Vatican City: Before heading out
Our Vatican City and Rome Itinerary is meant for those on a tight schedule and travelling with family. The Vatican and Rome are living museums or art galleries. The variety, history and sheer depth of art and culture make both the city of Rome and the Vatican City an incredible destination, and is a must visit during one’s lifetime. However, due to the sheer scale and volume of information to absorb, one needs to be well prepared before heading out. We suggest that you do enough background reading on Vatican City and then engage the services of a very good guide to accompany you on your outing.
We at Pilgrim Stays will shortly launch our own tours with recommended and vetted guides who will be able to guide you through the religious, architectural and cultural significance of various attractions.
We suggest dividing your itinerary into two segments – The Vatican and then the City of Rome. The Vatican is a must do but requires background reading even for someone who is a devout Catholic. Many aspects of the history of the Church and the Popes are not well known to the general laity. The interplay between the then Popes and artists such as the immortal Michelangelo require some understanding of the historical context. Juxtaposed with the rest of the city of Rome, this would be a lot to absorb in a mere 2-3 days. Hence we suggest a slower paced trip with 2 days dedicated to the Vatican and 3 days for the rest of the city of Rome. This would give one enough time to tuck into gelato that melts in the mouth, and to treat your family to the best of Italian cuisine at Rome’s famed restaurants.
The world’s smallest sovereign state, Vatican City is a truly tiny territory, comprising little more than St Peter’s Basilica and the walled headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. There are no border controls, of course, though the city-state’s 800 inhabitants (essentially clergymen and Swiss Guards) have their own radio station, daily newspaper, tax-free pharmacy, petrol pumps, postal service, and head of state—the pope. The Pope had always exercised a high degree of political independence from the rest of Italy, formalised by the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Pope Pius XI and the Italian government to create the Vatican.
The Vatican City is still protected by the flamboyantly uniformed (allegedly designed by Michelangelo) Swiss Guards, a tradition dating from when the Swiss, known as brave soldiers, were often hired out as mercenaries for foreign armies. Today the Vatican remains the center of the Roman Catholic world, the home of the Pope—and the resting place of St Peter. While St Peter’s Basilica is one of chief attractions, it forms only part of the Apostolic Palace that can be visited independently.
Not to be missed are the Vatican Museums, arguably among the world’s biggest and richest that have on display an immense collection of art amassed by the popes. The Collection of Modern Religious Art added in 1973, houses paintings and sculptures from artists like Carlo Carrà, Giorgio de Chirico, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso. One can very well estimate the worth of these priceless treasures considering the sums that works of these artists have fetched so far.
On the left side of Piazza San Pietro, the Vatican Tourist Office (tel. 06-69882019; Mon–Sat 8:30am–7:30pm) sells maps and guides that will help you make sense of the treasures in the museums; it also accepts reservations for tours of the Vatican Gardens. Adjacent to the information office, the Vatican Post Office sells special Vatican postage stamps (open Mon–Fri 8:30am–7pm, Sat 8:30am–6pm).
The only entrance to St Peter’s for tourists is through one of the glories of the Western world: Bernini’s 17th-century St Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro). As you stand in the huge piazza, you are in the arms of an ellipse partly enclosed by a majestic Doric-pillared colonnade. Stand in the marked marble discs embedded in the pavement near the fountains to see all the columns lined up in a striking optical/geometrical play. Straight ahead is the facade of St Peter’s itself, and to the right, above the colonnade, are the dark brown buildings of the papal apartments and the Vatican Museums. In the center of the square stands a 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk, created in the ancient city of Heliopolis on the Nile delta and appropriated by the Romans under Emperor Augustus. Flanking the obelisk are two 17th-century fountains. The one on the right (facing the basilica), by Carlo Maderno, who designed the facade of St. Peter’s, was placed here by Bernini himself; the other is by Carlo Fontana.
A St Peter’s Warning
St Peter’s has a strict dress code: no shorts, no skirts above the knee, and no bare shoulders and arms. Note: You will not be let in if you come dressed inappropriately. If you’re showing too much skin, a guard hands out blue paper capes similar to what you wear in a doctor’s office. Only limited photography is permitted inside.
Making the most of a day in Vatican City
Most Vatican visitors allot a day to see its two major sights, St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel). We recommend starting with the museums. Pre-order tickets for the earliest time slot available (from 9am) the day you wish to visit. Plan to devote several hours to see the highlights of the museum collections.
Next, grab a quick late lunch, either in the museum cafeteria or at a nearby sandwich shop or pizza joint. The streets leading from the museum exit to St Peter’s Basilica are lined with cheap eateries—mostly mediocre, but they’ll do in a pinch situation.
Once you enter St Peter’s Square, head to the back of the line (always long, but it moves fairly quickly) to enter the basilica. From the time you enter the basilica, you’ll need at least 1 hour for even the most cursory tour.
