Surrounded by a high medieval wall within the city of Rome lies the Vatican City. Navigable on foot in 40 minutes, it’s the world's smallest country, the centre of Catholicism, and home to the Pope.
The Vatican City has its own army, the Swiss Guards, mints its own Euros and has its own flag – silver and gold crossed keys representing Saint Peter’s authority as steward of the church on earth and in heaven.
Although the Vatican City does not have the same significance for Catholicism as Mecca does for Islam, it is still one of the most holy and significant places for Catholics worldwide.
The 2 weeks over Easter are some of the busiest of the year. Masses run from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, usually celebrated by the Pope himself.
From Thursday’s Mass of Chrism to Saturday’s Easter Vigil, the celebrations are somber in keeping with the spirit of the Crucifixion.
Easter Sunday Mass is joyful, and the faithful gather in Saint Peter’s Square to listen to the Pope’s message of peace for the Urbi et Orbi (the city and the world).
The Vatican City contains many of the world’s most glorious buildings and artworks.
The museum features art of every age and type, from maps and famous sacred paintings, to ancient sculptures, glittering mosaics and dramatic frescos. While wandering through the halls and courtyards you’ll find ancient Greek and Roman masterpieces.
In the Pope’s apartments hangs Romano’s famous painting Battle of the Milvian Bridge depicting the Emperor Constantine’s victory and subsequent conversion to Christianity.
The gallery of paintings contains hundreds of beautiful artworks including Raphael’s exquisite Transfiguration, the inspiration for so many beautiful Renaissance works.
There is so much to see that visitors recommend you allow plenty of time to browse the corridors and rooms filled with incomparable artworks before reaching the Sistine Chapel.
You can buy package tickets to both attractions on the official website.
The Sistine Chapel at the end of the museum is a place of grandeur and incredible beauty.
As well as being the setting for mass, it is the room where the College of Cardinals meets to elect the new Pope. White smoke is released via a specially installed chimney to announce his election, once decided.
Every part of the Chapel is exquisitely decorated, from ornate mosaics on the floor to frescos on the walls painted by early Renaissance artists. Perhaps the most famous feature of the chapel is the ceiling, painted by Michelangelo over four years and containing scenes from the Book of Genesis – the Creation, the Fall, Noah’s Ark and others – in 9 intricate and elaborate panels.
Some say that in one part of the ceiling is a little personal touch, where the artist, resentful of the Church forcing him to complete the work without payment, painted the current Pope of the day as one of the faces of the damned.
Behind the altar is the second Michelangelo painting, The Last Judgement. In contrast to the ceiling, which is light, optimistic and full of power, this is a later and much darker work, reflecting the mood at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation when the Catholic Church was under attack.
Some tips – photography is not permitted in the Chapel, and neither is talking. Past visitors recommend that you book online to avoid long queues, or join a tour group. If you’d prefer to make your own way, you can rent audio guides, which are well worth it, as there is so much to see that it’s easy to be overwhelmed.
Tu es Petrus...’You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church’ – this inscription on Michelangelo’s massive dome above the altar, which marks the burial spot of Saint Peter, underlines the significance of Rome to the Catholic Church.
Saint Peter's is a famous pilgrimage site for devout Christians. In about 65 A.D. Peter was crucified and buried near the site. In 313 A.D. after Christianity was legalised by Constantine a small Basilica was built here, and 1200 years later it was replaced by the magnificent building we see today.
The church is huge – the largest in the Vatican, and filled with light. The walls are covered with intricate and wonderful mosaics; the artists avoided paintings, which would have been darkened by candle soot.
You can take the lift up to the dome but the 300+ steps up into the cupola, which is worth the climb for the wonderful views of Rome, can only be done on foot and are very narrow so not for the faint-hearted!
Entry to the Basilica is free and photographs are permitted.
‘Mary held Jesus’ limp body, her face lovely even in sorrow. She cradled him tenderly. Jesus, broken and crucified for me. Grazie, Jesu.’
Pietà is possibly the most beautiful piece of art ever created and is widely regarded as the Vatican’s greatest artistic treasure. It reflects the belief of Catholics and other Christians that Jesus, once alive, gave his life for our salvation. Carved from a single piece of Carrara marble, it was originally constructed as a funeral monument, and depicts the dead Christ held in his sorrowing mother’s lap.
It took less than 2 years to make, and is the only work Michelangelo ever signed; carved on Mary’s sash are the words Michael. Agelus. Bonarotus Florent Faciebat (‘Michelangelo Buonarroti the Florentine, made this’).
The sculpture has a pyramid shape, depicting the Holy Trinity. Unusually, Mary is a physical part of the Trinity, a reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy where Jesus is named as the father of all humanity and therefore the father as well as the son of Mary.
Even up close, the marble is carved in such as way as to look like flesh, not stone, and the details, in particular Mary’s dress drapes, her facial expression and the way the body of Jesus is positioned on her lap, are incredibly beautiful.
Tip – the work is encased in a glass case since a recent vandalism attack, so in order to fully appreciate the detail and the expressions we suggest you bring binoculars.
Underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica is a virtually intact Roman Necropolis, originally a burial ground and said to contain the bones of Saint Peter. The Necropolis is just as it was before it was covered in earth to build the Basilica.
To view the Necropolis you must contact the Excavations Office in Rome and request tickets well in advance. Only approximately 250 people daily are admitted for tours, which are the only way to see this attraction.
The tour is underground. The walkways are narrow and the atmosphere is usually warm and humid. If you are claustrophobic or have breathing problems, it’s best to reconsider going.
The Vatican City attractions and especially the services will be very crowded at Easter and it’s best to plan well in advance. Book the attractions online and have your ticket on your phone ready to go, in order to avoid long queues.
It’s also good to check that each attraction will be open on the day you intend to go.
All the Easter services are free but seats for the services in Saint Peter’s Square book out very quickly. If you are interested in attending it’s best to check with your local diocese for availability.
Some museums, galleries and restaurants close over Easter – check online for attraction opening hours, or ask your hotel. If there is nowhere open to eat close by, visit the local deli and grab a picnic!