/ The Baby Boomer Travel Guide
Baby Boomers, Rome — By Christina Uticone on August 17, 2010 at 11:57 pm
Filed under: architecture, Art, religion, The Vatican, top-feature

The Vatican: Art, History & Religion

Reverent travelers – whether devoted Catholics or dedicated students of religious art and history – already have The Vatican on their list of must-visit destinations.  Vatican City is a repository of some of the most famous and most beautiful art and architecture in all the world.  Vatican City is a city-state and independently sovereign, located entirely within the city of Rome.  Only about 800 people live in the Vatican’s 109 acres, but each year tens of thousands of visitors of all faiths come to experience the art, history, and religion found here.

St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Piazza

The Basilica

St. Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and thus the first pope of the Catholic Church.  St. Peter’s Basilica (map) is where artistic, architectural, historical, and religious importance converge, and it is one of the most important holy sites for Roman Catholics.  Catholic pilgrims travel to St. Peter’s in recognition of its importance liturgically, and its status as the historic location of St. Peter’s tomb.  Artistically, St. Peter’s Basilica is significant as well; the building itself is an architectural marvel, having been designed by the minds and hands of artists such as Donato Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

The Square

St. Peter’s Piazza, or Square, (map) refers to the outdoor area that lies directly in the front of St. Peter’s Basilica.  The square is not shaped like a square, but is actually trapezoidal, and extends into a larger courtyard.  In the center of the large courtyard stands an Egyptian obelisk with two fountains positioned on either side, creating a large ellipse.  The square has seating on its north side for those attending outdoor Mass, and the piazza is where the faithful gather on Sundays to recite the Angelus devotion and receive blessing from the Pope, from his window overlooking the square.

The Dome and The Roof

Bernini's baldacchino, above the papal altar.

Three hundred and twenty steps will bring you from the ground floor of St. Peter’s Basilica to the roof, where you can enjoy the spectacular view of St. Peter’s Piazza, as well as Bernini’s baldacchino, the bronze canopy that is located under Michelangelo’s dome and which covers the papal altar.  The dome, designed by Michelangelo after he became the lead architect in 1546, is spectacular to behold from both inside and outside the basilica.  A nominal fee of 6 euros will give you access to the dome if you take the stairs, and 7 euros will get you to the dome by elevator.

Tours & Information

If you wish, you can do a self-guided tour of the basilica, available online.  For an audio tour, you can go to the bag-check (to the right of the basilica entrance) to rent the equipment.  There are also free guided tours available, and schedules for these tours are available at the Information Desk which is located to the left of the basilica entrance.  If you are traveling with a tour group, check with your guide to see if a St. Peter’s tour is available or already on your itinerary.

Travelers wishing to visit St. Peter’s Basilica should be armed with some important information.  There is a dress code, and it is enforced, so no bare shoulders, no shorts, and no miniskirts – knees and shoulders must be covered.  The basilica is open daily, year-round, but does have seasonal hours.  General admission hours from April-September hours are 7 AM – 7 PM, and from October-March hours are 7 AM – 6 PM.  The dome is open from 8 AM – 6 PM April-September and from 8 AM – 4:45 PM from October-March.

Masses are celebrated in Italian at St. Peter’s Basilica.  There are daily services at 8:30 AM at the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, and at 9 AM, 10 AM, 11 AM, 12 PM, and 5 PM at the Altar of St. Joseph.  Visitors who wish to celebrate a Papal Mass, held on Wednesdays and often referred to as a “general audience”, must obtain tickets.  This should be done as early in advance as possible, and tickets are free.  American visitors can contact either the Pontifical North American College (U.S. Visitor’s Office to the Vatican) or Santa Susanna (map), the home of the American Catholic Church in Rome.  The Santa Susanna also posts mass notifications and mass schedules on their website.  Travelers wishing to celebrate Christmas or Easter Masses at the Vatican should plan as far ahead as possible, as these are the most difficult tickets to obtain, due to high demand.

The Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel

double helix, spiral staircase, vatican museum

Spiral staircase at the Vatican Museum.

The Sistine Chapel is home to one of the most famous pieces of Biblical artwork in the world: Michelangelo’s rendition of the Bible, pictorially spanning from scenes in Genesis to “The Last Judgement” of the Apocalypse and the second coming of Christ.  In addition to its famed ceiling, the chapel also contains priceless works of art of other great Renaissance artists, such as frescoes painted by Boticelli.

Named for the pope who commissioned it, Pope Sixtus IV, the chapel is not just significant artistically, but continues to hold a place of religious importance and relevance as the site of the papal enclave, where new popes are chosen by the College of Cardinals.  When it is time for a new pope to be chosen, Catholics world-wide turn their eyes to the Sistine Chapel, where cardinals meet daily to vote on candidates for the papacy.  A special chimney is installed in the chapel during this time and at the end of each day, the ballots are burned; black smoke indicates no pope has yet been chosen and eventually a plume of white smoke indicates the selection of the new Bishop of Rome.