By now it’ll be late afternoon, and you’ve got 2 options: Visit the Vatican Grottoes, burial place of dozens of popes, or climb the 551 steps (320 if you take the elevator) to the top of the dome of St Peter’s. Note that the dome is open until 6pm April to September, 5pm October to March. The grottoes stay open to 7pm and 6pm, respectively. If you’ve still got energy, head to nearby Castel Sant’Angelo, which is open until 7:30pm year-round—the view of Rome from the castle’s roof is a perfect way to cap off your marathon Vatican day.
Want more time at the Vatican Museums? Arrive at St. Peter’s early in the morning to get in line before it opens at 7am; that way you can tour the basilica before the crowds get thick. Then head to a late morning appointment at the museums and spend the rest of the day there.
When the pope is in Rome, he gives a public audience every Wednesday beginning at 10:30am (sometimes 10am in summer). If you want to get a good seat near the front, arrive early and prepare to wait—security begins to let people in between 8 and 8:30am but the line starts much earlier.
Audiences take place in the Paul VI Hall of Audiences, although sometimes St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square are used to accommodate a large attendance in the summer. You can check on Pope Francis’s appearances and the ceremonies he presides over, including celebrations of Mass, on the Vatican website. Anyone is welcome, but you must first obtain a free ticket; without a reservation you can try the Swiss Guards by the Bronze Doors located just after security at St. Peter’s (8am–8pm in summer and 8am–7pm in winter). You can pick up tickets here up to 3 days in advance, subject to availability.
If you prefer to reserve a place in advance, visit the Vatican website to download a request form, which must be submitted via fax (yes, really) to the Prefecture of the Papal Household at tel. 06-69885863. Tickets can be picked up at the office located just inside the Bronze Doors from 3 to 7pm on the preceding day or on the morning of the audience from 7 to 10am.
At noon on Sundays, the Pope speaks briefly from his study window and gives his blessing to the visitors and pilgrims gathered in St Peter’s Square (no tickets are required for this). From about mid-July to mid-September, the Angelus and blessing historically takes place at the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, some 26 km (16 miles) out of Rome. Under Pope Francis, the residence, gardens, and villas of the castle have been opened to visitors as a museum, accessible via Metro and bus as well as a new train service that leaves from the Roma San Pietro station. Visit biglietteriamusei.vatican.va for information on seeing Castel Gandolfo by train.
The City of Rome
There’s a real “Jekyll and Hyde” quality to exploring Rome with kids. On the one hand, it’s a capital city, big, busy, and hot, and with public transportation that doesn’t always work too well. On the other, the very best parts of the city for kids—Roman ruins, subterranean worlds, and gelato—are aspects you’d want to explore anyway. Seeing Rome with kids doesn’t demand an itinerary redesign—at least, if you’re willing to skip some of the marquee museums. And despite what you have heard about its famous seven hills, much of the center is mercifully flat and pedestrian.
Food is pretty easy too: Roman pizzas are some of the best in the world. Ditto the gelato, or ice cream (sacrilege I know). Restaurants in pretty much any price category will be happy to serve up a simple pasta al pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce) to a fussy eater.
The city is shorter on green spaces than European cities like London, but the landscaped gardens of the Villa Borghese have plenty of space for them to let off steam. Pack a picnic or rent some bikes. The Parco Appia Antica is another family favorite, especially on a Sunday or national holiday when the old cobbled road is closed to traffic. The park’s Catacombs are eerie enough to satisfy grisly young minds, but are also fascinating Christian and historical sites in their own right.
Rome from the eyes of a child
Museums, of course, are trickier. You can probably get kids fired up more easily for the really ancient stuff. The bookshop at the Colosseum has a good selection of guides to the city aimed at under-12s, themed on gladiators and featuring funny or cartoonish material. Make that an early stop. We have taken a 6-year-old to the Musei Capitolini, and she loved hunting down the collection’s treasures highlighted on the free museum guide leaflet. It was like a themed treasure hunt, and bought us a couple of hours to admire the exhibits—and the chance to see them from a new and unexpected angle, too. The multiple ground levels below San Clemente and the Case Romane del Celio are another obvious draw for small visitors.
There are a couple of city museums designed with a specifically child-friendly angle. The best is the Museo della Civiltà Romana, which is popular with local schoolchildren for a good reason: Its models of Ancient Rome help bring the old stones to life. Your kids will be able to see Rome as it was at its peak. Watch out for the odd opening hours, though, because it is a half-hour Metro journey and walk from the center.
If kids get really into the gladiator angle, enroll them in the Scuola Gladiatori Roma (Rome Gladiator School), where they can spend 2 hours preparing for a duel in a reasonably authentic way.
Away from the museums, kids will also likely enjoy some of the cheesier city sights—at the very least, these will make some good family photos to share on Facebook or Instagram. Place your hands in the Bocca della Verità at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, and enjoy watching the feral cats relaxing amid the ruins of Largo di Torre Argentina, where a cat sanctuary gives basic healthcare to Rome’s many strays.