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Top 10 Things to See in Vatican City

Delving into the wonders of Vatican City is one of the most fascinating things to do in Rome, Italy. Despite its status as the world’s smallest country, the Vatican boasts an impressive array of renowned artworks and religious artifacts. The Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica are three must-see attractions to explore within the city walls, but be sure to book your Vatican Museums tickets or skip-the-line Vatican tour in advance to avoid the notorious queues. Wondering what to do at the Vatican once you’ve made it inside? Stay tuned as we uncover the top 10 things to see in Vatican City!

1. The Dazzling Gallery of Maps within the Vatican Museums

The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums features breathtaking artwork depicting the topography of Italy during the 16th century

The Gallery of Maps undoubtedly ranks among the best things to see at the Vatican Museums. Within this ornate hall, you’ll find a glowing ceiling decorated with gorgeous frescoes. The real treasure, however, are the walls which are adorned with topographical maps of Italy created by Ignazio Danti during the 16th century. Note that the Gallery of Map’s immense beauty often attracts a big crowd. One of our top tips for visiting Vatican City is to opt for a Vatican Early Access Tour at Opening so that you have a chance to witness the splendor of this remarkable space before the masses arrive.

2. The Spiraling Steps of the Modern Bramante Staircase

Looking down at the whimsical steps of the Vatican Museums' Modern Bramante Staircase

Next on our list of what to see in Vatican City is the Modern Bramante Staircase within the Vatican Museums. This whimsical architectural marvel was imagined by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. Momo based these mesmerizing steps off of a much older design by Donato Bramante. Though the original staircase which dates to 1505 currently lies within a restricted area of the Pio-Clementine Museum, Momo’s modern rendition remains open for the public to use and enjoy. Observing this unique double helix staircase from above is a true feast for the eyes which is why it is one of the first stops on our beloved Vatican Small Group Tour!

3. The Magnificent Laocoön Group Sculpture

The Laocoön Group Sculpture was one of the first works put on display at the Vatican and served as an inspiration for the Vatican Museums' collection

The Vatican Museums houses a vast assortment of priceless sculptures. Among the most dignified in the collection, is Laocoön and His Sons, an ancient sculptural group that was unearthed in 1506 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Soon after its discovery, it came into the possession of Pope Julius II who put it on display at the Vatican. In fact, this very work would eventually inspire the formation of the Vatican Museums!

To truly understand the importance of Laocoön and His Sons, let’s dive into its mythology. This masterpiece depicts Laocoön, a Trojan priest of Apollo, who famously warned his fellow Trojans against accepting the Greek’s Trojan Horse. In response to his exclamation, Athena and Poseidon ordered sea serpents to kill him and his two sons. This tragic tale is considered crucial in Roman history, as it spurred Aeneas’s flight from Troy, eventually leading to the foundation of Rome.

4. The Exclusive Cabinet of Masks

The Cabinet of Masks is an exclusive area within the Vatican Museums that boasts mosaics from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli and a variety of sculptures based on Greek mythology

One of the most exclusive things to see in the Vatican Museums, is the Cabinet of Masks. The only way to access this hidden area is on a special guided tour as it is generally closed off to the public. Here, you’ll find intricate mosaics from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli alongside numerous sculptures based on Ancient Greek themes. Statues of Aphrodite, Nympha and the Three Graces are among the most cherished. If you have the pleasure of visiting the Cabinet of Masks on your tour of the Vatican, be sure to enjoy every second!

5. The Grand Art & Architecture of the Pinecone Courtyard

The Vatican Museums' Pinecone Courtyard is an elegant outdoor space featuring both ancient and contemporary art

The Vatican Museums’ Pinecone Courtyard has earned a spot on our guide of what to see at the Vatican due to its juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary art. Tucked within this outdoor square’s central niche, you’ll find a giant bronze Pinecone which just so happens to be the relic from which the courtyard gets its name. This magnificent centerpiece dates back to the 2nd century CE and sits atop an opulent staircase designed by Michelangelo.

In the middle of the courtyard, you’ll find an art installation from a much more recent period in history. Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Sphere Within Sphere, was donated to the Vatican Museums toward the end of the 20th century. This globe-like mechanism rotates freely making viewing it an interactive experience. On our carefully curated tours of the Vatican Museums, your expert guide just might give it a spin so you can see it in action!

