Today I visited the smallest country in the world- Vatican City! Being so small, it was easy to see everything in a day. We visited Saint Peter’s Square and Basilica during the day, and had the privilege of an exclusive night tour of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.
Vatican City is a city-state that serves as the head of the Catholic church. Despite being landlocked by Italy, Vatican City has independence because of its religious status, as Catholics argued that it wasn’t fair for Italy to be the epicenter of worldwide Catholic authority. To make it fair, Vatican City was given independence in 1929 after the Lateran Treaties.
My friends joked that Vatican City is like disneyland for Catholics, and as an Irish Catholic, I actually have to agree with them! Seeing the Sistine Chapel completely empty of noise and crowds was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and a spiritual experience I’ll never forget.
I can’t wait to tell you all about it!
Getting to Vatican City
It’s hard to determine where Rome ends and Vatican City begins because you don’t need to have your passport to get in, as Vatican City shares an open border with Italy.
We entered Vatican City by walking directly into Saint Peter’s Square by the Via della Conciliazione (road/way of conciliation). You can also get in through the Vatican Museums on the north end.
Saint Peter’s Square
Saint Peter’s Square is the central pedestrian area of Vatican City, and serves as its main entrance point.
Come to think of it, it’s more of a circle than a square.
At the very center of the “square” is a towering obelisk that was stolen from Egypt. Twelve lines radiate out from the obelisk which transforms the whole square into a giant sundial. On the far end of the square is Saint Peter’s Basilica, and two curved colonnades enclose the (circular) square. Apparently, these additions symbolize the embracing arms of the church.
The colonnades also provide a nice shady spot while you wait in the giant line to get into St. Peter’s Basilica.
We encountered several interesting people while waiting in this line.
Some of my classmates were keeping a tally of how many nuns and monks they saw walking around, and by the time we’d made it through the line, we’d counted around 50 of each!
We met another guy who wasn’t a monk, but he sure was feeling some kind of way about Jesus. He kept coming up to us and yelling things like, “Can I get a Hallelujah?!”, or “Jesus is so good!!!”. After each of these exclamations, he would do a little dance that I can only describe as rotational twerking. Believe me when I say that he was really throwing it back for Jesus.
Besides that guy, I also noticed an overabundance of children, some wearing only diapers, running around the square without any apparent supervision. And for that, I have no explanation.
Oh, and I almost forgot! We also got to see the Swiss guards in their colorful little uniforms! They kind of reminded be of the royal guard in London, except these guys are allowed to talk to each other.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
Even though the line to get in wrapped half way around the square, we were able to get in after only a half hour of waiting.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is built in the shape of cross with the altar in the very center under a giant ciborium. According to our professor, the ciborim is 10 stories tall, and the ceiling is 45!
Like the other Roman churches we’ve seen, Saint Peter’s Basilica is packed full of art. Besides covering every inch of wall space, towering monuments to hundreds of popes, saints, and martyrs have been placed wherever they can fit! The amount of glorious art is a little disorienting, so I’d recommend researching what you’d like to see beforehand so that you’re not wandering around aimlessly in the enormous basilica (like I did for the first half hour).
Thankfully, Saint Peter’s basilica holds some of the most important Christian artifacts in the world, so you’ll have no shortage of things to see! Here are some of my recommendations on things to look out for:
One of the basilica’s most prized possessions is Michelangelo’s Pietà. It’s a marble sculpture of a weeping Mary holding her dead son, and is revered for its portrayal of Mary’s profound sadness.
It’s protected behind glass now because a few years ago, a crazy man tried to attack it. Yikes!
Four Monuments to the Relics
Supporting the central dome are four statues that depict saints carrying the church’s most precious relics, including Jesus’s cross, His spear, St. Andrew’s cross, and St. Veronica’s cloth.
The Holy Door
This door is only opened by the pope for special occasions, like the jubilee year. Sadly, the door wasn’t open when I visited.
Here’s something you can’t miss! Literally, because there are hundreds of tombs for popes, saints, and other holy figures all over St. Peter’s Basilica. Though they’re mostly inscribed Italian or Latin, it’s fun to try and figure out who is buried in each one!
Our Vatican City Private Tour
After leaving Saint Peter’s Basilica, we had an hour to kill before the Vatican Museums closed, and our class could take the private tour.
Apparently, the Vatican Museums have a special relationship with our school program that goes back for decades, and so they let our professor walk us through the museums and the Sistine chapel after hours when it is closed to the public.
I’m not sure if private Vatican tours are something they offer exclusively to our school, but regardless, I feel so SO lucky to get to see the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel at night.
