze. However, there is a small doorway in the corner leading to Nicholas V's Chapel, also known as Cappella Niccolina. Fra Beato Angelico, a Florentine monk of the early Renaissance, frescoed the entire interior.

The subjects of the frescoes are the lives and martyrdoms of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence. Like all of Fra Angelico's work, these paintings speak of deceptive simplicity, gentleness, and devotion that almost makes you overlook this talented artist's genius.

5. Vatican Gardens

The first sections of the Vatican Gardens were built in the 13th century for Pope Nicholas II as a place of quiet thought. The groomed gardens, grassy spaces, and orchards have expanded to span about half of the tiny city-size state and rival the most exquisite gardens in Italy over the years.

Visitors will find many individually potted plants along the walks, including gorgeous azaleas and other lush flowers, in addition to the traditional French Garden. Several rare trees, including an Australian silk oak and several trees donated as gifts by official guests, are planted amid them and in the orchard.

6. Collection of Modern Religious Art

As with the other Vatican museums, not the entire collection of over 8000 works is on display, but the works displayed in galleries between the Borgia Apartment and the Sistine Chapel provide an overview of 20th-century religious paintings. Among the works on religious themes in the collection are Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, and others.

7. Museo Pio Clementino

The Vatican Museums have the world's most extensive collection of ancient sculptures. The majority of them are on display in the systematic arrangement devised by Popes Clement XIV and Pius VI between 1769 and 1799. 

One of the most famous statues in the Vatican is the Apollo Belvedere, found in the Cortile del Belvedere.

8. Vatican Apostolic Library

With 7,000 incunabula (books produced before 1501), 25,000 medieval hand-written books, and 80,000 manuscripts collected since the library's foundation in 1450, the Vatican Library is the richest in the world. And that's just the ancient literature; it doesn't include all of the books published since the end of the 15th century.

You may see some of the museum's most valuable items in its 70-meter-long hall, which Domenico Fontana built: magnificent hand-illuminated Gospels, Biblical codices, early printed books, parchment manuscripts, and ancient scrolls and papyri. 

9. Egyptian Museum

Pope Gregory XVI reopened the Egyptian Museum in the Cortile della Pigna in 1839, after Pius VIII had assembled the original collection. Villa Adriana in Tivoli took much of the collection and Emperor Hadrian had amassed it.

Artifacts gathered by 19th-century collectors supplement Hadrian's collections. The collection is small, but it contains some excellent specimens of Egyptian art from the third millennium to the sixth century BC in its nine rooms. Basalt and wooden sarcophagi, god and pharaoh sculptures, bronzes, mummified heads, burial reliefs, stelae with hieroglyphic inscriptions, and papyri are among the highlights.

Art from ancient Mesopotamia, vases and bronzes from Syria, and reliefs from Assyrian palaces may all be found in the last two rooms.

10. Vatican Necropolis

A rich wealth of archaeological artifacts awaits beneath St. Peter's great dome and priceless frescoes. Many people are familiar with the papal grottoes beneath the cathedral, which contain private chapels where former Popes have been entombed, as well as the 12th-century church that surrounds them.

Some people don't realize that there are enormous ruins even lower in the dirt below, revealing burial grounds dating back to the 1st century BCE. The lowest of the three floors contains a pagan burial site. The next level includes pagan and Christian tombs and remnants from the 5th century, including stone crypts and arches.

However, the most significant find is a gravesite said to contain the remains of Saint Peter himself, a relic that the Vatican is still meticulously excavating.

11. Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery)

The Pinacoteca comprises 16 rooms of precious art from the Middle Ages to contemporary works, despite Napoleon robbing many of its masterpieces. The photos, arranged in chronological sequence, provide an excellent overview of the evolution of Western art. Byzantine, Sienese, Umbrian, and Tuscan paintings and a Giotto triptych and a Madonna and St. Nicholas of Bari by Fra Angelico are among the works on display.


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