6. The Marvelous Renaissance Paintings of the Raphael Rooms

The School of Athens is just one of the many Renaissance masterpieces on display within the Raphael Rooms at the Vatican

Within the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Museums, you’ll find a series of chambers adorned with vibrant frescoes painted by none other than the Renaissance master, Raphael. The most famous work within the Raphael Rooms is The School of Athens. This spectacular masterpiece was commissioned by Pope Julius II and was completed in 1511. It depicts a meeting of history’s most celebrated philosophers, artists, scientists and mathematicians, with Plato and Aristotle at its center. Raphael’s classical imagery and mastery of perspective have led this painting to become one of the most well known examples of Renaissance art in the world.

There are many other paintings within the Raphael Rooms that are worth learning about as well. To make the most out of your visit, we recommend embarking on a VIP Private Vatican Tour. With a knowledgeable and dedicated tour guide all to yourself, you’ll be able to dive deep into Raphael’s incredible frescoes and the captivating legends that surround them!

7. The Sistine Chapel’s Awe-Inspiring Ceiling and The Last Judgement Fresco

The Sistine Chapel’s rich history and iconic frescoes make it a must-see destination in Vatican City

Stepping inside the Sistine Chapel is often the highlight of a visit to the Vatican Museums. Today, this grand hall serves as the location of the papal conclave where new popes are selected. What the Sistine Chapel is most known for, however, are the awe-inspiring frescoes covering its walls and ceiling. Above, lies Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, a subject that has become a prominent emblem in pop culture. Michelangelo also painted The Last Judgment, a gigantic fresco that covers the entire wall behind the altar. Many other acclaimed artists contributed to the adornment of this holy space as well including Pietro Perugino and Sandro Botticelli.

Note that the Sistine Chapel is considered a sacred area, so you must cover your knees and shoulders before entering. No photos or videos are allowed inside either, so take in the moment while you can as this is definitely one of the best things to see in Vatican City!

8. La Pietà, a Sculptural Masterpiece by Michelangelo

Within the walls of St. Peter's Basilica, you'll find La Pietà, a touching sculpture crafted by Michelangelo

So, you’ve finished exploring the Vatican Museums and are wondering what to do? Vatican City houses another jewel that is actually free to visit: St. Peter’s Basilica. This monument church is the very heart of the Catholic Faith and features several treasures worthy of admiration. Within the first chapel on the right of the nave, lies La Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s most adored sculptures. This marble masterpiece depicts a sorrowful Mary cradling Jesus on her lap following the crucifixion.

Pro tip: When searching for Vatican tours, go with an option that allows you to enter St. Peter’s Basilica directly from the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. That way, you can avoid waiting in the notoriously long queue that wraps around St. Peter’s Square!

9. Bernini’s Baldachin Marking the Tomb of Saint Peter

The Baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica is a massive bronze canopy positioned over the tomb of St. Peter

The next must-see monument in St. Peter’s Basilica is the Baldachin, an imposing bronze ciborium that was designed by the Baroque mastermind, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, during the 17th century. Believe it or not, this incredible work towers at a height of nearly 29 meters. For this reason alone, the Baldachin is quite hard to miss when in Vatican City! Things to see surrounding the altar include the larger-than-life statues of Saint Helena, Saint Longinus, Saint Andrew and Saint Veronica as well as the Throne of Saint Peter. Just beneath the canopy, lies the tomb of Saint Peter, for whom the basilica is named!

10. The Elegant Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and the View from Its Peak

From the top of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, you can take in sweeping views over Vatican City and Rome

The last activity on our list of things to do in Vatican City is climbing St. Peter’s dome. Inside of the basilica, you’ll find a kiosk where you can purchase tickets which cost €8 to €10 depending on if you take the elevator or stairs. Note that even with the elevator, however, you’ll have to climb 300+ steps in a steep and narrow stairway.

During the climb, you’ll be able to get an up-close look at the intricate mosaics adorning the interior of the dome. Once you reach the top, panoramic views of St. Peter’s Square, Vatican Railway Station, the Vatican Gardens and the surrounding city of Rome will unfold before your eyes. If you’re looking for things to do near the Vatican in Rome, you’re in luck, as several noteworthy destinations such as Borgo Pio and Castel Sant’Angelo are situated nearby. Now that you know what to do in Vatican City, it’s time to explore!

Discover the Wonders of Vatican City & Rome on Tour with us!

We hope you enjoyed reading our guide to the top 10 things to see in Vatican City. The masterpieces on this list are just the tip of the iceberg however, as there are many more fantastic artworks and architectural marvels that await your discovery at the Vatican!

If Vatican City is on your upcoming travel itinerary, we’d love to welcome you on one of our top-rated tours of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Be sure to also check out our expert-led guided tours of Rome and our skip-the-line tours of the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill to make the most out of your next Italian adventure!

If you have any questions or require assistance with booking one of our tours, kindly reach out to our team via email at info@whatalifetours.com or by phone at +39 06 89 111 009 and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

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