The Sistine Chapel is not accessed through St. Peter’s Basilica, but through the Vatican Museum (map) which is about 15-minutes walking distance from the basilica.  At the Museum you will be able to enter and tour the Sistine Chapel, as well as view art by such masters as Van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, Matisse, and many others.  The museum is divided into sections: Gregorian Egyptian, Gregorian Etruscan, a picture gallery (Pinacoteca), and “Vatican Places” which take you to areas such as the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanze, Upper & Lower Galleries, and the Room of the Immaculate Conception, and more.

Tours and Information

Museum admission is 15 euros, 8 euros for children 6-18 years old, with additional discounted rates for students and teachers.  Tickets cover the cost of admission to the museum as well as the Sistine Chapel and are valid for the full day, so you may leave and gain re-entry on the day the ticket is issued.  The ticket office is open from 9 AM – 4 PM and the museum closes at 6 PM, Monday through Saturday.  There is free entrance on the last Sunday of each month, and the museum closes at 2 PM, however these hours are affected by holy days so always check the online schedule before planning a Sunday visit.  And because even the Vatican has gone virtual, you can purchase tickets online.

The Vatican Gardens

For a less formal, open-air setting, visit the regal Vatican Gardens. Fountains and grottoes are interspersed amongst lawn, forest, and flower beds.  Many buildings, some ancient and some modern, also occupy the landscape.  Guided tours through the gardens are available, and are conducted by an official Vatican Guide.  The 2-hour tour costs 31 euros, are conducted by the Vatican Museum, and include admission to the museum and audio guide rental fees as well.

The art and architecture of The Vatican isn’t limited to Catholic/Christian works, but include classic Greek and Roman art as well.  “Laocoon and His Sons” is a Hellenistic Greek sculpture that now resides in the Vatican Museum.  The piece depicts Trojan priest Laocoon, along with his sons, battling snakes sent by Greek gods who wished to punish him for trying to warn Trojans about the wooden horse trickery at the city of Troy.

Tips and Information

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Although Vatican City is small and walkable, you may want or need additional transportation information to get to and from the city.  The Metro line A runs to and from Vatican City; the train station nearest to St. Peter’s Basilica is called “Ottaviano” and the nearest stop to the Vatican Museum is “Cipro”.  If you prefer to use taxi service, the station in front of the Vatican Museum is called Viale Vaticano (map).  It is advisable to use only licensed taxis with identification numbers, as unmarked, illegal cab services can become problematic; look for ID numbers and meters at clearly marked taxi stands.

Food and Drink

If you are visiting Vatican City you are likely to make a day out of it.  If you are don’t want to waste time hunting for a restaurant, you can have a bite to eat and a cup of coffee in the Vatican Museum restaurant and coffee bar.  For something a little more “home-style” try Tre pupazzi (map) located a few blocks from the Santa Anna Gate of St. Peter’s Square.  The Risorgimento Caffe (map) is perfect whether you need a complete battery recharge via a plate of pasta or a quick gelato-and-coffee pick-me-up.

Swiss guards stand watch at The Vatican.

Tours of Note

Scavi Tour at St. Peter’s Basilica: This popular tour must be booked far in advance.  A 90-minute exploration of the excavations below St. Peter’s, only 200 people per day are allowed in the necropolis that lies deep below the basilica.  You must be 15 years or older to participate and a strict dress code is enforced.  These tours must be arranged by the individual who wishes to make the tour, so visitors may not make arrangements through their travel guide or tour company.  No large bags or backpacks, no photography of any kind are permitted.  Reservations must be made directly through the Vatican, via e-mail at scavi@fsp.va, by fax at (39-06) 6987-3017, or by visiting the Excavations Office.

Vatican Museums at Night: Only offered a few weeks out of each year, this is a special opportunity to visit the museum in the evening.  Tickets for this offer must be booked online through the museum’s website.  The next available shows for Night at the Museums runs from September 3 to October 29th on Friday nights, and run from 7 PM to 11 PM, with last entrance at 9:30 PM.  General admission (15 euros), guided tour (31 euros), and group tours with private guides (250 euros plus 15 euros per participant) are all available for Night at the Museums.

Photo credits: James Bromberger (top photo); SXC (interior of Vatican, Swiss Guards); Jean-Christophe Benoist (sculpture); of Mary Jo Manzanares (Vatican Museum spiral staircase).

Related places:
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  2. B
    San Pietro (St. Peter's Basilica)
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Tags: architecture, Art, religion, The Vatican, top-feature

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