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What to see at the Vatican

Vatican City has a lot to offer: the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Dome, the Basilica and the impressive Piazza with Bernini's colonnade. Here's everything you have to see and do in the Vatican

Carmen Navarro

Carmen Navarro

7 min read

What to see at the Vatican

Close-up of St. Peter's Square and the Basilica | ©Simone Savoldi

In the Vatican, you can spend at least a whole day and surely you would not finish seeing all the art it contains. In addition to the spectacular square that welcomes you with a pristine white colonnade, you can access the Vatican Museums to enjoy the Sistine Chapel or access St. Peter's Basilica to get the best views of Rome from its Dome.

Don't be overwhelmed by the number of things to see and do in the Vatican. I've put together a list of the must-sees and must-do's in the Vatican that you can't miss:

1. Contemplate Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel contains one of the most popular works of art in the world, without a doubt. It is located inside the Vatican Museums and to access it you will have to buy tickets for the Vatican. As big as the Vatican Museums are, you will see how most visitors stop in front of the Sistine Chapel. At first, you won't be able to take pictures (or at least not with flash), but don't worry. Enjoy the views of such a unique work and forget about your cell phone and camera for a while. It's worth it.

You should know that not only Miguel Ángel participated in the frescoes that cover the walls and ceiling, but also artists such as Botticelli, Guirlandaio, Signorelli or Perugino. While the 12 side paintings depict episodes from the life of Jesus and Moses, the high altar fresco is Michelangelo's masterpiece, 'The Last Judgment', and the ceiling mixes passages from the Old and New Testament. I tell you more in my article on the Sistine Chapel.

2. Climb St. Peter's Dome for the best views of Rome

St. Peter's Dome
St. Peter's Dome

The Vatican is famous for being the place where St. Peter, the first Pope, was buried, but it is also the smallest state in the world with a population of around 1000. The area, presided over by the majestic Dome of St. Peter's, attracts pilgrims from all over the Christian world every day.

History and religion aside, this Dome is one of the highest points in the city of Rome and the view from the top (that square with two semicircles bounded by columns that you have seen in hundreds of aerial photographs) is worth the effort it takes to climb. Tickets to go up to the Dome are purchased directly there, there is no way to get them online.

Be aware that the climb is not easy and not suitable for everyone, so if you are thinking of going up to the top of the Vatican City, you can check out my article on how to climb the Dome of St. Peter's.

3. Admire Michelangelo's Pietà inside St. Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo's Pieta

As soon as you discover the sculpture of the Pietà as you enter St. Peter's Basilica and admire its imposing white marble size you will understand why this sculpture dating from before 1500 went down in history as one of Michelangelo's most special works.

The figure depicts the Virgin Mary lamenting over the body of her son Jesus after dying on the cross. The realism of its faces, its proportions, and the movement and tension that this work accumulates make it unique in the world.

Almost two meters high, it leaves everyone who enters the Saint Peter's Basilica with their mouths wide open. This is the most outstanding work you will see inside the Basilica.

4. St. Peter's Square and Bernini's colonnade

Columnnade of St. Peter's Square
Columnnade of St. Peter's Square

Before going up to the Dome, allow yourself to contemplate St. Peter's Square from below (this is the square from which the Pope's famous Masses are celebrated). The obelisk in the center gives in the summer months the only shade available to a square that is 1,000 feet long and 787 feet wide. It is very difficult not to feel comfortingly insignificant before the magnitude of these dimensions.

5. Photograph of the Baldachin of St. Peter's Basilica

The Baldachin of St. Peter's
The Baldachin of St. Peter's

These gigantic canopied columns presiding over the altar of St. Peter's Basilica will catch your eye as soon as you cross the entrance doors. The baroque style brought to its maximum expression by the author Bernini makes this piece the undisputed protagonist of all eyes inside the Basilica. You will have to go far away to fit it completely in your camera, as it is almost 100 feet high.

6. Discover the Vatican Museums in-depth, on a guided tour, or on your own

The famous staircase of the Vatican Museums
The famous staircase of the Vatican Museums

The real crown jewel in Vatican City is the Vatican Museums adjacent to the square. Inside is, of course, the well-known Sistine Chapel, but this is not the only attraction of a museum that gathers art from the 15th to the 19th century, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Italic, Christian, medieval, and modern religious.

