Guide to Europe’s Microstates: Vatican City

Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Quick facts (most recent available data)
Population: 836 (smallest country in the world by population)
Area: 0.44 sq km (smallest country in the world by area)
GDP per capita (PPP): not available

Visiting Vatican City

Location and how to get there: Vatican City is a walled enclave located inside the city of Rome. Basically you just walk to Vatican from Rome. Map

Why visit? Vatican City is such a unique place and well worth a visit. Some people don’t even know it’s an independent state and not just a section of Rome. The Vatican Gardens are gorgeous; the Vatican Museum with 6 km or so of galleries and the iconic Spiral Stairway are impressive; Saint Peter’s Basilica is spectacular in size, architecture and decorations; the Sistine Chapel is beautifully painted by Michelangelo.

Recommended visit duration: half a day to one day

Fun facts:

  • The spectacular Vatican Gardens occupy more than half of the City State’s territory
  • The Pope is the head of State and Government of the Vatican City State
  • You can allegedly fit the entire Statue of Liberty below the main dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica
  • Vatican City is currently the only widely recognized independent state that has not become a member of the United Nations

Review of my trip to Vatican City

After returning to Rome from San Marino, my next goal was Vatican City. As an enclave inside Rome, one enters Vatican City by foot. There are obviously no border controls or formalities. Some places are freely accessible such as Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint Peter’s Square, while others require tickets: the Vatican Gardens, the Vatican Museums or the Sistine Chapel.

Vatican City is an ecclesiastical state and the world center of Catholicism. The name comes from the Latin Mons Vaticanus used since pre-Christian times. The first gardens were built on the actual territory by Agrippina the Elder in 1st Century AD, while the first church was built in 326, over the site of the presumed tomb of Saint Peter. Vatican City was established as an independent state by Lateran Treaty of 1929.

The world’s smallest independent state is really unique and feels entirely like an impressive museum and less like a country. I bought tickets for the Vatican Gardens online, to save myself the time spent at unavoidable queues. The tickets included a guided tour of the gardens and independent exploration of the museums and of the Sistine Chapel.

The tour of the Vatican Gardens turns out to be one of the trip’s highlights for me. I enjoy them immensely.

It’s quite early in the morning and it has just stopped raining; the air is clear and the colors are crisp. I snap a photo of a red car carrying a Vatican City license plate (which you don’t see every day) and the tour starts.

I’ve always liked botanical gardens, but these are special. They’re splendid and have an almost mythical feel to them. This feeling is heightened by the many statues, fountains and monuments, not one looking out of place.

The guide does a good job of recounting the history and highlighting the most important facts. There are very few groups in the gardens and walking around is really pleasant. The huge dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica can be seen in the distance and I can’t wait to check it out

There’s an English Garden, an American Garden and a French Garden; a building that’s as closest to a hotel as one can find in Vatican City houses distinguished guests such as the US President. I find the Eagle Fountain especially appealing and enjoy the bay laurel shrubs lining one of the alleys.

After the garden tour I head towards the museum galleries and locate the iconic Spiral Stairway of which I’ve seen countless pictures.

I also stumble upon the cool hi-tech sculpture Sphere within Sphere which is another well-known landmark.

I check some of the museum’s galleries focusing on sculptures dating back to antiquity – one the most fascinating historical periods if you ask me. As the crowds keep growing, I find that detailed exploration of the 6 kilometers of galleries looks daunting with the limited time I have available.

I somehow stumble upon the Gallery of Maps: for me the main attraction here are the decorations on the vaulted ceiling which are mesmerizing in conception and lighting.

I move on to the Sistine Chapel that’s swarming with people. The paintings look fabulous but lighting is dim and the crowds don’t help with proper appreciation of the chapel. I arrive at Saint Peter’s Basilica which is absolutely stunning (I’m running out of superlatives here, but this is not an exaggeration). The Basilica has to be one of the greatest structures I’ve seen in my entire life in terms of size and decorations.

I enter and can’t stop admiring it and wandering around in a dazed state. This place is huge and must have been a sight to behold when first completed in 1626. I take a ton of pictures.

After checking out the Swiss Guards and their colorful costumes, the final stop is the huge Saint Peter’s Square (or Piazza San Pietro), another iconic landmark of the Vatican. In the middle of the Square there’s the Vatican Obelisk, a 4,400-year old Egyptian obelisk.

All in all, a very interesting trip (I probably should have spent more time in the museums, though). You should allocate the better part of a day for the Vatican instead of the half a day I did.

See more pictures in my Vatican City photo album:

More information available in the Monaco country profiles on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage.

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