Vatican City is its own walled off sovereign city-state of roughly 100 acres within the city of Rome. There are also 3 papal basilicas within the city of Rome that are part of Vatican Jurisdiction. The Vatican has its own postal service, train station, and even has its own versions of the Euro coin, like all European countries. The Vatican’s main sights are St. Peters Basilica and the Vatican Museum which contains the Sistine Chapel. Many of the things you see in Rome are hard to believe they’re real- this is one of them. Whether you are religious or not, it is an amazing feeling to be at the heart of such a historic place.
Rome – where in 313 A.D. Christianity was finally legalized by Emperor Constantine changing the course of history to this day. Had he not legalized Christianity, would it be such it is to this day? We will never know.
The Vatican – home and birth of the Catholic Church, where Constantine built what was the first Catholic church, St. Peters Basilica on this spot in 329 A.D.
Photo Outside Vatican Wall:
History of St. Peters:
Nearly 2,000 years ago, the spot where St. Peter’s Basilica sits today was the site of emperor Nero’s Circus- a huge Roman chariot racecourse. The tall obelisk in the middle of St. Peters Square stood here during this time in the center of the racecourse. Think of the history this 300 ton obelisk has seen, originally erected in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago. It witnesses the fall of the pharaohs to the Greeks and then to the Romans. It was then brought to Rome, where it has stood in this spot witnessing hundreds of years of history. During the time of the racecourse, this was a popular spot for the pagan empire to kill Christians for entertainment. St. Peter was one of the Christians crucified on this racecourse while he was in Rome preaching the message of Jesus in about 65 A. D. His remains were buried in a nearby cemetery located where the main altar in St. Peter’s is today. When Christianity was finally legalized in 313, the Christian emperor Constantine built a church on the site of Peter’s martyrdom- St. Peters Basilica. St. Peter was considered the first bishop of Rome. St. Peters was eventually replaced by the new existing St. Peters which began construction in 1506 A.D.
St. Peters Basilica:
St. Peters Basilica is the highlight of the Vatican. St. Peters Square with its 2 half rings of giant columns on either side, was designed and built by Bernini, along with most of the interior of the church. Bernini’s Baroque style dominates the facade. The saints line the top of either side of the columns with Jesus Christ in the middle. Giant statues of St. Peter and Paul sit on either side of the entrance welcoming visitors to the home of the Catholic Church. Peter is holding the key to the kingdom of heaven, given to him by Jesus.
St. Peters is ENORMOUS, and that is a VAST understatement. Nothing can prepare you for this lavish basilica and the enormity of it. The decadents is beyond words. No photos can do it justice.
After visiting St. Peters Basilica, every other cathedral and church I’ve seen in Europe is not even comparable- and European cathedrals are all jaw-dropping to say the least.
This basilica itself covers about six acres. Several football fields could fit in there. This church is very long, very tall and very wide. It looks big on the outside but you have no idea how big it really is until you actually go in. Everything in St. Peters is huge-the statues are enormous, the lettering on the walls, the pictures. There are actually no paintings in St. Peters, instead, they are mosaic copies made from thousand of colored chips. You wouldn’t know it unless you get very, very close. The reason for this is the humidity, smoke and soot from the candles would ruin real paintings.
Probably the most famous highlight of St. Peters is Michelangelo’s Pieta. It is to your right as soon as you walk into the basilica but it actually can be hard to miss if you don’t remember to go over to it. The Pieta was much smaller than I pictured it to be and it is pretty far away from the crowd behind bulletproof glass due to someone running into the basilica and hacking away at it with a hammer in the 70’s. I personally didn’t find the Pieta that incredible compared to the rest of the church. To me, the most incredible thing about the Pieta is that Michelangelo completed it when he was 24 years old! Some remaining pieces of the old church and even some of the art are still in the new St. Peters.
Touring St. Peters:
St. Peters Basilica usually always has a long line due to security check and dress code. When we were there it was no exception. I say don’t waste your time or money trying to get around the line- just wait. The line may be enormous but it goes really fast. Tourist may be initially shocked when they arrive and get suckered into an expensive tour to avoid the line. Waiting in the line actually gave us an opportunity to take in the beautiful St. Peter’s Square and read up on it in our guidebook. The line is right in front of the Basilica in St. Peters Square so it’s not like you have to stand in a covered back alley or something. As you are waiting in line, tour guides will be heckling you to go with them and skip the wait, but do not be fooled! Remember, dress modest when touring the basilica, if you are questioning your apparal, you probably shouldn’t wear it. I think this picture I took below is amusing because it looks to me that either way, women can show their midriff! Ha, ha, ha.
As we walked about St. Peters we stumbled upon a dead body – literally. It freaked me out a bit. We learned it was Pope John XXIII and his body was brought up from the Crypt for display 38 years after his death in 1963. Apparently, at the time of his death, he was filled with something that preserved him incredibly. Quite an interesting and unexpected thing to run into while touring the Basilica.
Crypt and Dome of St. Peters:
The entry to the basilica and Crypt are free of charge. If you want to climb up the dome that was designed by Michelangelo, you will need to pay 6 euros to climb all the way up or 7 euros to take an elevator partway up to the roof, then climb 323 steps to the top of the dome. We walked the entire thing and it is a workout! The higher you get, the more narrow and claustrophobic it gets. My 6’3 husband had issues! We thought we had made it to the top of the dome when it finally spit us out into the world, but we realized we were only on the rooftop of the basilica! But it was a good place to take a break and take in a few more sights.
On your way up to the dome, you get an opportunity to look down into the basilica from the inside of the gallery ringing the interior of the dome. If you are afraid of heights this is not for you, it is a very long way down and definitely puts in perspective again how huge this basilica is. The people below look like ants. The interior of the dome is designed with the most beautiful mosaics and you can stand right up next to them and see the great detail where you could never see that from down below. Climbing to the top of the dome is a true experience and if you are able, I would absolutely make time for this. It is awesome to see the inside of the dome and the view of Rome and St. Peters Square below are just incredible.
The crypt in the foundation of the church contain the tombs of many popes including the popular Pope John Paul II. This crypt is something you can quickly walk through. This crypt isn’t like most of the crypts you see in European churches- this one is modern, bright, pure white, finished, and seems more like a large underground room than a old rock crypt that is wet, dark and eerie like some of the other crypts I have seen. Peters tomb is in the crypt and you can look down to it from the basilica, but don’t be confused that it is St. Peters original grave and what is said to be the remain of his bones are NOT part of the crypt. To see this, you need to make reservations months in advance for the Scavi Excavations tour in the necropolis which is underneath the crypt.
I would schedule a good 4 hour window to visit the basilica, crypt and dome.
For more information on touring the Vatican, visit their Website link below.
Photo Credit: All Photos taken by Jackie & Shaun Bingham