Vatican City Travel Guide

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Swiss Guard

Swiss Guard

Vincent Nédélec

Vatican City is the smallest city-state in the world, with only 880 people, but is one of the most visited. This is mainly because it is in the middle of Rome and the 14.4 acres are packed with some of the world's most beautiful churches and museums. Although Vatican City is an independent country, it is completely surrounded by the city of Rome. This center of Roman Catholicism is a must-see. It is bounded by the Tiber River and stretches west (about 1 200 m long and 800 m at its widest point).

Crossing from the city of Rome over the Tiber, the first building you see, at the end of Via della Conciliazione, is St. Peter’s Basilica (Michelangelo designed the dome and his Pieta is exhibited within). Plan at least 3 (or more) hours in St. Peter’s: After walking around inside be sure to go to the roof for the view (it’s usually hazy so you might just want to go up there for the pretty sunsets) visit its in-house museum and see the grotto below (where St. Peter and John Paul II, among other popes, are buried). The baldequino over the main altar built with bronze looted from the Pantheon is an interesting example of baroque design.

Other Vatican sites include the Apostolic Palace, beautiful gardens, the Piazza St. Pietro (St. Peter's Square) and the Vatican museum (http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html). To many, the highlight of the museum is the Sistine Chapel whose ceiling (painted by Michelangelo) has undergone a controversial restoration which revealed colors much brighter than seen previously. But the museums offer much more: The Etruscan and Roman collections are among the finest and most extensive in the world; the Raphael Stanzas are a series of spectacular frescoed rooms; the Gallery of Tapestries and Maps details the Earth as it was thought to be in the 16th century; and the Museum of Modern Religious Art highlights the 20th century.

A real treat, for those interested in archeology and history, is the Scavi. These undergound excavations beneath St. Peter's basilica have uncovered the ancient cemetery near the Circus Maximus where St. Peter was buried. Tickets must be reserved in advance. Excavations Office, Fabbrica di San Pietro, 00120 Vatican City  Tel. +39 06 6988.5318; Fax +39 06 6987.3017 - 6988.5518; E-Mail: scavi@fsp.va

The buildings (except for St. Peter’s Basilica) are usually open for limited hours with admission from 8.45 am - 1.20 pm although the hours recently have been extended mid March-October from 8.45 am - 3.25 pm. With so much to see in a limited time, you may want to see the Vatican over a period of 2 mornings saving St. Peter’s for the afternoons. The museums are closed on Sundays except for the last Sunday of the month when entry is free (and the crowds are huge).

On Sundays the pope leads the Angelus from his apartment window, and offers a blessing. He also holds Audiences on Wednesdays in the Square or in bad weather in Paul VI Audience Hall nearby (during the summer he resides in Castel Gandolfo, just south of Rome). While there is open seating, to reserve a (closer) place contact Monseigneur Charles Elmer, Office of the Audiences, Casa Santa Maria, Via dell’ Unilta 30, 00187 Rome, phone 39-6-686-8553, fax 39-6-679-1448. If possible, include a recommendation from your local parish priest or bishop's office. Tickets can be picked up on Tuesday between 3-9 pm at the Casa Santa Maria (located near Trevi fountain).

For best viewing of the Vatican’s art and museums get in line well before opening hours and be prepared for tremendous crowds. The queues are long, so be prepared to be waiting for up to an hour.  The Vatican Museum is quite possibly the most important art collection in the world.  To appreciate this extraordinary collection, avoid peak times. Then you won't have to worry about being shoved forward by the crowd, most who are anxious to get to the Sistine Chapel. This is a huge collection, but minimal information is displayed beside the pieces. Solution: Rent the portable recorded tour cassette available in several languages, or come prepared with a good guide book.

Shopping? The broad Via Della Conciliazione that leads into St. Peter's Square is surrounded on both sides by religious goods and book shops. The Vatican Post Office is on the right of the square if you are facing St. Peter's. Into exploring? For more shops walk along the street near the Post Office, Via di Porta Angelica. You'll see the Swiss Guards at their post of your left. The side streets all have numerous gift shops and small restaurants and ice cream shops. m

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December 06, 2006 change by giorgio

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