I was raised Catholic, and for a long time was pretty fascinated by the traditions surrounding the religion. I imagined Popes like spiritual kings, and the Sistine Chapel was a long-romanced storytale.
When I had the opportunity to visit Rome with my best friend, I knew that the Vatican City and Sistine Chapel would be musts.
Even though I haven’t been a practicing or believing Catholic for a long time, Vatican City and the other religious sites in Rome were just as magical as I had ever dreamed the would be.
The tall ceilings, decadent paintings, and quiet hush (even when packed with jostling crowds) inspire a sacred feeling, even amongst us non-believers.
Vatican City (officially Vatican City State) is a walled city within the city of Rome. Approximately 110 acres, and with a population just over 800, it is the smallest recognized independent state in the world (by both size of area and by population). It is ruled by the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope), and is a sacerdotal monarchy (the head of state is also the head of the religion).
St. Peter’s Basilica
It is one of the most stunning, sacred-feeling, awe-inspiring buildings I have ever experienced.
St. Peter’s Basilica features glorious paintings,
and jaw-dropping architecture.
It is easily the most epic church I have ever seen in my entire life.
The Basilica also is a working church, and has functional chapels and pews for the religious.
The only downside? Insane lines. The line barely moved from the hour that I entered until I left, but it was Easter week during my visit (if you don’t want to deal with lines, I’d recommend the same Skip-the-Line pass as for the Vatican museum, it also works for the Basilica for one price).
Don’t forget to bring a pen and some spare change, after you visit the Basilica you’ve got to stop by the Vatican post office, to send an inexpensive postcard from the world’s smallest (and arguably most holy?) independent state.
The museums within the Vatican are exquisite.
And absolutely huge. But just like with the Basilica, so are the lines outside. (I suggest getting a Skip the Line pass like me)
Inside, it doesn’t get any better (perhaps even worse?) as the masses of people drift through the halls (interspersed by blocks of tour groups) admiring the beautiful works of art accumulated by the Vatican. The major exhibits have regular signs (like street signs) directing you through the halls.
Even the halls themselves are spectacular, lined with paintings and dotted with statues.
It is so worth dealing with the crowds to experience the wonders of the museum. I’m a museum lover, and I’ve been to many, but I think the Vatican museum is the best so far.
Keep in mind – While the path is marked, there aren’t many exits, so plan your time (if you’re in a crunch) wisely. You wouldn’t want to be stuck in a slowly shuffling horde towards the Sistine Chapel if you’ve got to be at the exit in fifteen minutes. There aren’t easy exits throughout (perhaps to increase security and dissuade theft and vandalism)
The Vatican museums contained much more than I expected, and unfortunately I didn’t budget enough time to appreciate all that was offered (you can learn more about that here).
Sistine Chapel (within the Vatican)
AMAZING. Hallelujah, angels singing, trumpets trumpeting, AMAZING. The paintings were so vivid and so real, the ceiling looked more like a window onto heaven than something to hold up the roof.
No photography was allowed – which honestly made it even better. There were no camera flashes, no people pushing for a better shot, just hundreds of visitors admiring the glory that is the Sistine Chapel.
During busy times, you also cannot stand directly under the main part of the Chapel, you will be shuffled to a side area, where the viewing is still good, but so that new visitors can enter without a blockade.
Before visiting Rome, I had never known that the Sistine Chapel was within the Vatican museum. Now I know, and so do you.
Learn from My Mistakes at The Vatican
Budget at least two hours excluding transportation/tour time for the Vatican museum (I’d recommend 3 to 4 hours), and at least an hour for St. Peter’s Basilica – NOT including the line time (my advice, Skip-the-Line)
Visit in the morning, before the tour groups get organized (even better if you arrive at the opening)
Don’t go during holidays (Easter Week was insane!) as the crowds are bigger and there are closures
Also, Keep in Mind
Dress conservatively (belly-baring tops, low cut necklines with cleavage spilling out, and short shorts/skirts will not be appreciated nor are they appropriate).
The Vatican is a very special, once in a lifetime religious experience for many others visiting. Treat these churches with the same respect that you would treat your own or any other place of worship.
Be respectful of the holy images and religious items that you will come across.
I was shocked by a big Chinese tour group dousing themselves in holy water and splashing each other while taking selfies with the statue of a Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica. If you are uncertain what is appropriate, you can always ask any of the other people around, or one of the staff members.
Off the Radar Church : St. Paul’s Basilica in Ostiense
I went on a Sunday, and didn’t feel comfortable going outside, but the Church is beautiful outside, and has a gorgeous park (where there were lots of picnicers) and the BEST pizza in the world across the street. It’s also very easy to reach (Station S Paulo on the Metro, also walkable from Marconi).
For more on Rome click here