IDEAS

    Country within a country: the Vatican City

    The Vatican City, home of the Pope and centre of the Catholic Church, draws millions of visitors every year. Unsurprisingly, the excitement generated by the recent election of the new Pope, Francis, has only served to increase its visibility and popularity.

    The Vatican City
    The Vatican CityMarek / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

    The Vatican is the world’s smallest sovereign state, covering 110 acres and having a population of only around 800. But within its confines are some of the most wonderful treasures ever seen – Michelangelo’s breathtaking Old Testament ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, masterpieces from the Egyptian age to late Renaissance in the Vatican Museums and, dominating St Peter’s Square, the ornate Basilica.

    The Vatican - St. Peter's Square
    The Vatican – St. Peter’s SquareStorm Crypt / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

    The Vatican is an essential stop on any tour of Italy, welcoming around 20,000 visitors a day, (that’s a staggering five million visitors to the Sistine Chapel yearly) so huge queues are somewhat inevitable. But, with some careful planning, you can work to avoid the worst of them. Buying a tour in advance of your holiday will cut out hours of waiting, and you’ll have an expert guide on hand to explain exactly what you’re looking at. Alternatively, you can buy tickets in advance from the Vatican Museum’s official website. There’s a wealth of information available here, including opening hours, advice on getting there, guided tours, and more.

    Vatican Sistine Chapel
    Vatican Sistine Chapel North and East WallsClayton Tang / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

    If you want to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis, he usually appears at a window of the Apostolic Palace on Sundays at noon (if he’s in Rome). Otherwise, he holds a General Audience on a Wednesdays during the summer, in St Peter’s Square. Tickets are required for the latter – take a look at http://saintpetersbasilica.org/touristinfo.htm for more information.

    As in any major city, be careful when choosing somewhere to eat, as snack bars will hike up the cost of a sandwich if you’re eating in – remember to look for a price list. It’s likely to be cheaper to make up your own Panini and take it with you – this will also help you avoid queuing for food during the lunch-time rush.

    Must-haves, dos and don’ts

    The Vatican is always busy and requires a surprising amount of walking to explore thoroughly. With this in mind, here is a list of essential dos and don’ts:

    • Sensible shoes are essential. You’ll be on your feet all day and the distances are hardly insubstantial – it’s a 10 to 15-minute walk just from the Vatican Museums to St Peter’s. Additionally, much of the floor is marble – including the steps up the Dome, so make sure you wear shoes with plenty of grip.

    • Keep plenty of water with you as it gets very hot in the summer. You might also want to bring sunscreen, particularly if you’re going to the Pope’s General Audience

    • If you do brave the queues, go in the afternoon when it is likely to be a bit less crowded

    • Be aware that there’s a strict dress code for entry into St Peter’s Basilica – no sleeveless blouses, miniskirts, shorts, hats, bare midriffs, or bare shoulders.

    • Don’t forget your guide book – try The Best of Rome and the Vatican (Globetrotter Travel Guide), £4.99 or DK Eyewitness Top 10 Rome, either £5.99 in paperback, or an eBook at £2.99, all on www.amazon.co.uk. For a good online information resource, visit http://www.fodors.com/world/europe/italy/rome/the-vatican/

    Have you visited the Vatican? Do you have any top tips, must-see sights, or advice for other travellers? If so we’d love to hear it! Leave a comment below and let us know.

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