No trip to Rome is completed without visiting the Catholic Capital. I spent three glorious days in Rome; glorious because it all involves food, arts and museums which are the three things that I really like (minus the extra waistline of course).
Measuring just over 110 acres and a population of a thousand people, the Vatican City is indeed the smallest country in the world. I would advise on spending a full day in Vatican City, simply because there’s so much to see. If you’re a fan of Dan Brown’s writings (especially Angels and Demons) then the Vatican is one not to be missed!
Quick word of advice: Don’t try to overkill the Vatican with the rest of Rome. Give it a full day, period. It is a separate country after all. Also, wear something appropriate! Short skirts, tops and hot pants are no-go. They will make you purchase an overpriced scarf to cover up. Even if it’s summer, wear thin leggings!
HOW TO GET THERE
Take the red Metropolitana line (line A) to Ottaviano-San Pietro. Similarly you can hop off at Cipro-Musei Vaticani if you want to see the museum first. A standard ticket costs €1.50, and €7 for 24 hours pass (valid on all train, buses and metro). If you have the Roma Pass, transportation is included in the fee.
You can also take the bus number 60, 62 and 64. If you’re unsure, just ask your bus driver “Vaticano?” and you’re well on your way. Also, beware of pickpockets. They’re notorious in Rome!
WHAT TO DO IN VATICAN CITY
1. The St. Peter’s Basilica
Ahh the St. Peter’s Basilica. This prominent building of the Vatican City is also the main burial site for St. Peter. Although I am no Catholic myself, this renowned Rennaissance architecture is a major site for pilgrimage, as well as for liturgical functions.
It’s best to visit the St. Peter’s Basilica early in the morning, to beat the afternoon crowd. Entrance to the Basilica is free! I visited Rome in the middle of December, and despite it being a low season the crowd was untolerable. I can’t imagine how pack it is during the summer, especially with the hot Roman weather.
This was my first time to a Basilica and I was absolutely blown away by the details! The interiors were lavishly decorated with marbles, architectural sculptures and paintings. Daily mass are also carried within the Basilica (although mostly in Italian). You can also go for confessions at the Basilica, just be sure notify the attendants.
If you wish to see the Pope you will need to check the Papal Calendar for Audiences and Masses at the St. Peter’s Square. Tickets are always required for these events, and they’re free! More information on the Papal Calendar and tickets can be found here. Who knows, you might be able to shake hands with the Pope on your next visit!
Did you know you can climb up the dome (cupola) for an extra fee? At the entrance of the Basilica, search for a sign on the far right that leads you to a kiosk for the elevator. The elevator costs you €7 to the roof, while the stairs costs you €5. If you take the elevator you will need to climb another 230 steps to the top of the dome. Why pay more when you still have to climb to the end? Take the stairs instead and pay less. Exercise!
We saw the Swiss Guards on the way out of St. Peter’s Basilica, only to be mildly disappointed by the heavy cloak masking their flamboyant uniforms (it was winter). On contrary to popular beliefs, the Swiss Guards uniform was not design by Michelangelo.
Having read about them in books and historical articles, I was naturally very excited to spot the Swiss Guards. Although small in numbers, the Pontifical Swiss Guard is one of the oldest standing military units of the world. They may look harmless, but these elite forces are known to be ultra deadly. During the Sack of Rome in 1527, the front steps of the Basilica was a massacre between the Swiss Guards and the Imperial troops, long enough for the Pope to make his escape to Castel Sant’Angelo. 150 out of the 189 Swiss Guards died, but the dedication for the Pope is admirable. Also, they’re not Italians. They’s Swiss. And yes, they’re very easy on the eyes 😉
2. Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museum)
The Musei Vaticani is one of my favourite museum of all times (second to the Louvre! I could spent hours there!). It’s best to book your tickets online (link here) and skip the massive queue! A standard ticket costs €16, and €8 for students under 25 years old. There is an additional cost of €4 for an online fee.
Unfortunately, the Roma Pass doesn’t work for the Vatican Museum. You will need to book a separate ticket in order to enter. I got mine for €12 with an ISIC card (international student identity card). Please note that the last entry to the Sistine Chapel is at 4pm, and the Museum closes at 6pm. There is also a cafe here where you can grab a quick bite, slightly overpriced but better than the touristic restaurants nearby.
You can opt for audio guides for €7, which is what I did. A friend recently went to Rome and raved about guided tour, which takes 2 – 3 hours and costs about €32. If you’re a museum enthusiast you might want to consider the tour. There is also a combined tour of both the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum for €37.
I really love the spiral staircase leading to the Museum. You could almost imagine Taylor Swift singing Love Story spiralling down the stairs!
Highlight for Musei Vaticani is of course the Sistine Chapel. This is also a major site for the Papal Conclave (the selection of the pope). You can find famous paintings from Michelangelo here, like the Creation of Adam on the ceiling frescos. It shows God breathing life (more like touching fingertips) with Adam.
Pictures are not allowed, but here’s a stock photo for you. There were guards all around the Sistine Chapel hissing “no photos!” to stubborn visitors. Also, that is just rude. Respect the rules please.
I also love Michelango’s fresco of The Last Judgement, covering the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. If you’re familiar with the book of Revelation (in the bible), the Last Judgement depicts the second coming of Christ, and a composition of hell as described by Dante. It’s mind blowing really, it was also my favourite part of the Sistine Chapel after straining my neck trying to observe the ceiling.
On the last Sunday of the month the entrance to the Vatican Museum is free. However don’t get too excited as crowd can be massive, and opening hours are limited till 2pm.
There’s also no air conditioning in the Museum, so if you’re here for the summer, well…best of luck to you.
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to stroll around the Museum’s garden!
3. Castel Sant’Angelo (St. Angelo’s Castle)
A short distance away from the Vatican City, Castel Sant’Angelo is a fortress located on the right bank of the Tiber river. During the Sack of Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII had taken refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo shortly after his flee from the Vatican City. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, this is also the Illuminati’s hideout.
Tickets costs €10.50 for adults, and €7 for children/teenagers aged 6- 17 years. If you have the Roma pass, you can also use it here.
The Castel Sant’Angelo is a very complex fortress, and I love exploring the inner walls! Here you can find painted walls, staircases, courtyards, small museums and countless hallways. There is also a quaint little cafe on one of the levels for a quick break.
I would definitely recommend in visiting the St. Peter’s Basilica first, spending 2 – 4 hours in Musei Vaticani next, and saving Castel Sant’Angelo for the later. Because this, my dear friend has the BEST sunset view in Rome!
It was an accident really. I was already planning to catch the sunset elsewhere (at Giardino degli Aranci to be exact; the Orange Garden). But for some reason we decided to stop by Castel Sant’Angelo – and hey no regrets! The golden light hitting the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was just breathtaking. It was a perfect way to end the day.
4. Ponte Sant’Angelo (St. Angelo’s Bridge)
Just opposite Castel Sant’Angelo lies the Sant’Angelo’s Bridge. Ten Baroque angel statues represents the pain and suffering of Jesus Christ. If you observe carefully there is actually an angel holding the cross, and another with the crown of thorns.
The bridge is mostly a pedestrian walk, but from here on you’re free to venture off to the rest of Rome! Not too far away from the bridge is the Piazza Novano, and you can make you way to the Pantheon and subsequently to the Trevi Fountain from here.
Or do like what we did; hunt for gelatos and cheap pizzas! I will write about Rome on a budget soon (and get this Rome chapter out of my head for good) so watch this space! Hope this helps in planning your trip to Rome, and till next time!