The centre of the Catholic church and residence of the pope, the Vatican is an independent sovereign state which lies wholly within the Italian city of Rome. An important pilgrimage destination for Catholics all over the world, its fascinating history and the craftsmanship which went into creating its beautiful buildings make it a captivating place for people of all faiths, and none, to visit.
Deriving from the Latin name for a swampy area which lay on the right bank of the Tiber during the Roman times, the ‘Vatican’ was the site of the vast Roman Circus or stadium in which the Apostle Peter was publically crucified upside down and later buried. The martyrdom and burial of St Peter at the site led to it becoming an important destination for Christian pilgrims. *
It was the Roman emperor Constantine who began construction of the Basilica of St Peter in the 3rd Century, on the ground in which he was said to have been buried. It has, however, been extensively rebuilt and enlarged since that time, becoming increasingly splendid as the Catholic Church grew in power.
In the 8th Century, the Emperor Charle Magne built walls around the Vatican, for the first time separating it from the rest of Rome. Much of the city, including the basilica, were rebuilt in the 15th and 16th Centuries to create the Renaissance masterpiece we know today.
What to Do
Despite only being 0.17sq miles, there is still plenty to see and do in the Vatican. But before you set off, remember this is a holy place so you’ll need to dress accordingly. If you want to enter any of the buildings you will need to remove hats/caps and cover your shoulders and knees (no shorts, vests or halternecks).
To witness the sheer opulence of the Catholic Church and to get some idea of its wealth and power you need only step into St Peter’s Basilica with its gold gilding, elaborate architecture and stunning artwork. The awe-inspiring Renaissance church, built so that its glittering altar rests above the burial place of St Peter, was designed by leading architects of the day including Michelangelo. Despite not being the official first church of the religion, it is considered one of the world’s most important Catholic shrines.
Of course, you can’t visit the Vatican without straining your neck to look at Michelangelo’s famous painting of the Old Testament stories on the ceiling of the pope’s private Sistine chapel. But, while everyone else is looking up or at Michelangelo’s fresco of The Last Supper, don’t forget to make time to take in the stunning earlier frescos along the two long walls of the chapel by artists including Botticelli.
The other ‘must see’ sight on a visit to the Vatican is the Raphael Rooms. Raphael was commissioned to paint frescoes on the walls of the Pope’s private apartments in 1508. Starting in the same year as Michelangelo began work on the Sistine Chapel, it took Raphael twice as long to complete these rooms. The result, however, was well worth the wait, with Renaissance masterpieces depicting various scenes including The School of Athens and St Peter Being Delivered From Prison.
Being such a small state, set in the heart of an Italian city, it is hardly surprising that the cuisine of the Vatican is identical to that of Italy, featuring pizza and pasta as well as fish and meat dishes in rich tomato and herb sauces. There are few places to eat within the city walls, although there is, of course, a pizzeria where you can enjoy the most Italian of Italian fare.
Again the climate of the Vatican is identical to that of Rome, with hot summer featuring average temperatures of around 26ºC and mild winters with average lows of 8ºC. The best time to visit is from April to May or from September to October, when it is both cooler than the summer months and less crowded.
How to Get There
While the Vatican is too small to have its own airport, it is well served by Rome’s two airports from which it is possible to take an airport transfer to the city state.
Other travel options include good train connections from all major locations across Europe to Rome via the Trenitalia rail network. The main train stations in Rome are Termini Station and Tiburtina Station, from where you can get a transfer to the Vatican.
It is possible to drive to Rome but the Vatican will not allow access to cars (except in exceptional circumstances), so you’ll need to park before entering the city.
Travelling to the Vatican? Don’t Miss…
- The Vatican Gardens – These beautiful, meditative gardens make up much of the land of the Vatican state. Buy a ticket and you can take a guided, two hour tour through its perfectly groomed lawns, with its numerous monuments and fountains. The tours do get booked up early, so it’s best to book at least a week in advance.
- St Peter’s Square – Visit St Peter’s Square on a Sunday at 12pm for the Sunday Angelus and you’ll be able to watch the pope give a short recital of Angelus and an Apostolic Blessing from his famous balcony. It may last only 20 minutes but it is quite an experience.
- The Belvedere Torso – It may be only a fragment of a muscular male torso, but it was the inspiration for many Italian Renaissance artists including Michelangelo. It is said that he drew on this ancient Greek sculpture for the pose of Christ in his depiction of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and when you consider the two, the similarities are striking.
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