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Vatican City is the smallest independently recognized state in the world. It’s a walled enclave located within the city of Rome. As one of the biggest tourist destinations in Italy, over four million tourists travel to Vatican City annually. The entire area measures only at 44 hectares, and it has a population count of 842. The Bishop of Rome—the Pope—is the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal-monarchical leader of the Vatican.
The Vatican is the main episcopal see of the Roman Catholic religion, which has over 1.2 billion adherents worldwide. The Vatican City, however, did not come into existence until 1929. Despite being a small state, there are several notable attractions within the walled enclave itself, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel.
Read on for the best things to do, where to stay nearby, and more!
Vatican City Fast Travel Facts
The economy of Vatican City is obtained through sales of postage stamps and mementos from tourists, the sale of publications, and fees gathered from the museum. The Vatican City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural importance and there are actually two UNESCO sites within Vatican City.
Airport/s: The Leonardo Da Vinci Airport is the nearest international airport for those who travel to Vatican City.
Visa Required: There are no passport controls to enter Vatican City. If you can enter Italy, you can enter Vatican City. Technically, the Vatican is not part of the Schengen Zone or the EU, but it has an open border with Italy, and Italy is the only way to enter the Vatican.
Driving: In Vatican City, they drive on the right side of the road, but it is highly unlikely that you will ever drive inside the Vatican. The only way the public can drive in the Vatican is if you’re there on official business and enter a via parking lot near St. Ann’s.
Crime: The crime rate is pretty low within the Vatican City and mostly involves petty crimes, such as purse snatching or pickpocketing. Tourists exploring St. Peter’s Square are advised to be cautious because this is where most of the crimes are committed. The Vatican uses the Italian criminal justice system for the prosecution of all crimes. If you are caught violating the law inside of Vatican City, you will be tried, sentenced and imprisoned as if the crime were committed in Italy.
Electrical Adapters: Vatican City has electrical outlet powered by 230 volts and a frequency of 50 Hertz. Get your electrical adaptors for the Vatican and Italy.
Trivia: Despite being the smallest independent state in the world, Vatican City, it has its own post office, telephone system, radio station, a banking system, and an astronomical observatory.
Fun Facts About Vatican City
- It’s the smallest country in the world and is only 1/8th of the size of Central Park in New York.
- The art collection in the Vatican Museums is one of the largest in the world. In fact, if you lay down the art pieces in the museum it would cover four times the size of the Vatican walls.
- St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is the largest Roman Catholic church in the world.
- The people who make up the population of Vatican are mostly from the Apostolic Palace: cardinals, Swiss Guards, members of the clergy, nuns, and the pope.
- The country has no natural citizenry and no permanent population. Anyone with a Vatican passport was born in another country and holds dual citizenship. The birth rate in the Vatican is zero.
Vatican City Visa Issues
Vatican City has no formal border controls, immigration, or visas. Everything with respect to borders is done via Italy. If you can enter Italy, you can enter the Vatican. Entering St. Peter’s Square is literally a matter of walking into the square. No one will check your passport no matter where you call home.
Things to Do in Vatican City
The top attractions in Vatican City naturally have to do with the church—the structures, architecture, museums, and Catholic history contained within the small country. A good number of travelers visit Vatican City independently—it’s walkable from the top sites in Rome and you can just walk right into the complex. That said, tours of Vatican City offer a better experience in a lot of ways—you can fully avoid the crowds with private access, or at the very least book small-group tours with skip-the-line access.
There is probably no bigger attraction than the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It is a late Renaissance church that features a Renaissance and Baroque architecture. It is located within the St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City and the structure is built over the tomb of Saint Peter. This gorgeous structure had a lot of hands on it throughout history—Italy’s greatest Renaissance architects contributed to St. Peter’s Basilica, including Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael.
The Vatican Basilica is generally open every day from 7:00 am to 6:30 pm.