The Vatican Museums are divided into several areas or museums and, although you can spend as many hours inside as you want, if you do not want to return from your trip to Rome with a thorn in your side, in my opinion, you should not miss the well-known Sistine Chapel, the sculptures of the Pio Clementino Museum and the rooms of Raphael. You can visit them on your own or with a guided tour of the Vatican Museums.

The sculptures of the Pio Clementino Museum

Dedicated to classical sculpture, this museum contains works such as the statue of 'Laocoon and his sons' (one of my favorites for the expressiveness it reflects) or the Apollo of the Belvedere, which embodies the ideals of classical beauty.

The paintings of the Pinacoteca

Your Art History teachers would never allow you to skip a collection of a total of 460 paintings that includes masterpieces by the greatest artists of Italian painting such as Da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio, or Raphael.

The Gregorian Egyptian Museum

Although for the vast majority these works are not going to be so well known, I recommend that you do not fail to take a look at the Egyptian art collection, one of the treasures of the Vatican Museums.

The rooms of Raphael

Perhaps this is the area that arouses more expectation after the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate these four rooms and for 16 years he and his pupils were entrusted with the task with such mastery that these paintings turned out to be the ones that put the painter's fame on a par with Michelangelo. It is a real treat for the eyes to dwell on the details of these paintings.

The spiral staircase

You will find it at the entrance; stop to take a look at it from above and do not let this architectural toy go unnoticed among the works of art.

The gallery of the chandeliers

If like me, you like to admire the museum rooms themselves apart from the works they contain, I recommend you to look for this gallery because, besides being one of the most original, it has a very nice view of the Vatican Gardens.

Of course, you as a traveler must decide what interests you most. If you are passionate about cartography the Gallery of Maps will be for you a must-see and if you know how to recite by heart the Roman emperors you will like to see the Hall of the Busts. The catalog of the Vatican Museums is immense.

7. Stroll through the Vatican Gardens

Aerial view of the Vatican Gardens
Aerial view of the Vatican Gardens

If you are wondering how to visit the Vatican Gardens, I'll tell you that you can only do it with the internal staff of the Museums: either by a guided tour or on board a bus with an audio guide.

My opinion: it is not a must if you are thinking of paying the entrance fees to the Museums just to see the Gardens, but if you are already set on going to the Museum, make sure to pass through them during your visit.

8. Discover Vatican surroundings

View from Castel St'Angelo
View from Castel St'Angelo

While you're there, you might want to tour a few of the Vatican's surroundings to get a more complete view of Rome. In and around the Vatican you will inevitably find hundreds of souvenir stores with the Pope's face even on tennis rackets. But if you feel like taking a stroll beyond the Walls surrounding Vatican City, you will discover Prati, a residential neighborhood away from the masses where you can see Romans strolling, shopping, or grabbing a bite.

The Via della Conciliazione is also worth a walk: its width and majesty leads to St. Peter's Square and links it to the Castel Sant'Angelo, which is also worth a visit.

9. Go to meet the Pope at the Vatican

Pope Francis during the Angelus
Pope Francis during the Angelus

As you may well know, the Pope, the highest representation of the Catholic Church in the world (and head of the Vatican State) lives in Vatican City itself. And although having an audience with the Pope in private requires a lot of paperwork, good contacts, and a very good reason to meet him, it is possible to attend a live mass or the weekly blessing he gives every Sunday from his window.

Expect crowds, as there are always religious groups and pilgrims who go there to attend these events, but if you feel like completing your visit to the Vatican with a meeting with the Pontiff, I tell you here everything you need to know to see the Pope at the Vatican.

10. Enjoy the gastronomy of the Vatican area

Typical Italian appetizer
Typical Italian appetizer

You may be surprised at this point, but yes, in a place with so many tourists, you can eat very well and without going broke. But you will have to know how to look because the area is full of tourist traps. That's why I have made a list of places to eat near the Vatican and I have included menus for all tastes and times of the day. Bon apetit!