Steeped in tradition, history, and maybe even a little bit of mystery, Vatican City—the seat of the Catholic Church—is the most-visited spot in Rome. It’s no wonder why, either, as the tiny city-state is home to breathtaking St. Peter’s Basilica, world-renowned museums, manicured gardens, and so much more.
Heading to the Eternal City on tour? Follow our guide for the best things to see and do in Vatican City.
Vatican City is one of the most revered holy sites on the planet, and its unique history and inner workings make it all the more fascinating. Here are a few to know before you go:
Vatican City is actually an independent city-state that covers roughly 100 acres within Rome. It’s governed as an absolute monarchy headed by—who else?—the pope.
Not only does Vatican City mint its own euros, but it also prints its own stamps, issues its own passports and license plates, operates media outlets, and has its own flag and anthem.
Vatican City’s revenue comes from contributions, museum admission fees, and the sale of souvenirs and stamps.
In 64 A.D., Emperor Nero blamed—and executed—Christians for a blaze that destroyed much of Rome. He buried the executed, including St. Peter, on the site where the Basilica now stands.
Roman Emperor Caligula had the more than 350-ton obelisk transported from Egypt so he could place it at the center of an amphitheater he built at the base of Vatican Hill. It was moved to St. Peter’s Square, where it now stands, in 1586.
Easily recognizable in their bright, striped uniforms—complete with poufy pantaloons and feather-topped helmets—Swiss Guards arrived in Vatican City in 1506 to protect Pope Julius II. The max number of Swiss Guards allowed is just 135.
Not only is Vatican City the most popular place in Rome for travelers, but it’s also a historical and religious site, which means there are a few extra things to consider when planning a visit:
Like many places of worship, Vatican City and its museums enforce a dress code that prohibits shorts, hats, sleeveless tops, miniskirts, and articles of clothing that leave the knees exposed.
Travelers who visit Vatican City’s museums will be required to pass through a security check. To keep things moving quickly, leave prohibited items—including food and drinks—in your hotel room.
Vatican City is the most popular place in Rome for visitors, which means it’s busy pretty much all year long. Busiest times include peak summer season, holidays and weekends, and Wednesdays, when there’s usually a Papal Audience. For fewer crowds, try visiting in the afternoon, or in the off-season (October through March). Note, though, that Christmas season brings with it sizable crowds.
Follow our Beginner’s Travel Guide to Rome for even more to see and do in Italy’s capital city.
Tiny Vatican City packs a giant punch when it comes to can’t-miss works of art and historical gems. It would be easy to spend several days exploring its every nook and cranny, but these are some highlights you’ll want to fit in when you visit while on tour:
Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed this outdoor area in the 17th century. Open to the public, it features a more than 3,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk, elegant fountains, and rows of towering marble columns.
Vatican City’s centerpiece is also its crowning jewel. Inside the Basilica, visitors will find intricate mosaics, the tombs of St. Peter and previous popes, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bronze Baldacchino and its towering spiral columns, and priceless works of art, including Michelangelo’s 15th-century Pietá.
A.K.A. the Vatican Scavi, this burial ground lies about five floors below St. Peter’s Basilica and is home to a network of mausoleums and tombs—including what’s said to be the original burial site of St. Peter himself.
The Vatican Museums house and maintain artworks and items collected by the Catholic Church and popes over the centuries. Their collections include classical sculptures, contemporary art, Renaissance-era paintings, and archaeological ruins.
Built in the 15th century and part of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel is known for the frescoes that Michelangelo spent several years painting on its walls and ceiling. Commit them to your memory, as cameras aren’t allowed.
This tranquil expanse dates from medieval times and includes orchards, parks, wooded areas, and Italian-, English-, and French-style gardens. While strolling through the gardens alongside an accredited guide, visitors can marvel at monuments, sculptures, water features, and plenty more.
Ready to see the Vatican for yourself? Check out our Rome tours >