Located within St. Peter’s Basilica, unsuspecting travelers will miss this top thing to do if you’re not aware how to visit the Cupola, which offers phenomenal views of Vatican City and Rome (we contend that this is among the top panoramic viewpoints in Rome). Be very prepared, however, for the long trek to the top of the staircase, even if you use the elevator for part of the ascent.
The Vatican Basilica is generally open every day from 7:00 am to 6:30 pm.
As the name implies, this is a complex of museums within the Vatican City. Pope Julius II founded the museums and there are more than five miles of corridors—and they display only a fraction of the Vatican’s collection. Although the Sistine Chapel is located in the Vatican Museums, there’s a lot more here, including a cast of Rodin’s “Thinker” and Michelangelo’s “Pietà” sculpture.
The Vatican Museums are generally open Mon to Sat from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (last entry at 4:00 pm). They’re also open every last Sunday of the month from 9.00 am to 02.00 pm (last entry 12.30 pm). Check the Vatican website for seasonal closures when planning your visit.
The Sistine Chapel is another popular church in the Vatican and it’s of little doubt that you’ve heard of this Chapel before. It’s part of Vatican Museum, which is one of my favorite museums in the world and the chapel is located within the Apostolic Palace, which is also the official residence of the Pope. The Sistine Chapel’s incredible Michelangelo fresco entitled “The Last Judgment”(originally known as the Cappella Magna) covers a 10,000 square feet of the ceiling and wall and is one of the top 100 wonders in the world.
Book skip-the-line Access to the Sistine Chapel for a better experience while there—it’s well worth the small expense. If you’re really keen on the full experience, book a tour that includes both a tour guide and skip-the-line access for a total Vatican City experience.
The Sistine Chapel is subject to the Vatican Museum’s hours, and is generally open Mon to Sat from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (last entry at 4:00 pm). It’s also open every last Sunday of the month from 9.00 am to 02.00 pm (last entry 12.30 pm). Check the Vatican website for seasonal closures when planning your visit.
Apart from the St. Peter’s Basilica, this massive plaza offers several things to do for tourists—most notably, if you’re visiting the Vatican in hopes of receiving the the Pope’s weekly blessing, this is where you’ll need to be to see him and receive it. St. Peter’s square has classical architecture and also serves as the papal enclave within the city of Rome.
The Vatican Gardens offer one of the most peaceful spots in Vatican City, and it’s an area often overlooked by tourists, which is part of what makes it so special and worthy of a visit. If you’re booking a day tour to the Vatican, be sure that your tour includes the Vatican Gardens for a wonderful chance at a more well-rounded view of the Pope’s life and what it’s truly like in Vatican City.
The Gardens are not open every day, so check online to ensure you’re visiting on a day their open.
A fascinating ancient Roman necropolis lies under the Vatican, and inside are beautifully preserved frescoes and mosaics, as well as tombs that are said to hold the relics of St. Peter the Apostle. Tickets to the Necropolis are hard to secure, so you’ll absolutely have to reserve these many months in advance—as soon as you book your flights to Rome, you should be booking these tickets or you simply won’t get one.
Best Books About Vatican City
- Lonely Planet Italy: Hands down the best guide to Italy, offering insights on how to navigate the country and history on the most important sites.
- 65 Things Not to Miss in the Vatican: A fun book sharing all of the tiny details and fun things you should seek out on a visit to the Vatican.
- The Vatican: Secrets and Treasures of the Holy City: Written by a Vatican insider, this book dishes on everything you’ve ever wondered about what happens behind-the-scenes in Vatican City.
- 101 Surprising Facts About St. Peter’s and the Vatican: Brush up on your trivia before you visit the Vatican!
Where to Stay Near Vatican City
As noted before, you’re not going to be staying in Vatican City, you’ll need to find accomodation in Rome. We recommend:
- The Hive Hotel for mid-range budgets.
- Hotel Paolo II for a great budget place to stay.
- Hotel Artemide is a great splurge (can’t go wrong with a free mini-bar!)
Heading to Rome soon? Book travel insurance. When you’re planning a big trip, you want to protect yourself in case you lose your gear, need medical help, or just need trip protection—we recommend coverage through World Nomads.