visiting vatican city

Vatican City.

It’s a teeny, tiny country that is home to a big, big institution. Thanks to its portrayal in literature and film, frankly, I arrive expecting a Dan Brown adventure or two. Maybe I’ll decipher a centuries old code hidden in one of the endless statues and paintings. See that hand pointing? Follow the trajectory and there is a clue that I will instantly understand,  which will lead me to a vast and undiscovered fortune hidden in a crypt. Or something like that.

vatican city

It’s hard not to get swept up in the intrigue of the Vatican.

The home of the Roman Catholic Church certainly has a long and foreboding history, the kind that is most on display in the form of periodic papal addresses and the infrequent naming of a new pope.

When you approach the Vatican, surreptitiously leaving Rome and entering a small legally distinct enclave, St. Peter’s Basilica dominates the view. It surrounds on all sides and as one of the world’s largest temples, the façade, massive dome and its colonnade envelop all who enter. Tradition holds that St. Peter is buried here, and it is the burial place for many popes (including the first). There has been a church on the site since Roman times, and the current one has been in place since the early 1600s.

vatican city

vatican city
vatican city

As a regular church visitor in my travels, I am rarely blown away by the average centuries-old cathedral. I mean, by design, they all kind of look the same. And the symbolism, decoration and intricate carving, while impressive, tend to blend together to me.

But St. Peter’s is on a different scale, in every sense of the word. St. Paul’s Cathedral, here in London, could easily fit inside it. Measuring at 600+ feet long, and almost 400 feet up to the dome from the floor, it can hold up to 60,000 people, basically the entire population of my hometown. The carved bronze canopy over the main altar, by Bernini, looks downright tiny as it sits under the dome, but it’s nearly 10 stories tall. The baby-sized cherubs that adorn the pools of holy water are each nearly six feet tall.

vatican city

vatican city

The other main reason to visit the Vatican, other than cleverly adding another check to the ‘countries I’ve visited’ list, is to see the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is part of the Vatican Museum which is one of the biggest museums I’ve ever been to, and the one way path through the space ends at the Sistine Chapel.

I didn’t do a ton of research before arriving, and hindsight being what it is, a little research may have been useful. As it was, we arrived at our scheduled entrance time, and thinking that we would just waltz into see Michelangelo’s masterpiece, we were feeling pretty good about how much time we had before the museum closed. But as we followed the path of rooms, we kept telling ourselves that it must be coming soon, the crowds are getting more dense, only to turn down yet another endless corridor.

vatican city

When we finally, FINALLY, reached the Sistine Chapel, it was stunning, grandiose, breath taking, inspiring…fill in another adjective here that doesn’t quite do it justice. I wondered as we made our way through the Vatican Museum if the Sistine Chapel would be that much more beautiful than the rest of the stunning painted and carved ceilings. Would the masterpiece of all masterpieces be all it is cracked up to be?

Vatican city

vatican city
vatican city

Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.

No cameras are allowed inside the chapel, and all of these photos are of the museum ceilings as we walked toward the Sistine Chapel. It gets much, much better! Hopefully the beauty of these photos gives some indication of how spectacular the whole place is.

Frankly, the beauty of the Sistine Chapel surpasses the English vocabulary, but I bet there is an Italian word for it!

The Vatican Museum

Tips for Visitors:

Purchase tickets for the Vatican Museum ahead of time. You can do this easily online, and you get to skip the queue once you arrive. We heard from my cousin (a local) that in the summer, the queues can be literally hours long. Hell to the no.

Inside both the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, we listened to recorded audio tours by Rick Steves that we downloaded before we arrived. We really enjoy his audio tours, we’ve done them all over Europe, and it makes visiting iconic places much more interesting. This is especially true when you don’t have a private or group tour guide pointing out all the important parts of something.

You’ll probably do more research before showing up at the Vatican than we did, but just in case you don’t, don’t underestimate the size of the Vatican Museum. All told, we were in it for about 2 hours, and we didn’t stop to gaze at anything. It must be several miles of walking, no joke. Just keep that in mind when you plan your day. We packed our day a little too tight to spend as much time as we would have liked just wandering around.

  • February 9, 2016

    Beautiful photos! I haven’t been to Rome or Vatican City yet, but they’re definitely on my list for my next trip to Italy.
    Adrienne recently posted…A Stroll Through Mykonos TownMy Profile

    • February 10, 2016

      We loved both. We rarely visit a city where there are some many things to see that it almost feels overwhelming, but Rome definitely felt that way. So much history to take in, so little time.

  • February 9, 2016

    I felt exactly the same way when I visited St. Peter’s Basilica! After seeing a lot of cathedrals here in Germany, things start to look the same. The Vatican, however, is not one of the places, if you ask me. Definitely impressive beyond belief!
    Danny recently posted…Why I Liked Warsaw (and Why You Should Like It, Too)My Profile

    • February 10, 2016

      I was not prepared for the sheer size of St. Peter’s. Truly impressive.

  • February 12, 2016

    I agree, Vatican City is such a beautiful place. In my younger years, I managed to take a picture inside the Sistine Chapel of the Creation of Adam 🙂
    Dominique recently posted…Alkmaar – Weekend TripMy Profile

    • February 15, 2016

      You know, as we were standing in the Sistine Chapel, with guards all around yelling at people for talking, I was wondering how easily I could get away with just one tiny photo. But rule follower that I am, I held myself back this one time. Next time, I’m going for it!