Visiting Vatican City

The Vatican (Holy See) Is Both A Church And A Self Governing City State - Act Accordingly

I've been to Rome a few times because it's one of my favourite stop over locations. Since I have to change planes anyway, I do my best to arrange for a stop over lasting a couple of days that doesn't cost me extra. Usually when I do get to stop in Rome again I'm shocked by the ignorance or outright stupidity of tourists visiting Vatican City. I've yet to visit Rome without witnessing tourists making it known to all within hearing distance that they're angry at not being allowed to go wherever they want, and to do whatever they want when they want to do it. I have seen women in bikini tops and/or shorts, and men in tank tops wanting to enter St. Peter's Basilica become irate when the Swiss Guard turn them away.



The number of people visiting Vatican City who have no clue that they've step across a "border" between Italian Rome, and a self governing nation with it's own laws and security force is mind boggling too. For the record, the Vatican is not just a tourist attraction. It is a functioning city government consisting of a collection of buildings that house churches, museums with priceless collections, government administration offices, assembly halls, a national bank, and personal residences.

Points to consider when visiting Vatican City...

1. Saint Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel are churchs. If you're faithful to any belief you've probably has occasion to enter a house of worship related to your faith. I doubt when you do, you're wearing bikini tops, halter tops, or shorts if you are a woman. If you're a guy, I'm sure you never attend your house of worship wearing shorts or not wearing a shirt. I also doubt you'd appreciate anyone else doing so either.


So why is it that the Vatican Swiss Guard have to turn away dozens and dozens of people each day for trying to enter Catholism's most holy churches for being inappropriately dressed?


No matter if you're a man or a woman, modest attire is required to enter Saint Peter's Basilica, or any house of worship, anywhere in the world for that matter. Plus, in some countries men and women are not able to visit the same areas in a house of worship together, while in other countries women are restricted to specific periods or days, or forbidden to enter at all. I shake my head every time I hear someone who's wearing not much more than they'd wear sunbathing on the beach take offence at not being permitted access to religious buildings. The fact is, the locals aren't being hostile by denying you access to what's probably a landmark and one of the highlights of your visit. What is actually occurring is that you are insulting the locals and demeaning their religious beliefs, and in many cases breaking the law.


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To enter pretty much any church in Rome, but especially those within Vatican City, you’ll need to be wearing clothes that do not leave your shoulders/arms or lower legs bare. No shorts, short trousers, short skirts, sleeveless shirts or bare shoulders. What I suggest if you are touring Rome and want to enjoy a sunny day either set a day asside to visit churches and dress for the occassion, or bring something to change into. I once saw a group of backpackers changing clothes while seated on the edge of the Maderno fountain, which is the fountain in the middle of Saint Peter's Square. They received odd looks from people passing by but no attention from the Swiss Guards and were allowed to enter the Basilica provided they checked their backpacks. Personally, I'd have choosen to use a public toilet somewhere, but that's just me.


2. The Vatican Swiss Guard are a functioning security force with all of the Vatican area as their jurisdiction. Looking somewhat outdated, if not comical in their colourful costumes, the Swiss Guard are a favourite photography subject of vitually every tourist visiting the Vatican. However, do not assume that they're there just for show, or that they are ineffective as a security force. The Swiss Guard is comprised of extremely well trained soldiers acting as both police and security forces. They are well trained in anti-terrorism, and are bodyguards to Vatican state officials on equal to any members of the USA's Secret Service. Also, individual members of the Swiss Guard are totally dedicated, and it's seen as a great honour to be selected to serve in the Vatican's Swiss Guards.


If you have permission to access other areas within the Vatican you'll not see pajama clad members of the Swiss Guard. Rather they'll be wearing paramilitary looking uniforms and be armed with modern weapons, usually both pistols and assualt rifles. I felt I had to mention this because like Buckingham Palace, home of the Queen of England and the spectacular changing of the guard ceremony, the Vatican is the home of the Pope. Misjudging members of either guard unit becaus they look to be dress up for a costume ball happens more often than it should. Like the guards of Buckingham Palace, the Swiss Guard are professional soldiers mandated with the protection of properties and the personal safety of a head of state. In both cases, they have the authority to detain, arrest or, depending on the circumstances, shoot anyone threatening the property or the persons they are sworn to protect.


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3. Not all of the Vatican is accessible to tourists. Not only is the Vatican a religious facility, it's also a government administrative centre not unlike Washington, DC, USA. The functions of each governing body differs, but both share the distinction of being among the world's most likely targets of terrorism. However, the Vatican contains residences as well, and those who live there are very much at risk of personal attacks. This being the case, not all areas of the Vatican complex are accessible to the public. If you're confronted by one of the Vatican guards and told an area is restricted, accept that you're not going to pass. Arguing won't work, and I've seen a tourist frog marched by Swiss Guards to an awaiting Arma dei Carabinieri vehicle for transport to a Rome police jail cell for trying.


4. Drunks visting Vactican City. You'd think it would go without saying that visiting the Vatican drunk, or to be drinking alcohol while visiting, isn't kosher. However, twice I've seen cases of an obviously drunk tourist being a problem, and countess times I have witnessed visitors drinking while on Vatican grounds. Again, the Vatican is a religious facility, so act accordingly.


Things you may NOT do when visiting Vatican City and entering public buildings...

