Ups and downs of visiting Vatican City

During our recent trip to Rome, Sam and I decided to make a foray into Vatican City, the smallest sovereign state in the world and home to Pope Francis himself.

As with most of Sam’s and my travel experiences, our time in Vatican City had its ups and downs (sometimes quite literally).

We planned to tour St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and finally—for the grand finale—the magnificent Sistine Chapel.

Sounds simple enough.

Of course, if you’ve read many of our posts you know our travels rarely go smoothly. We forget to make reservations, the weather stinks, I get the stomach flu, or we accidentally book an apartment in the world’s sketchiest neighborhood. But in the end, the experience is always worthwhile. The same was true with Vatican City.

St. Peter’s Square

St. Peter's Square

 We arrived at St. Peter’s Square around 9:30am, and a long line had already formed outside St. Peter’s Basilica. (Though entry to church is free, you have to pass through a security checkpoint, and the line moves about as quickly as the queue at the DMV.)

Because St. Peter’s Basilica is a religious site, a strict dress code is enforced. Both men and women are instructed to keep their knees and shoulders covered. We knew this and arrived properly dressed—both wearing long pants and shirts with sleeves.

Saint Peter's Square

Unfortunately, the security line is not shaded and the heat that day was unbearable (despite being mid-September). If I’d had an egg, I could have fried it on my forehead.

Sweat dripped down our backs as we slowly inched closer to the Basilica.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Saint Peter's Basilica

After a long wait, we finally made it inside the church.

Despite feeling wilted and parched, we found St. Peter’s Basilica to be truly awe-inspiring.

The largest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica is big enough to hold 60,000 people and is a masterpiece due to its size and exquisite detail.

To avoid paying for a personal tour guide, we downloaded a Rick Steves podcast to guide us through the church (To be honest, we have a bit of an obsession with Rick Steves. He could narrate a documentary about urban sewage systems and I’d gladly watch it).

According to Steves, the basilica was designed to seem smaller and less intimidating than it really is. Even so, the church feels pretty ginormous.

Written in Latin around the church is every word Jesus said to Peter in the New Testament. Each letter is seven feet tall!

Climbing the Dome

St. Peter's Basilica Dome

Designed by Michelangelo, St. Peter’s Dome stretches 448 feet into the air and offers a great view of Vatican City.

We had two options if we wanted to reach the top: We could pay 7 Euros to take an elevator partway up, then climb the remaining 320 steps. Or we could pay 5 Euros, forgo the elevator, and climb the entire 551 steps.

Saint Peter's Basilica

We were torn between laziness and frugality, but figured it couldn’t be that bad. So while everyone else got in line for the elevator, Sam and I began the trek up the stairs.

At first everything was fine. The stairway was wide and well lit. I could still feel my extremities. I wasn’t yet regretting every life decision that led me to that point.

About halfway up there is a great vantage point to look down into the church’s interior.

After that, things went downhill (figuratively, I mean). The staircase narrowed, the lighting dimmed, the steps got steeper, and the ceiling got lower.

Saint Peter's Basilica

 

Saint Peter's Basilica

At one point the stairwell became so narrow and steep we had to hold onto a rope dangling from the ceiling for stability.

By the time we reached the top we were gasping for air, our legs were burning, and we were seriously regretting how much Nutella gelato we’d been consuming.

After a few minutes of gasping and sputtering, we looked out over Vatican City and both agreed the hike had been worthwhile. The view was incredible.

Vatican City

The descent was much easier.

Partway down the stairs you are let out onto a rooftop landing where there is a gift shop selling cold drinks and snacks, for which we were grateful!

Because Vatican City is a sovereign state, it has its own postal system. For a cheap souvenir we purchased Vatican City stamps and mailed several postcards home (you can deposit postcards into the bright yellow mailbox located directly outside the gift shop. Ours arrived about a week later).

Vatican Post

By the time we reached the bottom, we were worn out and starving. Though we’d planned to visit a good pizzeria a few blocks away from Vatican City, our legs weren’t cooperative.

We ended up entering the first restaurant we passed and plopping our worn out, aching bodies into the nearest vacant chairs. Not surprisingly, the food was overpriced and sub-par. But we were SO TIRED we didn’t care.

Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum

After lunch, we headed to the Vatican Museums.

Since we didn’t purchase tickets in advance, we had to wait in a ticket line that was even longer than the security line for St. Peter’s Basilica. And just as slow. And hot. Seriously, this line lives up to its bad reputation.

What made the experience worse was that every five minutes an “Official Tour Guide” would try to badger us into buying “skip-the-line passes” for an extra 20 Euro. This seemed about as legitimate as a compliment from a used car salesman.

We didn’t buy tickets in advance because doing so costs an additional 4 Euros. But if you choose that option, we suggest purchasing tickets online to avoid the possibility of scams.

Our situation took another turn for the worse when the middle-aged woman in front of us in line became violently sick to her stomach (Nothing makes for a better experience than long lines, heat, and the smell of vomit!).

Pretty soon a team of paramedics arrived in an ambulance to rush the poor woman to the hospital. We were told to step back and to try not to get in the paramedics’ way.

We couldn’t understand what the medics said, but our best guess is that she had heat stroke. On that note, Italy is extremely hot in the summer. Don’t forget to hydrate properly. The inside of an emergency room is not something you want to add to your sightseeing itinerary!

Once we were finally inside the museum, we were amazed by its size. It would take a lifetime to see everything!

Despite housing countless masterpieces, my favorite part was looking at the ceilings. Each one is ornate and beautiful.

Vatican Museum

The Sistine Chapel

Finally, after looping through literally every wing of the museum, we arrived at our last destination: The Sistine Chapel.

It was truly worth the wait. Many people consider the ceiling painted by Michelangelo to be the greatest piece of artwork by any one individual in history. I can understand why.

Taking pictures of the ceiling is strictly forbidden, so we snagged spots on one of the benches lining the walls and sat with our necks craned admiring the masterpiece for as long as we could.

Saint Peter's Basilica

Even though our time at Vatican City was not without glitches, it was still an incredible experience. And, thankfully, I have since regained feeling in my legs.


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Visiting Vatican City

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