By the time we were gathered in the dark lobby, I was practically buzzing with catholisicm-fueled enthusiasm.
The Vatican Museums
It’s hard for me to describe the Vatican museums because there are so many different kinds of art here that seem to be completely unrelated to each other.
There were a lot of times that I found myself asking “how did you guys get this stuff?”.
We didn’t have time to visit all of the Vatican Museums, but here are the ones we did see:
Museo Pio Clementino
The first museum we explored was the Museo Pio Clementino, which has some of the most famous early greek and roman statues of all time, like the Belvedere Torso, Laocoön and His Sons, and the Jenning’s Dog. We were able to stand in front of these sculptures for a long time and discussed how they influenced Renaissance sculptors without worrying about blocking other people’s view.
My favorite part of visiting the Museo Pio Clementino at night was that it was so quiet, you could hear the garden’s fountains trickling, and the floodlights made the statues look so dramatic.
Very ‘Night at the Museum‘-esqe
The next museum we visited was the Raphael rooms. The rooms themselves are empty, but the walls and ceiling are covered in Raphael’s radiant frescoes. I’m probably going to have a crick in my neck tomorrow from twisting it around to see all the paintings, and I don’t care.
The frescoes show all sorts of biblical scenes, but there’s also Raphael’s famous School of Athens.
Gallery of Maps
The Gallery of Maps is a museum that consists of a long hallway with topographical maps of Italy on both sides. The real star here, though, is the ceiling. It’s the most glorious paneled ceiling art I’ve ever seen in my life.
Gallery of Tapestries
The Gallery of Tapestries was the last museum we visited before entering the Sistine Chapel. This gallery is lined with floor-to-ceiling tapestries depicting the life of Christ according to the Catholics. The tapestries are a gold mine for art historians because they’re full of symbolism, like an unexplained monkey on the roof.
The Sistine Chapel
After leaving the Gallery of Tapestries, we entered the place I’ve been most excited to see in Vatican City- the Sistine Chapel!
The Sistine Chapel is famous worldwide for being covered with Michelangelo’s frescoes, which he and his team painted in just four years.
This wasn’t my first time seeing the Sistine Chapel. I visited back in July of 2015, and my experience then could not have been more different. As you would expect, visiting midday in July meant the place was absolutely mobbed, and all I really remember is being in awe of the paintings but also being terrified of losing my group in the crowds.
Going into the chapel with just a few other people was an entirely different experience. Being completely surrounded by Michelangelo’s frescoes was the closest I’ve ever come to a spiritual experience. Michelangelo paints each of the hundreds of biblical figures in bright colors and dynamic poses, which makes them appear to move throughout the space. It’s really something fantastic.
Unlike last time, I was able to take the time to look at each one to try and figure out which biblical story the scene was from. Since my guesses don’t have a great track record for being right, I was grateful that our professor told us the theme of each wall. The northern wall shows stories from Jesus’s life, the southern wall show’s Moses’s stories, the ceiling had some of the popular Old Testament tales, and the west wall depicts the Last Judgement over the altar. It’s a nice blend of the Old and New Testaments.
My favorite of the frescoes was the Creation of Adam in the middle of the ceiling. I can’t really explain why, but something about it feels so powerful. I feel so lucky to have had such a quiet, peaceful moment with a work of art so iconic to my religion.
One part of the frescoes that I didn’t get, though, is the row of ram skulls, each with two people chained to them. It felt kind of creepy and out of place, but who am I to critique Michelangelo?
I know you’re not supposed to take photos in the Sistine Chapel, but according to our professor, it was okay with the guards since we were on the tour, as long as we didn’t use flash.
With that in mind, here’s some photos!!!
With this being by second visit, I’m confident to say that you can’t visit Rome without visiting Vatican City! Even if you’re not religious, it’s a fascinating little country, and has some of the most extravagant buildings, as well as some of the most beautiful and iconic art in the world!
I will say that this visit (October) was definitely more enjoyable than my visit in July, though it was still worth the wait to see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums during peak season. Plus, they’re indoors so you can escape the heat!
I am so grateful to have gotten to see the Vatican Museums at night, and it’s definitely been one of my favorite travel experiences yet! I can’t imagine a more spiritual experience than seeing the Sistine chapel alone, but I suppose there’s only way to find out 🙂
Next, we’ll be seeing Rome’s most popular sights during our free day! To read about how our professor almost got arrested yesterday, click here!
Turns out, you can book night tours at the Vatican by clicking here!
(I am not affiliated with this company, just trying to be helpful 🙂 )