  • You may not enter with any bags, backpack or luggage measuring more than 40x35x15 centimetres. These need to be left at the cloakrooms. Any bag or backpack smaller than this is OK, as long as not overly cumbersome, and nothing may ‘stick out’ by more than 15 centimetres.
  • You may not enter with large umbrellas, nor those with spike tips, walking sticks unless needed by disabled persons, camera or video stands & tripods, signage, knives or scissors, weapons or other dangerous objects. Such items are required to be left at cloakrooms.
  • You may not use amplified microphones and laser pointers.
  • You may not enter inappropriately dressed. You’ll need to be wearing clothes that do not leave your shoulders/arms or lower legs bare. No shorts, short trousers, short skirts, sleeveless shirts or bare shoulders. All visitors to the Vatican Museums will be required to pass through a metal-detector prior to being granted admittance.
  • You may not take photographs or film inside the Sistine Chapel. This is strictly enforced and staff are authorised to remove any such photographs or recordings. Elsewhere you may take photographs, but not using a flash. You may not make sketches or drawings without prior permission from the museum management.
  • You may not use a mobile telephone inside the Sistine Chapel. Elsewhere you may, but it is preferred that you refrain from doing so if possible.
  • You may not enter with alcoholic beverages, or if you are deemed to be impaired because of the consumption of alcohol or other substances.
  • You man not enter carrying food or beverages of any kind. Any food or drink may be left at the cloakrooms. If not collected the same day it will be destroyed.
  • You may not touch any work of art. Alarm and surveillance systems are in place.

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, who restored the old Cappella Magna between 1477 and 1480. During this period a team of painters that included Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio created a series of frescoed panels depicting the lives of Moses and Christ, offset by papal portraits. These paintings were completed in 1482, and on 15 August 1483, Sixtus IV celebrated the first mass in the Sistine Chapel for the Feast of the Assumption. During the ceremony the chapel was consecrated and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.


Since the time of Sixtus IV, the chapel has served as a place of both religious and functionary papal activity. Today it is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new Pope is selected.


sisting chaple


Above is an interior photo of the Sistine Chapel showing the East Wall and a portion of North Wall. Photo by Clayton Tang


Below is a photo or Crepuscular rays in Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, Photo by Jraytram


Crepuscular rays in Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City


The Basilica of St. Peter is a church in the Renaissance style located in Rome west of the River Tiber and near the Janiculum Hill and Hadrian's Mausoleum. Its central dome dominates the skyline of Rome. The basilica is approached via St. Peter's Square, a forecourt in two sections, both surrounded by tall colonnades. The first space is oval and the second trapezoid. The facade of the basilica, with a giant order of columns, stretches across the end of the square and is approached by steps on which stand two 5.55 metres statues of the 1st century apostles to Rome, Saints Peter and Paul.


The basilica is cruciform in shape, with an elongated nave in the Latin cross form but the early designs were for a centrally planned structure and this is still in evidence in the architecture. The central space is dominated both externally and internally by one of the largest domes in the world. The entrance is through a narthex, or entrance hall, which stretches across the building. One of the decorated bronze doors leading from the narthex is the Holy Door, only opened in Holy Years.


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The entire interior of St Peter's is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. The basilica contains a large number of tombs of popes and other notable people, many of which are considered outstanding artworks. There are also a number of sculptures in niches and chapels, including Michelangelo's Pieta. The central feature is a baldachin, or canopy over the Papal Altar, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sanctuary culminates in a sculptural ensemble, also by Bernini, and containing the symbolic Chair of St Peter.


The Basilica of St. Peter is one of four Papal Basilicas or Major Basilicas of Rome the others being the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Paul outside the Walls. It is the most prominent building in the Vatican City. Its dome is a dominant feature of the skyline of Rome. Probably the largest church in Christendom,covering an area of 2.3 hectares. One of the holiest sites of Christianity in the Catholic Tradition, it is traditionally the burial site of its titular Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Catholic Tradition, also the first Bishop of Antioch and later first Bishop of Rome, the first Pope. Although the New Testament does not mention Peter's martyrdom in Rome, Catholic tradition, based on the writings of the Fathers of the Church,[clarification needed] holds that his tomb is below the baldachin and altar; for this reason, many Popes have, from the early years of the Church, been buried there. Construction of the current basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on 18 April 1506. At length on 18 November 1626, Pope Urban VIII solemnly dedicated the church.


St. Peter's Basilica is neither the Pope's official seat nor first in rank among the Major Basilicas of Rome. This honour is held by the Pope's cathedral, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran which is the mother church of all churches and parishes in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. However, St Peter's is most certainly the Pope's principal church, as most Papal ceremonies take place there due to its size, proximity to the Papal residence, and location within the Vatican City walls. The "Chair of Saint Peter" or cathedra, an ancient chair sometimes presumed to have been used by Saint Peter himself, but which was a gift from Charles the Bald and used by various popes, symbolises the continuing line of apostolic succession from St. Peter to the present pope. It occupies an elevated position in the apse, supported symbolically by the Doctors of the Church, and enlightened symbolically by the Holy Spirit.


I will be writing and uploading a lot more information about Italy, Rome and Vatican City as time goes by. The whole of Italy has much to offer visitors, but Rome and Vatican City are unique. Rome is a destination rivalled only by the likes of Athens, Machu Picchu, and Luxor for ancient ruins, but with Vatican City added to the mix, everyone should visit Rome at least once in their lives.