The Vatican City in Rome is really not a city at all, but a country located within a city. Città del Vaticano is the smallest country of the world with an official population of no more than 800 people and an area of around 0,44 km2. The Vatican is located across the river Tiber from the historical center of Rome. Its main tourist attractions are Saint Peter’s Basilica, Saint Peter’s Square, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Gardens.
Vatican City Rome
The Vatican City State inherited its name from the hill on which it was built. This hill is hardly recognisable as such, since it was largely dug up to make way for the construction of St Peter’s Basilica.
The hill used to be a sacred place, dedicated to an Etruscan god.
In ancient times, the area was mainly used for vegetable gardens and vineyards, although some historians compared the wine to vinegar. Others described the area as swampy and, because of the presence of snakes, not very safe.
In the Middle Ages, the reputation of the area deteriorated to such an extent that the valley at the foot of the hill was even nicknamed Valle dell’Inferno.
Saint Peter and the construction of the basilica
The hill only became an important Christian site after Saint Peter had been crucified and buried in the necropolis. In 326, the Emperor Constantine had a basilica built there in honour of the saint’s tomb.
This led to the gradual formation of a fortress around the church, which itself was constantly being enlarged. In the 11th century, Pope Leo IV had a wall built around the basilica, creating the so-called Città Leonina.
From the 12th century, under a succession of pontificates, construction began on what would become the Palazzi Apostolici Vaticani. The first stone was laid in 1144 by order of Eugenio III, and the structure was later expanded by Clement III, Celestinus III and Innocent III. The latter also had a defensive tower constructed.
The first pope to actually live in the Vatican was Nicholas III, who held the office from 1277 to 1280. Nicholas was also responsible for the construction of the first viridarium, which would later morph into the Vatican Gardens.
Vatican City State
The Vatican City did not become an official country until 1929. In that year Pope Pius X and Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty, which recognized the Vatican as an independent state.
The entire country is on UNESCO‘s World Heritage List.
Tourist Attractions, What to See in the Vatican
Saint Peter’s Basilica
Saint Peter’s Basilica is, together with the Colosseum, Rome‘s most important tourist attraction. It is the most important Catholic church in the world and houses a great number of important tourist attractions. Its Dome offers one of the most spectacular views of the city, while in the crypt tombs of numerous popes can be seen. Main attractions in the basilica itself are Bernini’s baldachin and Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
The Vatican Museums contain one of the most extensive art collections in the world. Its biggest attraction is of course the Sistine Chapel, but there are many other famous art works to be seen, from Raphael’s Rooms to the Prima Porta Augustus and from the Laocoön to the beautiful stairway near the entrance. We made a separate page for the opening hours and other practical Vatican Museum information.
Saint Peter’s Square
Saint Peter’s Square is a tourist attraction in itself. It is surrounded by Bernini’s Colonnade and adorned with two fountains and obelisks. Every Wednesday and Sunday the Pope makes an appearance and on those days it can be incredibly crowded. It is the only part of the Vatican City that can be visited at any moment of the day.
The Vatican Necropolis underneath the central nave of Saint Peter’s Basilica contains the tombs of Saint Peter, plus another 11 Popes. It consists of a dirt road, lined with monuments an ending in the small square where Saint Peter’s tomb is located. This necropolis can only be visited by making a reservation through the website of the Vatican itself.
Saint Peter’s Dome
Saint Peter’s Dome is one of the most visible landmarks of the city. It was designed by Michelangelo, but it was Giacomo della Porta who finished its construction in 1593, after Michelangelo‘s death. The total number of steps to climb is 551 and even if you take the lift, you will still have 320 steps to go.
The Vatican Gardens take up most of the Vatican City area. You can have an impression of these gardens by climbing the Dome. If you want to visit this attraction itself you need to book beforehand. They can only be viewed in the company of an official guide.
The Pope and his tasks. In the past the popes were only elected from amongst the more influential and rich families. They were therefore also the ones who bought or commissioned many of the works of art that can be seen in the Vatican City and in Rome‘s churches. The present Pope is Franciscus, who is very popular and see as much more humble than most of his predecessors. On Wednesdays, if you book early enough, you can have an audience with the Pope.
There is a special cemetery for German-speaking people within the walls of the Vatican City. It can only be visited by people from countries that used to belong to the Holy Roman Empire. Being able to speak flawless German usually gets you in, a German or Dutch passport definitely will.